Dramatic Genres

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What are the different types of traditional drama?  

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Traditionally, going back to Aristotle, drama was placed into two categories. A tragedy was a drama in which a noble hero, through a tragic flaw such as hubris, experienced a reversal of fortune and a recognition of some profound truth. In a tragedy, everyone typically suffered as a result of the protagonist's flaw or mistake. A traditional comedy was a drama in which the good characters were rewarded and the evil characters were punished—it was not necessarily a humorous story or performance.

Since Aristotle's times, however, drama has grown and changed. In the early eighteenth century in England, tragedies began featuring common men as heroes instead of heroes exclusively of noble birth. In the twentieth century, Arthur Miller continued with that approach to tragedy.

Comedy eventually came to define humorous plays. It includes many sub-genres. High comedy is a sophisticated type of comedy that plays homage to its culture. A type of high comedy would be the comedy of manners, which portrays an upper-class society and its rules, manners, speech, and idiosyncrasies. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest falls into this category.

A comedy of character features characters who are funny because of their exaggerated traits or habits. Situation comedies (now known as sitcoms) and domestic comedies are similar in that they take everyday situations and show the humorous actions of characters who must navigate through mix-ups and misunderstandings. Romantic comedies, in which romantic relationship is the center of the plot and humor, are types of domestic comedies.

Satire is a type of comedy that exposes vice or corruption through mockery. It often has a political slant. Farce is a type of low comedy that depends on physical humor and frenetic action to make audiences laugh. Movies featuring the Keystone Cops and Three Stooges are examples of farce.

Melodrama features a complex plot with many twists and turns, clearly defined good and bad guys, and grand spectacle. Mystery drama follows a formula that often includes a crime that needs to be solved, a brilliant detective, an investigation, and a satisfying resolution. Tragicomedy combines elements of tragedy and comedy but has an underlying serious theme.

The changes that have taken place in drama through the centuries have added richness and variety to stage productions. New genres have not supplanted old genres but have come to coexist with them, making contemporary drama a multifaceted art.

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Setting aside the categories of historical theatre and drama based on historical periods, such as Elizabethan, Restoration, Victorian, etc., we start with Aristotle’s division of drama into tragedy and comedy. Then there were expressionistic, impressionistic, surrealistic, etc. drama. Today, let us say since Modernism, drama divides itself into more subtle categories (mostly via advertising, publicity, reviews, etc.) – the term “drama” refers to serious, sober, intense story-telling with strong characters resolving real social and psychological conflicts. Comedy now refers to humorous laugh-filled story-telling with little serious conflict or danger to the protagonist, attended for immediate entertainment rather than insightful observation about human nature. It is...

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further divided into such subtler types as farce (broad humorous commentary on human imperfections), slapstick (physical humor), sentimental (maudlin actions designed to bring the audience into humorous rapport with a slightly troubled protagonist), romantic (love “bumps in the road”), and the like. Post-modern drama features experimental stage language (settings, non-realistic situations, non-real actions, etc.) whose themes are often philosophical, and which make use of a two-act structure rather than the traditional beginning-middle-end structure of the three-act play. Then there are such “types” as musicals (where songs are inserted into the story),, extravaganzas (featuring unusual and difficult stage business, in which the audience delight comes from the large stage action), etc.; of course, this is only one way to taxonomize this complex and varied art.

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