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J. JOHN SEKAR
THE AMERICAN COLLEGE

Drama
1 What is drama?
Drama presents fiction or fact in a form that could be acted before an audience. It has a plot,
characters, dialogue, an atmosphere, and an outlook on life, but it is as a rule intended to be performed
in public, not read in private. Its full qualities are only revealed in presentation on the stage. The
drama alone is “a composite art, in which the author, the actor, and the stage manager all combine to
produce the total effect.”
Moreover, a play must deliver its whole message within a very few hours. For that purpose, it
has to exercise great economy in the handling of the plot and the delineation of character. Every
detail must conduce to the effect that is intended. The dramatist works within very strict limits. He
has to work with a number of collaborators: audience, the actors, the producer, the scene-painter, the
dressmaker, the musician, the electrician, and many others. His play, in short, will not be likely to be
produced unless it conforms to a great many material requirements which the novelist is free to
ignore. It has often been said that when a novel is written, it is finished, but when a play has been
written, the worst difficulties still lie ahead.
2 What is the structure of the play?
A play requires an Exposition to explain the circumstances or situation from which the action
is to take its course; a Complication (Rising Action), during which it progresses or grows more
involved; a Climax (Crisis), when it takes a turn for the better or worse; a Denouement (Falling
Action), which unravels the complication; and a Solution (in a comedy) or Catastrophe (in a
tragedy) that decides the fate of its characters.
The typical Elizabethan drama, following the Senecan tragedy, was divided into five acts,
each comprising a number of scenes. But the five-act poetic drama went out of favour in course of
time, and for the purpose of the modern dramatist three acts proved to be sufficient. Changing social
and economic conditions caused performances to be shorter, and in the English theatre of today the
programme is usually limited to a single play lasting less than three hours.
3 Realism and romance
Drama, like other arts, is a representation of life in little. But all art is directly or indirectly
coloured by the artist’s personality, and drama does not promise to be entirely faithful to fact. It is a
portrait, not a photograph; a version, not a reproduction. It is the dramatist’s ‘criticism of life,’ his
verdict upon men and manners, and often suggests what is true by means of the false. A great play is
the product of imagination working upon experience and observation, whatever the theme may be.
Realism tends to fade with the conditions it represents, because it is true to them only. The
romantic drama deals with what is common to all times in a style that will always be admired for its
own beauties.
4 Types of drama
From the earliest times drama has been divided broadly into two kinds: tragedy and comedy,
the one dealing with the dark side of life, the other with its light side. Tragedy aims at inspiring us
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with pity and awe; comedy aims at evoking our laughter. In tragedy the characters are involved in
circumstances that impel them towards an unhappy fate. In comedy, though fortune may be unkind
for a while, all comes right in the end.
4.1 Tragedy and comedy
Tragedy, in the Greek drama, deals with the fate of characters of high birth and station, kings,
princes, and their households. Though humble men can suffer just as deeply as the great, and their
misfortunes equally deserve our pity, it was not unreasonable for the old dramatists to feel that only
the lives of the famous and powerful offered fitting subjects for tragedy. The fall of a king, or the ruin
of a great family, is bound to be more impressive to the spectator than the fate of a nonentity. In later
literature there were many tragedies of lowly life and many comedies of high society. Tears and
laughter override considerations of caste, creed, or colour.
Comedy deals with people of much less importance. The atmosphere of comedy is mirthful
and light. It moves us to laughter, whether it is thoughtful laughter or unalloyed mirth. The
atmosphere of tragedy is sombre and serious. Tragedy ‘purges the emotions through pity and terror.’
There are comic interludes in many of the tragedies, and a background of tragic possibilities in many
of the comedies, to heighten the effect of each by contrast.
Both comedy and tragedy aim at giving pleasure. Tragedy does afford pleasure of a lofty
order. The spectacle of a noble character caught in the coils of circumstance, carries the audience to a
level far above the petty interests and troubles of its own everyday life. It feels exalted and ennobled,
rather than distressed.
For the Greeks, however, tragedy and comedy served two distinct purposes. The purpose of
tragedy was to effect a catharsis or a purgation of the emotions, that of comedy was to correct
manners. Tragedy purified the feelings, comedy refined to conduct. The one raised the audience
morally and spiritually, the other corrected its social failings.
The story in tragedy as well as comedy is usually allowed to convey its own moral. Even in
the most tragic drama, wrong does not triumph, though right may have been worsted for a time; the
wrongdoers are punished if they have not already brought about their own undoing, and sometimes
good comes out of evil.
Verse used to be the medium for both tragedy and comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies are
written in blank verse. There are, of course, prose passages in both, usually when a clown, a rustic, or
a madman is speaking. Gradually, however, verse came to be reserved for tragedy, and comedy
confined itself to prose. The general change of medium has necessarily meant a heavy loss in
splendour of language, but impressive tragedies have nevertheless been written in contemporary
prose, Galsworthy’s Justice, for example. Modern drama in general is a prose art-form.
4.1.2 Types of tragedy
Tragedy can be classified on the basis of form and theme. From the earliest times, it has
assumed two forms: classical and romantic. The main features of the classical type are the
observation of the Three Unities of time, action, and place and the employment of the device of the
Chorus.
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The Unity of time means that the time over which the plot is spread, and that occupied in its
representation on the stage, should be the same or approximately the same. Apparently, if events
extending over years were shown in a few hours on the stage, they would have no semblance of
reality for the logical Greek mind.
The Unity of action makes a double provision: the plot should either be purely tragic or
purely comic but not a mixture of the two and no sub-plot or episodes unconnected with the main
theme should be introduced. In other words, the action should be confined to one species and one
single plot to ensure verisimilitude. The incidents must all be logically connected.
The Unity of place is a natural corollary of the unity of time. If the play must limit itself to
events that cover only a few hours, it must be confined to one place. The scene could not have been
Athens in the first act and Alexandria in the next, since that would require a plot spread over a long
period, and so violate the unity of time.
The Chorus consists of a body of actors, whose business was to report what happened off the
stage and to make such moral comments from time to time as would deepen the desired effect. It was
sometimes an integral part of the plot, sometimes only loosely related to it. Its more important
function was to send the audience away with a strengthened conviction of the might of the gods.
The Romantic tragedy is built on a different plan. It is not circumscribed by the Three
Unities, and it does not employ the Chorus, being neither afraid of introducing physical action on the
stage nor compelled to be didactic. The scene of the action may also change as often as the plot
requires. Romantic tragedy, in short, is written in a form the writer finds best suited to his dramatic
purpose. The name of Shakespeare is inseparably associated with this type of Tragedy, though it had
been popularized earlier in England by Marlowe.
The Horror tragedy of Webster and Ford specialized in scenes of violence and cruelty.
The Heroic tragedy of Dryden and Otway dealt with the exploits of a sublime hero and
sometimes in rhyme.
The She-tragedy of Rowe derived its title from a central female figure who dominated the
action.
The Domestic tragedy of the eighteenth century aimed at the portrayal of middleclass life
and employed prose, not verse.
4.1.3 Types of comedy
Like tragedy, comedy may be classical or romantic in design. The classical form was
attempted by Ben Jonson and the Restoration playwrights; the romantic by Shakespeare and the
‘University Wits.’
Its divisions according to theme are numerous.
The Humour comedy of Ben Jonson was supposed to be due to an excess of one of the four
‘humours’ or natural fluids of the body: blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy.
The Restoration comedy of Intrigue specialized in situations arising out of infidelity in love
and marriage.
The comedy of Manners, also of the Restoration period, had the language and behaviour
highly stylised and artificial.
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The Genteel comedy of Colley Cibber ridiculed the affectations (the wigs, the shoes, the
ribbons, the toilet, etc.) of eighteenth century society.
The Sentimental comedy of the late eighteenth century presented ‘in place of laughter, tears;
in place of intrigue, melodramatic and distressing situations; and in place of rogues and gallants and
witty damsels, pathetic heroines and serious lovers and honest servants.’
If the plot unfolds itself mainly through dialogue or narration, assigning subordinate place to
incident or action, the result is a comedy of Dialogue.
If the plot unfolds itself mainly through action, with dialogue playing a secondary part, the
result is a comedy of Incident.
4.1.4 Tragi-comedy
As its name implies, tragic-comedy is half tragedy and half comedy, mingled harmoniously
together. It is distinct from tragedy that contains comic relief and from comedy that has a potentially
tragic background. The comic relief in a tragedy serves only to intensify the tragic effect by contrast,
and does not materially affect the tone of the play. The Porter in Macbeth, the Grave-diggers in
Hamlet, and the Fool in King Lear are not meant to evoke untroubled laughter as comic characters,
but to add their own queer fancies to the tragic theme. A comedy with a tragic background, similarly,
is a more effective comedy than it otherwise would be.
Tragi-comedy stands on a different footing altogether. It is a complete tragedy up to a certain
point, and a complete comedy thereafter. The Complication sets forth a tragic theme, the Denouement
turns it into comedy. The Climax separates the one from the other. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline,
Winter’s Tales, and The Tempest are such plays.
5 Farce and comedy
Farce is an exaggerated form of comedy, or a coarser form of comedy in which no attempt is
made at fidelity to real life. Its aim is to provide a hearty laughter. It is a lively caricature, not a
representation of things as they are. The name comes from a Latin word meaning ‘to stuff.’ There are
strongly farcical elements in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Merry Wives of
Windsor.
6 Melodrama and tragedy
Melodrama was a debased form of tragedy. It is play of a crudely sensational type, relying for
its effect on physical action, purely theatrical language and behaviour, and naïve sentiment. Its
characters are mere puppets in an extravagant story of crime, revenge, or retribution, the evils of drink
or gambling, lost wills, missing heirs, and so forth, in which villainy is foiled and virtue triumphant.
Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi pile horror on horror.
Melodramas were chiefly notable for their wonderful scenic devices in the representation of
railway accidents, shipwrecks, fires, floods, earthquakes, and other calamities.

7 Masque
It is a ‘dramatic entertainment in which plot, character, and even to a great extent dialogue are
subordinated on the one hand to spectacular illustration, and on the other hand to musical
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accompaniment.’ It was a medley of music, elaborate scenic effects, and dancing, woven round a
fairy tale, myth or allegory.
Often, it was performed as part of the celebrations at a wedding in a great family. The
marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest is celebrated with a Masque.
8 One-act play
The one-act play stands in the same relation to the drama as the short story to the novel. It is
not a full-length play in miniature. Brevity is the soul of the one-act play: brevity in plot, which
cannot be complex; brevity in characterization, which has to be immediately evident; and brevity in
dialogue, which must be significant from the beginning to the end. This is not to say that so short a
piece cannot be profound, subtle, or poetic, for we have only to think of the works of Barrie and
Shaw. Simplicity of design and immediate impact are the qualities on which it depends for its
success.
9 Dramatic devices
9.1 Dramatic irony
Dramatic irony is a form of contrast. Often it happens that what is being said or done on the
stage has one meaning for the agents (characters) concerned and another for the spectators who know
something that the characters do not know. The device on the part of the playwright who produces
these two points of view is called dramatic irony. If it arises out of what is said, it is verbal irony; if
out of what is done, it is irony of situation. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night affords several illustrations
of the use of verbal irony.
9.2 Soliloquy and aside
The soliloquy is an actor’s secret thoughts uttered aloud on the stage to acquaint the audience
with what is passing in his mind. It is spoken when no other actor is present. Drama is a make-
believe in which to the persons in the play, the audience is not supposed to exist. The use of soliloquy
depends on this assumption. It is often attacked as an unnatural device, for nobody in actual life ever
puts his private thoughts into audible speech when he is alone. No would ever, like Hamlet, make a
long speech to himself on the question of suicide.
It is not, however, meant to be treated as speech. It is merely a conventional way of
conveying to an audience something that it could not gather in any other way. The soliloquy
continued to be employed, particularly in farce and melodrama till near the close of the nineteenth
century.
The aside is a passing thought uttered aloud by an actor in front of other characters on the
stage, who are not supposed to hear it. It is the shortest form of the soliloquy and serves a like
purpose. Both the soliloquy and aside vanished from the modern drama with its insistence upon the
realistic. The soliloquy, however, has a honoured place in literature, and some of the noblest passages
in Shakespeare are cast in that form. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” Othello’s “Put out the light, and
then put out the light,” Macbeth’s “If it were when ‘tis done,” and Henry V’s “what infinite heart’s
ease Must kings neglect,” are passages which are of the highest poetic quality.
9.3 Expectation and surprise
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The plot construction in a play follows two methods: either all the relevant facts are disclosed
at once, in which case the subsequent developments are all ‘expected’; or a few are held back for
some time to be sprung on the audience later as a ‘surprise.’ If either is mismanaged, the result is
disastrous. Too much of ‘expectation’ leads to dullness while too much of ‘surprise’ to melodrama.
Shakespeare uses both in moderation. Othello is, on the whole, built on expectation, Macbeth, on the
whole, on surprise. Iago’s designs are exposed too early in the play to cause surprise when put into
practice, but the prophecies of the witches in Macbeth are fulfilled in a manner quite unexpected for
anyone who does not already know the play. Each is effective in its own way, but ‘surprise’ probably
constitutes the essence of all drama.
10 Origin of the English drama
Drama in England began as the handmaid of religion. In the middle Ages, church services
were conducted in Latin, which was not understood by most of the congregation. The clergy therefore
often tried the expedient of acting episodes from the life of Christ, and other scenes from the Bible on
appropriate occasions. Christmas witnessed the representation of the story of Christ’s Nativity, Easter
that of the Resurrection, and other seasons the events proper to them. The actors in these religious
performances were all priests or monks, and they were usually given inside the church. The Latin
dialogue was gradually replaced by English, and they had to move out of the church into the
churchyard and so into the streets.
10.1 The Miracle and Mystery plays
In course of time the plays developed a secular tendency. With the change of locality,
ordinary laymen began to take the parts of the characters, though the direction was still in the hands of
the clergy. There was, however, inclination towards more and more humorous scenes which served as
a relief to the religious motif of the plot. Sometimes, the Trade Guilds of some towns, under the
supervision of the Church, produced a connected series or Cycle, of plays dealing with the chief
Scriptural events, from the creation of man to the resurrection of Christ. Miracle plays dealt with the
lives of saints and Mystery plays with the themes taken from the Bible.
10.2 The Morality plays and Interludes
About the middle of the fifteenth century, the drama broke fresh ground, substituting moral
teaching for purely religious instruction. These characters underwent a corresponding change: they
were no longer Biblical figures, but personified virtues and vices, with a stock figure, known as the
Vice, who replaced Satan. The best-known of these moral plays or Moralities, is Everyman of an
unknown authorship.
Interlude was a transitional form between the Morality and the Elizabethan drama. It
admitted more of humour in dialogue and scene than the earlier forms of drama. John Heywood’s
The Four P’s is a well-known specimen of the type. It is “a very merry interlude of a Palmer, a
Pardoner, a Pothecary, and a Pedlar.”
10.3 Early English plays
The revival of learning (Renaissance) naturally led to the performance of Greek and Latin
plays in schools and colleges. The next step forward was plays in English on the classical model. Of
these earliest is the well-known comedy, Ralph Roister Doister (1550) written by Nicholas Udall.
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Seneca provided the model for the first English tragedy, Gorboduc or Ferrex and Porrex (1561) by
Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, which was also the first English play to employ blank verse.
English drama now stood at the cross-roads: whether to follow the Latin models cultivated by
the Universities or the native growth, which needed polish and discipline. The problem was solved by
the immediate predecessors of Shakespeare who turned to native traditional themes to meet a more
popular taste. In due course, the best elements of the literary and the popular drama emerged in the
masterpieces of the Elizabethan age.

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