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What is Drama? - Terms, Time Periods and Styles

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  • 0:06 What Is Drama
  • 1:17 History of Drama
  • 3:37 Dramatic Styles
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

Ever wonder why we use the word 'drama' when referencing people who overreact to a situation? Discover the definition of drama, its different styles, and why your friends might belong on the stage in this overview of the dramatic genre.

What Is Drama?

Drama. You've heard the word. In fact, you've probably used the word yourself. Maybe you've said, 'Oh, she's just a drama queen,' or, 'I'm sick of all this drama.' In that context, the word 'drama' is something that has been blown out of proportion. Usually, a 'drama queen' is someone who is over the top, an over actor.

In literature, the word drama defines a genre, or style of writing. Drama is a play that can be performed for theatre, radio or even television. These plays are usually written out as a script, or a written version of a play that is read by the actors but not the audience.

This is where theatre comes in. Drama, as in a play, is meant to be performed on a stage in front of an audience at the theatre. So, drama refers to the script, while the word theatre is the performance of the script. While it might seem completely disconnected from what we mean when we say drama today, consider it this way: someone who is dramatic is sort of a performer on a stage, hoping for everyone's attention. See, they're more related than you thought!

History of Drama

Actually, drama, as in plays and the theatre, has changed over time. The word itself comes from the Greek word meaning 'action,' and it's with the Greeks and Romans that we start to define classical drama. In fact, classical drama was more than just acting out a story. These plays were highly symbolic and included music, dance, poetry and audience participation.

As Christianity spread, theatre took a religious turn, which opened the door to the morality plays of the Medieval Period. In Europe, during the 15th and 16th centuries, morality plays, which featured a hero who must overcome evil, were allegorical in nature.

An allegory is a literary device where characters or events represent or symbolize other ideas and concepts. In the case of the morality plays, the hero represented mankind. The other characters served as personifications of many things, including the seven deadly sins, death, virtues and even angels and demons - anything that wanted to take over mankind's soul. In fact, this theme has transcended through many dramatic periods. Also, the fact that these plays were performed by professional actors makes them a transition between the classical drama and the plays we see today.

Of course, today we have drama popping up all over the place. There is drama for what we call the theatre, both the stage and at the movies. Staged theatre is acted out live in front of an audience. The movie theatre is a different story. This is drama that has been acted out to perfection and is presented as a recording to a live audience. The same goes for television, but on a smaller screen.

Radio is a bit different, however. Most of us don't listen to many radio dramas, but if we did, we would know the actors are using their voices and probably some sound effects. Sometimes we see these elements within audio books. In the case of the Harry Potter series, the narrator, Jim Dale, goes to great lengths to create different voices for each of the characters, as if there were many actors playing the different parts. While we might not actually see the actors acting, we do see them in our mind's eye, and we use our imagination to play out the story that we hear.

Dramatic Styles

And the key word there is 'see.' What makes drama stand out from the other modes of writing, like prose and poetry, is the fact that it is meant to be performed, not read. As a result, the form, or the way the writing is laid out, is different than that of other forms. Mostly, prose is written in the form of sentences and paragraphs. Poetry is written in lines and stanzas. Drama is written as dialogue along with stage directions, so the actors know exactly what to say and do while they are on stage.

Within the dramatic mode, there are two different dramatic styles: prose and verse. This probably sounds confusing because we have the prose mode and the poetry mode, which is sometimes called verse. Don't scream like a drama queen yet. This is really a quite simple idea.

Lines of dialogue in drama can either be written in prose (in other words, regular sentences just like we would use in everyday language), or they can be written in verse, which are going to be metered lines, or lines that create a rhythm with a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.

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