What is Drama?

Drama is the genre and involves various elements:

  • A playwright (the addresser)
  • The plays (the message)
  • actors, director, designers, musicians (the performance)
  • audience (the addressee)

Therefore drama implies a real moment of communication from author to audience through the actors and it relies on the immediate response of the public. in addition, the same work can be performed in a different way according to the period and the sensibility of the director, the actors and the audience

The plays are meant to be sung by audience. The plays of Drama are:

  • Tragedy: the heroes are kings, princesses or warriors. They aren't free but dominated by fate.
  • Comedy: discourse or work intended to be humors.
  • Tragicomedy: it blends aspects of both tragic and comic forms

The origins of Drama

The Cult of Dionysus

The first form of Drama was a religious rite which dates back to at least 1200 BC. In Northern Greece, in an area called Thrace, the tribes practised a Cult of Dionysus, the god of fertility and procreation. This Rite, which probably originated in Asia Minor, practised ritual celebrations which may have included alcoholic intoxication, human and animal sacrifices.

The Dithyramb

The Dithyramb was an essential part of The Cult of Dionysus. The word means "choric hymn" sung and danced in honour of Dionysus during the festivals where they took part in real competitions of rites.


The most important Greek tragedians are:

  • Aeschylus was to establish the basic rule of tragic drama. He invented the triology, a series of 3 tragedies tell a long story which makes dramatization. He introduced a second actor.
  • Sophocles introduced a third actor, increased the number of chorus members to 15. He introduced scenery and the use of the scenes.
  • Euripides was important for the realism and the attention of feelings, as a mechanism to elaborate the unfolding of tragic events.

The golden age of greek theatre

By 600 BC Greece was divided into city-states. The most prominent city-state was Athens, where at least 150,000 people lived. It was here that the Rites of Dionysus evolved into what we know today as theatre. The most important development of the later 4th century was the emergence of the New Comedy of Menander. Although the Greek tradition was in serious decline by about 300 BC, its influence had already spread to other parts of the Mediterranean world.


Major theatres were constructed, notably the theatre at Delphi, the Attic Theatre and the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens. For example, the Theatre of Dionysus, built at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, could seat 17,000 people. During their heyday, the competitions drew as many as 30,000 spectators. The words theatre and amphitheatre derive from the Greek word theatron, which referred to the wooden spectator stands erected on those hillsides.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens

Actors probably wore little or no makeup. Instead, they carried masks with exaggerated facial expressions. They also wore cothornos, or buskins, which were leather boots laced up to the knees. There was little or no scenery. Initially, most of the action took place in the orchestra. Later, as the importance shifted from the chorus to the characters, the action moved to the stage.

Ancient Greek masks
The structure of Greek theatres

Greek theatres were usually built on the natural slope of a hill, taking advantage of the terrain and acoustics. Seats were often cut into the hillside and the audience looking toward the stage would also catch a glimpse of the valley beyond it. The Greek theatres had a circular orchestra or "dancing area" for the chorus to sing and dance in.

  • Stone benches arranged in tiers and used to seat the audience. (entrance for the public)
  • Doors used by the actors to go to and from the backstage area and the stage.
  • Scene (entrance for the actors)
  • Space where the choir performed. (orchestra)
  • Platform where the actors performed. (stage)
The difference between Greek and Roman theatre

The Romans built theatres anywhere, even on flat plains, by raising the whole structure off the ground. As a result, the whole structure was more integrated and entrances/exits could be built into the cavea, as is done in large theatres and sports arenas today.

A different aspect is the orchestra which is circular or “dancing area” for the chorus to sing and dance in the Greek theatre, while the Roman theater has a much smaller orchestra, being half a circle. This is partially due to the fact that Roman dramas did not use choruses. The stage is also larger and there are three entrante in the back wall.

Orchestra of Roman Theatre - Orchestra of Greek Theatre
The function of theatre

The function of the theatre also changes from Greeks to Romans:

  • The function of Greek theater is to purify the spectator. The term 'catharsis' means precisely purification or calming of passions produced by poetry and especially by tragedy.
  • The Roman theatre didn’t have a salvific and purifying value like the Greek one. In fact Romans used to go there to have fun

Historical Background of the Greek chorus

  • The Greek theatre evolved from ritual and dance with a strong choral focus to greater emphasis upon dramatic action.
  • The first function of the chorus: narrator (telling the story, provide information)
  • It assumed a role as soon as the first actor stepped out and assumed a role as well.
  • The chorus could work as a character, or as an impartial commentator.
  • It was the ideal spectator.
  • Number of members: originally 50, but it will be reduced: in the fifth century it will number 12-15 members.
  • Members: chosen from the population, they were unpaid volunteers who ''were doing their civic duty''.
  • Rehearsal period: four months or more, they did not rehearse in public.
The members of the chorus wore masks, usually similar to each other but completely different from the leading actors.

Greek theatres in Sicily

Sicily functioned as a crossroads of the civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Greeks included, who built a stone theatre here whenever they founded a city. For the Greeks, attending the theatre was a key part of life, almost a sacred ritual. Still today, these places come to life to offer unforgettable hours – perhaps bathed in the light of sunset – of theatrical shows and events that exploit the evocative Hellenic architecture, dug out of the rock like shells opening up onto the sea.

Greek Theatre in Syracuse, Catania, Segesta, Taormina, Enna.

Roman Drama

One of the most important periods of Drama is the Roman one. After the Punic Wars the Romans got in touch with the Greeks. The first playwright was a freedman called Livius Andronicus in 240 B.C.

● In Rome, theatrical performances were held during games and parties, on the occasion of religious ceremonies, military triumphs and funerals of public figures.

● Unlike the Greek theatre, the civil or ritual connotation gives way the entertainment character. For the Roman public, the participation is motivated by fun rather than religious or political tension.

Types of plays

A lot of Roman plays came from the Greeks, sometimes reworked or mixed with some elements of Etruscan tradition.


The atellana, popular farce of Oscan origin, coming from the Campania city of Atella, was imported to Rome in 391 BC: with masks and improvisation of the actors on a canvas. The mime actors were equipped with caricatured costumes and masks. So for a long time the Roman theater did plays through four main forms: the "fescennini", the "saturated", the "atellana", the "mime".


Roman comedies began to develop with the introduction of the musical element. The Greek comedy was called fabula palliata (so called from the pallium, Hellenic cloak worn by the actors), while the comedy set in Roman times it was called fabula togata (from the "toga", Roman mantle) or tabernaria.


It was a mixed theatrical representation of dances, music and acting, then becoming the critique of society or the powerful of the time. Varro and Orazio introduced the "satira" as literary genre.


The tragic genre was also taken up by the Greeks. It was called fabula cothurnata (from cothurni, the shoes with high wedges of Greek actors) or palliata (from pallium, as for the comedy) if of Greek setting. When the tragedy dealt with the themes of Rome at the time, with allusions to current political events, it was called praetexta (from the toga praetexta, edged with purple, used for magistrates).

The Roman theatre

The Roman theatre has a smaller orchestra in fact was half a circle than a whole circle (Greek theater). Another difference with the Greek is that Roman drama didn’t use choruses. The stage is also larger and there are three entrances in the back wall. While Greek theatre were built on a hill, the Romans built theatres anywhere, even on flat plains, by raising the whole structure off the ground.

So entrances/exits could be built into the cavea, as is done in large theatres and sports arenas today. The scaena was as high as the rest of the structure, so the audience could not look out beyond the stage. It also create more of an enclosed atmosphere and may have helped keep out the noises of the city. Note the three entrances built into the scaena.

The Roman amphitheater of Catania​, which is visible only for a small section in the western part of Piazza Stesicoro, is an imposing structure built in the Roman empire, probably in the 2nd century, on the northern edges of the ancient city. The area where it stands, now part of the historic centre of the city, was once used as a necropolis. It is part of the Greek-Roman archaeological park of Catania.

MEDIEVAL THEATRE "An expression of Christian religon"
In the Middle Ages, an age apparently devoid of artistic works, the theatre does not disappear but changes its purpose.
Church fathers characterized the theatre as an instrument in the Devil's fiendish plot to corrupt men's souls, because of this many theatre building were destroyed.

The rebirth of the theatre

During the 10th century, the first form of Medieval theater was staged in the monastery of Fleury. The first form of drama, during the Middle Ages, is the Quem Quaeritis which dates back to 930 and which was performed inside the monastery of Fleury by the abbot of Cluny. It is a dialogue sung between the Marys at the sepulcher of Jesus Christ.

the Place

From the Roman theatres to the churches and squares
As the Medieval Plays grew in popularity, performances inside churches became more and more difficult because of the increasing size of the audience; the plays left the precincts of the Church and began to be performed out of the doors, first in the church yard, then in other open spaces of the town.
The show was played on the pageants wagons in the squares. The pageant wagons were movable stages or wagons used to accommodate the Mystery and the Miracle plays. There were many floats in the same square where different scenes were played.

The main character

The jester represented a "multiple" being that contains the actor, the poet, the acrobat, the court entertainer, the musician, the singer of deeds, the master of dance.

features of the medieval drama

There are three kinds of Medieval plays:
  • Mystery plays: about Christ or from the Old Testament; usually done in cycles
  • Miracle plays: lives of saints, historical and legendary
  • Morality plays: didactic allegories, often of common man’s struggle for salvation

The mystery plays and morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries were very different from modern drama. They were performed in public spaces by ordinary people, and organised and funded by guilds of craftsmen and merchants. Guilds were associations of craftsmen or merchants, who were in charge of regulating and teaching their trade; they were often wealthy and wielded considerable power.

Characteristics in common:

  1. Aimed to teach or reinforce Church doctrine
  2. Melodramatic: good rewarded, evil punished
  3. God and his plan were the driving forces, not the characters


The Medieval theatre was a source of entertainment and education for people of the Middle Ages. Though initially tinged with religious zeal, Medieval theatre went through centuries of evolution and themes outside of the Bible were eventually accommodated.

elizabethan theatre

Elizabethan theatre, also known as Renaissance English theatre was the dominant art form that flourished during and a little after the reign of Elizabeth I, who was Queen of England from 1558 to 1603.

Elizabethan theatre developed starting from the medeval religious celebrations especially from the commemorations of great Christian events. The Elizabethan drama developed when lay people substituted monks and priests in these commemorations.


Reasons for the development of Drama

The Elizabethan age was characterised by a wide range of interest and vitality of language. People couldn't read so entertainment was very important during those years. Theatres were increasingly built on the South Bank which was easily accessible across the Thames.


In the Elizabethan era, plays took place in three different types of playgrounds: Inn-yards, amphitheatres and playhouses.


First actors moving from one city to another to perform their plays, stopped in taverns or inn, where they had to negotiate with the owner. At a certain point they thought that they could perform in the cobblestone yards into the taverns where people left their horses. So the inn-yard which was surrounded by balconies became an amazing stage.


They were born thanks to the fusion of the Inn-yards and Bear and Bull baiting rings.There was a circle in the middle and around it there were tiered seats and protective walls


In the playhouses the acting troupes could have an all year round profession, because they could act in rainy days too, and so also throughout winter. In the playhouses there were luxury and comfortable places for the nobility. The most important playhouses were Gray's Inn and Whitehall

Structure of the theatres

The stages were surrounded by three walls , between them there were three tiers of roofed galleries and the yard or pit, where the poorer stood.

Over the stage there was a thatched roof which protected the player. There was also an inner stage, which was used for discoveries and concealments and an upper stage hidden by a curtain and a balcony. Moreover there was a trap door used for devilish apparitions and disappearances.

Finally at the back of the stage there was the actors' tiring house.


Elizabethan theaters marked a heyday of English theater with such playwrights as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Fletcher, Thomas Kidd and Ben Jonson. Elizabethan theater had several characteristics that differ from today's theater-going experience, though there are troupes today that try to recreate it in what is called "original practices." Original practices perform under similar conditions and following the conventions of English theater during the years 1562 and 1642.

Natural and Universal Lighting

Elizabethan Theater made use of natural and universal lighting. Shows were performed in the afternoon in open-air theaters or grounds. Those shows that were performed indoors were done to candlelight where audience and actors shared the same lighting. Modern-day companies that recreate Elizabethan theater leave the house lights up and forgo the use of spots or hanging lights.

Minimal Sets

Acting troupes in the Elizabethan era took their shows on the road and performed in barns, innyards, nobleman's houses, from the backs of wagons or in city squares. Permanent structures were often theaters in the round with audiences on all sides of the stage.

Elaborate Costumes

Costuming in Elizabethan theater was elaborate, colorful, rich and helped distinguish between social classes. When a character wore a particular costume, it immediately communicated societal roles. At the Globe Theatre, each actor had his own costume, often one that a rich patron donated

Audience Involvement

People came and went during the show, causing playwrights to include expository summaries. Audience members would sometimes talk directly to the actors. They could walk around during the show, talking and eating. In response, actors would talk and interact with the audience. Many playwrights wrote speeches in which the actors would deliver monologues directly to the audience.


Playwrights borrowed freely from popular sources. The characters and situations were often allegorical types and the plays contained scenes of vivid caricature and realistic comedy. The ideas of man's place inside an ordered universe and of the mutability of fortune and the stars were also typical.

The most important playwright of Elizabethan Age was William Shakespeare


Evolving scenes

The progress of a Shakespearean play is usually linked to the gradual clarification of things which are left mysterious at the beginning. Themes are hinted at, but their real meaning becomes apparent much later. There is also a frequent contrast between scenes with many characters and scenes with few, scenes in public and in private, those full of action and those devoted to reflections. Shakespeare sometimes leaves some questions open so that we continue to think about the answer to the puzzle after the play is over.


The structure of the play was flexible. Shakespeare did not give great importance to the division between the acts. In the Elizabethan theatre there was no curtain fall between the acts and the plays were performed without an interval.


Shakespeare took his characters from all the social class, both from the rich class and the poor class (rustics, servants…). The family ties are one of the most important theme of Shakespeare. Moreover there are symmetrical correspondences between the characters, for example three lords and three ladies.

Variety of Style

Shakespeare used different levels of speech and action to portray his characters from different angles. As a matter of fact a character may change from everyday prose to solemn verse. He use also allegorical scenes and songs


Shakespeare use a wide variety of rhetorical figures, for example similes and metaphors. Moreover his plays have characteristic image motifs. Shakespeare also invented new words and used obscure and archaic words.

One of the most important plays by Shakespeare is "A Midsummer Night's Dream

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