In Western theatre culture plays are often described according to form. Terms such as ‘Tragedy’, ‘Comedy’, ‘Tragicomedy’, ‘Melodrama’, ‘Farce’, and ‘Musical’ are frequently used to help define the type of theatrical even that is being referred to. Theatre form is particularly important because plays need to have some type of form before an audience can read and understand them. Some recent drama, however, defies definition—its form is ambiguous. It could be argued that the form of every play is unique because no two plays are exactly alike, but there are certain identifiable characteristics that are common to different plays and it is these characteristics that help to define form.
Most plays are organised in a specific way that enables us to distinguish them from other forms of writing such as novels or poetry. The formal structure of plays helps a reader to make appropriate distinctions. Not all of those works that we identify as ‘plays’ have the same internal characteristics and this explains why critics use more detailed categories. Two of the main categories that theatrical history has tended to emphasise are Tragedy and Comedy.
Dating back to the Ancient Greek times, tragedy is the oldest known form of drama in Western theatre history. It tends to portray serious action and maintains a serious tone throughout the play. There may be moments of comic relief within a tragedy (such as the gravedigger scene in Hamlet), but general the events that are presented are sombre. Tragic plays raise significant issues about the nature of human existence, morality, or human relationships. The main character in the play (who is sometimes referred to as the ‘protagonist’) is usually a person who makes an audience member or a reader empathise with his or her position. Typically the protagonist is trying to achieve something good or noble but this is hampered by unexpected disasters. Tragedy is designed to generate great sympathy or empathy for this character. As a form, we usually associate tragedy with either the Ancient Greek of the Elizabethan Stage. Ancient Greek theatre tended to be closely associated with religion. Both theatre and religion tended to focus on common questions such as “what is going on in the world?”, “what is the relationship between human beings and an inexplicable universe?”, and the existential question of “what is the meaning of life?”. These types of questions are present in some form or other in most drama that is considered to be ‘serious’. Very few plays in the Twentieth or Twenty-First Centuries have been labelled ‘tragedies’.
While tragedy tends to be about the larger questions about humanity’s existence on earth, comedy tends to demonstrate how absurd life on earth can be. This dramatic form also has its origins in Ancient Greece. Comedy usually occurs when some type of divergence from the normal or expected action takes place. It may also occur when a character acts in a way that is surprising or unexpected. Comedy usually poses no serious threat to the established world order. There is usually a sense that the action “is all in good fun” and no one gets seriously hurt and the world is not affected in a serious way. For example, it is easy to laugh at someone slipping on a banana peel in a slapstick routine, but if we discover that the person broke his or her back, it would cease to be so humorous. The ultimate aim of comedy is to invite the audience to enter into the fun of the play and to participate by laughing either at or with the characters on stage.
Today’s theatre rarely confines itself to either one or the other of these forms. Typically contemporary theatre allows for a combination of both comedy and tragedy.
This means that most plays are not entirely serious or comic but manage to incorporate elements of both forms. If reader or audience members have a knowledge of dramatic style, this will help them to differentiate between different plays which have the same basic form.
If reader or audience members have a knowledge of dramatic style, this will help them to differentiate between different plays which have the same basic form. ‘Style’ is the word that is used to describe a drama that is created from a distinctive mode of expression or method of presentation. For example, a particular style may come from qualities pertaining to a specific period of time (eg the Nineteenth Century, a particular country (eg America), an ideological movement (eg Feminism), or a certain author (eg Oscar Wilde).
The style of Western theatre has been influenced throughout its history by certain cultural pressures. That is, social pressures including religion, philosophy, and socio-economic constraints have helped to create specific theatrical constructs. If a reader can identify some of these specific traits, she or he will be able to make distinctions between different plays. For example, it is possible to discuss the characteristics of an eighteenth-century theatrical style. This discussion could be further refined by differentiating between French and English plays of the period or by distinguishing the dramatic traits of romantic plays, from the expressionist or the absurd plays.
Dramatic Style of a given period or an ideological movement is generated by a number of different influences. Firstly, a reader can identify a particular style based on information that is presented in a play. A reader can assume that a play captures some of the essence of truth about a particular period. That is to say that writers from different periods or with different ideologies construct the dramatic world in different ways. What is ‘truthful’ about the world to one generation may not be so for successive generations. Often through their plays, writers attempt to answer specific existential questions such as ‘What is truth?’, or ‘How do we construct reality?’. The answers to these types of questions differ depending on scientific, religious, and cultural beliefs of the periods in which they are being asked (eg there was a time when it was truthful to state that the world was flat).
Despite these ideological differences all playwrights have the same means of expression available to them. Writers and performers rely on the codes of communication to reveal meaning. Sound and visual images are the two main communication modes used in the theatre. It is the way that playwrights and performers manipulate these codes that generate different plays and different types of performances. Dramatic Style results from the way in which a play is presented in the theatre. It is the way that a play is directed and acted, as well as the types of scenery, costumes, and lighting that are used, which helps to influence the style of the production.