Definition of Drama
Drama is a type of narrative, usually fictional, that is performed. Drama usually involves actors on stage in front of a live audience. Thus, as a narrative mode, there is the assumption that drama requires participation and collaboration between the actors and the audience. It is, of course, possible to read works of drama, yet the full expression of drama is in the context of performance.
The word drama comes from the Greek δρᾶμα (drama), in which it means “action.” Thus, the definition of drama includes the sense of live action occurring. Note that originally drama did not necessarily connote a genre characterized by serious themes and the absence of comedy. Indeed, both comedy and tragedy on stage are considered drama under this definition, because they both include action presented to an audience in real time.
Common Examples of Drama
Drama is also used to denote a popular genre of storytelling in film and television. Here are some examples of drama in these different forms of entertainment:
- Citizen Kane
- The Godfather
- The Shawshank Redemption
- American Beauty
- Forrest Gump
- Jerry Maguire
- Good Will Hunting
- Brokeback Mountain
- Slumdog Millionaire
- The Sopranos
- Mad Men
- The Wire
- The West Wing
- The Walking Dead
- Breaking Bad
- House of Cards
- Game of Thrones
Significance of Drama in Literature
Drama is one of the first forms of storytelling in human history. Dating back to at least the 5th century BC in Ancient Greece, drama became an important part of celebrations for gods and competitions were held for the best new work of drama. Drama was popular in many other parts of the world as well, especially in the modern-day nations of India, China, and Japan. Drama examples have continued to be important in different areas of the world and throughout different time periods. One of the primary reasons that drama has continued to have such an important place in literature is its unique way of presenting a narrative in real time. Thus, even if the story is from Ancient Greece, the audience is confronted with the story in front of them in the modern day and should therefore be able to have stronger feelings of catharsis than if reading the text as a historical document.
Examples of Drama in Literature
ANTIGONE: My own flesh and blood—dear sister, dear Ismene, how many griefs our father Oedipus handed down! Do you know one, I ask you, one grief that Zeus will not perfect for the two of us while we still live and breathe? There’s nothing, no pain—our lives are pain—no private shame, no public disgrace, nothing I haven’t seen in your grief and mine.
(Antigone by Sophocles)
Antigone is one of Sophocles’s three “Theban plays,” which concern the area of Thebes during and after the reign of King Oedipus. Sophocles was a noted dramatist, and wrote these three plays for competitions during his day in Ancient Greece. Each one has very dark themes, the most famous of which is Oedipus killing his own father and marrying his mother, ignorant of their true relations to him. In Antigone, the third chronological play in the this group, the protagonist Antigone tries to bury her dishonored brother Polyneices. She is sentenced to death for this action, as King Creon has named Polyneices a traitor and anyone who would bury his body an accomplice to his treachery.
HAMLET: O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on ‘t! ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
William Shakespeare is one of the most noted dramatists in all of history. He is known to have written thirty-three plays, divided into the categories of comedy, tragedy, and history. All of these are examples of drama in the original sense in that they each present a story onstage to the audience in real time. Shakespeare’s tragedy of Hamlet is one of his most enduring narratives for the stage, characterized by deep psychological insight and memorable soliloquy and monologue examples, such as the one above.
TOM: But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. . . . There is a trick that would come in handy for me—get me out of this two-by-four situation! . . . You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?
(The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams)
Tennessee Williams played with many conventions of the form of drama, one of the main ones being the idea of the “fourth wall.” Drama is usually presented as being separate from the audience, and the characters are unable to interact directly with the audience. In Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie, the main character Tom breaks down this fourth wall to directly address the audience throughout the scenes, especially at the beginning and end. In this excerpt, Tom remembers something from his childhood and addresses both the audience and Laura, who is absent from the scene. Williams made an even more collaborative experience of drama than what came before him.
THE PLAYER: The whole thing was a disaster! – he did nothing but cry all the time – right out of character – just stood there and cried […] Audiences know what to expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in.
(Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard)
Tom Stoppard was another 20th century playwright who wrote examples of drama that pushed at the boundaries of what drama could be. There are many meta moments in his absurdist drama Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, such as when an actor named only “The Player” talks about his attempt to kill someone onstage for the entertainment of the audience. He laments the fact that audiences already know what to expect—which is to say, that no one will actually be hurt or killed onstage—and that they will not believe anything else. Though Stoppard was not advocating killing someone onstage, he includes this anecdote to make his audiences question their assumptions about drama.
ABIGAIL: I want to open myself! . . . I want the light of God, I want the sweet love of Jesus! I danced for the Devil; I saw him, I wrote in his book; I go back to Jesus; I kiss His hand. I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osburn with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!
(The Crucible by Arthur Miller)
Arthur Miller wrote many famous dramas, such as his historical tragedy of The Crucible, which focuses on the Salem Witch Trials. Miller wrote this drama at the time of the Red Scare in the United States, during which many famous people were being blacklisted for having connections to Communism. Miller wrote the drama of The Crucible to make audiences realize the horrors that can occur when people start to buy into mass hysteria. The above excerpt is the moment in which the young girl Abigail confesses to witchcraft and begins a craze of denouncing other townspeople as witches.
Test Your Knowledge of Drama
1. Which of the following statements is the best drama definition?
A. A work of literature meant to be read in private.
B. A tragic narrative that involves the death of one or more characters.
C. A work of fiction meant to be presented in performance by one or more actors.
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2. Which of the following famous works of literature is an example of drama?
A. Romeo and Juliet, a play by William Shakespeare
B. “Song of Myself,” a poem by Walt Whitman
C. The Grapes of Wrath, a novel by John Steinbeck
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3. In which of the following countries were the first recorded drama examples found?
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4. Which of the following genres in plays can be considered a drama example?
D. All of the above
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