Elements and Forms of Drama


The drama is a literary form designed for the theatre, where actors take the role of characters, perform the indicated action and utter the written dialogue before an audience. It is three dimensional. As Marjorie Boulton says, “it is literature that walks, and talks before our eyes.” It is an art that stresses on theatricality for its impact. 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.

Drama, like the novel, has plot, character, dialogue, setting, and it also expresses an outlook on life. But in the handling of these features the dramatic art is different from the art of the novelist. While the novel relates and reports, the drama imitates by action and speech. The novel is self-contained but the drama needs elements outside of itself for its completion, like actors, stage managers etc. in drama, characterisation is achieved only through action and dialogue, while the novelist has the liberty of describing the nature and temperament of the characters, analysing their motives, and commenting upon their words and actions.  While the novelists create their background through descriptions, dramatists depend on stage property for the creation of the setting. The ambience or mood may be created by the skilful use of costumes, lights, music etc. the dependence of drama on stage-play imposes several restrictions. The novelist can state his philosophy of life directly to his readers. As drama is an objective art, the dramatist can reveal his outlook on life only through the characters. Often certain views are repeated in the play and such views may be taken to be the views of the dramatist himself. Some dramatists use one or more of their characters as mouthpiece or spokespersons to express their views on  moral, social and political questions.

Thus, much greater skill on the part of the dramatist is needed for a successful drama. 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 stipulates that the time taken by the story must not be much longer than the time taken by its representation on the stage.  Unity of Place implies that there should be no frequent change of scenes. 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.

Plot Construction

Plot, according to Aristotle, is the most important element in a play. Plot is the sequential structure of events and incidents that make up the action in drama. 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 Complication through conflict, (covering Act II and III). The conflict 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. All complications are now removed, all knots are unravelled. The play swiftly moves towards the close, Catastrophe in the case of tragedy and Resolution in the case of comedy. The comedy ends happily, and the tragedy, unhappily. A tragi-comedy may end in happiness for some and unhappiness for others.


Characterisation is a fundamental element in dramatic art. The first essential of successful characterisation is brevity. The play must not be over-crowded with too many characters. The character is developed through the characters’ speeches and further light is thrown upon them by what others say. Soliloquies and asides are other devices which reveal character. Further development takes place through the interaction of different characters. Internal conflict, the conflict which goes on within the soul of a person between different passions and emotions, all reveal character. For the ultimate success of characterisation, the dramatists heavily depends on the histrionic talents of the actors, for what we see in performance is, to a certain extent, the actors’ interpretation of characters. It is in this manner that dramatists lays bare the soul of their characters.


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, as a result of the advocacy of T.S. Eliot 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 action develops through dialogue.  Hence the importance of telling dialogue in drama.

Themes: Realism and Romance

Drama is an imitation of life. It holds the mirror up to nature. But it need not be entirely true to fact because, it is a portrait, not a photograph. It is the dramatists’ criticism of life. A great play is the product of imagination working upon experience. The method may be romantic, lifting the language and the characters into the realm of poetry, or it may be realistic, keeping close to prosaic fact. Shakespeare was a romantic poet who did not aim at a realistic portrayal of life as it was actually lived. He set his romantic plays in exotic places, made them throb with the pulse of love, and suffused them with music and songs. But his contemporary Ben Jonson attempted to show “an image of the times” employing “language such as men do use.” 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 ignoble and the trivial however serve the purpose of satire and ridicule in a comedy.

Forms of Drama

There are several forms or kinds of drama. Tragedy and Comedy are the two broad divisions.


Tragedy, which developed from the hymns sung in praise of gods and great men in Greece,  simply meant “one of the three serious plays presented before the satyr-play at a dramatic festival”. Dante said that an unhappy tale was called a “tragedy” or “goat-song.” The Greek tragedy has scenes and incidents of pain and sorrow, but did not necessarily end disastrously. The very word ‘tragedy’ in the modern age means a drama with an unhappy ending, and disastrous enough to have ‘tragic’ effect. The atmosphere of a tragedy is serious and sombre.

A tragedy, according to Aristotle,  is the imitation of an action that is serious, of a certain magnitude, complete in itself in language,  in dramatic not narrative form,  with incidents arousing pity and fear to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions. A tragedy must not be too long or too short, but of a length that leads to a proper comprehension of its parts. Tragedy arouses pity and fear through its painful and horrific incidents, leading to their purgation. This leads to the pleasure peculiar to tragedy.

There are six formative elements of tragedy—Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Spectacle and Song. Plot, Character, and Thought are internal aspects; and Diction, Spectacle, and Song, are external aspects. Aristotle considers plot to be the most important part of tragedy; indeed, it is the very soul of tragedy. Plot is the arrangement of the incidents in a logical sequence. The Plot can be of two types, simple and complex. Simple plots have continuous movements, and involve no violent change. Complex plots involve changes arising out of Peripety and Anagnorisis. Peripety, or reversal, is the change in the fortune of the hero, brought about by human actions.  Anagnorisis or recognition is the change from ignorance to knowledge, i.e. knowledge of the true identity of persons, or the truth of facts, or circumstances. The effect of tragedy is greatest if the Peripety and discovery come together as in Sophocles’s Oedipus the King.  According to Aristotle, the best plot is a good, but not perfect man suffering as a result of some error or fault of judgement, namely Hamartia or ‘tragic flaw’.

A tragic hero is a mixture of virtue and human frailty; his misfortune comes about from an error of judgement; and he falls from a height of glorious position. Such a man arouses the tragic emotions of pity and fear. Tragedy has its special kind of pleasure, arising from the emotional effects of tragedy. The unity of plot, the diction and the spectacle add to the pleasure. The Spectacle has more to do with the stage effects. Diction is  the language through which the characters express themselves. The Diction is a means of interpreting the thought, feelings and sentiments of the character. Thought is the intellectual element in the tragedy, and is expressed through the character. Thought and diction are related in the sense that it is through diction that thought is expressed. The speech of the character expresses the thoughts and feelings of a character.

Aristotle’s concept of tragedy in Poetics is based on the extant practice in dramatist art. He lays down no hard and fast rule. He stresses on the Unity of Action. The action of the tragedy must be a single logical and unified sequence, directed towards a single tragic atmosphere and effect, without the mixture of the comic. As regards the Unity of Time, Aristotle merely states that tragedies tend to limit the time to a single revolution of the sun, or a little more. The Unity of Place he does not mention, let alone stress upon. The three unities came into force with later critics.

Senecan Tragedy: An important type of tragedy is the Senecan Tragedy or the Revenge Tragedy or the Tragedy of Blood. These plays follow the model provided by the Roman tragedian Seneca whose plays were written to be enacted rather than acted, were constructed according to the rules of the three unities, included the use of ‘chorus’ and whose chief  motif was revenge. The earliest English example is Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton’s Gorboduc (1562).   Seneca’s favourite materials were murder, revenge, ghosts, mutilation and carnage, but he had them reported on stage by messengers. Elizabethan dramatists, however, represented them on stage to satisfy the contemporary audience’s appetite for violence and horror. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1586) established this form. Its subject is a murder and the quest for revenge. It includes a ghost, a play-within-a-play, sensational incidents, a suicide and a gruesome ending. Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil are other great revenge tragedies in English.


Comedy is the form of drama generally intended to be humorous or to amuse by inducing laughter. It dealt with people of low origin. The atmosphere is mirthful and light. Ancient Greeks and Romans used the word “comedy” to describe plays with happy endings. In the Middle Ages, the term included narrative poems with happy endings and a lighter tone. As time progressed, the word came more and more to be associated with any sort of performance intended to cause laughter. The materials are selected and managed primarily in order to interest and amuse us. The comedy aims at correcting manners and refining human conduct.

High Comedy evokes “intellectual laughter”, as George Meredith puts it. The spectacle of folly, and human foibles provoke thoughtful laughter from spectators who remain emotionally detached from the action. Low Comedy, on the other hand, has little or no intellectual appeal. It arouses laughter by ‘jokes’, gags and slapstick humour or boisterous or clownish physical activity.

Comedy is of different types – Classical Comedy, Romantic Comedy, the Comedy of Manners, Farce, the Sentimental Comedy, Comedy of Humours etc. Romantic comedy is a popular genre that depicts romance in humorous terms and focuses on the foibles of those who are falling in love. A comedy of manners typically takes as its subject a particular part of society (usually upper class society) and uses humor to parody or satirize the behavior and mannerisms of its members. Satire uses ironic comedy to portray persons or social institutions as ridiculous or corrupt, thus alienating their audience from the object of humor.  Parody subverts popular genres and forms, using certain ironic changes to critique those forms from within. Black comedy or dark humor bases itself on dark or evil elements in human nature.

Classical drama: The Classic type may be further divided into the Ancient or the true classic, and the neo-classic or pseudo-classic.

Ancient or true classic: Drama as an art form originated in Greece in the rustic festivals held in honour of the nature-god Dionysus. Tragedy represented the sombre side and comedy the frolicsome side of the celebrations.

Classical (Greek) Tragedy dealt with the fate of characters of high birth. The spectacle of human suffering led to the purgation of emotions through pity and fear and afforded a pleasure of a lofty kind. The three great tragedians of Greece were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. A salient feature of Greek tragedy is the ‘chorus’ which is a body of persons, singing and dancing together and interrupting the dialogue and action with their comments, odes and interludes. The chorus was an integral part of the Greek tragedy, though its importance was greatly reduced as Greek drama evolved. In Aeschylus, one half of the play was occupied by choral songs and the link between the chorus and the main action was deep. In Sophocles, the use of the chorus was for commentary and moral reflection only. In Euripides, the chorus played  only a small part.

Classical (Greek) Comedy or Attic comedy dealt with the lighter side of life, representing a mirthful side of the religious celebrations. Since the comedy aimed at correcting social manners and refining the conduct, it showed the common errors of life. The Greek comedy passed through 3 stages: Old Comedy or the comedy of political satire; Middle comedy which showed the transition towards the comedy of social manners; New comedy in which this change was complete. Aristophanes is the greatest master of the Old comedy.

Latin drama, which was also religious in spirit,  fashioned the tragedy and comedy along the lines laid down by the Greeks. 20 comedies of Plautus, 6 of Terence and 10 tragedies of Seneca have survived. The Latin comedy is also significant in that it throws light on the New comedy of Greece. The Latin tragedies of Seneca were models for the 16th and 17th century neoclassical dramatists.

Neo-classic: Neo-classical drama followed the classical model in its seriousness, in the unity of tone and in the observance of the three unities of time, place and action. There was little or no action on the stage because incidents composing the plot took place off the stage and were reported to the audience through dialogue. Neo-classical drama differed from classical drama on two counts. In its subject matter, it gave importance to romantic love, which was absent from the serious drama of ancient Greece or Rome. Also, it introduced a great change by dropping the chorus and in its place using a character as confidante to listen to the protagonist’s confessions and so on. After a very short stint, it was replaced by Romantic drama.

 Romantic Drama: It combined the ideal with the real. It was concerned with matters remote from ordinary life and with illustrious people. The protagonist, though of high birth, is placed in a world of commonplace men and things. The dialogue, though poetical, has colloquial and familiar elements. Hence romantic drama is realistic in spirit. It blended tragic and comic elements. It flouted the three unities of time, place and action. Dramatists like Shakespeare allowed the story to extend over months or years, changed the scene frequently and employed subplots as foils to the main plot. Romantic drama was essentially a drama of action. The duels, murders, battles shown on stage satisfied the full-blooded Elizabethans’ love for adventure and spectacle.  Representation on stage gave a realistic touch to Romantic drama. In short, romantic drama was not written to a set pattern but in whatever form was best suited to the purpose of the dramatist. Shakespeare’s name is inseparably associated with this type of drama.

Romantic Comedy: Elizabethan dramatists like Shakespeare developed and popularized the form. Some of the popular Romantic comedies of Shakespeare are Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It and Two gentlemen of Verona. They deal with the theme of love and often represent a love affair that involves a beautiful and brilliant heroine (often disguised as male like Viola in Twelfth Night). The course of this love does not run smooth. But after several obstacles are overcome, the play ends in a happy union of the lovers. Romantic comedies are merry or sunny comedies characterized by laughter and joy. The prevailing note is of “jest and youthful jollity”. Music and songs add to the mirthful atmosphere, for music is “the food of love.”. The plot is subordinate to character. There is a blend of realism and fantasy. Clowns or fools like Feste or Touchstone are an indispensable part of these plays – they provoke laughter by their wit. The Romantic comedies are set in imaginary and exotic places like Illyria.

Experimental drama

Well-made plays: The well-made play is the conventional model of play construction. It belongs to the tradition of realistic plays. The form has a strong neo-classical flavour, involving a very tight plot and a climax that takes place very close to the end of the action. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest exaggerates many of the conventions of the well-made play. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House follows most of the conceits of the well-made play. Several of Ibsen’s subsequent plays seem to build on the general construction principles of the well-made play. Ibsen sought a compromise between Naturalism and the well-made play which was fraught with difficulties since life does not fall easily into the mould of either form. Although George Bernard Shaw scorned the “well-made plays”, he accepted them and even thrived by them.  Classic twists of the well-made play can be seen in his use of the General’s coat and the hidden photograph in Arms and the Man. Also, J. B. Priestley’s 1946 An Inspector Calls may in some ways be considered a “well-made play”.

 Epic drama: It is a form of modern didactic, episodic drama that presents a social problem through a series of loosely connected scenes. The action of the play is often interrupted to address the audience directly with analysis or argument. Epic theatre is now most often associated with the dramatic theory and practice of the German playwright-director Bertolt Brecht from the 1920s onward.

Brecht’s intention in presenting moral problems and contemporary social realities on the stage was to appeal to his audience’s intellect. He wished to block their emotional responses. He did not want them to  empathize with the characters and become caught up in the action. For this, he used “alienating,” or “distancing,” effects to cause the audience to think objectively, reflect on its argument, and to draw conclusions.

The alienation effect is also called a-effect or distancing effect, in German Verfremdungs effekt or V-effekt. It involves the use of techniques designed to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play reminding them of the artificiality of the theatrical performance. Examples of such techniques include explanatory captions or illustrations projected on a screen; actors stepping out of character to lecture, summarize, or sing songs; and stage designs that expose the lights and ropes, all keeping the spectators aware of being in a theatre. The audience’s degree of identification with characters and events is thus controlled, and it can clearly perceive the “real” world reflected in the drama.

Brecht instructed his actors to keep a distance between themselves and the characters they portrayed. They were to disregard inner life and emotions, while emphasizing external actions as signs of social relationships. Gesture, intonation, facial expression, and grouping were all calculated to reveal overall attitudes of one character toward another.

Brecht’s plays like Galileo, Caucasian Chalk Circle etc illustrate the objectivity of epic narrative. Brecht’s influence is most pronounced in John Arden’s play Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance. John Osborne’s Luther also shows Brechtian influence.

 Expressionist drama: Expressionism is an artistic style in which the artist seeks to depict not objective reality but the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in him. He accomplishes his aim through distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy and through the vivid, jarring, or violent application of formal elements. Expressionism is one of the main currents of art in the later 19th and the 20th centuries. Its qualities of subjective, spontaneous self-expression are typical of many modern artists and art movements.

Among the better-known Expressionist dramatists were German playwrights like George Kaiser, Brecht and others. They represented anonymous human types instead of individualized characters; replaced plot with episodes;  portrayed rapidly oscillating emotional states; fragmented the dialogue into exclamatory and incoherent sentences or phrases; employed masks and abstract or lopsided stage sets.

This mode of German drama had an important influence on the American theater. Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1920) projected, in a sequence of symbolic episodes, the individual and racial memories of a terrified African-American protagonist, and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1923) used nonrealistic means to represent a mechanical, sterile, and frightening world as experienced by Mr. Zero.  Expressionism had begun to flag by 1925 and was finally suppressed in Germany by the Nazis in the early 1930s, but it has continued to exert influence on English and American, as well as European, art and literature. Its influence can be seen in the writing and staging of such plays as Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, as well as on the theater of the absurd.

 Verse drama: Verse drama or poetic drama is a term applied to plays written in verse or in a heightened poetic form of prose. In the 20th centuries, it was an attempt to restore the medium of poetry to the stage.

The leaders of the Irish literary revival like W.B.Yeats, Lady Gregory, Sean O’Casey and others produced plays of great poetic beauty combined with sound dramatic structure. Yeats’ plays like” The King’s Threshold” (1904), “Deirdre” (1907) etc. are rich in poetical intensity. Yeats’ stature as poet and dramatist raised the standards of poetic drama.

T.S. Eliot and Abercrombie firmly established the poetic drama in the 20th century. Abercrombie tried to bring his poetic plays such as “the End of the World”, “The Staircases”, “The Deserter”, and “Phoenix” into close contact with reality. It was T.S.Eliot who made a lasting contribution to the theory and practice of poetic drama. He believed that “the human soul in intense emotion strives to express itself in verse” that “the greatest drama is poetic drama”  and that “dramatic defects can be compensated by poetic excellence.” His four major plays “The Murder in the Cathedral” (1935), “The Family Reunion” (1939), “The Cocktail Party” (1949)  and “The Confidential Clerk” (1953) are in the poetic tradition. Since then many other dramatists adopted the form and infused religious beliefs and attitudes into poetic drama.

Christopher Fry is another poet dramatist who has made a great contribution to poetic drama. His important works are “A Phoenix Too Frequent”, “The Lady’s not for Burning”, “Venus Observed” etc., all of which are remarkable for their verse dialogue and poetic splendour. W.H.Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s “The Dog beneath the Skin”, and Norman Nicholson’s “The Old Man of the Mountains” are other significant poetic plays of the period.

It is not the form alone that defines poetic drama, but also the spirit that characterizes it. It deals with the deep spiritual reality of life.  In its crusade against the realistic problem plays of the period, poetic drama shunned the problems of society and dealt with themes distant in time and place. For instance, Eliot’s “The Murder in the Cathedral” deals with the legend of Thomas Beckett of Canterbury. Poetic drama, thus,  established itself as an important dramatic type in the 20th century.

 Working Class drama: The label “working class drama” is often applied to plays such as Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger”, Arnold Wesker’s “Chicken Soup with Barley”, Shelagh Delany’s “A Taste of Honey” and John Arden’s “Live Like Pigs” because they focus on the anger, boredom and frustration that many working class families felt at the time.

The frustrations and aimless drifting of the young, the poor and the unemployed; the oppression of the lower class protagonist under the British class system; all find expression in  Working class drama. It is anti-elitist and personified the “Angry Young Man” and “kitchen sink realism”. The plays became an expression of the mood of the post-war years: the restlessness, dislocations and frustrations of the working class.

Osborne’s  “Look Back in Anger” exemplifies “Kitchen sink drama”, which depicts the domestic and emotional lives of ordinary people. The hero, Jimmy Porter, is a model for “the angry young man” whose anger becomes the symbol of rebellion against the established social and political traditions of British life. This anti-Establishment play set off a whole new trend in British drama. Osborne’s other plays like “The Entertainer”, “Luther”, “Inadmissible Evidence” etc are provocative and thought provoking.

Arnold Wesker’s plays such as “Chicken Soup with Barley”, “I’m Talking About Jerusalem” and “Roots”, “The Kitchen”, “The Friends”, “The Four Seasons” etc are remarkable plays of this genre.

 Absurdist Drama: The ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ is a term coined by Martin Esslin to refer to plays that dealt with the theme of absurdity. Plays of this group are absurd in that they focus on human beings trapped in an incomprehensible world. They express the belief that, in a godless universe, human existence has no meaning or purpose. Characters are often stereotypical or flat types who are stuck in routines. Their language ranges from meaningless clichés and word play to the nonsensical, showing the inability to communicate or connect with others. These plays flout logical or realistic action. Absence, emptiness, nothingness, and unresolved mysteries are central features in many Absurdist plots. The themes of routine and repetition are explored.

Such plays were written from the late 1940s to the 1960s, popularized by playwrights like Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco,  Jean Genet, Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee.

Samuel Beckett’s plays about alienation, boredom and death made him one of the most influential founders of the Theatre of the Absurd. His most important play “Waiting for Godot” (1955) portrays two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo), who wait endlessly for a man named Godot who never makes his appearance. The tramp’s words  “Nobody comes, nobody goes, nothing happens” captures the essence of the Absurdist philosophy of meaninglessness and boredom. Beckett also focuses on the way in which thoughts of death dominate the human mind. His static action, stripped dialogue and silences were revolutionary for the times. His other plays are Endgame (1957), Krapp’s Last tape (1958) and “Happy Days” (1961).

Harold Pinter is a British playwright whose plays show the influence of Beckett. While Beckett’s silences hint at alienation, boredom and the slow approach of death, Pinter’s are ominous and violent. Hence they become ‘plays of menace.’ His significant plays are “The Birthday Party” (1957), “The Caretaker” (1960), “The Dumb Waiter” (1960), “Betrayal” (1978) etc.

Some other important Absurd plays are Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” “The Chairs”, and ”The Lesson”; Jean Genet’s “The Balcony”;  Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” (1958) and “Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1962) etc.

The One-Act Play

The One-Act Play is a short play that takes place in one act as opposed to longer plays that occur over two or more acts. It is regarded by many to be a product of the 20th century. But the ancestors of the One Act Play can be traced back to the Mystery, Miracle and Morality plays of the Middle Ages. One-Act Plays were written and staged throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries, as “The Curtain Raisers” or “The After Pieces”.  The famous One-Act Play “Monkey’s Paw” which was first staged in 1903 as a “Curtain Raiser” proved to be more entertaining than the main drama. It may be said to mark the beginning of the modern One-Act Play.

The One Act play is a separate literary form by itself, not a shortened form of the long play. A One-Act Play deals with a single dominant situation, and aims at producing a single effect. Greatest economy and concentration is required. Everything superfluous must be avoided.

The One-Act Play, like the longer drama, should have a beginning, a middle and an end. It may be divided into four stages: The Exposition. The Conflict, The Climax and The Denouement. The three dramatic unities of time, place and action are observed as far as possible. The characters must be limited in number because the dramatist works on a small canvas. Too many characters would result in overcrowding and lessen the effect of the drama.  Dialogue is of the greatest importance. Absolute economy must be exercised. Every word is to be carefully chosen and sentences must be compact and condensed. Though short in form the One-Act Play can have as its theme any subject under the sun.

The modern One –Act play owes its growth to the Norwegian dramatist Henrick Ibsen. It is his technique of using the medium of prose that  brought the One-Act play closer to life and made it what it is, an important branch of literature and a popular form of dramatic representation. Following Ibsen, Shaw, Synge, Teats, Lady Gregory and others wrote short plays.  The amateur dramatic societies too contributed a great deal to popularize this dramatic form.

Some of the memorable one-act plays of the 20th century are Shaw’s “The Man of Destiny,” Synge’s “Riders to the Sea”, Norman McKinnel’s “The Bishop’s Candlesticks”, Eugene O’ Neill’s “Where the Cross is Made”, Maurice Baring’s “The Rehearsal” etc.


Tragicomedy: is a type of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama which intermingled the characters, subject matter and plot-forms of tragedy and comedy. Tragicomedy represents a serious action which threatens tragic disaster to the protagonist, yet, by an abrupt reversal of circumstances, turns out happily. Tragi-comedy is not tragedy with comic relief or comedy with a tragic background, where the one serves as a foil to the other. On the other hand, the Rising action or the Complication of a Tragi-comedy  is tragic in tone, and the Falling action or denouement turns it into a comedy. The Climax separates one from the other. An alternate term for the tragic-comedies of Shakespeare is the Dramatic Romance.

The term Tragi-comedy was first used by the Latin comic dramatist Plautus who called his play “Amphitruo” a ‘tragico-comoedia’. The English tragic-comedy which arose in the Jacobean period was shaped by both Italian and Spanish influences. From the former came the pastoral element and from the latter, the romantic intrigue, both of which are dominant features of the English tragic-comedy.

Tragic-comedy was condemned by Sidney as a “mongrel”, by Milton as “the poet’s error of mixing comic stuff with tragic sadness” and by  Addison as a “monstrous invention”.  This objection was based on the principle of unity of action. But Dr. Johnson defended the form saying that the mingling of pleasure and pain is common in life and hence may be allowed in drama which pretends to be the mirror of life. Tragi-comedy affords pleasure through a delightful alternation of tears and laughter. The best defense is that Shakespeare and other dramatists created  in the form some of the masterpieces of English literature.

Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, “The Winter’s Tale”, “Cymbeline” and Beaumont and Fletcher’s “A King and No King” are some of the best tragic-comedies written in English.


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