The major forms of drama


Tragedy is believed to be the oldest of all the forms of drama. It is widely accepted to have originated from the city of Athens in ancient Greece, in the works of tragedians such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Other principal writers include Seneca, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Cervantes, De Vega, Calderon, O’Neill, Strindberg, Corneille, Hugo, Goethe and many others.

It evolved from the annual festivities and worship rites attached to the Greek god of wine and merry, Dionysus (Bacchus). It developed from the choral lyric poem sung and danced in orchestras in honour of this young god.

The choral song was performed by a chorus of 50 men disguised in goat-skins. From this, the term ‘tragoedia’ was got, which means ‘he-goat-song’. This perhaps explains why J.P Clark’s Song of a goat, a drama which contains vast tragedy, is based around the cries of a he-goat.

Thespis, about the middle 6th century BC, introduced the first actor, by name of ‘Hypokrites’ (answerer). This actor impersonated various characters, changing costume several times, and delivered monologues or conducted dialogues with the chorus leader. In 534BC, however, Peisistratus, an Athenian tyrant gave official recognition to tragedy in the state cult, establishing a new festival with tragedy as its principal feature.

Tragedy often deals with big themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power, the fraught relationships between men and gods, elevation of man, cruelty of the world and the inevitability of fate.

In most (classical) cases, the protagonist will have nobility of spirit; he will have excessive pride or hubris and his hamartia (tragic flaw) will not allow him to compromise. It is note-worthy that the catastrophe is caused by the inner dividedness of the protagonist, not by some external force. The antagonist is larger than life, e.g. gods, ghosts, ‘fate’. He complicates the action and forces the hero to act.



The first sets of comedies were essentially satirical and mocked men in power for their vanity and foolishness.

The first master of comedy was the playwright Aristophanes. However, much later, Menander wrote comedies about ordinary people

In a typical work of comedy, there is an absence of pain and presence of deliberate absurdities. Devices often used include exaggeration, incongruity, surprise, repetition and sarcasm.

Types or sub-categories of comedy include the farce, high and low comedies, comedy of manners, dark comedy, sentimental and romantic comedies etc.

Principal writers include Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, Terence, Shakespeare, Jonson, Goldoni, Wilde, Shaw, Goldsmith and Moliere.



This is simply a dramatic work that exaggerates plot and characters with a view to appeal to emotions. In a melodrama, all the significant events are caused by forces outside the protagonist, he is a victim. It simplifies and idealises human experience. All issues are resolved in a well-defined way.

It generally depends on stereotyped character development, interaction and highly emotional themes. The plots deal with crisis of human emotion, failed romance/friendship, illness, neuroses, or physical hardship.

Writers include Shakespeare, Marlowe, Stowe and Boucicault.



This literally means a tragedy that ends happily or with enough jokes to lighten the mood. It is a fictional work of drama that blends aspects of the genres of tragedy and comedy.

It a mixed and quite lively form of drama. It focuses on character relationships and has hope as a key element. The term itself is traceable to Plautus (2nd century BC), in the prologue of Amphitryon, where he uses it to justify the play’s bringing gods into a predominantly bourgeois play.

Writers include Chekhov and Beckett.



This is a type of comedy that focuses on physical humour or ‘slapstick’. Its main objective is to entertain the audience directly. It uses as techniques, sight gags, sexual innuendos, frantic activities, improbable coincidences, mistaken identities, stereotyped characters, extravagant exaggerations, violent horse plays and miscommunications.

The world of farce appears chaotic and without rules, however, everything works out in the end. Characters in this sort of drama are helpless victims of their desires (food, drink, sex) and they are usually single-minded, seeking to satisfy their urges with careless desperation.

Examples of farce include Shakespeare’s comedy of errors, Chaucer’s The Canterbury tales, Charles Dickens’ the Lamplighter and Oscar Wilde’s the importance of being earnest.

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