Where does it come from, and how do we use it as a genre in writing?
August 15, 2018
Renee Frey, COO Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Drama has been around basically as long as literature has. Drama first became a genre in Ancient Greece, when plays honoring the god Dionysus were created. Drama comes from the Greek word meaning “to do” or “to act.” Since its inception in ancient times, drama has grown and evolved.
Drama as Literature
When we think of drama, we tend to think of plays, movies, television series, and other visual storytelling mediums. To consider drama as literature, we have to shift gears, and instead of focusing on the representation of the work, focus on the words of the play or other story as written.
If you’ve ever studied Shakespeare, you know this is easier said than done. I can personally attest to how I was instructed to study Shakespeare as an acting student (read the play in groups aloud, watch the movie version, see a production of it) versus as an English literature student (mark out the scansion, highlight allusions, analyze the poetic form and plumb it for meaning).
This is complicated when you take into account the history of plays. In the middle ages, they were seen as immoral. Even in Shakespeare’s time, Puritans sought to close down theatres. The result was an elevation of the written form of a drama over the representation of the drama in a play.
Wait...isn’t that counter-intuitive?
Yes. Good writers are aware of their audience and their medium. When I write written instructions for software, I write very differently than when I am writing a script for a computer-based training course for the same content. If you’ve ever tried to read a play or a screenplay, you probably recognize that it just doesn’t feel the same as watching the representation.
What created this tension was Plato, who further enforced Aristotle’s teachings that plays were vehicles with which to teach moral lessons—and learning said moral lesson did not require the play being performed, merely the communication of the content within. The schism between the production of the play (for the lower classes) versus reading and discussing the content of the work (upper classes) persisted through the European Middle Ages and into the English Renaissance.
So how do I navigate this split?
Reading a play is an experience. Seeing a play is also an experience. Try to do both—use the performance to help you understand the macro vision of the playwright, while supporting the big ideas with specific examples from the text. You can also see how the idea of drama transformed over time…
Moving beyond the play
To a modern audience, drama is human beings at their best, their worst, and everything in-between. This is why you can probably think of several subgenres in the film industry alone: medical dramas, courtroom dramas, crime films, epics...the list goes on. But what all of these have in common are the portrayal of the human experience, inclusive of both the highs and lows of life.
Because of its background in plays, drama still remains linked with plays and other visual medium. We could probably all name a television drama, but naming a drama book would be a bit more difficult. And if you ask the librarian to show you the drama section, she’ll probably walk you to the works of Shakespeare and Moliere. When we think of dramatic themes in traditional literature (not something written to be performed) we generally term it fiction, or categorize it in one of the many genres already discussed in this blog.
Can I write drama?
Yes! Although plays go through a different method of review, they are still critiqued and edited to become the best version of themselves before being published or performed.
Playwrights do staged readings, and get audience and critic feedback to make edits and adjustments to their plays. They may have a close circle who reads the play and advises them, and depending on the situation, may have a producer fund and create a staged reading or workshop to further refine the piece.
Most television writers are groups of writers collaborating, so they work together to refine their ideas and perfect the script before the episode is aired. For all films, the producer has final say, and can request edits and revisions if needed to make a scene or the entire concept “work.”
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