Drama is a form of literature intended to be performed by actors and written as prose or verse dialogue. In Western culture, it is one of the three genres developed by the Greeks: drama, epic and (lyrics) poetry. The word “drama” originates from the Greek word draein which means to do or to act. It is generally believed that drama has three separate points of origin -the Greek tragedy, the Greek comedy and the medieval European drama.

The drama may be defined as an articulate story presented in action. The earliest origins of drama are to be found in Athens where ancient hymns, called dithyrambs, were sung in honour of the god Dionysus. These hymns were later adapted for choral processions in which participants would dress up in costumes and masks. One of these, the ‘City Dionysia’, a festival of entertainment held in honour of the god Dionysus, featured competitions in music, singing, dance and poetry.

The ancient Greek and Roman dramas were mostly concerned with the religious ceremonies of people. As most of the Bible was written into Latin, common people could not understand it. The clergy tried to find out some new methods of teaching and expounding the teachings of the Bible to the common people. For this purpose, they developed a new method, wherein the stories of the Gospel were explained through the living pictures. The performers acted out the story in a dumb show, mostly on Christmas and Easter.

In the next stage, the actors spoke as well as acted their parts. Special plays were written by the clerics, at first in Latin and later in the vernacular French. These early plays were known as Miracles and Mysteries. In England, the term Miracle is used indiscriminately for any kind of religious play, but strictly speaking, the term Mystery is applied to the stories taken from the Scriptures, while Miracles are plays dealing with incidents in the lives of Saints and Martyrs.

The liturgical plays were purely religious. Drama, being the only source of recreation, attracted huge crowds on Christmas and Easter. The church was not capacious enough to provide room for the growing number of spectators. The obvious solution was to carry the performances outside into the space surrounding the church itself. These gradually developed into complete plays performed in public places by trade guilds and known as mystery plays or mysteries. The very word, Mystery shows its ecclesiastical origin, since the word comes from the French Mystere derived from ministere, because the clergy, the ministerium or ministry ecclesiae, themselves took part in these plays.

The Church made skilful use of combining instruction with amusement. The season of the year suggested the subject matter of plays: Christmas, Easter, stories derived from the Bible called Mysteries, stories from the lives of the Saints called Miracle Plays. Early in the Middle Ages, the clergy celebrated Holy Days like Christmas, Easter, etc, by playing scenes from the Life of Christ. The first positive stage in the development of the drama is marked by the performance of these stories in the Church.

The second stage is reached when the play emerges from the Church into the marketplace. This was effected when the guilds were entrusted with the performances in the fourteenth century. It was customary for each craft to represent a play according to its particular trade. The work was very seriously taken by the guilds, lack of confidence and competence and unpunctuality being met by heavy fines. Performances were given on car or scaffolds in the open spaces of the town. There was no attempt at the scenery, but attention was given to stage properties.

The third stage is the rise of Morality Plays. Morality plays are a kind of didactic poetic drama which presents the good and the evil as fighting over the human soul. The protagonist would be the representative of all humankind. All characters would be personifications of abstract qualities such as Knowledge, Beauty, Death etc. Everyman is considered as the best example of a Morality play. Interludes refer to a wide variety of short stage entertainments which were performed between the courses of feast or between the acts of a longer play. John Heywood’s Four P’s and Johan Johan the Husband are memorable interludes.

Tragedy means goat-song. One of the several explanations offered to explain this is that a goat was awarded to the tragedian who won the competition in the dramatic festivals of Ancient Greece. Any play that deals with the serious subject matter and which features the downfall of the protagonist can be termed as a tragedy. Aristotle in his most influential work Poetics, argues that the tragedy is the most important form of literature. For Aristotle, tragedy should deal with a single action which should be both serious and of a certain length. It should be in the dramatic form and not in the narrative form. Aristotle’s concept of catharsis explains the effect that tragedy has on the audience. Catharsis means purgation or purification. The idea is that the tragic events in the play have a therapeutic effect: they would arouse the emotions of pity and fear in the minds of the audience and the tension caused by these emotions is relieved by the end of the play.

As opposed to tragedy, comedy is a lighter form of drama which has a happy ending. Comedy means revel-song. (to revel means to celebrate). A comedy is, therefore, a work in which the material is selected and managed primarily in order to interest, involve and amuse the audience.

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Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring to various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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