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The Dramatic Arts: Definition & Types

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we jump into the exciting world of the dramatic arts. We'll define the art form and discuss its many different types that are classified by subject matter and the techniques used to perform them.

What Are Dramatic Arts?

Have you ever taken a drama class, acted in a school play, or danced in a recital? If so, you've already participated in the dramatic arts. The dramatic arts are a form of narrative performed on a stage in front of an audience. These stories and the way they are portrayed manifest in a wide variety of styles, also known as genres.

The two oldest genres are tragedy and comedy, but both had slightly different meanings than how they are used today. In simplest terms, tragedy involves a story where the protagonist fails or dies. A comedy has a happy ending and the protagonist wins. Sometimes these are funny stories, but in classical theater, these terms just related to the positive or negative outcome of the story. Let's take a closer look at comedies today.

Masks of Comedy and Tragedy
Masks of Comedy and Tragedy

Types of Comedy

Today, comedy often refers to amusing stories, not just ones with happy endings. That said, I'm sure you've noticed that there are different kinds of humor. You would expect different laughs from a sitcom than watching an indie film.

  • High Comedy: This form of comedy relates to our example of the indie film. These are usually serious stories that are humorous in an intellectual or thoughtful way. Films like Bottle Shock (2008), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990), and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) are examples of high comedy.
  • Low Comedy: This form of comedy usually evokes uncontrollable laughter, sometimes from improbable situations. Just about any sitcom you think of falls under this umbrella. If the situation portrayed is outrageously ridiculous and unbelievable, a low comedy may be deemed a farce.
  • Improv: Short for improvisation, improv is a comedy form without a script. Performers ask the audience for suggestions, and the actors perform on the spot by using the suggestions.

Gilligans Island is an example of a low comedy farce.
Gilligans Island

Drama

Drama refers to stories with serious subject matter. There are three subtypes of drama worth mentioning. Melodrama uses action to build interest and excitement, such as fights and chases. The theme is usually good versus evil. The second type is bourgeois drama, which is a dramatic tale with middle or lower class characters. Finally, we have the historical/docu-drama that tells a real story with dramatic elements.

Types of Performance

Next, we have types of theatrical performance that are not based on the subject matter of the story. These pertain to how the performers act out the stories and the style or devices they use. These types are used to tell stories from all of the genres listed above.

Musical

Musical productions involve any form of storytelling that includes music. First, we have a type known simply as musicals. These productions include song passages and spoken dialogue. This is an important distinction to make; it differs from an opera because an opera requires the performers to sing every line. The dance genre also falls under musical performance, because the dancers perform to music. A dance production tells a story through its performance. We see this in ballets like Swan Lake or The Nutcracker.

Scene from The Barber of Seville, an opera
Barber of Seville

Puppetry

Puppetry is actually quite ancient, dating back over 3000 years. In this form, at least one character must be a representational object, whether it looks like a person, an animal, or something else. These puppets are controlled by a puppeteer who may even give it a voice. Puppets are usually marionettes, but they can be made from socks or use small items on fingertips.

Most children are familiar with puppets and puppet theater.
puppet and owl

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