The Nature of Drama — A Brief Introduction

Drama is a visual form of literature; it uses all of the important elements of storytelling, drawing together plot, setting, and characters with a problem to solve. Dialogue is the dominant technique used by the author whose voice, unlike in novels or poetry, is unheard except in stage directions or script notes, something the audience will not experience directly. Dating to the time of the early Greeks, some 2500 years ago, drama has evolved from choral readings on barren platforms to full theatrical productions involving elaborate sets and fantastic costumes worn by casts of perhaps dozens of actors.

In drama, the written word is separate from the spectacle of performance that an audience sees; the written word is the drama, whereas the presentation is the event called theatre. The written word is the source of expression of all genres of literature. In drama, however, this word is expressed aloud, it is enacted, and as such the art form transcends the words on the page and becomes something more.

Although drama is often divided into tragedies, comedies and histories, these distinctions do not apply as rigorously as once required back when Aristotle analyzed drama as an art form or when Shakespeare created the world’s most highly valued plays. What we can expect, however, is that all plays contain thought and seek to elucidate life experience. The mood or tone of a play will let the viewer know if the experiences are tragic or comic or even a combination of the two, often referred to as tragi-comedy. Ordinarily, in comedy, the characters progress from adversity to prosperity and in tragedy this movement is reversed; the characters move from prosperity to adversity.

Whatever becomes of a character in drama, the audience is witnessing internal mental or psychological events that play out in a social setting and create external conflict. Contemporary issues are always significant. The suspense in the play comes from the interaction between the internal and external forces and plot is the vehicle used to bring these interactions forward.

Exposition, Complication, Crisis and Resolution

Plot in drama is no different than in any other narrative form. Plot consists of a sequence of events that begins with an expository phase in which the audience is introduced to the characters, setting, and any relevant background information which may contribute to the conflict. Tone or mood is established in this phase, letting the viewer in on the seriousness of the situation.

Complications occur as the drama’s action progresses; it causes the rising action. Potentially, complication can shift what is expected or somehow change the direction in which it appears that the characters are heading. New characters can complicate the story as can events outside of the control of the characters.

Crisis occurs when the various complications culminate in what seems to be a turning point in the story. Crisis leads to change which either improves or worsens the fortunes of the protagonist and is a function of the unity, the connectedness, of all other events.

Resolution follows crisis and offers a commentary on the way the protagonist has dealt with his or her circumstances. Resolution advances the theme that transcends the specifics of the drama and can be applied to life in general. We see ourselves in the character’s struggles and learn our own lessons.

Centuries ago, plays were written in an almost mathematical formula: the first act provided exposition, the second advanced complication, the third brought crisis, and the fourth and fifth contained the resolution. Playwrights no longer adhere to a preconceived formula and often write with a reader, as well as an audience, in mind. Drama as literature allows the reader to serve, in a sense, as the director of the play. The reader casts the parts and creates tone by interpretation of the linguistic elements of the writing. Possibly the most interesting experience of drama is reading the play either before or after seeing it performed in a theatre; the experience is enriched by participation.

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Written by Mary RedClay for