Act [of a play]

The sections into which a play or other theatrical work have been divided, either by the playwright or by a later editor. Dividing plays into five acts became popular during the Renaissance, in imitation of Roman tragedy; modern works are sometimes divided into three acts.

Alexandrine Couplets

A rhymed verse form based on six-beat measures, in which every second line rhymes with the one before. Alexandrines were used in French tragedy and comedy throughout the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century. They require highly skilled actors for their proper delivery.

Breeches Roles

Roles written or adapted for female actors in which they portray men or dress in male attire; especially popular during the English Restoration and throughout the eighteenth century, when men's trousers, or breeches, were form-fitting and reached only to the knee.


The infamously obscure medical term used by Aristotle in his Poetics to describe the purpose of tragedy: to stimulate pity and fear in the audience, and then to bring about the purgation or purification (catharsis) of these and similar emotions. Since Aristotle, the term has been widely adopted to refer to the healthy and pleasurable effects of releasing strong emotions, not only by watching a play, but in life generally.

Choral Lyric

A poem performed by a singing, dancing chorus; one of the early genres of Greek poetry out of which drama developed. See also dithyramb.


Originally, the choir of singing, dancing, masked young men who performed in ancient Greek tragedy and comedy. Treated in tragedy as a "character" within the story, the chorus often represents aggrieved groups (old men, foreign slaves, victims of the plague). The chorus berates, implores, advises, harasses, pursues, and sometimes even helps and commiserates with the main characters, but mostly bears witness to their doings and sayings. In Old Comedy, the chorus serves at times as the mouthpiece for the poet. It gradually disappeared from tragedy and comedy, but many attempts have been made to revive some version of it, notably during the Italian and English Renaissance, under Weimar Classicism, and by such twentieth-century playwrights as Jean Anouilh, T.S. Eliot, and Michel Tremblay. The singing and dancing chorus appears today most commonly in musical theatre, opera, and operetta.


A play written to induce joy or laughter in the audience. Unlike tragedy, which generally takes characters from a condition of prosperity to a state of destruction or loss, comedy usually begins with a problem, and ends with its happy resolution. Comedy ranges from laughing genres such as satire and comedy of manners, parody, farce and burlesque, to such weepy genres as sentimental and romantic comedy.

Comedy of Manners

A type of comic play that flourished in the late seventeenth century in London, and elsewhere since, which bases its humour on the sexual and marital intrigues of "high society." It is sometimes contrasted with "comedy of character," as its satire is directed at the social habits and conventional hypocrisy of the whole leisured class. Also called Restoration Comedy; exemplified by the plays of Behn, Wycherley, and Congreve.


The wearing of the clothing of the opposite sex, either on stage or in life, is typical of many single-gender theatrical traditions, such as those of ancient Greece and Shakespearean England, in which only men performed. See also breeches roles.


The art or principles of playwriting.

Epic Drama

A term popularized by Bertolt Brecht (though invented by Erwin Piscator) to describe a style of theatrical storytelling that, for political reasons, pits itself against the conventional rules of dramaturgy as outlined by Aristotle, who distinguished "epic" from "dramatic" writing. Whereas traditional drama is supposed to make audiences empathize with the struggle of a single, psychologically self-contained protagonist, epic drama places characters against the backdrop of the largest possible historical and political context in order that their actions do not seem inevitable or determined by private "human nature," but instead are revealed as part of a public, man-made, and therefore alterable set of historical facts. To prevent spectators from lapsing into an unthinking emotional stupor, epic theatre uses short, episodic, self-­contained scenes, multi-media projections, written text, and music to interrupt and "alienate" the action rather than to emphasize its emotions.

Epic Poetry

A form of oral verse, originally sung from memory to musical accompaniment by specialist bards, containing a vast panorama of human life in war and peace. The epics of ancient Greece, each tens of thousands of lines long, are known to us mainly through the works of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The stories of humans and gods contained in such poems provided most of the narrative material of Athenian tragedy and the satyr play.

Episodic Plot

A play or literary work composed of a series of separate and to some degree inter­changeable incidents (rather than of a single, unified, and continuously unfolding narrative) is said to have an episodic plot.


Sometimes classed as the "lowest" form of comedy. Its humour depends not on verbal wit, but on physicality and sight gags: pratfalls, beatings, peltings with pies, malfunctioning equipment, unpleasant surprises, and sudden necessities to hide in boxes and closets. However, most comedy contains some elements of farce, which requires highly skilled actors for its effects. Also called "slapstick" in honour of the double-shafted baton carried by Arlecchino in commedia dell'arte, which, when struck against another actor in a simulated beating, made a loud slap.

History Play

A dramatic re-imagining of real people and events drawn from the annals of the past. Shakespeare and Schiller are considered among the greatest writers of history plays; Büchner and Strindberg are also noted for them. From time to time, such works have played important roles in the establishment of a nation's self-image and founding myths. Some degree of anachronism tends to be considered acceptable in historical dramas.

Iambic Dialogue

Speech in a poetic drama that, with its unstressed/stressed rhythm (or short/long accent), most closely approximates the rhythm of everyday speech. Iambics were first used in Greek poetry in abusive poems that attacked particular individuals.


A contrast between what is said and what is known. Some speakers use it intentionally, as when Socrates feigned ignorance of things he knew quite well, to draw out other "philosophers." By contrast, dramatic irony occurs when characters utter statements whose full meaning is not understood by them (although it is clear to those who hear it, such as the audience or the other characters on stage). Many of Oedipus's remarks, which are true in ways he does not yet grasp, exemplify dramatic irony. Tragic irony, on the other hand, is said to occur when events turn out in an opposite way to what was expected and desired, yet so strangely fittingly that, in retrospect, it seems as if this outcome should have been predicted or known all along (see tragedy, with its "reversal and recognition"). Some forms of satire may also rely on irony.


Any removable and reusable material used to disguise, transform, obscure, or decorate all or part of an actor's face. Many Western theatre traditions use masks as a convention. Greek and Roman actors always wore full masks with large, gaping mouth-holes (except in mimes); Italian actors of the commedia dell'arte wore coloured leather half-masks that covered their eyes, nose and upper cheeks. With the return of non-realistic performance styles in the twentieth century, the use of masks has become widespread again.


Spectacular entertainments performed at royal courts as part of special celebrations such as weddings and feast-days, chiefly during the Renaissance. Consisting of music, dance, technical wizardry, and extravagantly opulent costumes, masques celebrated the virtues of the reigning monarch in terms, images, and allegories drawn from Classical mythology. Members of the royal family and their entourage took part by joining in the dancing or allowing themselves to be carried aloft on "clouds" animated by hidden machines. In England, Ben Jonson provided the poetry for famous masques created in collaboration with architect and scenographer Inigo Jones.


A type of storytelling that emerged in France and Germany in the wake of the French Revolution, and that is marked by many features of that event: a clear division of characters into the poor, weak, and good hero on one hand, often a child, woman, mute or slave; and a rich, powerful, and evil villain on the other, who schemes to exploit or harm the victim, but who is triumphantly overthrown at the last possible minute, usually in a sensational fire, fight, avalanche, or other violent cataclysm. Literally "music-drama," melodrama originally used background music throughout the action, much like film soundtracks do, to emphasize the characters' emotions, warn of approaching danger, and shape the spectator's emotional response (especially at the ends of acts and scenes, when actors assumed particularly pathetic or frightening postures and held them, frozen, in tableaux). Melodrama was the most popular narrative genre in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century. It still retains its popularity today, but it has long since left the theatre, taking up residence in the Hollywood film.

Neoclassical Dramaturgy

The principles, rules, and conventions of writing plays according to the precepts and ideals of neoclassicism. Often based on the so-called unities of time, place, and action.


Literally the "new classicism," the aesthetic style in drama and other art forms that dominated high culture in Europe through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in some places into the nineteenth century, or until it was swept away by Romanticism. Its subject matter was often taken from Greek and Roman myth and history; but more important than its subject matter was its style , which was based on a selective and often downright false image of the ancient world. It valued order, reason, clarity, and moderation; it rejected strong contrasts in tone, as well as, usually, the supernatural and anything that cannot be rationally motivated within the plot of a play (such as the appearance of gods, witches, or a dancing chorus). Racine's Phèdre is considered one of the most perfectly realized neoclassical dramas. See also unities.

New Comedy

A type of comic play that flourished in ancient Greece from the fourth century b.c.e., particularly under such playwrights as Menander. It was later imported into Rome, where its plots and characters were reworked in Latin. Replacing Old Comedy after Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War, it focused on private, everyday domestic situations involving parent-child disharmony, money, neighbours, and parental obstacles to love and marriage. Its young lovers, bad-tempered parents, scheming slaves, and golden-hearted prostitutes quickly achieved the status of stock characters. Also known as situation comedy.

Old Comedy

The type of dramatic satire practiced in fifth-century Athens and equated today with the works of Aristophanes (see Frogs in this volume). The genre is known for its fantastical and unrealistic episodic plots, its frequent use of animal choruses (frogs, birds, wasps, horse-mounted knights), and particularly for its brilliant verbal wit, free obscenity, and fearless attacks on living Athenian politicians and other public figures (e.g., Euripides and Socrates). See also chorus.


Originally a genre of virtuoso solo performance invented by the ancient Romans. It is usually used today to refer to a type of spectacular entertainment that emerged in London at the beginning of the eighteenth century, featuring commedia dell'arte characters, magical special-effects wizardry, music, dance, and fantastical episodic plots. It remained very popular into the nineteenth century, when it picked up certain features of melodrama and developed into the form it usually takes today, the "Christmas Panto," which involves some audience participation, often of children. Also used in the sense of "to enact silently," or mime.

Pastoral Drama

A type of play invented during the Renaissance by members of Italian scholarly academies in an attempt to revive the satyr play of ancient Greece. Filtering the lusty, drunken goat-men, ecstatic maenads, and rustic settings of the satyr play though their Christian worldview, such writers created a new theatrical genre in which innocent shepherds, nymphs, and shepherdesses gambol in an idealized natural landscape free from the pressures of city life and the corruptions of civilization.


Not to be confused with the "story," the plot of a play or other literary work is the precise arrangement of incidents used to tell the story. The same story can give rise to countless plots, depending on the point at which the writer chooses to begin (at Oedipus's birth? or on the last day of his reign?), what he or she chooses to dramatize (the wedding night of Oedipus and Jocasta? the murder of Hamlet's father?), and how he chooses to bring the events about (a messenger? a lost letter? an epiphany? a gun-battle?).


The central character in a drama or other literary work; see ag¯on.

Restoration Comedy

A genre of witty and sexually uninhibited drama associated with the London theatres in the decades after 1660, when King Charles II was "restored" to the English throne. It was known for its pungent satire, obsession with the habits of the upper classes, and cynical depiction of human customs, particularly the institution of marriage. Also see comedy of manners.


The pretended adoption of the identity or function of another person. All acting, of course, is a type of role-playing. The impersonation of others is a common theme in drama and appears within the plots of countless plays.


A dreamlike genre of fiction or storytelling in which the ordinary laws of nature are suspended, in which statues come to life, shipwrecked men emerge from the sea unharmed, and troubled or broken worlds are magically healed at the end, often by daughters, and often in pastoral settings.


A humorous play or other work in which people, attitudes, or types of behaviour are ridiculed for the purpose of correcting their blameworthy qualities. Satirists differ from other types of comic writers in that they are often morally outraged by the follies and vices they depict. Of all types of comedy, satire is the most critical. It can also, paradoxically, be the most subtle, for satirists may mask their fury with humour so effectively that they can seem to be condoning the faults they abhor. Satire often makes use of irony and frequently targets politicians and other public figures. For this reason, satire tends to flourish in liberal societies where free speech is prized. See also Old Comedy and comedy of manners.

Satyr Play

Ancient Athenian genre of comical drama, usually a mythological burlesque, which was performed by a singing and dancing chorus dressed in satyr costume (a furry loincloth to which a goat's tail and artificial penis were attached, plus a mask depicting an ugly snubbed nose, high forehead, and goat's ears). In Greek myth, satyrs were the drunken, randy, rabble­rousing attendants of Dionysus, in whose honour all theatre was performed in ancient Greece. Satyr plays were staged as part of the Greek tragic tetralogy, either as the first or the last play of the four. See also pastoral drama.


A Greek word believed to mean "song of the goat-singers" (see satyr play and dithyramb). Originating in the sixth century b.c.e., tragedy is the oldest dramatic genre and remains for many the "highest" form of poetry. Our knowledge of it derives mainly from the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, as well as from the little we know about the manner of its performance (see ag¯on, chorus, mask, orchestra, sk¯en¯e, and tragic tetralogy). Our understanding of it has also been shaped by Aristotle, whose description of Athenian tragedy in his Poetics remains a touchstone for tragic theory and practice to this day. According to Aristotle, tragedy is the imitation of an organically unified, serious action in which the plot, or arrangement of incidents, elicits the audience's pity and fear and then effects a catharsis, or purgation, of these and similar emotions. Tragic plots generally take the protagonist from a condition of good fortune to bad, often to his or her destruction, involve mental and/or physical suffering, and ideally take place within families, usually of a socially elevated or prominent type (royal families, for example). In Aristotle's view the most effective tragic plots also involve a simultaneous "reversal and recognition," a moment when the character's fortune turns for the worse, and when he or she is suddenly able to grasp a truth that was unavailable before. Tragedy has been reconceived by every subsequent age that has practiced it, beginning in the Renaissance. In the seventeenth century, it was reinvented according to the principles of neoclassicism; in the eighteenth according to those of the Enlightenment ("middle-class" or "bourgeois tragedy"). Romanticism in turn created its own tragic forms, often inspired by Shakespeare. Notable re-thinkings of tragedy in the modern age include Arthur Miller's essay "Tragedy and the Common Man." See also working-class tragedy.

Tragic Tetralogy

A four-part tragedy. Mostly associated with the (non-comic) plays of Athens in the fifth-century b.c.e., it consisted of one satyr play and three tragedies written on related themes. Another famous tragic tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung, was written in the nineteenth century by composer Richard Wagner. This four-part "music drama," created in imitation of Greek tragedy, is based on the heroes and gods of Germanic myth.


A genre of drama in which many elements of tragedy are present, but which generally has a happy end. Corneille's The Cid is an excellent example of this genre, which was sometimes preferred to straight tragedy under neoclassicism. See Fuenteovejuna.

Unities [of action, time and place]

A doctrine invented by the theorists of neoclassicism, who considered "the three unities" an essential rule of proper tragedy. It stipulates that the plot, the span of time it represents, and the amount of physical terrain it covers must together approximate the true unity of real space/time conditions (i.e., the single location and continuous two-hour time-period that prevails on stage during performance, during which one can realistically represent only so much action and no more). The concept was based on a misreading of Aristotle and was soon ridiculed almost out of existence by writers such as G.E. Lessing and Samuel Johnson. But it did succeed in determining the form taken by tragedy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It also ensured that the un-unified plays of Shakespeare would remain beneath the contempt of many for over a hundred years. Despite the unities' poor grounding in ancient theatre practice and the rigidity with which their (mostly French) advocates enforced them, the unities remain a useful concept in drama. Works of theatrical realism and Naturalism, for example, tend to observe them instinctively.


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