Introduction to Drama #
“Imitation is the highest form of flattery” asserts an old chestnut. Drama or re-enactments have been central to the most primitive societies as a form of entertainment and a method of passing on traditions through story telling. It has always attempted to provide a mirror to real life.
Primitive tribes tended to re-enact the day’s events after a feast, acting out the hunt or conflict with other tribes. It was their form of entertainment as well as transmission to the youth of culture, tradition and means of survival..
Modern Drama has its origins in 5^(th) Century Greek Drama and the influence of Plato and Aristotle continue to this day. Lysicrates, a wealthy patron of the arts, awarded monetary prizes in an annual dramatic festival. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote many plays, generally trilogies, in competition.
Perhaps the pinnacle of dramatic performance was the Elizabethan/Jacobean period in England during the 15 and 16^(th) centuries.
Drama is a form of literature that in all probability had its beginnings in celebrating a tribal hero’s deeds or lamenting his death. it has for centuries been one of those communal activities whereby society is shown an image of itself: this image may involve anything from fundamental issues of mankind’s place in the universe to matters of social manners and everyday interests. A dramatist differs from the lyric-writer in offering his vision, his viewpoints, not in a direct address in his own person but through the interplay of forces, impulses, ideas, as embodied in other people. As such, drama cannot afford to indulge in ‘walking on tiptoe’:
Hamlet’s advice to the players:
‘… Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. .. . Be not too tame neither; but let your discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.’ When Shakespeare is making Hamlet speak thus of passions and moderation it is not only stage-acting that is prompting him. He is also indicating his own art as a dramatist, where he must express human passions and yet not lose firmness of form: his play must be shaped, shaped to give the maximum force and delicacy to his theme. No good play is simply a direct representation of life as we see and hear it: it is neither a mirror nor a tape-recording. And when Shakespeare—Hamlet speaks of ‘holding the mirror up to nature’ he means the essential things of ‘nature’—human feelings, impulses, motives, purposes. The dramatist, like all artists, has to know what is central to his subject. We are not interested in what Lear might have had for breakfast or in the brand of cigarette smoked by a contemporary stage hero (though in a novel such details might be relevant).
Conflict of some sort, momentous or otherwise, seems essential in drama. Without conflict or at least cross-purposes, there can be no tension, no power to attract. Conflict is of course in many forms: person against person, group against group, rivals in love, the individual against society, progressivism against custom, capital against labour. In Romeo and Juliet (to take a play which is not among Shakespeare’s greatest) we see conflict between the houses of Montague and Capulet, between Mercutio and Tybalt, between the young lovers and misfortune or fate. But the most moving and significant conflict is always that which takes place within the main characters: it is in this revelation that we are brought to feel most strongly the forces that actuate human behaviour. And in offering this revelation the dramatist is not motivated merely by the desire to analyse psychologically; he wants to present his vision of human life and destiny as he has observed and felt and contemplated human life in its beauty and squalor, its glories and its shames, its solemnities and trivialities, its joy and grief and humour. Its ‘two hours’ traffic of the stage’
Hegel contends that a good drama aspires to be and a tragedy must be a depiction of a human interaction in which both antagonists are, arguably, in the right.”
Conflict of some sort, momentous or otherwise, seems essential in drama, not just programmatic staged debates between points of view, disguised as characters, real live organic conflict arising out of – Life - one damn thing after another and normal situations can suddenly go haywire at any moment – that’s good drama . Without conflict or at least cross-purposes, there can be no tension, no power to attract.
Human communication is largely non verbal. The determining interpretive factors in live productions are spectacle: visual, spatial, aural.
“Performance always exceeds language: it is at once word embodied as action, and presence that can’t be contained by words. Writing about performance is by definition a dance with failure, an attempt to translate the untranslatable. Some shows highlight this struggle more than others. Alison Croggon
Drama scripts known as the text is merely the blue print or skeleton of a work of drama and what gives it body, shape or flesh and blood is performance. Performance, either on stage or in film, relies on sub-text to convey meaning, often sub-consciously. Linguists agree that communication is largely non-verbal (55% body language, 38% tonal and only 7% verbal.
The text is merely the blue print or skeleton of a work of drama and what gives it body, shape or flesh and blood is the performance. Especially in drama or film, body language through stance, position, deportment, facial expression, posture and thousands of subtle features convey meaning. Then there are the other factors, such as staging, props, sound effects, lighting and costumes that influence how a play derives meaning. The moving camera adds camera angles, exposure, focussing to the formula. These are factors that must valued and the director’s role is critical in determining how a play is presented and received by a live pulsating audience.
Mise en scene is the process of setting a stage, with regard to placement of actors, scenery, properties, etc.
Deus ex machina - Literally “a god from the machine,” deus ex machina is a literary device that dates back to Greek and Roman drama. In classical theater, a deus ex machina refers to a god that enters the action just in time to resolve the characters’ entanglements. Today the phrase can represent any improbable plot device that saves the day,. In the late Renaissance, a deus ex machina was the device by which actors playing gods were suspended over the stage as though in flight.
Sensual awareness is crucial so composers try to recapture scenes and objects through the appeal of the five senses: visual, tactile, olfactory, auditory, gustatory. (Sight, feeling, smell, sound, taste)
Performance communicates instantaneously – “a picture is worth a 1000 words” so language is secondary and often difficult to follow. It is through performance - action, interaction and spectacle that we experience and glean meaning often sub-consciously.
The whole point of the theater, since the Greeks, at any rate, has been to gather the citizens together, to remind us, as Shakespeare so incomparably put it, that “we are not all alone unhappy.”
This is how Neil Armfield introduced his 2007 Season at Belvoir
If theatre is a metaphor of life (and what is it but that), it suggests that there is some way out of the mess we seem to have all found ourselves in. ………You do it by listening and teaching, by raising the standards of education, by advancing informed debate by encouraging the telling of our stories in books, on our screens ‘and on our stages. And that’s what we (Dramatists) are trying, in our own way, to do. That’s our job: to tell the stories, to sing the songs of our land, our world, our past.
Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith observes:
“plays about nothing, have always been the cornerstones of political insight”.