types of drama

The word ‘tragedy’ is taken from the classical Greek word which is interpreted to mean, ‘goat song’. This is because, in the ancient dramatic act among the Egyptians, the Abydos Passion play, at most instance, included the actors (priests and elders) dancing/walking like a goat around a goat secured for sacrifice, after which the goat will be sacrificed (this incident in Abydos Passion play depict the murder of Osiris). This incident was identified as something sad and painful, hence the idea that tragedy is a play associated with sad situations.

In Aristotle’s Poetics tragedy is characterised by seriousness and involves a great person who experiences a reversal of fortune. Aristotle's definition can include a change of fortune from bad to good as in the Eumenides, but he says that the change from good to bad as in King Oedipus is preferable because this induces pity and fear within the spectators. Tragedy results in a catharsis – healing for the audience through their experience of these emotions in response to the suffering of the characters in the drama.

From the Poetics ‘the structure of the best tragedy should not be simple but complex and one that represents incidents arousing fear and pity—for that is peculiar to this form of art.’ This reversal of fortune must be caused by the tragic hero's flaws. Furthermore, the misfortune is brought about not by general vice or depravity, but by particular error or frailty. The reversal is the inevitable but unforeseen result of some action taken by the hero. However, the reversal can be brought about by a higher power (e.g. the law, the gods, fate, or society), but if a character’s downfall is brought about by an external cause, Aristotle describes this as a misadventure and not a tragedy.

In Poetics, Aristotle gave the following definition in ancient Greek of the word ‘tragedy’ which means ‘an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete (composed of an introduction, a middle part and an ending), and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.’

In modernist literature, the definition of tragedy has become less precise. The most fundamental change has been the rejection of Aristotle's dictum that true tragedy can only depict those with power and high status. Arthur Miller's essay ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ (1949) argues that tragedy may also depict ordinary people in domestic surroundings.

But for William Shakespeare, tragedy is different. It involves all the characteristic given by Aristotle in his Poetics except that death is the necessary end of Shakespearean tragedies. Besides this, Shakespeare also introduces comic relief as a very important element of his tragedies. Shakespearean tragedy is the designation given to most tragedies written by playwright William Shakespeare. Many of his history plays share the qualifiers of a Shakespearean tragedy, but because they are based on real figures throughout the History of England, they were classified as ‘histories’ in the First Folio. The Roman tragedies—Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus—are also based on historical figures, but because their source stories were foreign and ancient they are almost always classified as tragedies rather than histories. Shakespeare's romances (tragicomic plays) were written late in his career and published originally as either tragedy or comedy. They share some elements of tragedy featuring a high status central character but end happily like Shakespearean comedies.

In a modern sense, comedy refers to any discourse or work generally intended to be humorous or amusing by inducing laughter, especially in theatre, television, film, and stand-up comedy. The word ‘comedy’ is derived from the Classical Greek ‘laughter-provoking’.

The Greeks and Romans confined their use of the word ‘comedy’ to descriptions of stage-plays with happy endings. Aristotle defined comedy as an imitation of men worse than the average (where tragedy was an imitation of men better than the average). As time progressed, the word came more and more to be associated with any sort of performance intended to cause laughter. During the Middle Ages, the term ‘comedy’ became synonymous with satire, and later with humour in general.

Starting from 425 BCE, Aristophanes, a comic playwright and satirical author of the Ancient Greek Theater wrote 40 comedies, 11 of which survive. Aristophanes developed his type of comedy from the earlier satyr plays (tragicomedy), which were often highly obscene.

In Aristotle’s Poetics, he stated that comedy originated in Phallic processions and the light treatment of the otherwise base and ugly. He also adds that the origins of comedy are obscure because it was not treated seriously from its inception.

Aristotle taught that comedy was generally a positive for society, since it brings forth happiness, which for Aristotle was the ideal state, the final goal in any activity. For Aristotle, a comedy did not need to involve sexual humour rather, it should be about the fortunate rise of a sympathetic character.

On the contrary, Plato taught that comedy is a destruction to the self. He believed that it produces an emotion that overrides rational self-control and learning. In The Republic, he says that the Guardians of the state should avoid laughter, 'for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.'  Plato says comedy should be tightly controlled if one wants to achieve the ideal state.

Also in Poetics, Aristotle defined Comedy as one of the original four genres of literature. The other three genres are tragedy, epic poetry, and lyric poetry. Literature in general is defined by Aristotle as a imitation of life. Comedy is the third form of literature, being the most divorced from a true mimesis. Tragedy is the truest mimesis, followed by epic poetry, comedy and lyric poetry.

In theatre, a farce is a comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable. Farce is also characterized by physical humour, the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and broadly stylized performances

Satire is a style in literature were all vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.

One paramount feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm. In satire, irony burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison and analogy are all frequently used in satirical speeches and writings. A good example of satire is Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People.

The word ‘melo-’ in the word melodrama comes from the Greek melos, which translates to the word melody. A melodrama was originally a stage play that had an orchestral accompaniment and was interspersed with songs.

Melodrama is a type of narrative in which the over-dramatic plot-line is designed to play on people's emotions—sometimes at the expense of character development, and plot. Moreover, melodramas tend to feature reductive plot lines and characters that are stereotypical archetypes. In literature an archetype is a character that is a quintessential example of a theme or virtue or idea. Satan, for example, is a classic archetype of absolute evil.


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