Drama (from the Greek δρᾶμα, “drama” = action, history) is literature intended for performance. The form is often combined with music and dance, as in opera and musical theatre, or on radio or television.
In the broadest sense it is a narrative plot completed and intended for theatrical performance. It can be in written verbal form (any literary work that includes recited or sung parts) or improvised by an actor, or even in the form of non-verbal narration, through gestures or dance. The term drama, when understood narrowly, applies only to written plays. In opera, the term libretto is generally used.
A drama can have a tragic or comic subject, depending on the situations described. In the meaning of common use, however, tends to designate with this term painful events or existential problems, or other events of tragic scope.
In the theater, the drama has retained the meaning in use in Ancient Greece, where it indicated any composition intended for the stage, whether a tragedy or a comedy, and coming to be synonymous with the theater (theatron). Generally the derived words have kept the original sense, related to a theatrical writing: dramatization, dramaturgy. For the adjective dramatic, however, there are different customs of use: more related to the theatrical roots for those involved in this discipline, related to the concept of drama in its tragic sense in the common sense. To make an example, in the theater it is indicated as a good dramatic actor the one who generally masters the dramatic art, while it is usual to define dramatic an actor of cinema or television only in relation to the tragic or conflictual content of his acting.
The concept of drama and drama is more related to a dialogue than to a monologue or a lyric (although it can be etymologically referred to any literary form intended for the stage). It is with the presence of at least one other dialoguing actor that the main characteristic of drama can best be expressed: the contrast between at least two different elements. Bernard Shaw, introducing his first volume of plays, states, “There is no play without conflict.” A contrast can occur even in a light text, and it forms its backbone.
The binomial drama-conflict is also often expressed in fields other than the strictly theatrical one: we often refer to literary works not intended for the stage, talking about their dramatic nature, or similarly with musical works or works of other arts.
Classical Greek drama
Western drama originated in classical Greece. The theatrical culture of the city-state of Athens produced three dramatic genres: tragedy, comedy, and satirical drama. Their origins remain obscure, although by the fifth century BCE they were institutionalized in competitions held as part of festivals celebrating the god Dionysus. Historians know the names of many ancient Greek dramatists, not least Thespis, who is credited with the innovation of an actor (“hypokrites”) speaking (rather than singing) and impersonating a character (rather than speaking in his or her own person), while interacting with the chorus and its leader (“coryphaeus”), which were a traditional part of the performance of non-dramatic poetry (dithyrambic, lyrical, and epic).
Only a small part of the work of five playwrights has survived to the present day: we have a small number of complete texts by the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and by the comic writers Aristophanes and, since the end of the fourth century, Menander. Aeschylus’ historical tragedy The Persians is the oldest surviving drama, although by the time he won first prize in the city’s Dionysia competition in 472 BCE, he had been writing plays for more than 25 years. Competition (“agon”) for tragedies may have begun as early as 534 BC; official records (“didaskaliai”) begin in 501 BC, when the performance of satirical drama was introduced.
Tragic playwrights were required to present a tetralogy of plays (although the individual plays were not necessarily connected by stories or themes), which usually consisted of three tragedies and one satirical drama (although exceptions were made, as in the case of Euripides’ Alcestis in 438 BC). Comedy was officially recognized with an award in the competition from 487 to 486 BC.
Five comic playwrights competed in the Dionysia (although during the Peloponnesian War this number may have been reduced to three), each offering a single comedy. Ancient Greek comedy is traditionally divided between “old comedy” (5th century BC), “central comedy” (4th century BC), and “new comedy” (late 4th century – 2 BC).
Classical Roman drama
Following the expansion of the Roman Republic (509–27 BC) into several Greek territories between 270–240 BC, Rome encountered Greek drama. From the later years of the republic and by means of the Roman Empire (27 BC–476 AD), theatre spread west across Europe, around the Mediterranean and reached England; Roman theatre was more varied, extensive and sophisticated than that of any culture before it.
In Rome, theater performances were held during games and festivals, religious ceremonies, military triumphs, funerals of public figures. The institution of public performances organized by the Roman state was of great importance. The state and official character of the organization meant that the patrons of the theatrical works were the authorities. Unlike the Greek theater, the civil or ritual connotation gives way to the character of entertainment. For Roman audiences, participation was motivated by entertainment rather than religious or political tension. Nevertheless, the “Ludi”, that is, the periods in which the shows took place, were dedicated to the main divinities, and they took their name from them. Next to the theatrical events coexisted chariot races, gladiator fights, venationes and naumachie, celebrations, shows of acrobatics and dances.
The organization of theater performances was a specific task of the “aediles” or in some cases of the “praetor urbanus”, which often produced them with their own money, making them an element of political propaganda. This conditioned the content of the works themselves, exercising a limitation on the free expression of the authors, who in some cases ran into censorship.
While Greek drama continued to be performed throughout the Roman period, the year 240 BC marks the beginning of regular Roman drama. From the beginning of the empire, however, interest in full-length drama declined in favour of a broader variety of theatrical entertainments. The first important works of Roman literature were the tragedies and comedies that Livius Andronicus wrote from 240 BC. Five years later, Gnaeus Naevius also began to write drama. No plays from either writer have survived. While both dramatists composed in both genres, Andronicus was most appreciated for his tragedies and Naevius for his comedies; their successors tended to specialise in one or the other, which led to a separation of the subsequent development of each type of drama.
By the beginning of the 2nd century BC, drama was firmly established in Rome and a guild of writers (collegium poetarum) had been formed. The Roman comedies that have survived are all fabula palliata (comedies based on Greek subjects) and come from two dramatists: Titus Maccius Plautus (Plautus) and Publius Terentius Afer (Terence). In re-working the Greek originals, the Roman comic dramatists abolished the role of the chorus in dividing the drama into episodes and introduced musical accompaniment to its dialogue (between one-third of the dialogue in the comedies of Plautus and two-thirds in those of Terence). The action of all scenes is set in the exterior location of a street and its complications often follow from eavesdropping.
Plautus, the more popular of the two, wrote between 205 and 184 BC and twenty of his comedies survive, of which his farces are best known; he was admired for the wit of his dialogue and his use of a variety of poetic meters. All of the six comedies that Terence wrote between 166 and 160 BC have survived; the complexity of his plots, in which he often combined several Greek originals, was sometimes denounced, but his double-plots enabled a sophisticated presentation of contrasting human behaviour. No early Roman tragedy survives, though it was highly regarded in its day; historians know of three early tragedians—Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius, and Lucius Accius.
From the time of the empire, the work of two tragedians survives—one is an unknown author, while the other is the Stoic philosopher Seneca. Nine of Seneca’s tragedies survive, all of which are fabula crepidata (tragedies adapted from Greek originals); his Phaedra, for example, was based on Euripides’ Hippolytus. Historians do not know who wrote the only extant example of the fabula praetexta (tragedies based on Roman subjects), Octavia, but in former times it was mistakenly attributed to Seneca due to his appearance as a character in the tragedy.
The medieval drama has different manifestations and currents. The erudite and profane currents try to perpetuate as much as possible the cult of ancient literature; among its forms we find the “convivial patrician mime” and the “elegiac comedy”, both written in Latin and more literary than dramatic (they were in fact read in restricted cenacles).
The religious currents – to remedy the corruption of customs – try to reconcile the new religious spirit with the old pagan forms. The result is the sacred representation: its birth can be traced back to the sacred homily, when it becomes a dialogue for didactic and exhortative purposes. A more well-founded thesis traces the sacred representation to the development of the Roman liturgy, which already in its pure celebratory form is pervaded by dramatic elements (the sacrifice of the Mass as a symbolic representation, in a dialogical form between celebrant and assistants). The liturgical drama remains closely connected to the rite: it is recited in Latin by priests who play the most diverse parts and change identity not so much through costumes or physical transformations as through an exterior stylization. In the figure of the actor-priest, believers contemplate the longed-for anticipation of Christ’s coming on earth.
Liturgical drama, unlike classical drama, does not adopt the criterion of the three Aristotelian units and expresses itself more in pictorial than representational form. If the classical drama staged a single event in a linear manner and in a single place, the medieval drama on the other hand follows the hero in all his ages: it is not represented, for example, the moment when Jesus resurrects Lazarus, but the whole life of the protagonist. Necessarily the scene becomes multiple, created by different scenes aligned and divided from each other by a compartment: they are the so-called “deputy places”.
Finally we have a popular theater, characterized both by the buffoonish aspect (typical of mimes and farces) and religious. Typical was the “Mixed Drama”, which distinguished itself from the liturgical drama for the contaminatio of genres and the introduction of the first vernacular phrases. In the production of this current we also find comedies, of which a famous pantomime, the Cena Cypriani, has remained. The popular theater also finds space in the so-called Libertates Decembris. These are occasional representations, consisting of a pseudo-ecclesiastical procession led by a young man dressed as a bishop; the procession starts from the church and arrives at the episcope, where the clergy and/or the real bishop are blessed in a ridiculous and parodic way.
One of the three great genres of classical Greek theater, it has in itself the characters of tragedy and comedy and yet took on a specific character for the grotesque dynamics of tragic themes. In the satirical drama, the old Silenus leads the chorus of satyrs (beings with animalistic details), obscene, crapuloni, cheerful, whose action is the counterpoint to the intervention of the protagonist: Odysseus, opposed to the legendary Cyclops, in the homonymous satire drama by Euripides, the only text that has come down to us in its entirety, or the traditional heroes of Greek tragedy, represented in grotesque dimensions, where comic and tragic merge in a popular speech, foul-mouthed and crude, rich divis comic. To the kind, that had in Pratina (sec. VI and V. a. C.) its perfectioner, they devoted themselves also Eschilo and Sofocle with works of which we remain fragments.
Dramatic religious action sung on a Latin text (sometimes mixed with the vernacular). The text is always a dialogue paraphrase of a Gospel episode; its rudimentary representation, which often has more affinity with a processional ritual than with a real theatrical performance, takes place in church. The period of greatest flowering of liturgical drama began in the twelfth century, but its origins date back at least to the tenth; its development continued until the fourteenth century. It is probable that the origin of liturgical drama can be traced back to the flourishing of tropes from the Carolingian era: indeed, it is believed that the first brief and embryonic example of liturgical drama may have been the dialogue, interpolated at Easter Mass, between the angel and the pious women who find Christ’s tomb uncovered. The liturgical drama is linked to the solemn celebration of a feast: Easter, Christmas, the resurrection of Lazarus, the conversion of Paul. The Planctus, the Virgin’s lament over the body of Christ, is not strictly speaking part of the category. It is a similar genre, but it is linked to Good Friday and has a painful character.
Theatrical genre, established in the last decades of the fifteenth century, which refers to the idyll, the bucolic and the egloga and transforms the dialogue into a real dramatic structure. It is however conditioned by the courts, which demanded from the poet a refined theater, full of pomp and grace. The pastoral drama is thus to merge the tragic and the comic, with the happy ending of rigor, not to disturb the serenity of the day of celebration, in which usually this genre was represented. From the pastoral fable the theater takes the same characters: nymphs, satyrs, shepherds, hunters. The first example of this genre is in the Fable of Orpheus by Poliziano, represented in 1480. Until the middle of the seventeenth century, the genre continues to have fortune and among the most significant works are to remember the Tirsi of Baldassarre Castiglione (1506), the Egle of G. B. Giraldi Cinzio (1545), the Aminta of T. Tasso (1573). Tasso (1573), while the Endymion of A. Guidi (1692) marks the end of a formula now devoid of interest, which had also been extinguished in Spain and England, where it had found, especially in Garcilaso de la Vega, Juan del Encina and E. Spenser the best devotees. Spenser the best devotees.
In the seventeenth century, and even later, was sometimes synonymous with melodrama or opera seria. But a more precise meaning was assumed by the term after Wagnerian theorization of the concepts of opera and drama. Opera is characterized by the distinction (customary at the time of Wagner) between recitatives and arias, duets, concerted; by the presence, in short, of “closed pieces” in which the reasons of the text had to adapt to those of the music and in a certain sense suffer them. The relationship was reversed in the musical drama theorized by Wagner, in which it was up to the text to condition the musical form, freed from the demands of the “closed piece”. After Wagner, many composers avoided the closed forms of opera in their musical theater (Strauss, Debussy, Verdi in Falstaff and many others), without their works being able to qualify as drama in the Wagnerian sense.