This article introduces you to a detailed study of dramatic genres. You need this background to enable you appreciate different forms of drama in the course of your study. The classification is also necessary for both the playwright and the critics in their appreciation of dramatic composition.
Etymologically, the term genre is taken from the French language and it means type, kind, or form. In simple terms dramatic genre means type or kind of dramatic composition. Drama is grouped into distinct types, kinds or categories because there are qualities that are common to all dramatic compositions. There are also qualities that make each composition unique. It is these similarities and differences that determine each genre.
The dramatic genres include tragedy, comedy, tragic-comedy, melodrama, drame, mime, etc.
We are familiar with the words ‘tragedy’ and tragic as they are associated with misfortune. Usually, they are used to describe personal misfortunes that do not concern the rest of the society. For example, the breakdown of a marriage or death of a dear one in an accident or even natural causes could be described as tragic. Also, some public events that are unpleasant like the assassination of a head of state or a political leader, natural or human disasters like earthquakes, flood disasters, plane crashes and other such disasters are referred to as tragedies. In this unit we are not concerned with these tragedies or tragic’ events in our daily lives but as they relate to dramatic compositions.
Tragedy according to the Oxford English Dictionary is “a play of a serious or solemn kind … a very sad event, action or experience.” The last part of the definition explains why the word is used to describe misfortunes, natural and human disasters in everyday life. However, we will be concerned with the aspect of the definition that sees tragedy as a play of a serious or a solemn kind.
Tragedy in drama is believed to have originated from the Greek worship of Dionysius, the god of wine and fertility. During the festival, the dithyramb, a choral lyric in honour of the god is sang and danced around the altar by fifty men dressed in goat-skin (goat was the sacred animal of the god).
This is perhaps from where tragedy got its name because in Greek, “tragoedia” meant goat song. During this song, a story about the god was improvised by the choral leader but later Thepsis stood out and instead of singing in honour of Dionysius, sang as Dionysius. However, the song continued but a minimal part of it was acted by one actor.
As time went on, the spoken part was increased and Aeschylus added a second actor while Sophocles added a third actor. As time went on, the number of chorus decreased gradually as more actors increased. Thus tragedy was born. The scope of the plays increased as they started including myths concerning other gods. The plays became so popular that by 534 BC, the state gave official recognition to tragedy and instituted a prize for the best tragedy presented at the annual Donysian festival.
Tragedy is the most esteemed of all the dramatic genres. It has attracted many definitions and rules, from the days of Aristotle, who is the first person to write on the circumstances of and what tragedy should be, to the present day. According to him in his “Poetics”:
Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of acertain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornaments, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the from of action not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting a proper purgation of these emotions.
Aristotle explains all the aspects of this definition and moves further to give the elements of tragedy as plot, character, thought, diction, music and spectacle. Try to read Aristotle’s “Poetics”. These principles have continued to influence the definition till date. However, some dramatic scholars agree with him while some others disagree with him. In drama, tragedy is a serious play that deals with the misfortunes of man. It presents a man (tragic hero) who is not too virtuous or too vicious but one who aspires for higher ideals. He tries to improve himself and the world around him. In the course of this, he makes a mistake, or commits an error of judgment. This leads to his fall. Traditionally, in classical tragedies, the hero must be of noble birth, suffer and is overwhelmed in the end. Tragedy presents injustice, evil, pain, misfortunes, paradoxes and mysterious aspects of human existence.
Greek tragedy has a set pattern or structure. It starts with the prologue which introduces the play with the episodes of the play and the choral songs in between and finally the exodus. The play contains a “single integral plot” which is presented in a very short period with one setting.
The action could be simple or complex and contains a reversal of fortune or discovery or both. They are very short plays and many of them were presented in trilogies. The tragic hero is drawn from princes and kings. He is a man who is not pre-eminently good, virtuous or vicious but who commits an error of judgment. Oedipus Rex is a good example of classical tragedy. It has a single plot, the story of how Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. The setting is just in front of the palace. Oedipus, the tragic hero is a king who by the end of the play, discovers the truth about himself, his fortune reverses from good to bad. His catastrophe is caused by his tragic flaw which is arrogance.
The plays were based on myth and legends drawn mainly from the legends of the house of Atreus and the events of the Trojan wars. They were presented as a part of a great festival and the state was involved.
Music, songs and dances were important elements of the plays. To maintain a single setting, indoor actions and violence were reported on stage. As part of a religious festival, the plays were used to show how vices like arrogance and pride lead men to destruction. The gods also play important roles in Greek tragedy. However, the dramatists differ in their attitudes to the gods as characters in their plays.
Many critics argue that there are no tragedies in the modern period. The argument is based on the fact that many playwrights do not adhere to the Aristotelian principles of tragedy especially as regards the treatment of the subject matter, tragic hero and the language. Modern playwrights feel that they should not be restricted by any rules.
According to them, drama reflects the society, so they should reflect their society in the works. In the modern society, little or no attention is paid to kings, princes and their exploits so a poor man who is hard working can rise to esteem. The society also encourages him to rise. He also has the capacity to fall into misfortune through an error of judgment and according to Arthur Miller, since kings and monarchs are no longer available, tragedy should be based “… on the heart and spirit of the average man” (Dukore: 897). Contemporary issues and human beings should, therefore, be treated in tragedy.
The important factor is that the tragic hero pursues a particular goal he believes in relentlessly to its logical conclusion even if he loses his life in the pursuit. Tragedy attempts, therefore, to ask some basic questions about human existence like, is there justice in the world?