NATURE AND FUNCTIONS OF DRAMA
In our previous articles, you learnt that drama has a unique nature. It has developed and been improved upon by various dramatists over the ages. It has also been influenced by the developments and changes in the world. The unique nature of drama makes it possible for it to be read and as also to be performed. Unlike the prose and poetry which depend on narration, drama is presented only through dialogue. The novel is divided in chapters and the poem is written mostly in stanzas, drama is presented in acts and scenes, movements or parts. William Shakespeare made the five-act structure the standard for his plays. Each dramatist is free to adopt his/her own style.
In addition to the fact that plays can be read and enjoyed by people in the privacy of their homes, people also watch and enjoy the plays as an audience in a theatre when the plays are presented on stage. The audience gives an immediate reaction to the performance on stage. Drama is temporary in nature. Every performance has a definite duration (i.e. it lasts for a certain length of time). Each performance of a play is therefore a distinct work of art. Even if the actors, the composition and the decors remain unchanged throughout the production, each performance varies in nature and quality as one may be better than other. A good example is in a case where an actor may have performed badly in one production and better in another one. It means therefore that “every performance of a play, even by the same actors, represents a different realization of its possibilities and no single performance can fully realize all its possibilities”(Scholes 17). Once a performance is conducted, it ceases to exist except in one’s memory.
Ritualistic presentations could also be viewed from the same perspective. Drama is said to have originated from ritual. It is an important branch of literature and the most concrete of all art forms. It is devoid of the distant intimacy of the novel, the abstract message of fine arts, the incomplete message of music or the cryptic and esoteric language of poetry. It presents a story realistically through the actors to the audience.
Drama is therefore used to entertain, inform and educate people. You can see that it is the most effective tool for mass mobilization by the government and private agencies. For instance, most campaigns against AIDS, DRUG ABUSE, CHILD ABUSE and so on, are presented in form of drama to educate, enlighten while at the same time entertain the people. Of all the creative artists, the dramatist is in the best position to mirror his society and to effect social reforms. This is because his work has a unique characteristic of presenting events in a vivid, picturesque and realistic manner. This helps to imprint social conditions realistically in the minds of the audience. Its message is therefore immediate.
The rich and the poor, the young and the old, the literate and the illiterate enjoy and assimilate the message of drama once it is presented in the appropriate language as the actors live out the story (message) on stage. In most traditional societies, drama forms part of the communal rites. In Africa, reenactment of some feats like hunting, warfare, and other events, are usually part of bigger festivals. Some of these events are presented in form of drama to entertain the audience. In Greece also, drama formed part of a bigger festival. Greek drama is acclaimed to be the earliest recorded form of drama (5th century B.C). It is said to have originated from the Dionysian religious rites, and also remained a communal rite during the classical period. The dramatists of this age gave insight into the philosophy and religious beliefs of the ancient Greece. These early Greek plays treated life’s basic problems with utmost honesty and attacked socials ills using legendary and mythological themes. This helped to ensure sanity and equilibrium in the society.
In the Medieval period, drama was used to elucidate the message of the gospel through the re-enactment of the biblical stories during mass. It was later expanded to include the dramatization of the lives of the saints and other notable stories of the bible that did not form part of the Sunday’s lessons. It was therefore used for the spiritual and moral growth of the people. Drama and theatre also played important roles in the social lives of the people in the ancient Roman Empire.
In England, Germany and France, playwrights like Shakespeare, Brecht, Goethe, Moliere, and others, in varying degrees, used their works to enable their respective countries “… to carve out and affirm a unique identity” for themselves (Hagher 145). The American industrial sector was radically but positively affected through the intervention of one play, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. This play is regarded as being responsible for the spirit of industrial revolution in America. In Africa, Kenya to be precise, a playwright, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o was arrested and detained because of the political and social consciousness which his play, I Will Marry When I Want, aroused in the audience after the production.
Theplay was written and presented in his Gikuyi language; this enabled the audience, to assimilate its message immediately and to react accordingly. Ngugi was forced into exile. The drama of any society, therefore, reflects the problems, aspirations, philosophy and cultural background of the people.
You see that dramatists can use their works to help to shape the future of the societies. They can do this not only by reflecting the ugly sides of the societies but also by promoting the positive aspects of the people’s way of life that are worth emulating or cultivating. They also help to ensure the continuity of their tradition and culture by reflecting them in their plays.
Each dramatist, therefore, tries from his perspective to use his art to enlighten his audience on the goodness, imbalances and shortcomings of his society. Apart from their thematic concerns, each dramatist, in his own style of relaying his message, tries to highlight his cultural background through the use of myths, legends, music, songs, dances, proverbs, riddles, and other local expressions. In this way, dramatists all over the world are regarded as the conscience of their societies, and custodians of their moral and cultural values.