Paul Stancato on Theater Genres

February 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

by Paul Stancato

Academics group plays primarily into three categories: drama, musical, and comedy. While many theater productions blur the lines between these different genres, the three types also represent the progression of theater over the past few millennia. Drama, the oldest form of theater, relies heavily on speech to invoke certain feelings and reactions in the audience. The word drama, an ancient Greek concept, derives from a verb meaning “to do,” which represents the art form’s responsibility to act on the audience and effect a reaction. The majority of ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Latin plays dealt with religion or, later on, the social mores of the time, and fell under the category of drama. Even in the modern West, drama likely remains the most popular form of theater. In the English world, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe carried on the tradition of moving drama, becoming two of the most popular playwrights of all time.

Musical theater combines spoken dialogue with music, dance, and song and emerged from vaudeville and music halls of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, audiences expect a large degree of theatricality and spectacle when they see a musical. Having one’s musical performed on Broadway has become a mark of fame among modern playwrights. In truth, music and theater enjoyed an intimate relationship dating back to the ancient Greeks. While modern productions feature spoken lines, ancient productions were sung, and a large chorus in the background would dance as the main actors told the story. Generally, the poetic lines were set to music from a variety of instruments, such as the cithara, similar to a lyre.

Modern comedies date back to ancient Greek and Roman plays. Often, the tragedy of drama was offset by a subsequent comedy, which lightened the mood before the audience members returned to their homes. While comedies largely fell from popularity during the medieval period, they returned to mainstream entertainment in the 19th century. Comedies rely on humor to tell a story, even if the plot references bleak or upsetting subject matter. Often, playwrights breach the most taboo subjects with comedies, which has resulted in the rise of black comedies.

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