Drama: Tragedy and Comedy

Ally Oconnor and Madeline White


Drama: Tragedy and Comedy
By Madeline White and Ally O’Connor

This chapter opens with the story an 1865 performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre, during which Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Following Booth’s act of violence, he leapt onto the stage, broke his leg in his fall, and cried “so it is always for tyrants” in Latin (attributed to Brutus at the murder of Julius Caesar) (Whitla 117). Interestingly, Whitla explains that Booth was from a noted theatrical family and knew both the comedic script of “Our American Cousin” and the layout of Ford’s Theatre well–he knew exactly when the spectators would react to the comedy, and fired the pistol at a moment when the audience was caught in laughter, creating a moment when “two genres of drama collide” (Whitla 118).

Whitla continues the chapter by describing the four stages that mark the institutional development of the study of drama in universities. During the first stage, drama was taught as literature within English departments, focusing on Shakespeare, Greek and Roman plays, eighteenth-century comedy through to Wilde, Shaw, the moderns and the postmoderns, including American and world drama in English (Whitla 120). During the second, drama departments, which taught dramatic texts not only as literature, but also as a part of the arts, were formed within universities (Whitla 120). During the third, many universities established Departments of Theater that included an even wider variety of theatrical texts with music and spectacle (Whitla 120). Finally, the fourth stage developed from parallel movements called the “performance arts” and emerged partly as a resistance to text-based theater, using the techniques of “improvisation, guerrilla theater, political theater, street theater, and performance that stresses various postmodern techniques like discontinuity, the mixing of genres and historical periods, alternative venues for theatrical encounters, audience participation, and all kinds of interaction of subjectivity and objectivity” (Whitla 120).

Within drama as a whole, audience members willingly suspend disbelief and accept the visual and auditory aspects presented. Like the death of the author, the playwright also must die so that the play’s text itself is freed into heterogenous meanings (Whitla 124). Typically, there are two key characters in a dramatic text. The protagonist is a representative person above us whom we can emulate, or person like us, with whom we can sympathize. By contrast, the antagonist acts as the blocker or rival of protagonist. In contemporary drama, however, the focus is sometimes shifted to the marginalized figures (turning the drama inside out), which deconstructs the dominance of the protagonist-antagonist opposition and power structure (Whitla 125). In all cases, Whitla points out that scripts unite the many different forms of drama and are described as primary objects of study. In general, the medium studied is subject to at least three forms of inquiry. In the first form, the medium is studied as a material object as it has a history, course of creation, and production (Whitla 122). In the second, the medium is subject to inquiry regarding form and content, its actions, characters, ideas, and language (Whitla 122). In the third, the medium is investigated in terms of its conditions of presentation (location and participants, both actors and audience) as all circumstances of performance impact the interpretation and meaning of the text (Whitla 122).

During this chapter, Whitla also introduces tragicomedy, a dramatic style in which comedy and tragedy are combined. Typically, a tragicomedy moves toward disaster, but a plot twist rescues the protagonist and ensures a happy ending. Tragicomedy usually includes a mixture of high and low characters, thereby breaching decorum (restriction of theme, character, and action to the conventions and established hierarchies of generic expectations) (Whitla 126).

Through the years, the shape of the theater has gone through five major variations, which have all impacted drama as a whole. The first variation is the classical round or arena theater of Greece and Rome, usually a containing circular area for a chorus with a space behind and raised for the actors, with the spectators seated on three or more sides in a stone amphitheater (Whitla 126). The second variation made use of pageant wagons or stages in presenting the mystery or biblical plays of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe (Whitla 128). The third variation, the Elizabethan-Jacobean theater, is based on an apron or thrust stage, which evolved into a circular or hexagonal shape of galleries surrounding a platform stage that projected into the standing room. In this case, the shape of theater allowed for such intimacy between actors and audience that the “aside” was created (character turns head towards audience for a remark not heard by other characters, declaring a secret intent, a qualification, or a comic innuendo) (Whitla 129). The fourth variation, the nineteenth-century theater, is based on a frame by the proscenium arch and its curtain with an acting space and an audience in front, located in a box or horseshoe-shaped auditorium. At the time this variation of theater emerged, as did two new dramatic forms: melodrama (extremely emotional characterization with unexplained outbursts of madness, rage, passionate love, etc.) and farce (comedy that depends upon extravagant improbabilities based on disguise and resulting in mistaken identity, sexual innuendo, witty dialog, and increasingly fast-paced action) (Whitla 130). The fifth and final variation is the modern stage, which developed its own forms in the studio theater of three basic shapes: the black box (half stage and half risers facing stage), the round box (central acting space surrounded by risers), and the transverse box (usually rectangular, with an acting space between two stepped risers facing each other) (Whitla 131).

Primarily dialogue based, a play usually tells a story in scenes that follow a traditional narrative structure. The main categories are comedy and tragedy (Whitla 133). The earliest noted form of tragedy onstage were Greek plays. These were based around the actions of the choruses, who were blocked in specific patterns during their choral odes, with speaking and singing. The choral odes and scenes went back and forth, with epeisodions. The main parts of a Greek play were the prologue, the chorus’s beginning song (parados), the initial dramatic moment (epeisodion 1), the first chorus song (stasimon 1), then more alterations of episodes and the chorus. The play ended with the last scene and the chorus’s exit (Whitla 133). Men tended to dominate these Greek plays. In the world of Greek drama, woman have some impact on the democracy, but remain subservient, as they still must conform to the patriarchal political rules. Some of the powerful women in Greek theater are Electra, Clytemnestra, and Medea (137). Greek theatre is a medium that is still evolving.

Types of theatre have expanded greatly since Ancient Greece. Some variants of tragedy, from both the past and present, are the revenge tragedy, biblical tragedy, historical tragedy, bourgeois tragedy, and the tragedy of the common man (Whitla 137). Six common comedy plot structures still used today are the parody, the social comedy, the societal critique comedy, the joining of lovers with the help of an intelligent servant despite obstacles, the parody of mistaken identity involving a misplaced child, and the comedic quest (Whitla 139-140). Aristotelian plot structure includes rising action, crisis, falling action. (Whitla 136). Freytag’s plot structure is introduction, exciting moment, stirring action, rising movement, climax, counter action, return or falling movement, force of the last suspense, and catastrophe (Whitla 137). These structures are used to put together well-crafted play script.

A play script is written in a manner that puts the reader in the mindset of the actors and the stage on which the play is set. To get a better sense of a play, it is ideal to read it out loud to oneself to better comprehend a scene and fully pick up some of the lines. Reading in a group provides a fuller understanding of the dialogue and character interactions (Whitla 142). Modern plays are particularly meticulous with the use of dialogue, as important moments can occur in the silence (Whitla 144). When first beginning to read a play script, characters are listed in order of appearance on stage, along with the names of the actors who first played them. Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas tended to begin with the character list and explanations of how they are connected, with the order of men before women, and in descending order of social class. Throughout the script, stage directions are listed between dialogue. To clarify, stage directions are statements that indicate how readers and directors should view or stage the action. Upstage indicates the back of the stage and downstage indicates the front of the stage. Stage right and stage left are which direction to go onstage from the perspective of the actor. Above is the upper level of the stage if there is one. If the play is put onstage, wings and flats are the painted or constructed scenery that conceals the backstage and sets the scene, allowing actors to enter or exit (Whitla 143). Some scripts have vivid and lengthy descriptions of setting and scenery, along with how the show’s lighting and blocking should work, such as Samuel Beckett’s work, which was all published within the last century. Other plays, such as Doctor Faustus by Marlowe, have very limited stage directions and inexplicably jump from location to location, making consistent scenery a challenge (Whitla 144). When all these parts are put together, a work of art is created.

If you would like to see how some of this comes together, check out this montage from a recent production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which starred Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart!



Introduction to Literary History and Interpretation Copyright © by Ally Oconnor and Madeline White. All Rights Reserved.

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