What Is Drama? Literary Definition, Features, Forms & Examples

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The Principles and Practice of Drama Appreciation

This article presents an introduction to literary appreciation as it relates to drama. Major concepts in drama are explained; the nature of drama and the essential elements that characterize drama as a genre of literature are also discussed, with examples drawn from classical, English, and African plays.

Origin of Drama

Drama is one of the genres of literature. The other two are prose and poetry. While poetry is presented in lines and stanzas, prose in paragraphs and chapters, and drama is presented in acts and scenes, All are familiar with drama, to a certain extent, in the form of plays that are re-enacted in primary schools, with pupils acting out diverse roles; role plays where young girls make up their faces and try to wobble along in their mothers' shoes just to imitate their mothers or even back a toy baby and care for it like a real one; cases where students mimic their teachers' gestures, attitudes, and mannerisms/speeches—all these are snapshots of drama.

The origin of what is today referred to as drama is traceable to religious rituals and festive activities. In the Western world, it is traced to the worship of the Greek god, Dionysus, in classical Greece. In Africa, drama has been traced to religious festivals, ancestral cults, and worship.

In Greek, the word "drama" has its roots in the word "dran," which means "to do." This denotes that drama essentially involves the enactment of a story on a stage before an audience. While prose thrives on narration, drama is driven by action. Those who carry out the actions in a play are referred to as actors, and they make up the cast of the play. The place where plays are viewed is referred to as the theater.

The word "theatre" comes from the Greek word "theatron," which means "seeing place." In bringing performances to life in the theater, drama often employs lighting, sounds, spectacle, songs, dances, costumes, and props.

Drama has been employed to teach and entertain for ages. The presentation of a play in a theater goes beyond conveying an experience to the audience; it imparts the experience to the audience. The impact of the theater is direct. That is why the theater has been employed in diverse educational programs on issues ranging from health to politics.

There have been diverse radio plays on HIV/AIDS, the importance of sanitation, the role of nation-building, etc. When dialogue is combined with action in a theater, the audience hardly forgets the message passed across, whether as entertainment, education, advocacy, or activism.

Characteristics Of Drama

  • Mimesis: Humans are innately mimetic. A convenient synonym for drama would be imitation. Drama entails role-playing and impersonation; it features the imitation of the actions of people on stage. The physical appearances of characters, the props used, their facial expressions and gestures, and even their diction all serve to mimic what is obtainable outside the walls of the theater.
  • Enactment: Performance is crucial to drama. There are gestures, facial expressions, voice modulations, and mannerisms that bring a play to life. Drama involves both telling and showing. The audience is presented with "a slice of life" as actors take on roles and enact the events of the script written by the playwright.
  • Dialogue: The verbal exchanges among characters in a play form the dialogue. The importance of dialogue in drama cannot be overemphasized. Characters communicate with other characters on stage. It is through dialogue that the audience gets to know what the play is all about. The audience also knows a character and other characters through what the character says about himself or herself and what other characters say about him or her.
  • Action: In the place of narration in prose, we have action in drama. Drama essentially involves the enactment of a story by actors in front of an audience. The actions of a play are ordered in such a way that there is conflict—a clash of interests, will, ideas, and/or forces. A play comes alive when the actions are performed. The audience gets to know the characters not only through what they say but also through what they do. A character's actions tell the audience a lot about him or her.
  • Spectacle: Spectacle speaks of the various stage managements and machinations so that the message of a play is clear to the audience. Spectacle is often enhanced by the use of costumes, props, lighting, sounds, scenery, stage directions, curtains, backdrops, platforms, etc. If there are spectacles, there must be spectators. The audience consists of spectators and sometimes participants in the play. Essentially, spectacle serves to enrich the audience's visual experience of the play.
  • Verisimilitude: Verisimilitude denotes the attempts made by a dramatist to make a play as true-to-life as possible. Real-life events and people are imitated. The dramatist presents happenings that can happen in real life.

Forms of Drama

Tragedy and comedy are the two broad forms of drama. Comedy traditionally involves laughter, while tragedy involves weeping and mourning.

1. Tragedy

In ancient classical Greece, a tragedy referred to a serious play that engages a solemn theme, which must essentially produce catharsis in the audience. Sophocles' Oedipus Rex is a good example of a classical Greek tragic play that follows Aristotelian principles. The principles projected in Aristotle's Poetics have been beneficial to several generations of literary artists and critics, from antiquity to contemporary times.

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) was the first renowned scholar, critic, and theorist of drama. According to Aristotle, a tragic play must be serious in tone, scope, and content; it must be complete in itself and must effect catharsis in the audience. This means that the audience is expected to experience a purgation or distillation of emotions as a result of pity and fear for the tragic hero.

A classical tragic play would also abide by the three unities: unity of place (all the events of the play must take place within a location); unity of time (all the events of the play must take place within a single rotation of the sun, that is, a day); and unity of action (all the events of the play move in a straight course from the beginning to the end; there are no subplots or digressions).

The tragic hero must, of necessity, be of the royal family, of excellent character, often possessing talents that are rare to come by, but he is usually plagued by a tragic flaw, which could be anger, jealousy, or pride. The tragic flaw (hubris) is what usually leads to his fall from grace to grass. What often constitutes the heroic in the tragic hero is his acknowledgement of his failings and his acceptance of his fate. This leads to his regeneration, but not restoration. This also produces purgation in the audience.

A tragic play presents the struggles and sufferings of a character or characters in unenviable circumstances and the decisions that they make, which often worsen their circumstances and further cause the characters to sink deeper into the mire of calamity.

A tragic play ends unhappily; it may end in the death of the tragic hero, his banishment as seen in Sophocles Oedipus Rex, or in some other unpleasant circumstances. Tragic plays include William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear. Ola Rotimi's The Gods Are Not To Blume, an adaptation of Sophocles Oedipus Rex, is an example of an African tragic play. Other examples are The Raft by JP Clark and Women of Owu by Femi Osofisan.

2. Comedy

A comic play presents events that are funny and often satirical. The playwright may decide to lampoon the vices in society by depicting men as worse than they usually are. Human nature is often the source of attack in a comedy. The human race is diversely presented as lacking virtue, weak, and comical.

Comic plays set out to amuse and entertain while making comments on the happenings in society and the nature of the people that make up society. Comedy uncovers human follies and foibles.

Essentially, a comic play ends on a happy note. Aristophanes' The Frogs is an example of classical Greek comedy; Ben Jonson's Volpone; Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot; and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest are great English comedies. William Shakespeare's comic plays include Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Fems Osofisan's Midnight Hotel, Wole Soyinka's The Trials of Brother Jero, and Kobina Sekyi's The Blinkurds are examples of African comic plays.

Types of Comedy

Comedy of manners, comedy of humor, farce, and melodrama are some sub-genres of comedy.

  • Comedy of Manners

In a comedy of manners, there is the mockery of certain behavioral patterns and mannerisms. The playwright may satirize the peculiarities of a class of people in society, especially those that belong to the upper class. The term gained prominence in the criticism of the works of such dramatists as William Congreve and William Wycherley, both seventeenth-century dramatists.

  • Comedy of Humors

The comedy of humor was popularized by Ben Jonson, the sixteenth-century dramatist and a contemporary of William Shakespeare. The term "humours" was employed to denote bodily fluids, which medieval medical practitioners associated with people's different temperaments. In the comedy of humor, characters behave indiscriminately based on the "humor" that is prominent in the character's body. A character may be excessively melancholic, phlegmatic, or sanguine.


From the name of this dramatic form, it is clear that the tragicomedy blends the features of both tragedy and comedy. The tragicomedy often presents events that are serious, involve unhappy circumstances, but end with a happy resolution. It features characters from both the high and low classes. In a tragicomedy, the dark shades of life are presented alongside the happier depictions of life. An example is William Shakespeare's The Tempest.


A farce is often described as a nonsensical play; it depends largely on ludicrous circumstances and characters. Farce and melodrama are classified as belonging to the theater of entertainment. The events presented in a farce are often implausible. The characters are exaggerated, absurd, and comical. The characters in a farce behave more ridiculously than in a typical comedy. The events in a farce often revolve around mistaken identity, coincidences, deception, and disguise. William Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors is a good example of a farce.


The melodrama features twists in the plot that evoke feelings of fear and pity in the audience. In spite of the tragic happenings that may have begun the play, the melodrama ends on a happy note, as good will eventually triumph over evil and the kindhearted over the cruel. Musical elements are part of melodrama.

Elements of Drama

It is important to note that, essentially, drama is scripted for performance. Plays come to life when they are performed on a stage before an audience. An essential quality that makes drama is imitation. Characters make up the cast of a play and dramatize the plot of the play. The play is set off at a particular location in space and time.

In discussing all these—plot, character, setting, and so on—we are discussing the elements of drama.

1. Plot

The plot denotes a sequential arrangement of events in a play according to the principles of "cause" and "effect." The events in a play are presented in a particular order in such a way that causality becomes emphasized. This is captured in the plot. The plot presents a series of connected events that are presented in a particular sequence to suit the purposes of the play.

The plot may be linear, chronological, or organic or episodic, non-chronological, or inorganic. The organic plot moves the events of the play in a chronological manner from the beginning to the end, without digressions. The episodic plot structure features subplots, digressions, and plot twists.

The Freytag's Triangle, also called the Freytag's Pyramid, has been useful in teaching the conventional five-act plot of a play. It was developed by Gustav Freytag, a German writer, and presented in a book published in 1863 entitled Die Technik des Dramas (Technique of the Drama).

  • Exposition: In the expository part of the plot, in the first act, the main characters and events of the play are introduced to the audience. The exposition is the part of the plot that sets the ball rolling. It presents an introduction to the subject matter of the play.
  • Rising Action: At the rising action, conflict begins to build up in a play. There is an increase in the actions that breed tension in the play, which would eventually lead to the climax in the third act.
  • Climax: The actions of the plot (the conflicts, especially) build up to the highest point, captured as the climax. At the climax, the tension in the play reaches its peak. It is the moment of greatest conflict, tension, and often excitement, intrigue, and suspense for the audience. It is at this point that the decisions that will either make or mar the characters are made; here, the deed is done. The plot can only move downward at this point, heading for the falling action and ultimately the resolution. The climax is traditionally positioned in the third act of the play, and it is often captured as the turning point in the play.
  • Anticlimax: The anticlimax presents the events that result from the climax; these events signal the beginning of the end of the play.
  • Resolution: The resolution is also called "denouement," a French word that means "untying of a knot." Here, the events of the play are brought to a close. Conflicts are fully resolved, secrets exposed, puzzles solved, wrongs accounted for, and retribution effected.

2. Character

Characters are the people that make up the cast of a play. Characters act out the events of the play. They bring the play to life through what they do and what they say. A character in a play may be the protagonist or the antagonist; he may be a stock character, a flat character, a round character, a major character, or a minor character. The major characters play very important roles in the play, while the minor characters play insignificant roles in the play.

  • Protagonist/Hero: The protagonist in a play is the central character in that play. He or she is the character around whom the majority of the actions of the play revolve. The protagonist becomes a hero or heroine when he or she exhibits some commendable characteristics or virtues and performs or achieves great feats for his or her people. However, a tragic hero experiences suffering and pain, which may eventually claim his life. Examples of tragic heroes who are characters in different drama texts include Macbeth, Oedipus Rex, Julius Caesar, and the like.
  • Antagonist/Antihero/Villain: The antagonist is the character that opposes the protagonist in the play. The antagonist works for the downfall of the protagonist. The forces working against the protagonist, such as societal forces, traditions, or decrees, can also be described as antagonists. The antihero usually displays characters and possesses qualities that are in contrast to those exhibited by the protagonist or hero. The villain is the protagonist's rival. The villain sets out to harm other characters.
  • Stock Character: The stock character is a type. He or she behaves in a typical way and in an easily identifiable manner. Characters such as the cheat, the wicked mother-in-law or wicked stepmother, the dishonest help, the beautiful mistress, and the cruel uncle act in ways that conform to the audience's expectations in every play. Essentially, the stock character is a stereotypical character; he or she depicts certain traits and mannerisms that are expected of his or her kind.
  • Round Character: The round character is a character that undergoes significant changes during the play; the changes may be positive or negative. A round character is often an interesting character, one who is capable of surprising the audience. For example, Hamlet in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Sikira in Ola Rotimi's Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again are round characters.
  • Flat Character: The flat character is often predictable; such a character is unreceptive to changes during the course of the play. The flat character often exhibits a particular dominant trait and is therefore delineated along the lines of the dominant trait displayed. A flat character is often lacking in complexity. For example, Polonius in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Sadiku in Wole Soyinka's The Lion and the Jewel are flat characters.

3. Theme

The theme is the central idea in a literary piece. Themes may often not be stated categorically in a work of art, but the student searches out the central messages that the playwright is trying to pass across about life, human nature, society, natural phenomena, and the like. It is possible to have more than a theme in a play.

Other elements in a play, such as character, plot, and setting, work together to depict the theme or themes in the play. The theme is reflected in almost all the actions in the play. It is the unifying idea or ideas that other elements in the play seek to point out. For instance, one of the predominant themes in Shakespeare's Macbeth is inordinate ambition.

4. Setting

The setting in a play denotes the place and time where and when the events of the play take place. Spatial setting denotes the locale, the geographical location where the actions of the play take place. while the temporal setting speaks of the time and season that the events presented in the play take place.

There could also be considerations for the socio-cultural setting, the political setting, and the historical circumstances that surround a play when the play is being analyzed. The setting in a play is revealed in the dialogue of the characters, lighting, and other stage decor that also serve to suggest setting. The spatial setting in the classical play Agamemnon is in the city of Argos.

Dramatic Techniques and Concepts

Comic Relief

Comic relief refers to a comical interlude or the infusion of a humorous situation in the midst of a serious or tragic circumstance. The comic relief provides relief from the tragic events of a play; it changes the mood of the play for a brief time, affording a dissipation in the tension occasioned by the events of the play.


In foreshadowing the events of the plot, the playwright drops clues here and there as to the ultimate resolution of the conflicts in the play. Hints, clues, and prefigurations that are presented during the course of the play help to foreshadow the ultimate outcome of the play. Like a narrative, a play may employ foreshadowing or a flashback. Other words for foreshadowing are prolepsis and prefiguring. Foreshadowing is employed to give the audience a hint about a future event.


The flashback serves to familiarize the audience with the events that took place before the play began. Another name for flashback is analepsis. Here, past events and encounters are presented alongside current events.


Suspense refers to a somewhat pleasurable anxiety—the anticipation of the ultimate outcome of the play. Suspense plays a prominent role in sustaining the audience's interest in a play. The hallmark of a good play is that the audience's interest is sustained from the beginning of the play to the end of it. Suspense is a good tool for keeping the audience anxious about the resolution of the conflict or conflicts in a play.


A character soliloquizes when he talks to himself. His speech is heard by the audience only, unheard by other characters. A good example of a soliloquy is William Shakespeare's Hamlet's soliloquy in Hamlet, where he says, "To be or not to be, that is the question." Through a soliloquy, the audience knows a particular character's thoughts, speculations, and plans.


When a character addresses the audience or another character on stage in such a way that another character or other characters on stage are excluded from the exchange, an aside has taken place. The difference between aside and soliloquy is that aside has an element of secrecy to it. A character or some characters are knowingly left in the dark, as regards the particular verbal exchange. Other characters are often deaf to what is said in an aside.

Deus ex Machina

Deus ex machina relates to acts of divine or supernatural intervention. Deus ex machina literally means a god from a machine; it suggests a machine with pulleys and hooks employed to descend actors on stage, just in the form of a god.

Dramatic Irony

Irony is often employed to illustrate the difference between reality and illusion. There is verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony. In verbal irony, the speaker simply says the opposite of what he or she means. In situational irony, the opposite of an expectation from a particular situation is experienced; that is, there is a contrast between expectation and experience.

Dramatic irony depicts a discrepancy between what is known to the audience and what the characters acting on stage know. The contrast—the discrepancy between what the characters know and that which the audience is privy to—leads to dramatic irony.


Symbols are employed to suggest meanings beyond the images, objects, and even characters depicted. The employment of symbols in a play invites the audience to enlarge their thinking and read meanings into what is depicted. The use of particular colors, objects, names, and even diction may be symbolic.


The chorus in classical plays is often made up of singing women. who make valuable comments about the actions of the play. The chorus refers to a group of people who often remain on a part of the stage throughout the play, reacting to actions by other characters and making comments on the events of the play at intervals. The chorus could consist of just an actor (common in Elizabethan theater) or up to fifty actors (common in classical Greek theater).


Tragic plays often leave the audience sad and depressed. Aristotle prescribes that there must be a purgation of the audience's emotions of fear and pity. Catharsis literally means a cleansing of one's feelings. There must be an emotional release of the feelings of fear and pity.

Three Unities

Aristotle is often adjudged to have prescribed that a good tragic play should abide by the three unities: unity of place, unity of time, and unity of action.

  • The unity of place denotes that all the actions of a play should take place within a single locale.
  • The unity of time prescribes that all the events of the play must happen within a single rotation of the sun.
  • The unity of action suggests that the actions of a play should move progressively from the beginning of the play through to the middle and finally to the end of the play. with no room for digressions.

The three unities suggest that a play should have an organic plot structure, take place in a single location, and be completed within a day.

Poetic Justice

The principle of poetic justice finds application in plays. Here, every character gets just recompense for his or her actions. The guilty is punished, and the good person is rewarded; no offender goes scot-free or gets a punishment that is below the offense.


Costume refers to the clothes, items, and accessories worn by characters on stage to depict characterization, setting, theme, and even the conventions and philosophical ideas that a play projects. Costume aids characterization to a very large extent. The audience can make inferences about a character's personality from the dressing and other accessories worn by such a character.


Stage props are properties, objects, and accessories used on the stage during a play. It may range from items such as telephones to furniture such as chairs and tables, and even to animals such as a cat or a dog.


Dramaturgy refers to the entire body of plays of a particular tradition or dramatist and the tradition's or dramatist's peculiar art and craft, techniques, and styles. It encompasses the dramatic compositions and the theatrical presentations of such compositions. For instance, we can distinguish between William Shakespeare's dramaturgy and Wole Soyinka's dramaturgy.


A prompter's role in the theater is to remind actors and actresses of their lines when they forget them. The prompter communicates with the actor or actress using sign language, words, or codes. The prompter stays in a place that is invisible to the audience.


The theater refers to a place where viewers go to view performances. It essentially means a "viewing place." "Theatre" can also be used to refer to the art and craft of theatrical performances and dramatic presentations.


The director of a play interprets the play and oversees the actions of the actors and actresses involved in the performance of the play. He serves as an overseer; he coordinates the activities of everyone involved in the performance towards the actualization of a particular goal or vision as regards the play.

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