Chapter 3: Dramatic Genres





comedy  The genre of play that makes you laugh, has plots that end happily, and reaffirms the values you hold to be important. (3-28)


comedy of manners  A comic play that derives its humor from the language and behavior of the characters; see also "high comedy." (3-28)


domestic comedy  A comic play with a domestic setting and middle-class characters. (3-28)


drama  A category of play that is serious but not tragic. (3-30)

farce  A play that makes you laugh a lot and leaves you feeling liberated by the wildly anarchic and improbable things that happen. (3-29)

genre  Categorization of dramas on the basis of their emotional impact on an audience; there are also literary characteristics of each genre; the six most common genres are tragedy, comedy, farce, melodrama, drama, and tragicomedy. (3-27)


high comedy  A comic play that derives its humor from the language and behavior of the characters; see also "comedy of manners." (3-28)

low comedy  A comedy about characters we laugh at more because of what they do than because of what they say. (3-28)

melodrama  A genre of play that provides entertainment that has the appearance of being serious but ends with the protagonist victorious; melodramas usually have highly emotional scenes alternating with comic scenes. (3-33)

slapstick  (1) A prop used in the commedia dell'arte made from two boards fastened together at one end and loose at the other so they could be slapped together to make a loud noise when an actor was hit by it; (2) term used to describe any broad and physical farce action. (3-30)

theatre of the absurd  A genre and style of European theatre that evolved in the mid-twentieth century and expresses the meaninglessness of the human condition in laugh-producing tragicomedies; Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco are the best-known Absurdist playwrights. (3-35)

tragedy  A serious play that makes you feel exhilarated because the hero's experience teaches you some profound truth about your life; a tragedy guides you toward feeling a sort of calm affirmation that your worst expectations about life are true, and you feel wiser for reaching this certainty. (3-32)


tragicomedy  A genre of play that dominated mid- to late twentieth century drama and that inspires agitation, frustration, and anxiety; tragicome-dies deal with serious topics but provoke laughter and express the lack of coherent values in the world. (3-35)


Falstaff pic page 28

Neil Simon comment page 29

Harlequin pic  “pied” page 30

Slapstick page 30

Ibsen Ghosts page 31

Fences pic page 32

The Man Who Never Died pic page 33

Inherit the Wind pic page 34

Avant-garde page 35



1 : Which of the following is not an example of the comedy genre?
     d. Middle-class comedy

2 : Who is considered perhaps the greatest playwright of farces?
     a. Georges Feydeau
3 : Which ancient Greek playwright wrote popular farces that we still perform today?
     c. Aristophanes

4 : A serious play that makes you feel exhilarated because the hero's experience teaches you a profound truth about life belongs to which genre?

     b. Tragedy
5 : The word "tragedy" comes from Greek and means
     c. "Goat song"
6 : Which genre developed during the "Age of Anxiety?"
     d. Tragicomedy

7 : Commedia del l'arte developed during the Renaissance in which country?
     a. Italy

8 : The Greeks honored the god _____ by performing chorales and plays.

     b. Dionysus
9 : Which genre do the plays we encounter most often fall into?
     c. Melodrama
10 : Theatre of the Absurd describes mid- to late-twentieth century plays that fell into which genre?
     d. Tragicomedy


Chapter 4: Theatrical Styles




associative logic  A description of how a mind moves from one idea to another through the associations between the two ideas instead of through direct cause and effect. (4-63)

causal logic  A deductive way of understanding a sequence of events that discovers the way each event is caused by another; it is the most common way an actor analyzes a role and a critic analyzes a play. (4-63)

Classicism  A theatrical style in which the artist strives to imitate an idealized reality based on the power of reason; Classicism commonly is associated with the ancient Greek notion of "the golden mean," in which excess is considered improper and balance and proportion are considered desirable. (4-66)

Determinism  A philosophy that holds that humans are shaped by genetic and environmental forces. (4-46)

Expressionism  A theatrical style in which the artist strives to imitate subjective reality as it is experienced in nightmares and in which the visual world is distorted and abstracted to demonstrate how the central character feels about it; as a literary genre, Expressionism presents the story through the central character's vision and voice. (4-40)

hubris  The Greek word for excessive pride, which was considered to be a flaw in the character of an otherwise ideal person; the common flaw in the tragic heroes of ancient Greek dramas. (4-67)

idealized reality  An artistic expression of the artist's vision of truth based on either an intellectual or an emotional ideal of how the world ought to be; the reality of the theatrical styles of Classicism and Romanticism. (4-37)

imagistic design  Scene design that explores visual metaphors and striking images rather than representing observed reality; frequently associated with the theatrical style of Postmodernism. (4-64)

Modern Art  An artistic movement of the first half of the twentieth century that expressed the deeper truth that outward appearances hide the truth of the human condition; Modern Art presents a visually distorted picture of the world. (4-54)

Naturalism  A theatrical style developed in the nineteenth century that is based on the philosophy of Determinism and that strives to present on stage an exact imitation of everyday life; Naturalism and Realism are closely linked, and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. (4-47)

objective reality  A theatrical style, expressed in Realism and Theatricalism, that imitates the way things appear on the surface. (4-37)

Postmodernism  A theatrical style that evolved from Surrealism in the late twentieth century and that combines an imitation of the subjective reality of Surrealism with the objective reality of Theatricalism; Postmodernism is sometimes associated with imagistic theatre. (4-64)

Realism  A style of theatrical production and dramatic writing that imitates selected traits of the language and appearance of everyday life; it evolved from Naturalism, and today the terms "Realism" and "Naturalism" are used interchangeably. (4-37)

Romanticism  A theatrical style in which the artist strives to imitate an idealized reality based on the importance of emotion; Romanticism evolved in the early nineteenth century as a reaction to Classicism, and it values excess emotion. (4-68)

subjective reality  The truth of human experience as abstracted in the unconscious, the primitive, and the irrational, expressed in the theatrical styles of Surrealism and Expressionism. (4-37)

Surrealism  A theatrical style in which the artist strives to imitate subjective reality as it is experienced in whimsical dreams; surrealism uses associative logic instead of cause-and-effect logic to move from one incident to the next. (4-59)

theatrical styles  Ways in which theatre productions express reality. (4-37)

Theatricalism  A theatrical style in which the artist strives to imitate objective reality as it is traditionally presented in the theatre; theatricalism is based on the belief that we are all self-conscious creatures who "act" our lives. (4-50)




1 : _____ is the word we use to describe how an artist imitates reality.
          b. Style

2 : All of the following are theatrical styles except
     a. Cubism
3 : Which of the following theatrical styles imitates an objective reality?
     d. Theatricalism

4 : The forms of reality that the six theatrical styles imitate include all of the following except
     c. Social reality
5 : _____ was the dominant theatrical style of the past century.
     c. Realism
6 : Which theatrical style imitates the way theatre imitates life?
     a. Theatricalism
7 : _____ is based on the belief that dreams reveal the truth we hide from ourselves in our waking state.
     b. Expressionism
8 : The logic of Surrealism is _____.
     d. Associative

9 : Which style of plays teaches that moderation is the path to happiness?

 c. Classicism
10 : The quest for perfection figures prominently in which theatrical style?
     a. Romanticism


Realism definition page 37

Glass Menagerie plot page 39

Slip of the tongue in Glass Menagerie page 39

Williams use of supertitles page 40

Waiting For Godot plot page 41

Modern Art page 54

Dorian Gray page 54

Hedda Gabler page 64

Spartacus page 69



Medieval Theater



The Beginnings


1.   After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., little in the way of the­atrical entertainment was seen for several hundred years. Gaining in strength since before the fall of Rome, the Christian church was strongly opposed to theatre and gave orders on a regular basis for the perfor­mances to stop. But traveling companies of mimes, acrobats, and min­strels continued in spite of the church’s orders.


2.   In medieval times drama was reborn as part of the church service in western Europe. Before this point, the last plays of record had been writ­ten in the tenth century by a German noblewoman named Hrosvitha.


3.   A monk named Tutilo changed liturgical passages into dialogue (called tropes) to be delivered by priests impersonating an angel and the three women who visited Christ’s tomb.


The Staging of Liturgical Drama


1.   Staging or scenery consisted of mansions, or sedes, which represented specific locations. Each had a platea, or acting area.


2.   Dialogue became more secular as costumes and scenery became more spectacular.


Moving Outside the Church


1.   By the thirteenth century, the presentations were so elaborate that they were moved outside and performed on a porch on the west side of the church.


2.   By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, after church officials began to oppose productions as being too secular, laymen assumed responsibility for staging the plays, and dialogue was now spoken in the local language rather than in Latin.


The Producing Groups


1.   Plays were produced by trade guilds or special societies formed for this purpose.


2.   The first permanent company was established in 1402 by King Charles Vt of France at the Hôpital de Ia Trinité.


3.   Church approval was still required. Each guild had a patron saint and was allowed its own priest and a chapel.


4.   Theatre moved from the church porches to platforms pushed up against buildings, to old Roman amphitheaters, or into the town squares.



Production and Spectacle


1.   Pageant wagons, which carried two or more mansions, were sometimes placed together when scenes were presented. The wagons were moved from place to place.


2.   Typically the wagons represented the planes of heaven, earth, and hell. The hell mouth looked as frightening as possible, and heaven was full of beautiful angels.


3.   Often the scenes were short episodes without connecting stories, except that they concerned biblical subject matter.


4.   Spectacle was all-important: the plays featured mechanical cranes, flying demons, and a great deal of violence.


Cycle Plays


1.   At the end of the fourteenth century, all the plays presented throughout the church year were combined into a single presentation, called a cycle. The cycles continued to be performed until the sixteenth century.


2.   Of the hundreds of plays presented in England, only those from the Chester, York, Coventry, and Wakefield cycles still exist.


3.   Humor crept into the plays, often at the expense of wives, who were pre­sented as shrewish nags.


4.   Guilds hired directors, who were in charge of the actors and supervised the technical aspects of the plays.


5.   In the earlier presentations, the convention for actors was to chant their lines; later, the speech patterns became more natural.


6.   Women and children were gradually allowed to participate as actors in productions. All actors were typically local citizens of the working class.


7.   The most important forms of drama from this period were mystery plays (dealing with the life of Christ), miracle plays (dealing with the lives of saints), and morality plays.


Morality Plays


1.   Morality plays were most popular between the beginning of the fifteenth century and the mid-sixteenth century.


2.   They dealt with moral instruction and man’s attempt to save his soul.


3.   All characters were allegorical. The central figure was Everyman, and Virtue and Vice fought for his soul.


4.   Often the plays were studies of a person’s entire life. Most had comical scenes satirizing social and political conditions.


5.   Generally performed by professional actors, morality plays were more popular in England than in the rest of Europe.


Secular Drama


1.   The farce was the most important other form of drama created during the medieval period.


2.   Farce was bawdy and risque; it dealt with man’s depravity. These plays were no more than a few hundred lines long.


3.   Hans Sachs of Germany is credited with writing more than two hundred farces.


4.   The interlude was a comic play performed by professional traveling play­ers for wealthy citizens at celebrations. It was often performed between courses at banquets.


5.   Folk plays were presented by amateur actors traveling from house to house enacting stories of legendary or heroic figures.


6.   Due to dissension in the church, Queen Elizabeth t of England forbade religious plays in 1559. The church itself forbade plays in continental Europe. The social structure in England changed and plays were no

longer effectively produced by community members. Also, an interest in classical learning was beginning to develop, and new forms of drama combined medieval and classical influences.


7.      By the beginning of the seventeenth century medieval drama had died out, except in Spain, where it continued well past the middle of the eighteenth century.


Additional Information


1.   “Minstrels” is a generic term used for the professional entertainer of the Middle Ages, who flourished from the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries. Clean-shaven and dressed in bright clothes, they resembled the pantomime players of Rome. Even though the church looked down on the minstrels, they played a part in early religious festivities and probably influenced the beginnings of liturgical drama.


2.      The pageant wagon was the stage or cart on which a medieval religious play was performed. It consisted of two rooms, the lower one cur­tained off as a dressing room, though it could be used to represent hell. Later the name was transferred to the traveling entertainments, not necessarily religious, of which the Lord Mayor’s Show in London is a late survivor.








“The theatres,” Augustine said in 400 A.D. “are falling nearly everywhere, the theatres, those sinks of uncleanness and public places of debauchery. And why are they falling? They are falling because of the reformation of the age, because the lewd and sacrilegious practices for which they are built are out of fashion.” That the theatres were falling is an indisputable fact; that the age had reformed is far less certain. Barbarian attacks on Italy had contributed much to theatre’s devastation.’ After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, overrun by invaders in 476, little in the way of drama or theatrical entertain­ment was presented for several hundred years. Yet, a fondness remained. Minstrels (itinerant troubadours), acrobats, singers, jugglers, and animal trainers traveled through the countryside, stopping to perform in towns and villages.

There were mimes and pantomimes, pagan rites, and festivals. But the Christian church was a powerful institution, growing more so year by year, gaining in strength since before the fall of Rome. The church was against the­atre, declaring it was sacrilegious, evil, and immoral, so it was difficult for drama to exist. Those few actors who continued to perform were even for­bidden the sacrament of communion.

Apparently, however, this didn’t seem to matter a great deal to the occa­sional performers who continued to present their fare, nor did it bother their audiences. This is apparent from the order given repeatedly by the church to stop presenting and attending all theatrical performances!



The Beginnings


Ironically, when drama was reborn it appeared as a part of the church service in much of Western Europe. It was during this time, the tenth century, that Hrosvitha, a noblewoman who lived in a convent in what is now Germany, became the first person in more than 1100 years to write plays. Although she sometimes used humor to teach moral lessons, her play Paphnutius is a more straightforward account of the conversion of a courtesan by a hermit who first approaches her as a would-be customer. The play is a forerunner of a type of drama, the miracle play, which became common during the Middle Ages.

In the ninth century, the cross and the Resurrection of Christ became increasingly important symbols of the church. At about the same time, the liturgy was expanded to include Latin sequences, or hymns. The person responsible for this was the St. Gall monk Notker Balbulus, the Stammerer (840—912). A colleague of his named Tutilo (c. 850—915) then changed the liturgical insertions into dialogue delivered by priests. One priest imperson­ated an angel and three others impersonated the three women visiting Christ’s tomb. Thus liturgical drama came into existence one Easter morning in the form of a playlet—a trope designed to teach and to provide visual exam-pies of the biblical story of Jesus’ crucifixion and rising from the dead:


ANGEL:          Quem queritis in sepulchro, o Christicole?

[Whom seek ye in the sepulcher, 0 women of Christ?]

MARYS: Jesum Nazerenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.

[Jesus of Nazareth, who is crucified, o heavenly one.]

ANGEL:          Non est hic, surrexit sicut praedixerat. lIe, nuntiate quia surrexit de speculchro.

[He is not here; He is risen, as was foretold. Go, proclaim that he has

risen from the sepulcher!]


This trope was the source of the passion play still performed today.  As occurred in Greece, Egypt, and in other emerging civilizations, drama stemmed from ritual. Some would argue that since it was sung, the presenta­tion actually was music rather than drama. Regardless, theatre once more took root and began to grow.  The tropes (from the Latin tropus, melody) continued to be a part of the mass at the church’s major yearly events, such as Easter, Advent, and Christmas, and thus became a tradition throughout western Europe. The widespread use of such playlets is not surprising when we consider that the church, rather than national governments, still ruled the actions of the peo­ple. Thus, drama was similar from Holland to France to Italy to England, with only local customs and tastes dictating slight differences.

Gradually, the playlets were expanded until they became more elaborate and were included extensively in church services. In one trope Mary Magdalene, at Christ’s tomb, mistakes Christ for a gardener. In another drama the Mary’s buy perfume from a stall that has been set up outside Christ’s tomb, and so on.

At first, lines were delivered in Latin. Later, each line was repeated—as in the previous example—in the language of the country. Beginning in the eleventh century the Latin was dropped, and the lines were spoken in the local language.


The Staging of Liturgical Drama


In the beginning, the tropes were presented only by clergymen in the larger churches and cathedrals. The staging or scenery consisted of “mansions,” or sedes, and an acting area, or platea. A sede represented a specific place, such as Christ’s tomb, which was most often at the altar of the church. After the dramatizations became more lengthy and elaborate, additional tropes showed events leading up to and following the Resurrection.


Now there were several different sedes—one for each locale—placed at var­ious points around the interior of the sanctuary. Since each mansion was small, the platea could be a central area or the entire open space. The action would start at one mansion or sede (the specific location) and move into the platea (the nonspecific or central location). The congregation was expected to imagine the action still was taking place at a particular mansion. When the play switched to another mansion, the same general central area was used, and the audience now recognized the action as taking place at a new locale.


As the presentations grew longer, the staging became more elaborate. At first, chairs or the altar indicated the different mansions. Later, more elabo­rate sedes were built, such as a realistic sepulcher for Christ’s tomb, large enough for several people to enter. Although it didn’t matter how the man­sions were placed, usually it was more convenient for the audience if they appeared in a straight or slightly curved line.


As time went on, the presentations grew longer and longer, with more and more mansions added. The dialogue departed from that recorded in the Bible, becoming more secular and even including occasional humor. In addi­tion, more people were participating, and the costuming and scenery were becoming increasingly spectacular.


Moving Outside the Church


By the thirteenth century, the presentations had become too elaborate and disruptive to be presented within the confines of the church building, and the churches were overcrowded with spectators. Thus, the drama, usually still acted by clergymen, came to be presented on the west side of the church. Here, in many cases, was a porch—a ready-made stage of sorts—opening onto the town square, where local residents could stand and watch.


Many church officials began to have doubts about whether the plays should be presented at all; they were becoming more and more what the leaders had earlier feared. One edict about their presentation followed another, so that gradually laymen began acting in them, and by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, all the responsibilities of the production were assumed by secular groups. By this time, the dialogue was spoken entirely’ in the local language.


One of the most popular forms that developed was the Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) play, presented from about 1350 to about 1550 on the Thursday following Pentecost, that is, some time between late May and late June. This drama emphasized transubstantiation, or the mystery of commu­nion bread and wine becoming Christ’s body and blood. (The Corpus Christi holiday had been established in I 311.) The productions grew to include dozens of scenes, encompassing all of creation, and were presented in towns and villages all across England. There is no record of authorship of these or any other liturgical or religious dramas of the medieval period, though cer­tain individual styles are recognizable in multiple plays.



The Producing Groups and the Productions


The secular play-producing groups were largely trade guilds or special soci­eties, the latter formed just for this purpose. In France, one such group was the Confrérie de Ia Passion, established in 1402 by Charles vi at the Hôpital de Ia Trinité, thus becoming the first permanent company to have a particular theatre to call its home. Although the church no longer participated to any great extent in the productions, its approval still was necessary. Each guild had a patron saint, its own priest, and a chapel. Sometimes several small guilds joined together to produce a single play.


Later, the drama moved from the west door of the church to other loca­tions. Various types of structures were used. Some plays, for example, were produced on a platform pushed against a building, while others were pre­sented in old Roman amphitheatres or in town squares.


Production and Spectacle


In England, there were two major means of production. One was to present plays in “rounds” or ancient amphitheatres, and the other was to use pageant wagons as stages. A pageant wagon carried two or more mansions, and some his­torians believe that at times several were placed next to each other. The acting may have taken place entirely on the wagons or on the ground in front of them. The wagons were designed to be moved from place to place, with each site marked by flags indicating where they were to stop. Some wagons symbolized particular locations, such as the mouth of hell belching fire. One was shaped like a ship for a play about Noah.


Typically, the mansions were positioned to represent the planes of heav­en, earth, and hell. Heaven usually was at one end of the playing area and hell at the other, with a series of mansions between. The more mansions there were, the longer and more elaborate the presentation. It is recorded, for instance, that in 1501 at Mons, France, a play was given with sixty-seven mansions. It took forty-eight days to rehearse, and one performance lasted four days.

The scenes were really short episodes that had no connection with each other except that they dealt with biblical subject matter. Each episode was complete in itself, and the overall presentation had no continuing plot.


Of great concern were special effects. There are records of professionals being hired to invent all sorts of startling “secrets” (as they were called) including Christ’s walking on the water and smoke and fire billowing from the mouth of hell. There were earthquakes and clouds. Thunder roared. Actors and objects were raised and lowered by means of ropes and pulleys, allowing the audience to watch as monsters and animals flew freely through hell. There is even record of an effigy being filled with bones and animal entrails to provide a realistic scene. Fountains sprang up, water turned into wine, and the miracle of the loaves and fishes was enacted. (Actually, even before the drama moved out of the church, many of these special effects were used, and the mansions were constructed to resemble the places they represented.)

Unlike the drama of Greece, medieval religious drama involved much vio­lence, including sword fights and battles. The list of battle regalia and other properties was often long and costly.


Most of the actors dressed in contemporary costumes they supplied them­selves, but angels wore white robes with wings, and God was dressed as an offi­cial of the church. Satan, wearing wings, horns, claws, and a tail, was designed to be both humorous and awe-inspiring. In fact, beginning in the sixteenth century, the plays included many comic elements. Unfortunately, not many of the texts of these works survive, however. Of the hundreds given in England, only those from Chester, York, Coventry, and Wakefield exist in complete form.


Cycle Plays


At the end of the fourteenth century, all the plays that had been presented throughout the church year were combined into a single presentation, or cycle. The Wakefield Cycle contained thirty-two episodes, while the York Cycle comprised forty-eight. Elaborate productions such as these continued until the middle of the sixteenth century, all the while changing in content as old sections were deleted and new ones were added.

Further, more and more humor, often centered on wives, crept into the presentations. For example, in each of two plays about the flooding of the earth, Noah has a shrewish wife. Another example of a play that contains humor is The Second Shepherd’s Play, part of the Wakefield Cycle. (Its title is in reference to the fact that of the thirty-two plays that make up the cycle, this is the second dealing with the Nativity.) Mak complains about his wife and how he can ill afford to support his family. He then casts a spell on three shepherds so that they fall asleep. Then he steals one of their sheep. Among his com­plaints, which sets up what happens later, are that his wife. Lies wallowing—by the rood—by the fire, lo!

And a house full of brood.

She drinks well, too

 There’s no other good that she will do!

But she Eats as fast as may be,

And every year that we see

She brings forth a baby— And, some years, two.

Were I even more prosperous and richer by some,

I were eaten out of house and even of home.

Yet is she a foul souse, if ye come near;

There is none that goes or anywhere roams

‘Worse than she. .

Mak then proposes the idea of passing off the stolen sheep as a newborn baby. His wife agrees to go along with the deception.  The play presents a parallel between the tale of Mak, his wife, and their new­born “baby” and the nativity story of Joseph, Mary, and their newborn “lamb.” First, each of the two births is preceded by song, with Mak singing out of tune and the angels singing sweetly. The shepherds also offer gifts to both of the newborns. The humor was not intended to be sacrilegious, but rather to point up humankind’s follies. Thus side-by-side exist a realistic world of bad weather, lack of money, and less-than-ideal family relationships—often treated humor­ously—and a world of faith, innocence, and awe at the birth of Jesus.


On the other hand, Abraham and Isaac is serious and completely reverential in tone, with the intent of showing what Christian behavior should be like. The play could be part of a lost cycle, though this is only speculation. Abraham knows, when forced to choose between God and his own family, that, as a pious man, he really has no choice. When the time comes to sacrifice his son Isaac, he hesitates briefly, yet is resolved to continue as commanded by God.


The guilds or town councils hired directors who were in charge of the tech­nical aspects of the production as well as the acting. A director also was responsible for collecting admission fees and welcoming the audience. Until laymen began appearing extensively in the plays, the actors chanted their lines. Later, their speech became more natural.


For the most part, actors were amateurs. Some received minimal pay, and sometimes those playing leading roles were paid large sums of money. All were given food and drink during the rehearsal and performance periods. At first, all the performers were men, though later women and children appeared in some of the plays. For example, in 1498 at Metz, one young woman (a nonprofessional) delivered 2300 lines as St. Catherine. The actors typically were local citizens of the working class.


The three most important forms of drama to evolve from the church pre­sentations were mystery plays, miracle plays, and morality plays. The mystery play dealt with the life of Christ and depicted scenes from the Creation to the Second Coming. This is the form that began in the church, but later moved outdoors. Miracle plays (also called saint plays) dealt with the lives of saints and martyrs, but could include topical scenes involving family troubles. These dramas emphasized such things as miraculous power and divine inter­vention in people’s lives. In some parts of Europe, such as Coventry, the mir­acle plays lasted until the late sixteenth century. At this time, however, moral­ity plays were gaining in importance.


Morality Plays


The morality plays, which developed later than the mystery and miracle plays, were most popular between the beginning of the fifteenth century and the mid-sixteenth century. The subject matter concerned moral instruction—par­ticularly man’s attempt to save his soul. All the characters were allegorical. The central figure usually was called Everyman, and such characters as Virtue and Vice fought over his soul. The first morality play of which there is record was the Play of the Lord’s Prayer; presented in York, England, in 1384. Another is The Castle of Perseverance, presented in about 1425. The latter shows the bat­tle between a Bad Angel and a Good Angel for the soul of Humanum Genus.


Often, morality plays dealt with a person’s entire life, presenting humorous or mischievous characters in the form of the Devil and Vice. Most had humorous scenes satirizing current social and political conditions, somewhat similar to Old Comedy in Greece. Scenes such as these were not the main point of the drama, however, but existed to capture and direct the audience’s atten­tion to the crux of the play—the need to live a virtuous life.


Morality plays were more popular in England than anywhere else, although they also were presented on the continent of Europe. Unlike the cycle plays, morality plays generally were performed by professional actors. They are important in that they were a step toward secularization of drama. Further, they had a great influence on Elizabethan playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe, who relied heavily upon the morality play for his The Tragi cal History of Doctor Faustus, in which the title character makes a pact with the devil.


An example of the morality play is Everyman, although it is different from most in that it is shorter and contains no humor. On the other hand, the char­acters have more depth than in most plays of this sort. Written during the last years of the fifteenth century, Everyman is believed to have been adapted from the Dutch play Elckerlijk, written in 1495 by Peter Dorlandus, although it isn’t known who did the translating and adapting into English.


During the sixteenth century morality plays became more secularized, at first arguing for either the Catholic point of view or the Protestant. Eventually, some became entirely secular, relating to current concerns.



Secular Drama


Along with the church plays, several forms of secular drama developed dur­ing the Middle Ages. The most important was the farce, typically presented in France, Germany, and England. Usually bawdy and risque, this form was concerned with man’s depravity, and was not more than a few hundred lines in length. One writer of medieval farce was Hans Sachs of Germany, who is credited with writing more than two hundred plays. A second secular form was the interlude, a comic play performed by professional traveling players for wealthy citizens at celebrations. The interlude, so named because it was presented between courses at banquets, became popular at the end of the fif­teenth century. The least important of the secular forms was the folk play, presented by amateur actors who went from house to house enacting stories of heroes or legendary figures.


For a number of reasons, medieval drama began to decline during the six­teenth century. First, the social structure of Europe was changing and the plays no longer could be presented effectively as community undertakings. Second, there was an increased interest in classical learning, and new forms of drama combining both medieval and classical influences were beginning to develop. Third, there is evidence that many of the actors began to travel as professionals or semiprofessionals. Fourth, and perhaps most important, there was dissension in the church. Queen Elizabeth I of England forbade reli­gious plays in 1559, and the church itself forbade such plays in continental Europe. By the beginning of the seventeenth century medieval drama was at an end except in Spain, where the style continued well past the middle of the eighteenth century.




The primary goal for this chapter is knowledge of representational and pre­sentational theatrical styles, the genres of comedy, tragedy, and so on. Covered as well are the movements or philosophies throughout history, such as realism, which affected other styles and genres in theatre and drama.


Lecture Notes


Theatrical Styles

1.   Modern dramatists do not adhere to specific rules of style as did play­wrights of the past.

2.   Current playwrights use a variety of styles.

3.   Style is often linked to historical period.


Representational and Presentational Styles

1.    There are two overall categories of theatrical style: representational and presentational.

2.    Representational style includes true-to-life dialogue, setting, characters, and action.

3.    Representational theatre is stage-centered and closely approximates life.

4.    Presentational theatre is audience-centered, and it openly acknowledges the presence of the audience in the space.

5.    Presentational scenery is generally nonrealistic.

6.    Generally, a given piece of theatre does not purely follow one style or another.

7.    Musical theatre is presentational in the use of singing, and representa­tional in the dialogue.


Specific Styles

1.   Other styles of theatre are offshoots of representational and presenta­tional styles.

2.   Naturalism attempts to include everything found in life. This may mean incorporating details of the setting and of the speech patterns and movements of the characters.

3.   Realism depends on the playwright’s and the designer’s perception of reality. It is their responsibility to selectively choose details that are essential for the audience’s understanding of the mood of the play.

4.   Expressionism attempts to show life from the protagonist’s point of view.

5.   Symbolism tries to present truth allegorically.

6.   In impressionism, the director and designers determine what aspect of the play’s theme they wish to emphasize.

7.   Theatricalism, formalism, and constructivism are treatments of styles.

8.   With theatricalism, the designer breaks down the suggestion of the fourth wall.

9.   Formalism, which overlaps theatricalism and impressionism, uses only what is necessary to the actor.

10. Constructivism uses only those elements necessary to the action.


Style in the Modern Theatre

1.   Styles often overlap in modern theatre. For example, The Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman are basically realistic plays that use elements of expressionism.


Dramatic Genres

1.   Genre refers to the manner in which playwrights classify their subject matter. Genre classification is determined primarily by a playwright’s outlook on life and his or her purpose in writing the play.

2.   In contemporary theatre, playwrights often mix genres.

3.   There are two major genres: tragedy and comedy. A serious play should elicit empathy, while a comic play should increase our aesthetic distance from the subject matter.

4.   Comedies are generally more presentational, or audience-centered, than tragedies.



1.   Tragedy is the purest form for the serious treatment of a theme.

2.   In tragedy the protagonist is defeated.

3.   Aristotle defined tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.”

4.   Tragedy is concerned with grandeur of ideas, theme, character, and action.

5.   Through the tragic character, we should experience a catharsis, a purg­ing of emotions.


Truth in Tragedy

1.   The problems shown in tragedy are universal; the important thing is how the protagonist accepts his or her challenge.

2.   Tragic protagonists have a human failing, a tragic f1a~ that brings about their defeat.

3.   In tragedy innocent characters often suffer, thus pointing out the injus­tice of life.


Modern Tragedy

1.   Few tragedies reach the Aristotelian ideal.

2.   In modern tragedy, a basically good person commits an irrevocable act and suffers defeat.

3.   Modern tragic protagonists are noble in motive if not noble by birth.



1.   Comedy, the opposite of tragedy, pokes fun at ourselves and our institutions.

2.   Of all dramatic forms, comedy has the most variety.

3.   Comedy most often depicts a deviation from the norm.

4.   Although comedy makes us laugh, playwrights often have another pur­pose for writing a comic play.

5.   In most comedies traits, situations, and characters are exaggerated to show that what we think is important may not be.


Deviation from the Norm

1.   The humor of comedy comes from the treatment of characters or situations.

2.   Comedy often deals with eccentricities like greed, hypocrisy, laziness, or overwhelming ambition.

3.   Comic protagonists may be involved in situations outside their knowl­edge or experience.

4.   Theatre of the absurd shows normal individuals in an insane or abnor­mal world.

5.   Comedy ends happily and the protagonist always wins.

6.   A comic writer must set up a comic frame of reference early in a play so that the audience understands they have been given permission to laugh at the plight of the characters.

7.   Comedy often depends on current events, society, or trends for its sub­ject matter.


Comic Devices

1.   Comedy relies on certain devices to establish the comic frame of reference.

2.   Exaggeration is intensification or enlargement through overstatement.

3.   Incongruity refers to conflicting elements that deviate from the norm.

4.   Automatism involves repetition of a verbal or visual gag.

5.   Character inconsistency exposes a trait that does not fit with the rest of a character’s personality.

6.   Surprise is the unexpected.

7.   Derision is the mocking of a person or institution in a way that is gentler than sarcasm.




Types of Comedy

1.    Comedy can be either high or low. High comedy uses verbal wit and appeals to the intellect, while low comedy is largely slapstick and physical.

2.    Romantic comedy gently shows the complications in the quest for love.

3.    Situation comedy places the characters in unusual circumstances.

4.    Character comedy deals with eccentricities of the individual.

5.    All types of comedy establish a comic framework, then exaggerate humorous aspects both in the writing and performance. Finally, comic characters are often closer to stereotypes.



1.   Melodrama, like comedy, ends happily. Like tragedy, melodrama deals with serious subjects.

2.   The characters in melodrama are all good or all bad, with the good character always winning in the end.

3.   In recent years, melodrama has become more realistic.



1.   Similar to melodrama, farce relies on fate.

2.   The plots of farces are highly contrived and rely on devious twists and physical action.

3.   The characters are often one-dimensional stock characters in illicit sexual relationships, often dealing with infidelity.

4.   The success of a farce depends greatly on the skill of the actors and director because so much of the humor is visual.



1.   Tragicomedy mixes elements of comedy and tragedy.

2.   Many absurdist plays are tragicomedies.

3.   The audience is often jolted from comedy to horror, as in Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolfe


Other Drama Forms

1.  Modern plays often defy classification.

2.   Often, the characters are three-dimensional, but their problems are ordinary.



Additional Information

1.   Eric Bentley was a British-born drama critic, translator, editor, play­wright, educator, and director. He gained recognition in the 1940s for his translations of Brecht’s plays.

2.   Sophie Treadwell was one of the first female war correspondents. From

1916 to 1918, Ms. Treadwell turned to playwriting. Although she wrote several plays, Machinal is the best known. The play tells the story of a young woman who kills her husband and is sent to the electric chair. The play is loosely based on the real-life Snyder-Gray murder trial, which occurred in 1926.

3.   William Butler Yeats was an Irish playwright who celebrated Irish culture in his plays. Yeats rejected the popular realism of his day, preferring to work with simple, suggestive sets. He often employed dance, music, and masks to tell his stories.

4.   Harold Pinter is a British actor, director, and playwright. He is consid­ered an absurdist writer. From his work the term “Pinteresque” was coined, meaning anything menacing and enigmatic.







































































































Like all art, theatre attempts to present truth as the artists see it, yet truth is elusive and subjective. The playwright, the director, the actors, and the design­ers collaborate in communicating their own form of reality through dramatic structure and style. As Eric Bentley said: “Would art exist at all if men did not desire to live twice? You have your life; and on the stage you have it again.”


The Story Play


When we think of a story, we think of being entertained. Both in theatre and in fiction, stories involve people in situations with which we can identify. The story play is an attempt to “make things right”—to re-create a balance in life. As theatre critic John Gassner says:


The dramatic approach to reality is, to begin with, a view of life as a condition of disequilibrium, a state of crisis, conflict and change; and dramatic vision encompasses movement toward some new equilibrium, however temporary or tentative, or movement toward a reconciliation that makes survival or sanity possible.


Throughout history the story play, sometimes called the cause-to-effect play, has been written and produced more than any other type. A story play has a plot—a type of structure—that relies on conflict. Yet nei­ther the plot nor the structure itself is the story.


The story is much more inclu­sive, encompassing everything that has happened in the world (or universe) of the play before, during, and after the events of the plot. We know, for instance, that these events spring from the same location, just as a limb grows from a tree. However, the tree is much more than just one of its limbs.


We know, for example, that Mary, the mother in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, had a long history of drug abuse caused by a quack physician’s pre­scribing morphine, and that this abuse started long before the action of the play opens. We know that James Tyrone, the father, is a talented actor who for years has been caught up in acting a role in a second-rate play, and that no one has been willing to cast him in any other role. These are “realities” of the story and have a direct bearing on the plot.


Yet, regardless of how much they influence the course of the action, they are not part of the action. A plot is not an isolated entity. It exists in the universe in which the play exists, just as the past and the political, social, and cultural atmospheres of our own world affect us. Although they are not actually part of our actions, they often determine our responses.


Frame of Reference


A play cannot exist as an isolated entity that springs into existence out of noth­ingness. And when a story play ends, the characters and the setting—in our imaginations, at least—don’t suddenly fade into wisps of trailing fog.

There is a framework that prescribes all the conditions of the world and universe (the aforementioned branch and tree) in which the play exists. Most of these conditions are never mentioned because they don’t directly affect the action. The audience assumes, when given certain conditions, that others are in effect. If the setting is a typical middle-class home in Pittsburgh and the time is the present, the audience can assume that everything else about the world/universe of the play is typical of the world/universe in which we all live.

If the framework is alien, however, more has to be explained. If it takes place in a different culture, a distant time, or in an entirely different world, the playwright has to make sure the audience knows everything about that “universe” that has bearing on the action.


Imagine a scene such as this:


CHILD:  Tell me a story, Dad. You promised.

DAD:  All right, but then you have to go to sleep.

CHILD:  Uh huh.

DAD:  Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom lived a handsome prince

            who decided to seek a bride. In order to find the fairest young woman

            in the land.  


Children have no trouble accepting a time and place where a handsome prince decides to invite all the young women of the kingdom to his palace. However, once the disbelief is suspended, the conditions cannot change:



DAD:              to find the fairest young woman in the land, he decided to hold

            a big party at this disco in downtown Philadelphia!

CHILD:  No, Daddy! No, that’s not the way the story goes. He decided to

                hold a ball. Don’t you know what a ball is?

DAD:  Something you shoot baskets with?

CHILD: Daddyy’yyyl I want to hear the story about how the prince invited everyone to the ball and how poor Cinderella was treated so mean by her stepsisters and—


Once a framework is established—no matter how magical or extraordi­nary—a playwright cannot change it and hope to keep an audience’s atten­tion. From then on, a play deals with a specific action or actions, a specific time or times, and a specific place or places, all of which remain constant with­in this absolute framework. The play most often answers certain questions. The answers also must remain constant for the audience to continue to immerse themselves in the universe of the play. The questions are: What is happening? When is it happening? Where is it happening?


This exposition, or background necessary to understanding the play, comes largely through the dialogue. Other ways are through sets, lighting, costuming, and, possibly, makeup (see Chapter 15). However, the exposition should not intrude upon the progress of the play. The audience should receive necessary information without being aware that they are receiving it; it should seem a natural part of the presentation. For instance:


Wilde gives the audience information in an entertaining way. First, we can surmise that Jack and Algernon are friends—fairly close, since Jack has appar­ently dropped in unexpectedly. Second, we learn about the social standing of the two. We know that Algernon is soon going to serve tea to Gwendolen and his aunt. We learn that Jack probably loves Gwendolen and the feelings are re­ciprocated. We learn something about the men’s views. Seeds are planted for future events and conflicts, such as a scene between Aunt Augusta and Jack.


Rather than having Jack merely talk about where he’s been, Wilde brings out the information through lighthearted bickering that maintains our inter­est. Algernon is somewhat accusatory in asking where Jack has been. Then, through his line “What on earth do you do there?” we can infer that he doesn’t particularly like the country. All of this reveals not only setting and cir­cumstances, but gives us information about the kind of people Jack and Algernon are. The information is conveyed with humor, which, coupled with the circumstances, indicates that the play will be a drawing room comedy, and so we are not to take the characters and situation seriously. We can see that the theme probably will have something to do with romance or love.


A story play involves a clash of wills or forces within the universe that has been established: Which of the two will win—the protagonist or the antago­nist? In many plays it’s the “good guy” versus the “bad guy.” Yet what if they’re all “bad guys,” like Regina and her brothers in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes? Usually, it’s the protagonist, or the central character, who we want to win. Most of the time we identify with this person; we empathize and sympa­thize. Sometimes, as with Regina, this is not the case.


The protagonist most often is an individual, though in rare cases it is a group of people, such as the weavers in Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers, based on a revolt by Silesian weavers in 1844. Overall, the weavers as a group are the central character, with individuals shown only for brief periods before being submerged once more into the group. The antagonist, on the other hand, can be another person, a group of people, or a nonindividualized force.


Conflict and Opposition


There are four general types of conflict or opposition:

I.    protagonist against another person

2.  protagonist against self

3.  protagonist against society

4.  protagonist against the forces of nature or fate


An example of the first type of opposition is Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, a two-character melodrama in which the characters constantly try to outwit each other and gain the upper hand. Shaffer’s play relies a great deal on deception and one-upmanship. Although a play pitting one person against another may have a simple plot that doesn’t go deeply into character, that isn’t always the case.



A number of well-known plays use the theme of protagonist against self. In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, for example, Willy tries to live up to his own defi­nition of success. In Herb Gardner’s comedy A Thousand Clowns, the central character’s conflict centers on whether he will remain a nonconformist and maintain his sense of freedom or get a job and be allowed to continue rear­ing his nephew. And in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus struggles against his own sense of pride to prove that he is not his father’s killer.


A protagonist against society or a particular segment of society is one of the most common types of opposition. Dramatist Henrik Ibsen, for instance, often structured his plays around such circumstances—for example Ghosts, in which Mrs. Alving is forced by social standards to stay with a dissolute husband. After his death she builds an orphanage to honor him and to hide his true charac­ter. In Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Stockman battles an entire town when he wants to close the polluted baths—the villagers’ main source of income.


Plays that pit the protagonist against such a force as nature or fate may come across as overly melodramatic unless such conflict is only superficial. Many times, the plot really shows the character against self in reaction to flood or drought. The conflict is a test of the character’s mettle. Or the protagonist may be com­ing up against another obstacle in a different sort of struggle. In the nineteenth-century melodrama Uncle Torn ‘s Cabin, Eliza attempts to escape across the ice floes, which, at that moment is the hindrance or problem she’s up against. Yet the real force she wants to escape is the institution of slavery.


It is difficult to make nature or fate a convincing antagonist, since often it seems the protagonist is being controlled from outside. Brian Clark’s Whose Lift Is This Anyway? may seem to set a human being against fate, given that the central character is dying. Yet, the character really is battling soci­ety’s views on the right-to-die issue. And though fate left Helen Keller deaf and blind, her struggle against her own stubbornness forms the basis of the conflict in The Miracle Worker.


Point of Attack


The playwright decides the point of attack—the place to begin the play. According to theatre critic William Archer:

If his [the writer’s] play be a comedy, and if his object be gently and quietly to interest and entertain, the chances are that he begins by showing us his personages in their normal state, concisely indi­cates their characters, circumstances and relations, and then lets the crisis develop from the outset before our eyes. If, on the other hand, his play be of a more stirring description, and he wants to seize the spectator’s attention firmly from the start, he will probably go straight at his crisis, plunging, perhaps, into the very middle of it, even at the cost of having afterwards to go back in order to put the audience in possession of the antecedent circumstances. In a third type of play.., the curtain rises on a surface aspect of profound peace, which is presently found to be a thin crust over an absolutely volcanic condition of affairs, the origin of which has to be traced backwards, it may be for many years.


Background (the universe in which the play exists) plus plot (the charac­ters in action) thus equals a story play.


Elements of Plot


Plot involves an inciting incident, rising action (which usually involves a series of minor crises), a turning point, a climax, and the denouement or falling action, all following a linear pattern, the Aristotelian model. The play begins when the antagonist in some way interferes with the evenness of the protago­nist’s life. The following shows what occurs, though, of course, most plays would be much more complicated.


1. Inciting incident: Someone unexpectedly knocks you to the ground.

2. Rising action: You try to rise, but the antagonist shoves you back down. You manage to leap to your feet and chase him down the sidewalk. As you peer around the corner to see where he’s gone, he sneaks up behind you and grabs you around the neck. Your bewilderment turns to anger. You are deter­mined to put an end to this nonsense.

Each incident in a play ends with a minor crisis. These crises build in inten­sity toward an irrevocable change, a point of no return.

3. Turning point: You spin around, grab the person who’s attacked you, and shove him up against the wall. You have him cornered and know beyond any doubt that you are going to defeat him. Then comes the high point of the drama.

4. Climax: As your attacker cowers in fear, you force him to consume a vial of magic potion that makes him a “good guy.”

5. Denouement: Even though the antagonist no longer wants to harm you, you’re curious about why he’s attacked you. He tells you that he envies your skills as a playwright or actor. This made him so jealous that he wanted to beat you up. You’re astounded because you never thought you were very good. The play ends happily for both of you when you agree to teach him all you know about writing or acting.


Some plots have many more minor complications or crises than others. A musical with a very simple plot is The Fantasticks, off-Broadway’s longest-run­ning musical ever. The fathers of Matt and Luisa want their offspring to fall in love and marry, which they do, and so a happy ending seems assured. However, at the beginning of the second (and final) act, Matt and Luisa become dissatisfied, feeling the need to experience life before settling down. The rest of the act shows that they do separate for a time, but eventually they reunite. In contrast, Shaffer’s Sleuth has many more complications, each resulting in a minor climax in which one of the two characters seems to be winning, only to be outwitted by the other. In effect, the plot can be referred to as a fencing match in which two participants are closely matched.


Sometimes, the turning point and the climax are the same, sometimes not. In Joan Schenkar’s 1990 satire The Universal Wolf Grandmother decides to kill Little Red Riding Hood, which is the turning point. Before she actually kills her, which is the climax, she sings her to sleep with a lullaby. Only then does she repeatedly stab Little Red Riding Hood with knitting needles. However, if Grandmother had decided she couldn’t stand to be around Little Red Riding Hood one second more and had killed her immediately, the turning point and climax would be the same.


A play’s climax begins to reveal the answer to the question asked when the problem was introduced; the denouement completes the answer by tying up the loose ends. It explains more fully how and why a thing happened, or sometimes shows the effects of the resolution on the characters. In a come­dy, the audience wants to enjoy the protagonist’s triumph; in a tragedy, the audience wants to come to terms with their feelings. For example, in the final scene of Death of a Salesman, “The Requiem,” shows how Willy’s suicide affects the other characters.


Plays often include scenes in which there appears to be no direct conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. Yet if the play is well-written, the conflict is inherent; it relates to what already has been shown. For example, one character may be describing to another what is bothering her, what has caused the central problem and conflict. In so doing, she may begin to glimpse a possible solution or clarify her own thoughts about the situation, foreshadowing and thus building tension and suspense about whether she will succeed in her plan.


Dramatic Action


Everything that occurs in a play has to be relevant to the advancement of the plot, to the protagonist’s attempt to reach his or her goal. The device that advances the plot is called the dramatic action.

Most important, the dramatic action relates to the struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist, and often results in a direct clash between the two. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to involve physical movement. In the soliloquy in which Hamlet decides to kill his uncle, the plot definitely is mov­ing forward, yet no physical activity occurs just then.


Dramatic action can help individualize a character, revealing traits that may be important to action that occurs later in the play. This is another type of fore­shadowing, in that it lays the groundwork for what comes later, making it believable and logical. For instance, a character who is irritable in little ways may later direct a burst of temper at someone else. A major plot development may come as a surprise. Yet, once the audience thinks back over past events and what was revealed about the characters in the way they reacted, they should realize that what occurred was within the range of predictability or pos­sibility. Action or conflict is important in revealing character. It shows how the protagonist, and often the antagonist, will react when faced with opposition.


As Wilde did in The Importance of Being Earnest, Simon gives us a lot of infor­mation about time and place, and about the characters and their relationships. Just as in Wilde’s play, much of the exposition is brought out in the conflict. Dramatic action or conflict, however, must relate in some way to the protago­nist—even if he or she isn’t present.




Each character in a play has a goal, sometimes referred to as the superobjec­tive. In Beth Henley’s one-act play Am I Blue?John and Ashbe meet for the first time in a bar, from which they then are evicted for being underage. Ashbe invites John to her apartment in New Orleans, where she offers him hot Kool-Aid and green marshmallows. Her father is out of town and her mother lives in Atlanta.


The superobjective seems to be for the two characters to become friends. However, each has a more fundamental goal—to be accepted socially. Both are misfits, who react differently to their situations. Ashbe refuses to conform, while John will do almost anything to be accepted.


Central Problems


There are many ways in which the action in a play can progress; that is, there are various types of central problems affected by the introduction of the dra­matic question or inciting incident. These include:


1. The need for revenge. An example is Hamlet’s wanting to get back at his uncle for killing Hamlet’s father.

2. Being lured by money, sex, or fame. In Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, the title character sells his soul to the devil and then tries to get out of the bargain.

3. The need to escape from an intolerable situation. In Schenkar’s The Universal Wolf Grandmother murders Little Red Riding Hood because she cannot stand the girl’s “attitude or voice or smile

4. Arriving at a crossroads, and not knowing which choice to make. In Wendy Kesselman’s My Sister in This House, Lea must choose between pleasing her sister Christine, with whom she works as a maid, or pleasing her mother.

5. Testing the limits of self or others. In The Miracle Worker, Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan push each other nearly to the breaking point.

Many plays also have one or more subplots (those of lesser importance or subordinate to the central action). In The Little Foxes, for example, Regina’s daughter, Alexandra, gradually comes to realize that she cannot love or even stay with a woman as corrupt or unethical as her mother.


Shakespeare’s comedies often have subplots that deal with love or intrigue. In As You Like It, the story that frames the play is that of the wicked Duke Frederick wresting power from his brother, who finds refuge in the Forest of Arden. However, the play’s major focus is the love story of Rosalind and Orlando, along with two other love stories.

Scenes as Structure


Often, an act of a play is divided arbitrarily into two or three scenes, compa­rable to the chapter divisions in a novel. Within each act can be a number of scenes. Act I, Scene 1, may occur in the afternoon, Scene 2 in the evening, and Scene 3 the following morning.

Theatre artists, however, often think of scenes as motivational units, in which the protagonist wants to reach a goal. A motivational unit is made up of the minor inciting incidents and minor climaxes that comprise the rising action. Each of these slightly alters the direction the central character takes in attempting to overcome the antagonist.

In the following excerpt from a play that takes place in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, Horst’s goal is to protect Max by telling him how to behave as he and Horst perform the useless task of moving heavy rocks back and forth from one corner of an enclosure to another.

On the other hand, a French scene begins with the entrance and ends with the exit of an important character, since the direction of a scene is almost always certain to change when a new element is introduced.

Within each scene are “beats,” or points of emphasis such as occur in poet­ry or music. With each new “beat” the action somehow intensifies, though it does not really change direction. A beat occurs each time a character gets the upper hand. The beats are easy to follow in this dialogue from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wool]?


MARTHA:. (Swinging around):        Look, sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddamn table you want.. . so don’t worry about me!


GEORGE:      Martha, I gave you the prize years ago. ... There isn’t an abom­ination award going that you....


MARTHA:                               I swear... if you existed I’d divorce you..


GEORGE:                  Well, just stay on your feet, that’s all.. . . These people are your guests, you know, and....


MARTHA:                               I can’t even see you. . . I haven’t been able to see you for



GEORGE:                  ... if you pass out, or throw up, or something....


MARTHA:                               ... I mean, you’re a blank, a cipher.


GEORGE:      ... and try to keep your clothes on, too. There aren’t many more sickening sights than you

                        with a couple of drinks in you and your skirt up over your head, you know.


MARTHA:                               ... a zero....Selectivity


Because of the nature of drama, the action of a play is compressed and height­ened, and inconsequential details are eliminated. Time is condensed. Dia­logue is more purposeful and to the point. It would be rare in real life to find people who have such command of thought and language under intense emotion as do George and Martha.

Because a play is selective, you can think of it in terms of an analogy. The actions are universal; they relate to all (or most) of us, or we wouldn’t be interested. Although they deal with specific characters doing specific things, they stand for something larger.


In plays, as in life, people speak through implication and draw conclusions through inference. Most of the time, they don’t come out and say exactly what they mean. The following scene is from Franz Werfel’s Goat Song, which takes place at the close of the eighteenth century. The parents of Stanja, who is betrothed to Mirko, have just dropped her off so she will get used to his farm. In the following, what Mirko really is saying—in the subtext or by implica­tion—is that he does not understand Stanja. This makes him so frustrated that he says he’ll beat her after they’re married.


MIRKO:           Your parents are gone now. Are you sad?


STANJA:        No, I am not sad.


MIRKO:           Then you don’t love your parents?


STANJA:                    I love them.


MIRKO:           Then you must be sad. Doesn’t it hurt you when something is over? The axle creaks, the horses draw up, the whip.... And then, something is ended.


STANJA:                    I never ache for what is past.


MIRKO:           Oh, I often do. I can lie in the meadow hour after hour longing for the games I played there on the grass.


STANJA:                    That is because you are a man.

(Short pause)

MIRKO:           Do the house and the farm please you?


STANJA:                    Why shouldn’t they? House, rooms, chimneys, stables, pigsties, and hencoops and dovecotes, same as everywhere.


MIRKO:           And do I please you?


STANJA:                    Why shouldn’t you please me?


MIRKO:           Do you know, Stanja, I would have liked it better if you had cried before, when they left you.... (Suddenly turns on her) You! What if you’ve loved someone before! Tell me! Have you loved someone else?


STANJA:                    (Hesitatingly) No.


MIRK0:           (Slowly, his eyes closed): I think, when we’re married, I will beat you.


STANJA:                    That’s what all husbands do.


A playwright rarely spells everything out. Elizabeth Wong’s Letters to a Student Revolutionary is about an American girl, Bibi, and a Chinese girl who calls herself Karen. They meet and speak for only a few minutes when Bibi is vacationing in China, yet their correspondence continues for years. The audience never discovers for certain whether Karen, who participated in the Tiananmen Square revolt in which hundreds of students were massacred, dies or not. Wong never states in words that the situation was an atrocity, though that’s what she means.


Other Types of Structure




Although the story play is the most common, there are other structures, as well. One is thematic structure, in which a variety of scenes deal with the same basic issues but are unrelated in continuity and/or characterization. An exam­ple is Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, which shows Mother Courage’s blind reliance on war to provide a living for her family. The play makes a strong statement for pacifism.




A play using circular structure starts and ends with a similar set of circumstances. Such plays usually are thematic as well. An example is Eugene Ionesco’s 1948 play The Bald Soprano, typical of absurdist (theatre of the absurd) drama, which expresses the idea that life is neither good nor bad at face value. Only what we choose as moral or immoral makes life good or bad to us as individuals. The characters speak recognizable words and sentences, hut overall they make no sense. Although there is the appearance of struggle and conflict, as this excerpt reveals, the play does not progress toward a resolution:


MR. SMITH:   (still reading his paper.) Tsk, it says here that Bobby Watson died.


MRS. SMITH:             My God, the poor man! When did he die?


MR. SMITH:   Why do you pretend to be astonished? You know very well

                        that he’s been dead these past two years. Surely you remember

                         that we attended his funeral a year and a half ago.


MRS. SMITH:             Oh yes, of course I do remember. I remembered it right away, but I

                        don’t understand why you yourself were so surprised to see it in the paper.


MR. SMITH:   It wasn’t in the paper. It’s been three years since his death was announced.

                        I remembered it through an association of ideas.


MRS. SMITH:             What a pity! He was so well preserved.


MR. SMITH:   He was the handsomest corpse in Great Britain. He didn’t

                        look his age. Poor Bobby, he’s been dead for four years and he was still warm.

                        A veritable living corpse. And how cheerful he was.


MRS. SMITH:             Poor Bobby.


MR. SMITH:   Which poor Bobby do you mean?


MRS. SMITH:             It is his wife that I mean. She is called Bobby too. Bobby Watson. Since they

                        both had the same name, you could never tell one from the other when you saw

                        Them together. It was only after his death that you could really tell which was

                        which. And there are still people today who confuse her with the deceased and

                        offer their condolences to him. Do you know her?


MR. SMITH:   I only met her once, by chance, at Bobby’s burial.


MRS. SMITH:             I’ve never seen her. Is she pretty?


MR. SMITH:   She has regular features and yet one cannot say that she is pretty. She is too big

                        and stout. Her features are not regular but still one can say that she is very pretty.

                        She is a little too small and too thin. She’s a voice teacher.


Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot also is the same at the end as at the begin­ning. It opens with Estragon and Vladimir waiting for someone or something called Godot. They complain about life, pretend repentance, and fall asleep to have nightmares. They wake up and quarrel and wonder what to expect of Godot if Godot comes. Pozzo, a pompous taskmaster, comes down the road with Lucky, a near-idiot through being a slave and ever obedient. Now forced to think, Lucky pours out a mixture of theology and politics before he stum­bles down the road with Pozzo. In Act II, Estragon and Vladimir trade hats, recite what they think is humorous poetry, play slave and master, and argue about the past. Pozzo and Lucky come back, the former blind and the latter dumb. Neither of them remembers who he is or was. Godot sends word that he won’t come today but he certainly will tomorrow. Vladimir and Estragon know they should move on, but neither does, so they just go on waiting.


To an extent, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town follows a circular pattern in showing that life is a continuing process, overall just about the same at one period of time as at another, though different people may be involved. The play begins with the Stage Manager acting as narrator, telling what is to come. The play ends with his relating what has transpired, showing that it is similar to what will continue to happen.


Ritualistic Structure


One of the first persons to advocate a return to ritual was Antonin Artaud of France. His book, Theatre and Its Double, published in 1938, discusses his ideas for using theatre more directly to bring about social change. Playwright Jean Genet (1910—1986) also believed in ritual. In his play The Maids, two maids perform charades as the lady of the house and act out her symbolic murder. In Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, the inmates of an asylum act out their crimes in a primitive, symbolic manner in the course of participat­ing in a play on the French Revolution.


Ritual follows a certain pattern or structure over and over again. This gives comfort and a sense of continuity, a feeling that the world is ordered. David Storey emphasizes the idea of ritual for comfort in The Changing Room, where the members of the rugby team follow a pattern or ritual in the way they change in and out of uniform and so on.


Experimentalists such as Artaud and British director Peter Brook view rit­ual as a means of evoking strong emotions, They believe that ritualistic and primitive movements put people in touch with the dark places in their souls and the basic patterns of human nature. Ritual allows the actor, like the primitive priest, to lead the audience to participate in the performance and thus become a part of nature.


Episodic Structure


Episodic structure expands rather than condensing. Although this structure is by no means new, it has been used differently in recent years. An older example is the dramatization of Uncle Tom c Cabin, in which George L. Aiken included widely separated scenes for excitement, often switching locations and characters. It contains several loosely connected stories, with most emphasis on the love story of Eliza and George Harris, on Tom’s relationship with Little Eva, and on the cruelty Tom suffers at the hands of Simon Legree. Altogether, the melodrama Uncle Tom ~s Cabin contains thirty scenes.


Jean-Claude Van Itallie’s The Serpent: A Ceremony switches constantly from recent or current times to biblical times, encompassing events from the Garden of Eden to the assassinations ofJohn F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., to the here and now of the individual performers, who state their names and tell about themselves. The play begins with a ritualized proces­sion to the rhythm of the actors beating upon their bodies. The characters often are symbols much more than individuals. There is no continuity of action. Time and place switch abruptly, and the actors often improvise.

Miscellaneous Structure


A play may be presented simply to portray a facet of life or a way of life. An example is Paul Zindel’s The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, which has strong characterizations but no real cause-to-effect plot. It deals with the relationships among a mother and two daughters. Another example, though it does have something of a plot, is Torch Song Trilogy. It comprises three one-act plays (tied together more closely in the film than the stage version) that explore gay experience in New York a few decades past.


Sometimes, plays without a plot show incidents following each other in chronological order, but not necessarily growing out of the preceding mate­rial. Historical or biographical plays often are like this, as well as plays that are tied to a specific action, such as a trial. When the trial ends, so does the play, which may or may not have a plot. An example is Carlos Morton’s The Many Lives of Danny Rosales.




The goal for this chapter is a basic understanding of the various forms of dramatic structure—the story play, as well as thematic, circular, and other structures.



Lecture Notes


The Story Play


1.   The story play is an attempt to “make things right,” to recreate, on stage, a balance in life.


2.   Story plays have been written and produced more than any other type of dramatic literature.


3.   Story plays rely on conflict and plot.

4.   The political, social, and cultural atmosphere of the world in which the play exists determines how the characters respond to given circumstances.



Frame of Reference


1.   In a story play the framework that establishes the world of the play is called the frame of reference.

2.   Once a framework is established, a playwright cannot change it or the play will be illogical.

3.   The frame of reference for the play includes a specific action or actions, a specific time or times, and a specific place or places, all of which will remain constant throughout.

4.   The framework tells the audience what is happening, when it is happening, and where it is happening.

5.   The necessary exposition is given in dialogue or with the aid of scenic elements.

6.   Story plays involve a clash of wills or forces within the universe that has been established.

7.   The protagonist is usually an individual who we, as audience members, want to be a winner. We usually identif~’ and empathize with this person. Occasionally, the protagonist is a group of people with a common need.

8.   The antagonist is another person, a group, or a nonindividualized force.


Conflict and Opposition


1.   There are four general types of conflict. They pit the protagonist against another person, self, society, or the forces of nature or fate.

2.   Many plays, such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, use the theme of protagonist against self.

3.   Ibsen’s play Ghosts is an example of a protagonist against society or a particular segment of society.

4.   In Uncle Torn’s Cabin, Eliza battles the ice floes in attempting to escape. However, she really is battling the institution of slavery.

5.   It is difficult to make nature or fate a convincing antagonist, since it appears that the protagonist is being controlled from outside.



Point of Attack


1.   A playwright must always decide at what point to start the play. This is often called the point of attack.




Elements of Plot


1.   The elements of a plot are the inciting incident, the rising action, the turning point, the climax, and the denouement, or falling action.

2.   The inciting incident is the point at which the balance in the life of the protagonist is upset.

3.   The rising action is usually made up of a series of minor crises that serve to intensify the conflict.

4.   The turning point occurs when the plot can go no further without some irrevocable action.

5.   The climax is the high point of the play, the point at which the irrevocable action occurs.

6.   The denouement, or falling action, is the point at which all the loose ends are tied up.

7.   In some plays, the turning point and the climax are the same.



Dramatic Action


1.   Dramatic action is everything that happens in a play to advance the plot.

2.   Dramatic action usually results in a direct struggle between the antagonist and the protagonist.

3.   Dramatic action helps to individualize characters, revealing traits that may be important to later actions.





1.   The goal of each character in a story play is referred to as that charac­ter’s superobjective.



Central Problems


I.     There are many ways in which a playwright can present the dramatic action to help a play progress.


2.   Story plays are structured around a central problem faced by the protagonist, brought about by the inciting incident.


3.   Revenge; the lure of money, sex, or fame; or the need to escape an intolerable situation provide the basis for central problems.


4.   Many plays include subplots, or stories, that are secondary to the central problem of the play.


5.   Shakespeare’s comedies often included subplots dealing with love and intrigue.



Scenes as Structure


1.   Plays are usually divided into acts, and acts can be arbitrarily divided into scenes similar to chapters in a novel.


2.   Actors and directors define scenes in a different way, either as motivational units or French scenes. In each motivational unit, the protagonist has a goal to try to reach. The scene ends when the protagonist wins or loses. A French scene is marked by the entrance or exit of an important character.


3.   Scenes can be subdivided into beats, which are points of emphasis when the action intensifies.


4.   A beat changes each time a character gets the upper hand.





1.   In contrast to everyday life, the action in a story play is compressed and heightened.


2.   A play’s action should be universal, that is, it should have meaning for its audience.

3.   In plays, as in life, characters speak through implication and draw conclusions through inference.


4.   Playwrights rarely spell everything out for the audience or for the actors playing the roles. This means that the actors and the others involved with a production are free to add their own interpretations.



Other Types of Structure


There are a number of play structures that are departures from the traditional story play.





1.   Plays with a thematic structure often have a variety of scenes that address the same basic issue but are unrelated in continuity and/or characterization.


2.   Thematic plays are often episodic and do not build toward a single turning point or climax.




1.   Plays with a circular structure, such as many non-Western plays, start and end with a similar set of circumstances.


2.   Plays with a circular structure are usually thematic as well.


3.   Theatre of the absurd is often circular in structure. it expresses the opinion that life, taken at face value, is neither good nor bad; only what we choose as moral or immoral makes it so.


4.   Wilder’s play Our Town can be considered circular, since it shows life as a continuing process with similar situations occurring for each generation.


Ritualistic Structure


1.   Antonin Artaud of France was one of the first to advocate returning to ritual in the theatre in the hope of bringing about more social change.


2.   Ritual involves following a certain pattern or structure repeatedly to give comfort by promoting a sense of continuity and a feeling that the world is ordered.


3.   Artaud and director Peter Brook viewed ritual as a means of evoking strong emotions and of putting people in touch with the dark places in their souls and the basic patterns of human nature.

4.   Ritual allows the actor, like a primitive priest, to lead the audience to participate in the performance and get in touch with the basic patterns of human nature.


Episodic Structure


1.   Episodic structure expands the action rather than condensing it.


2.   Episodic plays contain many scenes that switch from one time and place to another, and from one set of characters to another.


3.   Episodic plays often contain several plotlines that are loosely connected.



Miscellaneous Structure


1.   Plays may simply portray a facet of life or a way of life.


2.   A play may progress chronologically but have no plot. Examples are historical and biographical plays.


3.   Some plays are tied to a certain event or specific action and simply end when the story is told.




Additional Information


1.   Peter Brook is a British director with a long association with the Royai Shakespeare Company. Influenced by Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht, he integrated shock tactics as well as analytical calm and his own interpretation of these extremes in all of his productions. His most famous work was the telling of the religious epic The Mahabharata in 1985.


2.   Arthur Miller is one of America’s greatest playwrights. His Death of a Salesman won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics’ Circle Award.


3.   The style of writing called theatre of the absurd (the literal meaning of absurd is “out of harmony”) was created by Albert Camus to depict the situation of modern humanity, which he saw as that of a stranger in an inhuman universe. Absurdist plays are those that present metaphysical absurdity in an aberrant dramatic style that mirrors the human situation.


3.      Antonin Artaud was a French poet, actor, director, and theoretician. His Theatre and Its Double stressed the idea that theatre should not be mere entertainment but should ignite genuine action with real effects on the world.