The Script is the starting point
As noted in earlier supplements, the production of a play that we watch as an audience member is a living presentation of the interpretation of a message created by the playwright. In this supplement we are going to look at that source, the script, and what goes into making it, so we can better understand how that message is started and how we classify the different types of plays.
The script is the text of the play. It may be clearly written out by a playwright, published, and produced as a formal text. It might be a script created by the director, possibly in conjunction with the performers. It might be a script that is made up on the spot, or improvised, based on a general set of ideas and assumptions. Regardless of what form the script takes, every play has some sort of script – it has a source of its message.
Writing the play
The remainder of this supplement will consider the script from the perspective of the written form, written by a playwright with the purpose of having it performed in front of an audience. The playwright needs to do certain things when writing a play. These are sometimes called the steps of writing a play, or the formula for writing a play, but they are not really linear in function. That is, they don’t need to be done in a particular order. In fact, some of them are done almost simultaneously. Further, playwrights may not even be aware that they are doing them! However, for a play to “work” as a script and to convey a message that can be interpreted in performance, these elements need to occur during the script writing process. Each of these elements will be discussed in a little more detail in later paragraphs.
Select the subject
Determine the focus
Establish the purpose
Develop dramatic structure
Create dramatic characters
Establish a point of view
The subject of any play is the human condition. That is, it is about human experience. The ideas and actions of the play deal with situations and reactions that are inherently human in their execution. Even if a character is not human, the story deals with human circumstances. That is the case because as human beings, we the audience can only comprehend the world in terms of human perceptions. A play may have a cat character being played by a human being, and that “cat’s” stage experiences will be seen in their purely human terms.
The situation that the playwright creates might be purely fictional, or it may be based on real events, or it might even be a documentary presentation of actual events. Regardless of the degree of reality of the foundation of the story being told in the play, the story itself will reflect possibilities that the human audience can, at least in part, identify with. That is, every member of the audience should be able to see at least tidbits of the circumstances that he or she can connect to personal experience.
The focus of the play is pretty straightforward. The playwright gives the audience a specific character and set of ideas to connect to and identify with. This is most often the main character around whom the story unfolds.
When we talk about purpose in a play, we are essentially talking about the basic literary purpose of writing it in the first place. There are three basic literary purposes. The first one is to teach. That means that the pay may be intended to share new perspectives, or new information with the audience – to tell them something they did not already know. Another purpose is to raise questions, analyze issues, and stimulate thinking. Basically, most plays want us to take some kind of action. That doesn’t mean that the playwright wants the audience to march out of the theatre and down the road dealing with whatever issues were raised by the play, though some playwrights want that kind of reaction. However, the majority of playwrights want their audiences to think about the ideas raised by the play, to examine and analyze the world around them, and to think about themselves in regard to the issues raised in the play. The third purpose that a play may have, and it is one that almost all plays have as at least part of their purpose, is to entertain the audience.
Virtually every play ever written has had a combination of more than one of these purposes. Almost all theatre has at least a dual purpose – to entertain AND to either teach or get the audience to think. Often, it’s all three of these purposes, though there is usually one of them that stands out, especially when the play is being interpreted by the director.
Structure in Drama
Like a building, or a human body, a play has a particular structure. It has a framework and a foundation. The frame and foundation give the play its basic form, but like a building or a body, there are unique qualities that make it look different from any other building or body – those traits that make it unique. For a play, this “ornamental” style that sets it apart may include elements such a being set in history: ancient, classic, or modern. It might also be different in terms of the scope of its message. It could be small, medium, or big. These are not the only differences, but they serve as an example of how plays can differ in “appearance” while having a common type of structure, just as buildings and bodies differ.
Now let’s look at the nature of this basic structure as it applies to drama. One key difference between dramatic structure and that of a building is that dramatic structure develops through time. It doesn’t exist all at once and then have the story placed upon it, like one might build the frame of a building and then add the outside materials to it. Instead, dramatic structure is a process that starts at the beginning of the play and develops along consistent paths throughout the action of the entire play.
There are a number of elements that are used by the playwright to develop the structure of the play. They include the following:
Plot – the sequence of the events of the story as laid out by the playwright (NOTE: these are not always chronological)
Action – this refers to the things that happen in the play – they may be external actions (physical movement or activities) or internal actions (thought processes, dawning realizations, etc.)
Conflict – this refers to the events, situations, or characters that impede to forward progress of the action toward resolution – often creates tension, struggle, and crisis
Strongly opposed forces – in a play, the sides that are engaged in the struggle between achieving goals and impeding goals need to be significant – normally these are of such magnitude as to be potentially life altering
Balance of forces – also in a play, the opposing forces need to be almost nearly matched in relative strength – if the opposition is too easy to overcome, there won’t be much interest in the play
Sequence elements in Dramatic Structure
As the playwright is putting together the play, he or she needs to consider the sequence of the elements. These determine the plot and influence the action. Basically, the playwright has three sequence elements to work with. The first is the opening scene. This is going to come at the beginning of the play, though it refers to the opening of the significant action, and not just the introduction to the play. There is usually only one opening scene, but a playwright may use multiple opening scenes if there are multiple significant actions that are woven together to create the play. We’ll see more about that shortly. The next type of sequence element is the obstacles and complications. These are the scenes where the opposing forces come together, with one trying to move toward its goals and the other side getting in its way and preventing, or at least impeding, the achievement of those goals. There will likely be several of these as the play moves through time to demonstrate the working out of the story and to demonstrate the significance of the action of the play. The final type of sequence element are the crises and climaxes. These are the moments in the play when the opposing forces come into direct opposition and the balance of the forces is tested, usually with the perspective the playwright is favoring just barely overcoming the opposing perspective.
Forms of Dramatic Structure
When we look at dramatic structure, we can see that there are two basic forms that playwrights use to put together the elements discussed above. The first of these is called the climactic plot structure. The name clearly indicates that this structure is based on the use of the climax (often a single significant climax) in the play to give it its basic structure.
A diagram of this type of structure would look something like this:
In this type of structure, the plot of the play usually begins late in the story – just before the opposing forces come into play against each other. The focus is on the obstacles that are in the way of achieving the goals of the main character and the ultimate resolution of that conflict at the climax of the play. In the diagram above, the introduction/exposition refers to the opening moments of the play as the playwright lays out the information that the audience needs to understand the conflict and resolution that is coming. It may contain some earlier information, but it usually just sets up the current circumstances of the moment in the play. The rising action refers to the action of the play as the opposing forces increase the opposition conflict and tension that ultimately results in the final confrontation of the crisis and the climax. The falling action, sometimes referred to as the denouement, refers to the wrapping up of the story elements after the climax has been passed and the goals of the main character are being achieved. This is usually a relatively short part of the play as the loose ends are wrapped up for the audience. The last part of this structure is the resolution/conclusion. This is the very final part of the play as the new status quo for the characters takes hold. Once the goals are achieved, the new life of the main character is very briefly established as the action suggests that “life goes on.”
Another characteristic of this type of structure is that everything in the play should be focused on telling the story of the primary conflict and climax. The number of scenes will be limited to those that are necessary to show the significant parts of the storyline. There will usually be a very limited number of locations – usually limited to a single place. Finally, there will be only those characters included in the play as are absolutely necessary to tell the story. There won’t be a number of side characters with their own storyline different from the main storyline.
These plays that follow this sort of dramatic structure tend to be very tightly constructed. The playwright does not include, or takes out, anything that does not directly serve to tell the story of the single basic conflict and its resolution.
The second type of basic dramatic structure is called episodic plot structure. This is a structure that most of us are actually fairly familiar with, since most television series use this type of structure throughout a season or even throughout the entire series.
In the first example of this structure, also known as a serial structure, there are a number of self-contained episodes that have a basic climactic structure or an episodic structure of their own, but that when experienced cumulatively they create an overall dramatic structure with a serial climactic point or points.
The standard episodic structure consists of a series of intermediate conflicts with intermediate climaxes that taken cumulatively result in an overall rising action that moves the story toward the primary crisis and climax that resolves the main struggle of the main character(s). In the diagram below we can see this sort of structure by following the black lines of the diagram. However, there is another kind of structural complication that is illustrated by the red lines below. These alternating, and/or supporting, plot elements and scenes in the action usually reinforce the main action by repetition, or through contrast are called subplots. This type of multiple series of intermediate conflicts and climaxes is known as a rising action with subplot structure.
In any variety of episodic structure, the characters, locations, and scenes can be highly variable. There can be alternating plot lines or parallel plot lines, and/or subplots. There is the potential for contrast and juxtaposition of scenes, characters, and other story/plot elements. Episodic dramatic structure is intended to result in the cumulative effect of the many intermediate steps to create a single overall story with its own climactic moment.
Comparing Climactic and Episodic Dramatic Structure
Other forms of dramatic structure
In addition to these two basic forms of dramatic structure. Here are some others to be familiar with:
Ritual – refers to a reenactment of actions with special meaning – often this is reinforced with symbolic significance to the actions themselves
Patterns – similar to ritual, but usually lacking the symbolic significance – consists of repeated sequences of action that have order and logic
Cyclical – this form follows the circadian rhythms of human existence - often lacks high points, but suggests continuing patterns, repeated without a clear beginning or end – also known as a “feminist” structure
Serial – a special form of episodic structure as pointed out above – a group of singular events offered as a cumulative effect – “beads on a necklace”
Avant-Garde and Experimental – these include the following: 1. Ceremony; 2. Non-verbal and physical (stresses physical movement instead of logical, intelligible language); 3. Improvisation; 4. Environmental (focuses on the physical relationship of the audience with respect to the performers); 5. Focus on the audience, as individuals, developing an individual interpretation each for him or herself.
Segments and Tableaux – small units similar to “frames of a film” or “still life,” or “flickering” rapid action or slow-motion
The next element of writing the play that playwrights need to keep in mind is the development of dramatic characters. Unlike real life, not all characters in a play serve the same function. Most are defined by how they are developed, and how closely they compare to real human beings. We will cover many of these types of characters in other places throughout the course, but in order to understand how the playwright looks at character, this section will introduce the major categories of characters. The tools that a playwright uses to develop character are somewhat limited by the nature of the dramatic writing process. Basically, the characters are revealed through dialogue and action. We learn about characters through what they say, what other characters say about them, and through what they do, or choose not to do.
Types of characters
Extraordinary characters – these are the characters in a play who most closely resemble real people. They are usually well-rounded (sometimes referred to as being 3-dimensional) in terms of their needs, goals, values, etc. but they also stand out in some regard. Something that makes them stand out from the rest of the characters in some way – a unique quality or character trait. They are also usually the main characters of a play. They are meant to be as much like us, the audience, as possible so we can readily identify with their actions and situations.
Representative (quintessential) characters – these are characters who are well-rounded, but instead of standing out in a unique way, they tend to represent an entire group of people – they represent the type fully and realistically.
Stock characters – these are characters who are not fully realized. They are not 3-dimensional. In fact, they usually exist in a play to portray a standard type or stereotype of a human function or activity and have virtually no other traits or qualities.
Dominant trait characters – a kind of stock-character, these are characters whose purpose in the play is to personify a single human trait, frequently a comic one (or one meant to be seen as funny).
Minor characters – minor characters usually don’t seem real at all, and generally only appear briefly. Their purpose is to fill a function or need in a play that keeps the story moving forward.
Foil – a foil is a character – can be of any other type listed here, but usually a minor character – who functions in the play to contrast with another character, usually the main character, in order to let the audience know something about the main character.
Narrator or chorus – some plays use a character to narrate the action or to move the story forward by speaking directly to the audience and giving the audience needed information that may not be appropriate for one of the characters to provide – the chorus was an integral part of the ancient Greek and Roman theatre, and it often served in this basic narrative role.
Non-human characters – playwrights often use animals or other non-human characters in their plays. This has happened all throughout the history of theatre – even as far back as the ancient Greeks. Whatever species the character may be, the intent is always to draw attention to the character’s human experience.
Dramatic Point of View
Th final element of the play writing experience is the point of view that the playwright creates for the audience. As noted above under Focus, the playwright creates the main character with the expectation that the audience will follow that character and identify with that character’s circumstances. That focus brings the audience’s attention to the main issues of the play. Just as the structure is built around the struggle between strong opposing forces in nearly equal balance. The playwright usually personifies that struggle between the protagonist – the main character that is supposed to be the character the audience “sees” through the eyes of – the “hero,” and the antagonist – the character or situation that stands in opposition to the goals of the protagonist – the “villain.” It is important to note that the antagonist is not always a separate character. Opposition can come from someone else, but it can also come from the environment or the circumstances we find ourselves in. Sometimes, we are our own opposition, and the struggle becomes an internal one to overcome the opposition and achieve our goals. As a result, in a play the antagonist might be a character or a situation or even the main character him or herself.
When we talk about genre, we are talking about how plays are classified into categories and types. We do that by examining common elements between scripts in terms of style and the methods used to create the message in the script. All literature is classified into genres, and all theatrical literature shares the overall genre title of “dramatic literature.” However, that can be broken down into several other drama-specific genres. For our purposes, there are six categories that plays fit into, and several of those have sub-categories of their own.
Dramatic literature can be broken down into these basic genres/categories, each of which will be discussed separately:
We will now look at these categories individually, starting with the oldest first.
Tragedy was the original form of drama. In fact, its name derives from the Greek word, tragedos, which translates as “song of the goat.” As we will see when we look more closely at the development of theatre in ancient Greece, what we know as plays began as a celebration of religious rites for the gods, Dionysus in particular. Part of that celebration consisted in a sacrifice of a goat. As the goat was being led to the altar to be sacrificed, a chorus of priests and townspeople would line the entryway and sing a song celebrating the god. That practice eventually led to the chorus of men performing what became a dramatic presentation. These earliest performances of that type were the foundations of what has become our modern theatre.
As a result, what the original plays consisted of was often quite serious, and tragedy takes on the meaning of serious drama. Tragedy has also come to include certain other common elements, such as using important people (royalty or military leaders) as the main characters. They usually suffer some sort of wide-ranging calamity that causes suffering, fear, and apprehension. These plays also probe the big questions of what it means to be a human being. Many of those questions we ask ourselves today, like, “Why am I here?” “Why do people have to suffer?” “What is the source of happiness and misery?”
The last thing to discuss generally about tragedy is that there are two basic types of tragedy: Traditional and Modern.
Ia. Traditional Tragedy
The oldest form of tragedy, that based on the ancient Greek model is referred to as Traditional tragedy. There are four main characteristics that set traditional tragedy apart from other types.
It uses heroes as main characters. These roles are usually seen as being larger than life, that is they stand out as being the important people of the day – the kings and queens or military leaders, and mythical heroes. These people were eth main characters because they were meant to stand as both role models for the rest of the population and often served as symbols of larger human issues.
Another key trait of any traditional tragedy is the role of fate. This was often seen as the action of the gods in mankind’s lives, but it served the same function as what we call fate today. There was no way to escape one’s fate. No amount of human action or change or hiding could shift a person’s fate away from him. This fate usually manifested itself or revealed itself in a character flaw – often referred to as the tragic flaw. The role of fate in a traditional tragedy meant that it dealt with tragic circumstances and tragic irretrievability. Basically, what this means is that the human suffering is great and unavoidable.
The next characteristic we will consider is the idea of responsibility. In traditional tragedy, the hero takes responsibility for his or her tragic flaw and the results of fate. The suffering is usually taken on by the main character, usually by choice, but not always, so the common people won’t suffer the consequences of whatever fate and/or the gods deal out as a result of the tragic circumstances.
The last characteristic of traditional tragedy is that it is written in verse. It takes on poetic forms and is often song-like. Part of that is a result of the tradition of song (the song of the goat) upon which Tragedy is founded and the fact that literature of ancient Greece was rarely read. Instead, it was performed or sung by poets from memory. Poetic verse is much easier to memorize and to recite.
As a result of these basic characteristics, Traditional tragedy seems to be filled with contradictions and paradox. There is a sense of pessimism, but it is balanced by a sense of optimism despite fate. There is also a sense of the hero (and in fact all humans) finding themselves in an uncompromising situation – being between a rock and a hard place facing an impossible choice with no good option. In those circumstances, tragedy reinforces the positive strength of human dignity as the hero faces suffering and possibly even death with dignity and head held high. It just shows all of us that even though we are all doomed in some way, we can face the ultimate consequences without fear and cowardice.
Ib. Modern Tragedy
The other type of tragedy that we will consider has been named Modern Tragedy. Instead of reviewing all of the characteristics of Modern tragedy, since many of them are the same as traditional tragedy, we will only point out the differences between Traditional and Modern tragedy. First, as might be assumed from the name, Modern tragedy is relatively recent. We will see when we start discussing theatre history that “Modern” is a term that doesn’t always refer to the 21st century. In fact, Modern tragedy is a concept that started to take shape shortly after Shakespeare wrote his plays in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Modern tragedy is essentially the same as Traditional Tragedy in terms of themes and concepts. It differs most significantly in two ways. The first is that instead of using heroes as main characters, the main character is a common person, someone from the middle class who might be a merchant or a small farmer or someone who is not a member of the upper levels of society. The other significant difference is that Modern tragedy is written in prose – not using poetry or poetic style. This developed out of a natural shift in literature. In the 17th century and later, more people were reading for themselves, so literature was not just an oral form. Reading led to a change in style to a prose style throughout literature and that found its way into dramatic literature as well.
The next major category, or genre, of dramatic literature that we will examine is called Heroic Drama. This style is also sometimes referred to as Heroic Tragedy. That’s significant because this genre shares a lot of traits in common with Traditional and Modern tragedy. In fact, it shares all of the traits of Modern Tragedy except that it often has a happy ending – or at least one that does not end in utter tragic loss. Instead, what usually happens is that the main character takes responsibility for the tragic circumstance and after serious suffering and loss on the part of the hero, things get better and the ending of the play seems to suggest that the “tomorrow” for the characters, including the hero of the play, will be better because of the suffering endured by the hero. The main character doesn’t always die or suffer permanent “damage.” In fact, there’s usually complete recovery – though not always. These plays are generally optimistic about the world and human circumstances despite the suffering of the hero. Another term that is frequently applied to this genre is Romantic Drama, which we also discuss more thoroughly later in the course.
Throughout its history, theatre has become more and more likely to have characters who are like the people who are in the audiences. As a result of the growing influence of the middle class in the later Middle Ages, theatre developed new genres to account for the growing influence of the middle class on the plays, the subject matter of the plays, and life in general. One such development is this genre or category of plays, called Domestic Drama. It is also sometimes referred to as Bourgeois Drama. Bourgeois (‘boo JWA’) refers to an identifiable class of society. This was most often a label applied to the growing middle class in 18th and 19th century Europe. This genre can be characterized by plays that have these characteristics:
Based on the lives of ordinary men and women
Often set in the “home” of the protagonist – at least on the home turf of the protagonist: home, workplace, socially appropriate location based on social rank
Can be serious or comic – this is significant – NOTE: this is not just a serious form
Often looks at the indomitable spirit of struggle and survival (making the most of difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances)
The next major category, or genre, of dramatic literature is known as Melodrama. The name is actually a contraction of two words: “melody” and “drama.” Melodrama is a 19th century creation by the French. It is an outgrowth of the Romantic Drama genre (see Heroic Drama above). The idea that music was a part of early drama, as well as the idea that music touches its hearers on an emotional level, as well as being intellectual, led to the development of Melody Drama. The French theatre producers would add music to the plays of the time as an accompaniment to the dialogue. They believed that this would help the audience to understand the emotional content of a play better.
You may be familiar with the 20th century American version of this genre, the silent motion picture. These movies would be played in a movie theatre, but since there was no sound on the film, the studio would also send along a piano book with the movie. Then, a piano player would play the music that went along with the movie as it was being shown.
These plays (which did have dialogue) and movies (which usually had no sound other than the piano music) would often use simple plots and a climactic dramatic structure. They might be tragic or comic in nature, but usually contained a little bit of both styles. Almost all of them had some sort of suspense or mystery built into the story in order to help keep the audience interested and guessing what would happen next. The characters were often quite simple, too, mostly stock characters: the hero, the woman needing rescue or saving, the villain, and some others.
Modern melodramas include soap operas, crime dramas, action scenes in movies, westerns, sci-fi, etc. We will see them on television and in the movies. Basically, any visual presentation that includes music is a successor to the early melodramas. For example, if you are familiar with the Star Wars movie franchise, consider the music that was written for those movies. You can clearly identify which character is the most important in any moment, because like a melodrama, the characters had personal music themes that helped the audience identify their role in the movie. We know Darth Vader is a villain when we first encounter him because the music sounds like “villain” music!
Up to this point, we have looked at several genres, most of which have their roots in the tragedies of Ancient Greece – even though some of them cross over and include comic forms, too. Now we will look at the many subgenres of comedy.
First, it is important to understand by what we mean by “comedy.” Today we know comedy as a humorous dramatic work. It focuses on human follies or excesses, and usually seeks to evoke laughter. However, in the earliest times, comedy referred to any play that was not a classic tragedy. Then, throughout history it developed into the notion that plays in which the main character didn’t die was considered comedy. Finally, by the time of Shakespeare, comedy came to mean anything that wasn’t tragedy, or historical, or that had a happy ending (defined as a wedding or betrothal for marriage) was considered a comedy – regardless of how it got to that point! We can see that though the basic nature of tragedy remained the same, comedy developed over time into the humorous approach to drama that we have today. There is a wide range of modern comedy from slapstick/physical comedy to mocking/sarcasm and through to intellectual humor. It’s also important to understand that comedies, though they make us laugh, can be serious in their own way.
Comedy has some basic characteristics that define the classification, or genre, of comedy. They include the following:
In comedy different rules apply. What that refers to is that in comedy, the rules of reality are often suspended. What we in the audience accepts as being a natural truth is often NOT true in a comedy. For example, a gun pulled out on stage would, in the real world, shoot a bullet and wound or kill someone. However, in a comedy, instead of a bullet, a little flag might pop out and have the word, “bang!” written on it. – We also refer to this as a suspension of natural laws.
The next characteristic of comedy we will look at is the contrast between characters and truth. This grows out of number 1. Essentially, this situation occurs when the characters (not the actors) reflect a truth that is different from reality, either in the real world or even in the world of the play. An example of this might be when a high society person routinely wears dirty ragged clothes instead of fine quality clothing. A literary example of this is the basic premise of the story, The Emperor’s New Clothes.
The last basic characteristic of comedy, and perhaps the most important since it is essentially the driving concept behind the first two characteristics is comic premise – “turning things upside down.” We see this idea reflected in several modern phrases, such as “topsy-turvy” and “seems to be all upside-down.” These phrases, and the concept of the comic premise means that what we see in comedy is often exactly opposite from what we would expect to see. For example, in many 18th and 19th century comedies, the nobility and wealthy characters would be depicted as not being very bright, but the lower-class characters would seem to be very wise. We would expect the upper-class characters to be better educated and therefore wiser than the lower-class characters. The comedy occurs when something is not as it seems, and/or when it is not as expected. This premise was identified by Aristotle in Ancient Greek comedies, and we still see it today.
Comedy is also quite often made up of standard techniques in some broad categories of their own. These techniques of comedy involve the following types of humor:
This consists of humorous language and lines that rely on the words to make the joke. These tend to be focused on misusing words or setting up jokes with punchlines. Other examples include the use of puns, malapropisms, epigrams, and witty language.
Comedy of Character
This is a situation where the character is not what he thinks he is or is pretending to be someone else. These often involve some element of dramatic irony – where the audience knows the truth, but the characters in the story do not. We know that character is pretending to be a surgeon, but the other characters in the play believe the character actually is a surgeon.
A third technique for bringing humor into a play is to use some sort of plot complication. These include a wide range of possibilities, such as coincidence, mistaken identity, and unexpected situations arising. Our television situational comedies are filled with this sort of comedy technique. Unusual and unexpected events occur and that makes us laugh, because it is unexpected.
Forms of Comedy
V.1. Farce – Farce is a form of comedy that is based in exaggeration. It is quite frequently seen to be “over the top” in terms of physical humor, sometimes even apparent painful physical humor. The classic bit about a person slipping on a banana peel is an example of farce. This form frequently uses stereotypes as characters rather than fully realistic characters. The Three Stooges are an excellent example of farcical comedy.
V.2. Burlesque – Burlesque began as a comic form that was focused on parody of other styles of drama. However, during the late 19th and early 20th century, this form started to focus on bawdy forms of humor that included some rather crude physical humor, which often became vulgar and frequently included sexual overtones. This form also frequently uses a variety format – a series of dramatic parody events with similar themes, but with a bawdy flavor.
V.3. Satire – Satire as a form is meant to use humor to expose a social problem in an effort to encourage the audience to recognize the problem and correct it. It often uses language-based humor, revolving around witty statements and the use of irony. It can be of almost any comedy form, but the purpose is what sets Satire as a form of comedy apart from the other forms.
V.4. Domestic Comedy – Domestic comedy is a very old form of comedy – originating in the ancient Roman theatre. It is comedy that deals with family situations and often includes a variety of levels of comedy (ranging from physical to language-based comedy. This is the form that most modern Situational Comedies (sitcoms) take in our modern entertainment.
V.5. Comedy of Manners – This is a form of comedy that grew out of the early Commedia del’ Arte style late in the Renaissance – particularly in France. It focuses its comedy by looking at the excesses of the upper class, and often presents their behavior as random silliness and totally unthinking. A key component of this type of comedy is that while the upper classes are seen as comic, lower class characters are usually presented as being clear-thinking and world-wise.
V.6. Comedy of Ideas – The comedy of ideas is a technique, similar to satire, that uses comic techniques to look at non-comic social issues. The major difference is that the purpose is not to correct the issues, rather it’s to take the sting out of the seriousness (and sometimes quite serious) of the topics. For example, the 1970s television show M*A*S*H is considered a comedy of ideas. It looked at the humorous side of a very tragic issue – war and injured/dying soldiers.
Tragicomedy – Tragicomedy is, as the name suggests, a form that combines tragedy with comedy. Not all of life is either comic or tragic. It is usually a mixture of both. As a result, in the early 20th century, this genre developed out of the earlier humanism of the English Renaissance (particularly the problem plays of Shakespeare). Tragicomedy combines tragic and comic elements. It most frequently does this by using tragic themes and noble characters but with a happy ending. Other times, it can look at the desperately tragic conditions of this world but with a purely comic perspective. It can also be seen to mix tragic characters and situations with comic characters and situations – often mirroring each other to show the contrast despite the similarities. There is usually a synthesis of viewpoints – some serious and tragic.
As mentioned above, this form grew out of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays. He recognized that human lives are often a blend of tragic and comic, so he wrote plays that didn’t fit the Renaissance mold of either tragic OR comic, but never both. He wrote his comic plays to include an element of doom overhanging the comic storyline.
In modern times, the perspective has shifted slightly, and instead of just keeping the audience aware of impending doom, the modern Tragicomedy is focused on the futility of human existence. These plays generally paint human lives as both pathetic and comic.
Theatre of the Absurd – The term most frequently applied to modern tragicomedy is the Theatre of the Absurd. It is a form of extreme tragicomedy – where the comic element comes from exploring the absurdities of life, our alienation despite our social nature, and the loss of logic and justice in our world. This form uses all of the classic comedy techniques ranging from physical humor to language-based humor – frequently including irony. It was developed after World War II as a separate movement within the modern theatre but is mostly based on the older idea of the problem play.
Some of the techniques used by Theatre of the Absurd include the following:
Illogical plots, and strange events – often symbolic or metaphorical
Nonsense language that is frequently disconnected and non-linear
Existential characters that exist only in the moment without any clear goals or backgrounds