What is a Play?


        Robert Cohen and Donovan Sherman. Theatre: Brief Version, 11th edition, Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2017; Chapter 2: What is A Play?

Outside reading...
        Aristotle. Poetics. Translation by S.H. Butcher, London, 1907

Objectives of Unit I, Lecture 3: What is a Play?
To identify the different genres of dramatic literature and the six elements of dramatric structure as established by Aristotle.

1. What is a genre ?

Genre is a French word meaning "category" or "type." The choice of genre reflect's the writer's point of view towards his subject. The two oldest genres, dating back to the fifth century BCE, are tragedy and comedy.

2. Using the classical definition, what is the difference between a tragedy and a comedy?

Mask of comedy and tragedy
Mask of Comedy and Tragedy
In a tragedy, the protagonist goes down in defeat (hence the frown), in a comedy he overcomes the dramatic obstacle and attains his major objective (which is why he's smiling).

3. What is the difference between the protagonist and the antagonist?

The protagonist is the principal character (the "hero") in a play; the antagonist is his primary opponent (the "villain"): the dramatic obstacle. In many plays the "hero" is not very heroic.

4. What is the major objective?

The major objective, also known as the spine, is a character's primary desire or goal. If the protagonist reaches his goal, the play (by definition) is a comedy. If he doesn't, it's a tragedy.

In a Shakespearean tragedy, the protagonist (hero) always dies; in a Shakespearean comedy he often gets married.
The greater the body count at the final curtain, the greater the tragedy. The more weddings in the last act, the greater the comedy. (I was taught this 50 years ago, kind of "tongue in cheek," by Professor T. W. Baldwin in a Shakespeare class at Southern Illinois University- Carbondale.)

5. What is the popular definition of a drama?

A serious, but not tragic, play dealing with the middle, or lower class. A bourgeois drama. (Bourgeois is a French term meaning the owner of a small business, a merchant, a trades-man, or home owner.)

    A comedy?

A light amusing play with a happy ending. Usually a farce.

6. What is the difference between high comedy and low comedy?

Arms and the Man
Arms and the Man
The subject of high comedy is usually serious and provokes "thoughtful laughter". The action is both possible and probable and the comedy grows out of the character, not the situation. It is usually a realistic portrayal of life. Arms and the Man (1894) by George Bernard Shaw, the story of a Swiss army officer who has replaced the shells in his cartridge belt with chocolate, is generally considered a high comedy (a Comedy of Ideas). The play was adapted into a German operetta by Oscar Straus: The Chocolate Soldier (1908).

The objective of low comedy is "riotous laughter." The action is possible, but not very probable and the play is dominated by situation (plot), not character. It calls for little or no thought, and is only believable for the moment.

7. List the six rungs on the Ladder of Comedy.

  1. Comedy of ideas (Satire).
  2. Comedy of character,
  3. Comedy of wit (The humor is in the lines),
  4. Comedy of situation or plot, (The SitCom),
  5. Comedy of pain (Slapstick),
  6. The "dirty" joke, Bathroom humor.
The top two rungs, the comedy of character and idea, are generally considered high comedy. The bottom four rungs -- the comedy of pain, situation, wit and the "dirty joke" -- are low comedy.

In a Comedy of Wit, the audience laughs at the lines delivered by the actor. A good example is George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's The Man Who Came To Dinner (1939). The character of Sheridan Whiteside is based on Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943), a well known New York theatre critic and the radio host of CBS' The Town Crier. Watch a brief clip from the 2000 Broadway revival staring Nathan Lane. Note that Whiteside is very obnoxious, but also funny.

In a Comedy of Pain, or Slapstick, the humor comes from a character slipping on a bannana peel, falling down a flight a of steps, having a chair pulled out from under him or getting hit in the face with a pie.

Monty Python explains the "History of the Joke"

An excellent example of the "Comedy of Pain"

8. What is a farce?

I Love Lucy
I Love Lucy (1951-1957)
A wildly humorous play which emphasizes situation (or plot) over character or idea. A farce is low comedy. TV's I Love Lucy (1951-1957) is a perfect example. What are they doing with those fish? Watch the famous "Choclate Factory Scene" from I Love Lucy

    A melodrama?

Under the Gaslight
Under the Gaslight (1867)
A serious play with a trivial theme. The conflict is usually between the forces of good and evil. The excitement comes through physical action: chases, fist fights, shoot outs.... Many of the melodramas of the nineteenth century included a musical score, hence melodrama. Augustin Daly's Under the Gaslight (1867) was a "sensation play." Audiences were transfixed by a single, exciting moment on stage: a fire, a shipwreck, a volcano erupting, or a heroic rescue. Will the heroine stop the train and save the hero?

    A bourgeois drama?

Death of a Salesman
Death of a Salesman (1949)
A serious play, such as Death of a Salesman, which deals with the domestic problems of the middle and lower class. It is today, the most popular form of serious drama.

    A docu-drama?

Inherit the Wind
Inherit the Wind (1955)
A docu-drama dramatizes an actual event often using real names, dates, and places and generally drawing its text from court room transcripts or committee hearing reports. The 1925 John Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tenessee, inspired Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's Inherit the Wind (1955). Do you recognize the actor playing the judge? (Hint: He was a Colonel on M*A*S*H) Watch the "What is holy?" scene from Inherit the Wind.

    Musical theatre?

Legally Blonde
Legally Blonde (2007)
  • Opera: A dramatic work which is entirely sung. Watch a short scene (L'amour est un oiseau rebelle better known as La Habanera) from George Bizet's Carmen (1875) as performed by Elina Garanca and the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York.
  • Musical: A dramatic work, such as Legally Blonde, The Musical, which includes both dialogue and songs.
  • Dance: A dramatic work which tells a story (or creates a mood) through music and movement. Watch the "Waltz of the Snowflakes" from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker.

    Readers Theatre?

Death of a Salesman
Don Juan in Hell (1905)
Readers Theatre, or Concert Theatre, is a form of presentation where the actor uses his voice, facial expressions and upper body movement to create the character. Usually the performer stands, or sits on a stool, often behind a music stand, and literally reads the script to the audience. Small hand props may be used and the actor is often costumed in formal evening attire. The photo to the left is of a 1981 concert performance of Don Juan in Hell, the third act of George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman (1905). The New York City Center uses a similar approach in their Encores! series: concert performances of Great American Musicals. The singers, using simplified chorography, perform in-front-of an onstage orchestra. Watch highlights from the 2013 Encores! presentation of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's Fiorello!, winner of the 1959 Pulitizer Prize for Drama (1959).

9. What are Aristotle's Six Elements of Dramatic Structure?

  1. Plot,
  2. Character,
  3. Thought (or theme),
  4. Diction (or dialogue),
  5. Music (or rhythm), and
  6. Spectacle (scenery, lights, costumes, special effects).
Noted scholar Jon Berry has an interesting theory about Aristotle's Six elements of Drama. While Aristotle ranked them in a very specific order, Dr. Berry claims that in our pluralistic society, different genres tend to place the emphasize on different elements. He believes that Agamemnon (Aeschylus, 458 BCE) ranks plot highest, that Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603) ranks character highest, that Iphegeneia in Tauris (Euripides, 412 BCE) ranks thought highest and that Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949) places plot and character at the same level. Academics can debate how much any given production stresses a given element, but today some productions, especially musicals, emphasize spectacle more than Aristotle could ever imagine. (Mark Harvey, StageCraft Mailing List, 1999)

Bill Smith, noted Denver acting teacher, posted to the Theatre Discussion List:

Sadly, most translations of Aristotle's Poetics omit one of the philosopher's key observations about catharsis (which I found, scribbled in the margins of my used copy). "To truly move the audience, the playwright must include at least one scene of total mayhem, wherein at least one character has a total meltdown." (Bill Smith, Theatre Discussion List, 2012)
Catharsis, which comes from the Greek verb, kathoros, literally means "to purify" or "make clean." According to Aristotle, in tragedy, the audience identifies with the protagonist and become emotionally involved with the character. At the climax, the character, and the audience, are purged of these emotional excesses and leave the theatre cleaned, refreshed and purified. According to Bill Smith, the character's act of "losing it" is the character's moment of purification. He suggests you watch this clip from Citizen Kane (1941) where Orson Welles, as Charles Foster Kane, totally "loses it."

10. What plays did he use as his role model?

The classical Greek dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

11. What essential element must be present for a play to have dramatic action?

Conflict between balanced opposing forces. These forces create the obstacles and complications necessary to generate the action.
A character comes upon an obstacle to his desire (super-objective) and attempts to overcome that obstacle by a dramatic action-- a moment. Sometimes he is successful; other times not. The play moves from moment-to-moment until it reaches the climax. This course of dramatic action, and the tension which it creates, does not necessity lead to an outburst of anger or violence. In great plays, such as Shaw's St. Joan, "the fullness of joy, exultation, grief," to borrow John Crowther's phrase, is often the result of overcoming, or failing to overcome, an impossible hurdle. A great deal, if not all, of the world's great dramatic literature is constructed in this manner. (Il Professore, Theatre Discussion List, 2000)

12. What are the three basic types of conflict found in western drama?

Conflict between ...
  1. Man and the Universe (God, the elements),
  2. Man and Man,
  3. Man and Himself.

13. What is the difference between a play's story line, and its plot?

According to Edwin Wilson, a play's story is what happens in the drama: the characters "moving through a series of episodes (or "scenes" or "moments") seeking goals, facing obstacles, and making choices." (The Theatre Experience. 3rd ed, 1984, pg 134). The plot is how the playwright presents that story to the audience. Which episodes does he choose to put on stage, and in what order? Which episodes or related to the audience through exposition?

     What is exposition?

Exposition is telling the audience what happened before the play began. It is the "back story" you need to know in order to understand what's about to happen. In film it is usually done through flash backs. On the stage it's done through dialogue: character's talking about the past.

14. What is the difference between a climactic plot and an episodic plot?

Story Layout
Climactic and Episodic Plots

In a climactic play, the plot begins near the end of the story. See the diagram above. Everything that happens in the "back story" (Those "moments" before the action of the play begins) is revealed to the audience through extensive exposition. The action involves a limited number of characters, unfolds in one or two days, and typically occurs in one location. The climactic play evolved in ancient Greece (5th Century BCE) and was popular during the French Rennaisance (1630 to 1700) and the early Realistic Period (1890 to 1940).

In an episodic play, the plot begins near the beginning of the story. There is little exposition. The audience sees each "moment" as it happens. The action typically involves a large cast, unfolds over a number of months (or years) and is broken into many short scenes staged in numerous different locations. The episodic patten is primarily seen in the work of Shakespeare (1564 to 1616) and the early 19th century Romantic playwrights

     Give an example of a an Episodic and a Climactic play?

Climactic: Sophocles' Oedipus, Ibsen's A Doll's House, Arthur Miller's All My Sons.

Episodic: Shakespeare's Hamlet, Rostand's Cyrano de Bergersac.

Plot Diagram of a Typical Four Act Television Program

16. What is the climax?

The point of highest dramatic tension where the conflict of the play is resolved. In a murder mystery it's when we discover "who did it."

     Where does it fall in the structure of a play?

Near the end of the last act. See the Plot Diagram above.

17. What is a crisis?

A mini-climax which falls near the end of each act (except the last act) or scene.

18. Why is there a mini-climax (crisis) at the end of each act?

To make sure the audience returns after intermission.

The drawing above shows the Plot Structure of a typical one-hour filmed TV drama. The show contains approximately 44 mintues of content divided into four (to six) dramatic segments or acts. The acts or separated by comercial breaks. Each act, accept the last, ends with a crisis to ensure that the audience will not change channels during the commercial. The climax falls near the end of the last act. The few minutes left after the climax, the denouement (or "falling action"), are used to "tie up the loose ends."

The high points (crisis and climax) of a typical hour long, four act murder mystery, such as those solved by Jessica Fletcher (played by Angela Lansbury) in Murder She Wrote (1984-1996) would be...

  1. Act I: The discovery of the body,
  2. Act II: The arrest of the wrong person,
  3. Act III: The detective's (the "star") near death experience, and
  4. Act IV: The murderer is revealed.
The detective would use the denouement to explain how he figured it out. Or in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's imortal Sherlock Holmes: "It was elementary my dear Watson, elementary."

19. What makes a character dramatic?

Richard II
Richard III
Dramatic characters are extraordinary, they are "larger than life." Historically, major characters in classical tragedy have been kings, queens, generals, or a member of a nobility. They have represented either the best, or worst, of human behavior. Shakespeare's Richard III is one of the most villainous characters in dramatic literature. If you were his enemy, you died. If you were a member of his family, you died. If you were his friend, you died ---.

20. What are the four plains or levels of dramatic characterization?

  1. Physical (Is he short? Fat? A cripple?),
  2. Social / economic (What is his social rank? His economic standing?),
  3. Psychological (What is his motivation>?),
  4. Ethical / moral (Would you want to meet him late at night in a parking garage?).

21. What is a character's spine, or major objective?

A character's spine, using Stanislavski's terminology, is the character's major goal or super-objective; what the character wants to achive during his two hour life on stage.

22. What are the three dramatic techniques a playwright can use to reveal his characters to the audience?

  1. By what the character says,
  2. By what the character does, and
  3. By what other character's say about him.

23. What additional techniques can be used by a screen or radio playwright?

Both film and television writers can, through subjective camera angles (the audience sees what the character sees) and voice overs, go into the mind of a character, and relate his thoughts directly to the audience.

24. What is a playwright's only means of communicating directly with his audience?

Dialogue. Remember, dialogue is not written to be read in the library, but to be spoken by an actor and heard by the audience. A playwright's stage directions, character descriptions, and paranthetical comments are never seen by the theatre audience.

25. What are the six functions of dramatic dialogue?

  1. Give information (exposition),
  2. Reveal character,
  3. Direct attention (foreshadowing a future action),
  4. Reveal theme or ideas,
  5. Establish the level of reality, and
  6. Establish the tempo and rhythm of the play.

26. How can a playwright reveal his drama's theme to the audience?

Henry Higgins
Henry Higgins
There are only two techniques.
  1. By literally becoming a character in the play, and directly relating his ideas to the audience, or
  2. By implying these ideas through the plot and the dramatic characters he creates.
Henry Higgins in G. B. Shaw's Pygmalion (or Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady) is literally the voice of the playwright. Watch as Henry Higgens, in My Fair Lady, asks "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?" Typically, the playwright will build his theme around "universal issues," such as love, family, power, greed, betrayal, friendship.

27. What did Aristotle mean by "music"?

Music was part of Greek tragedy, but exactly how it was used, we don't really know. Perhaps it means pace or rhythm. During the Italian Renaissance, academic playwrights attempted to recreate an "authentic Greek tragedy" by setting the dialogue to music. What they created was a new dramatic form: Opera.

28. What will happen if the pace of a performance is too slow?

The audience will become restless and lose interest in the production.

     Too fast?

The audience will empathize with the actor, not the character, and will become exhausted. The pace of a show is more likely to drag (be too slow) than to be too fast.

29. What does a break in the rhythm of a show indicate to the audience?

That there has been a missed cue, or a dropped line.

30. How does a playwright determine a play's spectacle value?

By his choice of characters, settings, action, and time of day. Spectacle appeals to the audience's eyes and ears-- colorfull scenery, vivid costumes, flashing lights, rolling thunder, helicopters landing on stage (in Miss Siagon), chandeliers crashing to the floor (in Phantom of the Opera)...

E-mail questions and comments to Larry Wild at Larry.Wildl@Northern.edu.
Updated: December 20, 2016
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Text Copyrighted © 1995-2016 by Larry Wild, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD 57401