The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary defines element as a necessary or typical part of something or the basic principles of something of a subject you have to learn first. In simple terms, therefore, elements of drama refer to the basic principles of drama which you must learn first for you to fully understand and appreciate drama both as a subject and as performance. In this unit and the next three units, we are going to discuss the elements of drama. I will start with imitation which is the basic and most important element of drama.
In simple terms, imitation means the act of copying somebody or something. It is an act of copying the ways somebody talks and behaves, especially to entertain. In literature, imitation is used to describe a realistic portrayal of life, a reproduction of natural objects and actions. This type of imitation includes writing in the spirit of the masters using merely their general principles; borrowing special “beauties” in thought and expression from the works of the best poets; or adapting their materials to the writer’s own age.
In drama, as I wrote in a previous article, imitation is more pronounced in performance. This is understandable because a play is written primarily to be performed. What is being imitated in drama is basically life. Drama tries to present life as realistically as possible on stage. This is why we say that drama mirrors life. Aristotle insists that imitation is part of life. He likens the imitation in drama to the children’s play instinct. If you cast your minds back to your childhood experiences, you will recall that sometimes when you were playing, one child will say let me be the mother while another person becomes the “father”.
In most cases, the “mother” collects discarded empty cans and uses them as pots, collects sand and some leaves to cook food. She uses sticks as spoons. When the food is ready, they eat by taking the ‘food’ close to their mouths and throwing them away. In some cases, they try to dress like their parents and some of them try to talk like their parents while those who are the children try to behave the way children are expected to behave. This is imitation. The children are imitating their parents or imitating life as it is lived in the family.
Imitation in drama involves a story. For it to be drama a story must be told through dialogue as the characters interact among themselves and that story must have a beginning, middle and an end. It is different from musical presentations. Musicians in these presentations do not imitate anybody. They may wear costumes and act in weird manners but they are being themselves. Some of them take on other names like Lagbaja, African China, Weird M.C, 2 FACE, P SQUARE, Baba Frayo, Daddy Showkey and many others. In show business, each artist tries to create an image for him or herself, so instead of imitating anybody, they would want to be imitated. However, in the video productions, some musicians try to dramatize the message or the stories of the songs.
The people dramatizing these stories are imitating life in the dramatic sense. Over the ages, the attitude of dramatists on imitation differs from one dramatist to another and from one age to another. Some dramatists advocate the imitation of life exactly as it is lived, others insist on the imitation that is as close as possible to life. In the imitation that is as close as possible to life, the dramatist tries to create his characters to dress and act as close as possible to real life. That explains why we have different styles of imitation both in play-writing and acting skills. They include Emile Zola’s naturalism, Bernard Shaw’s realism, Betolt Bretcht’s epic theatre, Constantine Stanislavsky’s realistic acting,
Gordon Craig’s theatre of cruelty, Gerzy Grotowsky’s poor theatre and many others. Generally, the most popular form of imitation is the realistic one where the story is a representation of life and the characters are those we could identify in real life. This is why we say that drama mirrors life. This is why in Hamlet, Hamlet advises the Players to Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature; for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at first and now, was and is to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature…(Act III Sc ii)
Holding up to nature here means that they should reflect nature in their words and actions. Drama is like a mirror because its mode of imitation is selective and intensive. Most plays do not last more than three hours so the time is very short. Another issue to be considered is the space. The stage is so small that it will be difficult to reproduce all the life experiences of a particular character. Despite the fact that the celluloid can, with the aid of a camera, present three-dimensional pictures, it can never present every thing within the period for the play. This explains why you have expressions like ‘two months later’ to make up for the limitations in terms of time and space.
In his own mode of imitation, Sophocles, in Oedipus Rex, one of the plays you will study for this course, does not present all the incidents on stage. Those actions which he felt could not be imitated to look as realistic as possible are reported and not presented on stage. Some critics argue that some of the reported events are too gruesome to be presented. They are right because one of the Aristotelian postulations on tragedy is that violence should not be presented on stage. That not withstanding, one could also argue that in realistic acting it is almost impossible for Jocasta to hang herself or for Oedipus to gorge out his eyes.
In discussing reported action, we have seen how the second messenger moved from story-telling to commentary, and this brings us to what is referred to as choric commentary in drama. Remember that in drama the story is told through the characters. The playwright does not narrate the story the way the novelist does. In order to make his play realistic it is difficult for him to present some of his views on particular issues which the characters could not imitate realistically. This is because he cannot suspend the action in order to comment or generalize on characters and events or appear suddenly in the play or on stage to provide a point of view on the action. The dramatist’s alternative is the chorus or choric characters that are persons in the play but are relatively detached from the action. They can therefore stand off from it, somewhat like a narrator, to reflect on the significance of events.