The structure of the drama is determined by stage-conditions, and cannot be appreciated without a knowledge of those conditions. Thus a study of the Elizabethan stage and theatre throws valuable light on a number of structural features of Shakespeare’s plays. Similarly, the success of drama depends to a very large extent on the skill of the actors, Drama is “a composite art”.
A Composite Art
Drama, like other forms of literature, imitates life, but unlike other forms of literature, it imitates life through action and speech. It is designed for representation on the stage by actors who act the parts of the characters of its story, and among whom the narrative and the dialogue are distributed. The art of drama is closely bound up with stage-conditions, the skill of the actors, and the tastes of the audience before whom it is to be staged.
The Origin of Drama in England: “Miracle” and ‘Mystery Plays
Drama in England had its origin in religion; it grew out of the Liturgy (a religious ceremony) of the Church. The early religious plays were, broadly, of two types: The Mysteries, based upon subjects taken from the Bible; and The Miracles dealing with the lives of saints. The best of the extant cycles of Miracle and Mystery plays belong to the 15th century. For example, Abraham and Isaac is remarkable for its pathos. We are irresistibly moved to tears, This early drama was frankly didactic in nature, its purpose being to instruct the people in the chief facts of the scriptures, or in the events of the lives of saints. To begin with, the church had this drama under complete control. It was written by the clergy, and acted by the clergy within the church; and its language was the Latin of the church service. With the passing of time, it became more and more secularised. As its popularity increased, and larger and larger crowds thronged to the church, the venue of performance was first shifted to the porch and then to the village green to street. Laymen now began to take part in the performances and then write the plays, while the Latin language was replaced by English, the native tongue. The increase in the number of fairs, the increase in wealth, power and prestige of the merchant-guilds did much of the development of the drama. When the drama was freed from the hold of the clergy, it was staged in the form of pageants. Pageants were originally platforms on which plays were staged. Sometimes the audience would move from one platform to another to see the whole play, and sometimes the plays would be mounted on moving platforms and brought to them., Sometimes the performances continued for several days. The growth of the drama was hampered as there were no professional actors and playhouses in the beginning. There was also no suitable poetic medium till the 16th century. They could interpose only brief comic episodes here and there. They had closely to follow their source. As the story was known, the effect depended entirely on spectacle.
These religious performances were, of course, crude and poor in literary quality, but they lasted well on into the 16th century. The earliest known religious plays is Adam which describes the fall of man. The scene of Eve’s temptation shows great refinement and grace. “Almost all the best features of the religious drama appear in this early Mystery play”. These plays were often arranged in groups and named after the town where they were first staged, or the merchant guild which performed them. Thus we have the Townley Cycle of plays which also belongs to the 15th century. This cycle includes such plays as Noah and Nativity.
The Morality Plays
The Morality plays mark the next stage in the growth of the drama in England. These plays were also didactic and religious in nature, but the characters were not drawn from the scriptures or the lives of saints, but were personified abstractions. Through such personifications was represented the conflict in the human soul. All sorts of virtue and vices were personified, and there was generally a place for the Dovil also. A character introducted at a late stage was the Vice, the humorous incarnation of Evil, and the recognized fun-maker of the piece. The character is specially interesting, for he is the direct fore-runner of the Shakespearean clown. Everyman (1490) is finest extant example of this type of play. “Little by little, as the personified abstractions came more and more to resemble individual persons, the Morality passed insensibly into comedy” – (Hudon). Everyman has recently been revived in the U.S.A. and made profound impression on the audience.
The Renaissance: Transformation of English Drama
The revival of ancient Grecio-Roman literature and mythology during the 16th century gave a great impetus to English drama. The Elizabethan age is the golden age of the English drama. It was now that plays came to be divided into five Acts and a number of scenes, and tragedies, comedies and tragic-comedies of the highest order were written, Marlowe one of the greatest of English dramatists belongs to this age, and so does Shakespeare, the world’s immortal poet. None of the succeeding dramatists has been able to outshine these great Elizabethans. Even such great modern dramatist as Bernard Shaw and John Galsworthy can not equal them.
Drama: A Difficult Art
A drama, like the novel, has plot, character, dialogue, setting, and it also expresses an outlook on life, but in the handling of these essential features the dramatic art is different from the art of the novelist. Much greater skill and painstaking on the part of the dramatist is needed for a successful drama than for a novel. For example, a play is meant for a single hearing, and so its plot cannot be as long and as crowded with events as that of a novel. The dramatist must use absolute economy of means in the handing of his material. Brevity is essential for dramatic composition. Everything superfluous must be done away with. There must be Unity of Action in the interest of brevity and concentration. Unity of Time – i.e. the time taken by the story must not be much longer than the time taken by its representation on the stage – also is generally followed for the same reasons. Unity of Place, implying that there should be no frequent change of scenes, is also essential, for to change the scenes requires time and creates difficulties of management on the stage. A modern play-wright, like Shaw and Galsworthy, adds elaborate stage-directions, so that it may be possible to read the play at home, like a novel. In this way, efforts are made to overcome the dependence of the drama on the stage.
The Construction: Its Four Parts
The action of a drama must move forward swiftly, without any digressions or episodes to divert attention from the man action. A drama is generally divided into five Acts. First, there is Exposition or the introduction (covering Act I) and the spectators are introduced to the principal characters, and the theme. The exposition is soon followed by Development through conflict, (covering Act II and III) which may be both internal (waged in the mind of the hero) and external (waged between opposite groups of characters). Then comes the Climax or the Crisis (usually in Act IV) which is the turning point in the play. Now the fortunes of the hero take a turn for the better (in comedy) or for worse (in tragedy). The crisis is followed by the Denouement (Act V) or the Catastrophe. All complications are now removed, all knots are now united, and the plays end happily in the case of comedy, and unhappily in the case of tragedy. It may end in happiness for some and unhappiness for other, and then it would be called a tragi-comedy.
Characterisation is also a lasting and fundamental element in dramatic art. First essential of successful characterisation is brevity. The limited cannons of the play must not be over-crowded with too many characters and further the dramatist must confine his attention to those aspects of character-study, as in the case of a novel, is not possible for a drama. The character is developed through a dramatic personage’s own speeches and further light is thrown upon it by what others say about him. Soliloquies and asides are other devices which reveal character. Further development takes place through the inter-action of different dramatic personages. Internal conflict, the conflict which goes on within the soul of a person between different passions and emotions, is a great revelatory of character. It is in this way that Shakespeare lays bare the soul of his tragic heroes.
As regards the language of drama, plays may be written both in verse and prose. Shakespeare uses both verse and prose for his plays, and the plays of John Galsworthy and Bernard Shaw are wholly in prose. However, T.S. Eliot considers a prose-drama something unnatural and artificial. Largely as a result of his advocacy, there has been a revival of poetic drama in the 20th century, and more and more play-wrights have used verse as their medium. However, all are agreed that dialogues in a play must be brief and to the point. Drama is an entirely objective art and the dramatist cannot narrate or describe in his own person. The action develops through dialogue between the different characters. Hence the crucial importance of telling dialogue for a dramatist.
Drama is an imitation of life, but what type of life it should imitate? Great art arises only when its theme is noble and worthy of artistic treatment, and hence the dramatist must deal with a noble and dignified action. The ignorable and the trivial is however often brought in for the purpose of contrast, or for satire and ridicule, as in the case of a comedy. As drama is an objective art, the dramatist does not speak in his own person but he may express his views through the mouth of his characters. Often certain views may be frequently repeated, and such views may be taken with comparative safety to be the views of the dramatist himself. Drama, like other forms of literature, is at bottom a criticism of life.
Forms of Drama
There are several forms or kinds of drama. Tragedy and Comedy are the two broad divisions. There is also a third one called Tragi-comedy. Tragedy is further sub divided into a number of kinds as, Classical Tragedy, Romantic Tragedy, Melodrama, Revenge Tragedy, Sentimental Tragedy, Heroic Tragedy, and so on. Similarly there is Romantic Comedy, Classical Comedy, Comedy of Humour, Comedy of Manners, and Farcical Comedy. These forms would be briefly studied in the next chapter.