Types of Plays by Structure & Period

Instructor: Ronald Speener

Ronald, with my Masters in English, has taught composition, literature, humanities, critical thinking and computer classes.

In this lesson, we'll explore the development of structure in drama. Specifically, we'll look at structure changes influenced by staging and audience expectations during the Ancient Greek, Renaissance, and Modern periods.

Two Elements of Structure

It's Saturday night. Want to watch a movie? What are you in the mood for: action, a tear jerker, or maybe a comedy? There's lots of choices, but what makes us laugh or cry has changed little over the centuries. What has changed is the structure of the way we tell stories. This is due in part to stage design and audience expectations.

Greek Theater

Greek theater was like a whole day rock concert. Several plays were performed in a single day. Greek plays, much like an opera, had music, dancing, and chanting. The plots were familiar, and the plays had a fixed format and structure.

The Greek theater had three types of plays: tragedy, comedy, and satyr. Tragedy involved noble people who fail because of a personal flaw. Comedy was more social satire, rather like the satire you might see in the modern day TV show South Park. The satyr plays were bawdy and risque. They were performed after the tragic plays because after a good cry, one needs a good laugh.

Greek Staging

Greek plays were often performed outside in large amphitheaters, which could hold thousands of people. Because it was outside with large audiences, the actors (only men) wore masks, which acted as a megaphone and helped the audience identify each character.

Theater mask of a youth
Theater mask of a youth

The stage was divided into three areas: orchestra, parados, and skene. The area closest to the audience was the orchestra, where the chorus commented on, summarized, and prodded on the action of the play. The next area was the parados where messengers and common characters entered and exited. Finally was the skene, a platform with doors where the mythological nobility came to a tragic end, society was mocked in a comedy, and a god or goddess descended from a rope (deus ex machina--god from a machine) to intervene in human affairs. The skene was reserved for main characters.

Greek theater at Jerash, Jordan
Greek theater at Jerash

Greek Audience Expectations

The ancient Greeks had firm expectations when attending a play. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (4th Century BCE) was the first to develop a theory of drama. He observed that tragedy should have unities of place and time: one location and action over a very limited time. Comedies were more topical, but they needed to be socially conscious.

In tragedy, they wanted a good cry (catharsis). Death and violence must happen off stage, even in familiar stories. For example, the audience was familiar with the story of Oedipus the King by Sophocles, just as we know the story of Titanic, but the structure builds toward the horrific revelation at the end.

Of course, comedies required a good laugh and a moral lesson. The play Lysistrata by Aristophanes is an anti-war play where the women of Athens and Sparta withhold sexual favors until the men stop fighting. The women get their way.

Renaissance: Elizabethan Drama

Attending an Elizabethan play was a popular escape. The Globe Theater, which was one of the larger, sat about 3,000 people. The wealthier patrons sat while the poor ones stood close to the stage. Theatergoers enjoyed tragedies, comedies and histories where, unlike Greek theater, both common and noble characters strutted the same stage.

Swan theater
Swan theater

Elizabethan Staging

Elizabethan plays were performed in outdoor playhouses, in the halls of the nobility, or in specially built theaters, like Blackfriars Theater. The design of the stage was an important part of the play. For example, in Shakespeare's Macbeth, the porter enters from a trapdoor and proclaims himself as hell's porter.

Reconstruction of Blackfriars Theater
Reconstruction of Blackfrair Theater

Although the general categories of tragedy, comedy and history were recognized forms, plays could intermix element of each category. For example, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet balances comedy with a tragic ending.

Elizabethan Audience Expectations

Although Aristotle was still very influential, Elizabethan drama abandoned the Greek unities. The Roman poet Horace (1st Century CE) was equally influential. Horace said plays should be five acts long. Almost all the plays of the Elizabethan period are five acts.

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