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From the earliest times drama has been divided broadly into two kinds, Tragedy and Comedy, the one dealing with the dark side of life, the other with the light side of life. Tragedy aims at inspiring us with pity and awe; Comedy aims at evoking our laughter. Tragedy, in the Greek drama, dealt with the fate of characters of high birth and station, kings, princes, and their households; Comedy with people of much less importance. In later literature, there were many tragedies of lowly life and many comedies of high society.
Tragedy can be classified in two ways: concerning its form or structure, and regarding its matter or theme. Broadly speaking, Tragedy has assumed only two forms: Classical and Romantic, the former based on Greek conventions, the latter obeying only its standards. The main features of the Classical type are the observance of what was called the three Unities and the employment of the device of the Chorus. The Romantic tragedy is not circumscribed by the Three Unities, it does not employ the Chorus nor compelled to be didactic. In short, Romantic tragedy is written not to a set pattern but in whatever form the writer finds best suited to his dramatic purpose. The name of Shakespeare is inseparably associated with this type of tragedy, though it had been popularised either in England by Marlowe.
From the standpoint of matter or theme, there can be numerous subjects it treats, but the following varieties figure prominently in English dramatic literature: the horrific tragedy of Webster and Ford, specialising in scenes of violence and cruelty; the heroic tragedy of Dryden and Otway, dealing with exploits of a sublime hero and sometimes in rhyme; the She tragedy of Rowe, who dominates the action and the domestic tragedy of the eighteenth century, aiming at the portrayal of middle-class life and employing prose not verse.
The History or Chronicle play grew out of the Moralities in the first half of the 16th century. It is a strictly national form of drama though it began by following a classical model. The University wits were the first of the Elizabethans to popularise it, Peele with his Edward I, Marlowe with his Edward II and Greene with his James IV. Shakespeare too followed the suit, for he was writing for theatre that depended for its success on meeting the popular taste. The material for Shakespeare’s historical plays was derived from the Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed published in 1577. Apart from his minor historical plays, Shakespeare has left us six full-length portraits of English Kings such as King John, Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI.
As Tragedy, Comedy may be classical or Romantic in design depending on whether it observes or ignores the Classical rules. The Classical form was attempted by Ben Jonson and the Restoration playwrights; the romantic comedy by Shakespeare and the “University Wits”, the Humour Comedy of Ben Jonson, satirising eccentricity; the Restoration Comedy of Intrigue, specialising in situations arising out of infidelity in love and marriage; the Comedy of Manners of the restoration Period, in which the language and behaviour were highly stylized and artificial; the Genteel comedy of Colley Cibber, ridiculing the affectations of 18th-century society; and the Sentimental Comedy of the late eighteenth century presenting melodramatic and distressing situations.
The Tragi-Comedy was unknown to the Greeks and the Romans. It is a half tragedy and half comedy mingled harmoniously together. The general atmosphere is one of fantasy, which suggests another name for this type of play, which is the Dramatic Romance. Tragi-Comedy was always opposed by those who judge by principles rather than perception. Dryden admired tragi-comedy; Dr Johnson saw no impropriety in mixing pleasure with pain since it is not only common but perpetual in the world and hence may be allowed upon the stage, which pretends to be the mirror of life.
Farce is an exaggerated form of comedy, in which no attempt is made at fidelity to real life. The first farces were simply extravagantly comic interludes inserted into the main play, either to relieve it or to eke out its length. Its aim is merely to provoke hearty laughter and for that reason employs all the resources of absurd characters, situations, and dialogue. It is a lively caricature, not a representation of things as they are, and any element of satire that it may contain is nowadays purely incidental. It belongs to the realm of nonsense, in which the characters are free from everyday cares and restraints.
Melodrama is a debased form of tragedy as farce may be considered a coarser form of comedy. It may be defined as a play of a crudely sensational tye, relying on its effect on physical activity, purely theatrical language and behaviour, and naive sentiment. Its characters are mere puppets in an extravagant story of crime, revenge or retribution, the evils of drink or gambling, lost wills, missing heirs and so forth in which villainy is foiled and virtue rewarded. In the beginning, it was a dramatic composition in which song and music were used. During the renaissance, there was no distinction between opera and melodrama. In the 20th century, Shaw used melodramatic elements in The Devil’s Disciple which was subtitled by him as “Melodrama”.
The Problem Play defined as the presentation of a contemporary question through realistic technique came into existence towards the close of the Victorian age. It was primarily preoccupied with the problems of contemporary life and morality and was inspired by the social reality of the time. The rise of realism also contributed to the development of the problem play. Also known as the drama of ideas or the realistic drama, Problem play was influenced by the growth of scientific spirit which stimulated the desire for facts and fostered an attitude of dispassionate observation.
The Poetic Drama may be defined as a poetic play written to acted. It was T.S. Eliot who made imperishable contribution both to the theory and practises of poetic drama. He pointed out that a speech in a play should never appear to be intended to move us as the other characters in the play, for we must preserve our position of spectators and observe always from the outside with complete understanding. In The Family Reunion, Eliot successfully created a type of poetry that would at once serve the purposes of modern drama and at the same time give drama an elevation of which even the best prose was incapable of.
Heroic Drama is a kind of tragedy or tragicomedy that flourished during the Restoration age. The form was influenced by the conventions of the French classical drama and Italian opera. As the adjective “heroic” suggests these plays are similar to epics in their subject matter and style. Thus the language used is frequently bombastic and featured the conflict between the hero’s passionate love affair and his duty towards his nation.
Closet Drama plays that have been written to be read, but not performed. This art form was popularized in the romantic era by writers such as Robert Browning and Goethe. It was a natural reaction to the sensational performances of the day. To the romantics, imagination was almost holy. If a play could be read and imagined on the stage of the mind, there could be no greater stage. It was the reader’s inner interpretation and view of Romantic plays that held greater value than something interpreted by someone else on stage.
Kitchen Sink Drama is a term used to describe a series of realistic plays that portrayed the domestic lives of working-class characters. Many of these plays were performed on radio and TV. The works of Arnold Wesker, John Osborne, Alun Owen and Shelagh Delaney are associated with this form. These plays were written as a reaction to the drawing-room comedies of Noel Coward and Sir Terence Rattigan. Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and Wesker’s The Kitchen and Roots are considered to be classics of this form.