14 About Drama

About Drama

Drama as a literary genre offers a unique challenge to the reader. Created to be performed, to become a spectacle , drama is based in large part on imitative action and gesture. The written works of the theater present the reader with only one dimension of what, when fully realized, becomes a multi-sensory experience. Western drama, the dramatic literature of “the Western Worldâ€� of Europe and North America, has its origins in ancient Greek theater.

Medieval theater , dated after the fall of Rome and before the Renaissance, was composed largely of liturgical drama (of religious sources) and morality plays . Morality plays focused more on human drama than specific Biblical storylines as liturgical drama did, but they still emphasized strongly moralistic themes with characters often personifying good and evil, justice, or one of the virtues.

Photograph of a spectacular scene from a 1936 production of Macbeth.
A photograph of Lady Macbeth calming the guests at Macbeth’s palace in Act II, Scene 1, of the Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre, 1936“Macbeth-35-Palace” by Federal Theatre Project, Library of Congress American Memory Collection is in the Public Domain, CC0 .

Renaissance drama can be divided into two distinct categories: private performances that took place in indoor (often aristocratic) halls and public, open-air performances. Of historical significance, this period saw the rise of the professionalization of theater troupes with the craft of acting and the skill of dramatic production (staging, costuming, etc.) becoming more organized and regulated, including the formation of professional membership groups or guilds . In Italy, drama returned to an appreciation of classical staging ( Neoclassicism ) and the development of Commedia dell’Arte , a style of drama based on four principal characters, each with a fixed costume and mask. Spanish drama, likewise experienced a golden age and French theater shared in a neo-classical revival. In England, large public theaters became profitable, most notably the Globe in London, and a bounty of playwrights from William Shakespeare to Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe, among many others, forged lasting reputations.

Melodrama is a style of drama that exaggerates characters, often through the strong use of stereotypes, and presents emotionally charged plots. Rising to popularity in the 18 th century, the style was at a peak in the 19 th century with many approaches to melodrama, including the use of music and dance to augment performances. Victorian melodrama particularly is known for its use of stock characters: the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress, the clownish sidekick. Students may even recall some of these stylized characters in early examples of silent film.

Relatedly, a farce is a type of comedy that relies on deliberate absurdity, nonsense, and/or physical humor, even to the point of extravagance or improbability; the popularity of farce, however, was not restricted to the same time period as melodrama and examples of the dramatic style may be found even in antiquity. Literal readings of the written scripts of farces would prove disappointing for it is the enjoyment of the live experience of accumulating absurdity that is central to the style.

The rise of Vaudeville flowed out of the popularity of melodrama and merged with the growth of saloons, musical halls, and burlesque houses in the late 19 th century. Featuring similar stock characters in the context of a variety show, Vaudeville performances added elements of acrobatics, impressions, and stylized interpretations of famous scenes from Shakespeare and classical drama. The culturally problematic (from our current cultural perspective) tradition of minstrel shows , collections of skits and slapstick routines by troupes performing in blackface that were at the height of popularity just after the U.S. Civil War, was overtaken by the success of Vaudeville. (Indeed, some early Vaudeville productions included minstrel acts.) The rise of Vaudeville also was supported by the growth of a middle class that could afford an afternoon or evening diversion to the theater.

20 th century drama experienced a surge of creative experimentation including stylistic developments introduced by Expressionism, Impressionism, Modernism, and various forms of political theater; it also was influenced by the developments in the new genre of film and other media technologies. Realistic drama drawing upon the theories of modern psychology (Freud, Jung, et al.) aimed to present authentic characters and gestures, leading to the development of the Stanislavski method of acting (or method acting). Radio dramas enjoyed a huge surge of popularity over a number of subgenres from detective shows to Westerns, and many traditional “literaryâ€� writers tried their hands at crafting screenplays for Hollywood. Television scripts, whether for dramas or sitcoms (situation comedies) still rely on a written, literary document to guide the creation of multi-media productions. (1)


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