A Little History
For the first two thousand years of Western Civilization, the only literary art most people knew was drama—they couldn’t read! From the Ancient Greeks to long past Shakespeare, most of what the hoi polloi understood of the world and human nature—and of language, it’s evocative power—they learned from actors playing roles on stage in worlds imagined by the greatest writers of their time.
Think about that.
From the Sixth Century BCE, playwrights have entertained mass audiences—enlightened them, moved them to tears and laughter, shaped their opinions, made them who they were. They also reflected and materially affected the times in which they wrote, the best of them in the best of times.
The relationship of drama to the course of human events is addressed in Historic Moments. This page and related posts pertain to its literary development, as revealed in the works of its representative dramatists, with links to examples in the CR/I Catalog. A far more comprehensive list of notable playwrights and their works appears in the chronological Reading List.
Where to Start
If you aren’t familiar with period drama, we suggest you read modern, realistic plays before you branch out into their alternative “-isms,” and contemporary plays before the classics. Links to recommended scripts appear in the Starters category.
The Genesis of Drama
While scholars reference instances of religious prototypes in ancient Egypt, India, China, and Mesopotamia (Iraq) as early as 2500 BCE, the birthplace of dramatic art was Ancient Greece around 534, when reason emerged from religious rites and changed the course of history.
Greek poetry began with Homer’s epics, Iliad and Odyssey, recited orally, over and over, to others, who memorized and spread his words by word of mouth for generations before they were transcribed. Rival tribes engaged in competition with large choruses of men and boys who sang and danced Homeric and religious odes to honor their Olympian gods.
Poems first appeared in writing early in the Sixth Century BCE (Sappho, Pindar), as did scientific, philosophical, historical, and biographical works (Socrates, Hippocrates, Herodotus, etc.) in prose, hand-copied on papyrus and distributed among the few who could read. (Prose fiction was unheard of for the next 500 years, and wasn’t widely read until the Modern Age.) Those who couldn’t read, from late in the century, heard (and saw) poetic drama on the stage.
Dramatic art began in 534 BCE, when the lyric poet Thespis won First Prize at the City Dionysia in Athens by stepping away from the religious song and dance of the dithyrambic chorus to speak an ode in the person of a mythic god or hero to become not only the world’s first actor, but also its first playwright.
This powerful new presence on stage was at once adopted by other Dionysian festivals all over Greece, with poet/actors traveling from town to town, representing gods and kings with poetic monologues and in conversation with the local chorus, stirring the emotions of the masses with familiar stories that espoused the radical progressive thoughts and values of Solon the Wise. So effective were these one-man shows (with chorus), played for all Athenian citizens, for free, that in 509—just 25 years after Thespis—the benevolent tyrant, Cleisthenes, instituted the western world’s first democratic government.
Unfortunately, none of these scripts survive.
In general, dramatic art falls into the five historic eras of Western Civilization. This page addresses elements that are fundamental to all plays; the following links address their differences.
- Classics (Ancient Greece & Rome)—c. 530 BCE-65 CE
- Medieval (Liturgical and Indigenous Drama—1000-1600)
- Renaissance (Neoclassic Italy and France; Elizabethan England; German Romanticism)—1500-1800
- Modern (Realism and its deviations)—1850-1950
- Post-Modern (No holds barred)—1950-Present
Broadly speaking, literature is any collection of written work, but it is used more narrowly for writings specifically considered to be literary art, specifically prose fiction (novels and short stories), poetry, or drama.
Drama is either prose or poetry, or both, spoken by actors, with no third person narrator.
Dramatic Art and Theatre
Theatre, live on stage, is Spectacle—the last of Aristotle’s six Elements of Drama—the collaborative work of art we see and hear on stage. It’s actors, in costume, speaking lines and performing, with scenery, props, lights and sound—the communal magic that transforms a playwright’s written words into the mystical, wholly human game that’s played before an audience.
The first five elements—Plot, Character, Theme, Language, and Rhythm—are all in the playwrights literary words.
Plays and Novels
Quite simply, plays are novels with no narration. Both tell stories about people interacting with each other and the world. Plays are just as rich in plot and character, language, moral theme; they’re just as entertaining, comic, tragic, and enlightening—only they consist exclusively of people talking to each other.
We read novels silently, in solitude. Plays are written to be played, but reading them aloud with friends (or strangers) is a rewarding social pastime. Collectively, we explore a work of literary art and discuss it, not weeks later (as in book clubs), but as we read.
Nothing can compare to the thrill of seeing a well-made play well-played. By reading them aloud, however, we breathe a little life into the characters, unveil the plot, picture in our minds the spectacle, and appreciate together the humanitarian eloquence of literary drama.
All plays have one defining feature that differentiates them from all other forms of writing: the words are all expressed by characters in conversation—dialogue—intended to be played on stage. Otherwise, the playwright draws from the same broad range of devices and conventions used by poets and novelists to create work of literary art, adapted to dramatic form.
Through the ages, both literary and theatrical drama have developed common standards and devices based upon the culture of their times. Some endured throughout the ages; others fell along the way. All plays, for example, are aware of Aristotle’s Elements, and of the dictum of the Roman, Horace: “plays should both entertain and instruct.” All are written to be played. Audiences still sit in a theatron to see plays on the proskenion, before a skene; music comes from the orchestra.
Otherwise, Greek plays are “Greek” to unschooled modern minds, unaccustomed to their stichomythic dialogue and long-winded, redundantly descriptive choral odes, their references to alien myths the Greeks knew well, like Christians know the Bible—and all the killing takes place off stage! The characters, all in masks, are larger than life, kings, gods and heroes, their metered language formal and exalted, their tragedies morally absolute, resolved by a god in a machine.
These are among the numerous dramatic and theatrical conventions that epitomize the magnificence of the Golden Age, but can pose difficulties for readers in our own. Even the greatest playwright ever is Greek to most of the world. Shakespeare’s eloquent poetry was music to the ears of his illiterate audience; it too is Greek to our deaf ones.
Conventionally, in Aristotelian terms, all plays should have plausible plots that begin with exposition, followed by rising action, conflict, reversal, recognition, climax, denouement, and conclusion. Characters—round, stock, or flat—are believable, engaging, consistent, and conform to the laws of necessity and probability. Good plays—comedies and tragedies—address universal issues that relate to humankind; their language—poetry or prose—is literary (“pleasing”), and the lines read at a pace. [Spectacle consists of another long list of theatrical (non-literary) conventions indicates in the script via dialogue or stage directions, but ultimately decided by a director and designers; ergo, beyond the scope of this discussion.
These ingredients are more precisely defined in Elements of Drama. How they apply to plays in periods of time derives from past and present practice and the imagination of the dramatist. Each period develops a dominant form and style quickly surges to a golden peak—concurrent with, dependent on, and promoting (or protesting) secular or religious power—and remaining dominant through decades of decay as state or church decline.
Most playwrights follow the mainstream, with occasional deviations, but there is always a fringe of free-thinking challengers with new ideas. They manipulate the elements in ways that work against accepted norms to shock their audience with unexpected thoughts and feelings. Such movements typically cause a stir that quickly disappears, or is absorbed into the dominant form—or prevails and becomes the model for the next period.
Our time is most familiar with conventions that pertain to Realism—essentially, the representation of real life on stage—introduced and popularized in the 1880’s by playwrights Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg, and director Stanislavsky. They created the conventional “fourth wall” and “method” acting, in plays about ordinary people struggling with real issues in realistic settings; speaking colloquially, loudly to be heard, but not declaiming; gesturing without indicating. We accept and expect these and other “realistic” conventions, unaware that never before in the history of drama had playwrights imagined them.
The following annotated links open posts that elaborate on plays and playwrights of each period, with notes on their conventions.
Theatre emerged from the worship of the Greek god Dionysus (c. 534 BCE) to play a significant role in the establishment Greek Democracy (510) and ushered in the Golden Age (490-404).
The plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes account for all forty-six extant plays of the Athenian Golden Age, and of Menander for the only one after the Peloponnesian War. The first four are among the greatest playwrights ever; Menander was a Hellenistic hack. All adhere in most respects to the conventions established by Aeschylus.
Rome conquered Greece (c. 240) and presented Greek-style plays until the Republic became the Empire (27 CE), when drama degenerated into bawdy entertainments that so offended early Christians that they eventually took revenge by banning them altogether, and for the next six hundred years, throughout the Roman Catholic world, if any plays were written, none survive—and of the Romans, only thirty-six, by only three distinctive playwrights: Plautus and Terence (whose comedies imitated Menander) and Seneca (Euripides).
Near the end of the First Millennium CE, three French priests chanted a trope in the Easter mass, from which emerged enacted stories from the Bible in the church, in Latin. So popular were these religious mysteries and miracles that Church used them not only to retrieve lost souls, but also to convert the pagans. By the 16th Century the whole of Europe was either Christian or persecuted (or dead by Inquisition), and the influence of church plays on people’s hearts and minds during the Reformation prompted kings and queens to ban their performance altogether.
Meanwhile, religious plays had overflowed into the streets and guild halls, concocted and performed by tradesmen, in native tongues, in cycles from Creation to the Lives of the Saints. Very few Medieval plays survive, all authored by Anonymous; but some have literary merit, and their influence on the course of history was profound.
Also meanwhile, in the 14th Century, the Italian poet Petrarch—”The Father of Humanism—unearthed the works of the ancient Romans, including drama, and launched the Italian Renaissance.
Roman plays—particularly those of Plautus—were first both read and played in Italy, in college courts, first in Latin, then translated, imitated, and performed for the well-to-do by professional actors, first at court, then in Roman-style theaters, indoors. From Italy, they spread to Spain, then England, then France, where the elite Academie francaise proclaimed a strict set of dramatic conventions based on flawed interpretations of Aristotle and Horace—the Neoclassical Ideal—that would dominate European drama for the next 300 years.
Late in the 18th Century, the Neoclassic Ideal was challenged by Romanticism, a revolutionary, nationalistic German movement to free dramatic art and all mankind from all restrictions and restraints. Dialogue was written in prose; female actors played women’s roles; characters were heroic outlaws in exotic settings. This exalted form spread quickly all over Europe, but soon disintegrated into popular (commercial) melodrama early in the 1800’s.
The Renaissance was over.
Of all the many worthy playwrights of the Renaissance, three are among the greatest ever: Shakespeare, Moliere, and Goethe. Moliere wrote in strictly Neoclassic style; Shakespeare merged it with Medieval drama, and Goethe broke free from all the rules and introduced Romanticism, which soon gave way to the popular (commercial) sentimental comedy and melodrama that entertained the world for the next two hundred years.
Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and Russia all produced a few great playwrights in their times, but the apex and epitome of the Renaissance was English, with dozens of luminaries building up to (and descending slightly down from) Shakespeare—until the Puritans demolished all the theatres in 1642.
Theaters thrived through most of the 19th Century on plays that we today find ludicrously sentimental and bombastic. Characters were very good or very bad, plots naïve, language florid, moral obvious, mood indigo, and spectacle intentionally spectacular—all to draw a crowd that both accepted and expected these conventions.
In all the centuries since Thespis, drama had employed conventions that transcended life’s mundane realities—gods and kings declaiming lofty language to unravel improbable plots according to the rules and traditions set in motion by the Greeks, and winding up in melodrama as the handsome hero with his sweetheart and the wicked landlord. The thought of plays about common, everyday people coping with their everyday lives, speaking lines in common prose, had never been considered.
Realism first appeared in Russia in the middle of the 19th Century (Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, 1850), but the Father of Modern Drama is Norwegian Henrich Ibsen (A Doll House, 1879). He and his followers (Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw) wrote plays in realistic prose about common people living in the very real problems of their day. Their conventions, like the dominant forms of previous eras, persist throughout the Modern Age.
Deviations from this norm were frequent and significant, with conventions of their own. Most evident are the song and dance of musical theatre; the one-line gags, cartoon characters, and convoluted plots of situation comedy; the plots and schemes of melodrama, tragedy, romance, adventure, and crime. For the most part, these plays are based in conventional Realism, and constitute the mainstream drama of today.
However . . .
No sooner had Realism taken root (and redefined the very essence of dramatic art) than a wave of rival forms sprang up, with un- or anti-real devices and intents. Naturalism focused on the misery of the world; Symbolism on its metaphysics. Surrealism turned it upside down; Expressionism inside out. Verfremdenskeit broke through the fourth wall and addressed its audience. The influence of all these forms is evident in all that follows.
Modern Drama peaked and ended in the U.S. in the years following World War II, during which it also introduced the next (and current) dominant form of theatre—the musical.
After the War American drama gave way to motion pictures and TV. While great plays were produced—some of the best ever written (Williams, Miller, Albee)—those few who went to the theatre preferred conventional Realism and Musical Comedy.
Americans had money to burn, but Europe was in shambles, and thinkers there began to wonder whether life had any meaning. Sartre argued Existentialism, Camus said it was absurd, and Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot to launch a wave of very different plays connected only by their recognition of its pointlessness, defined by Martin Esslin as the Theatre of the Absurd. This ethos unleashed a theatrical revolution that went off in all directions, splintering in the ‘Sixties into experimental shapes and forms that defied definition—Living Theatre, Open Theatre, “Happenings,” rock opera, sketch comedy. Ultimately, elements of all were assimilated into the mainstream, itself a kaleidoscope of shapes and forms envisioned and adopted individually by countless playwrights since.
During this time, ironically, Americans became the leader of the free world, and Broadway its theatrical capital. Ironic, because there was no American theatre to speak of until the 19th Century, and no significant dramatist until Eugene O’Neill, in 1916.