This chapter will introduce you to the different types of theatrical genres and styles. A lot of what you will learn will sound familiar since genre and style apply to other forms of narratives, such as novels and movies. Here we will just apply what you probably already know to theatre, with specific examples of scripts and theatrical movements.
In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of genre is as follows: “A category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.1”
How can you define the genre of a play?
Similarly to other narratives, the genre is determined by what happens in the play and the overall tone of the action. It also heavily relies on the emotional response of the audience generated by the play. Does the play have a light tone, a happy ending, and makes you laugh? Then you are reading (or attending a production of) a comedy! Conversely: is the play serious in tone, does it make you think about what is happening, and are you experiencing intense emotions? Then you are experiencing a tragedy or a drama (soon we will see the difference). We will discuss the two main genres, the tragedy, and the comedy, and then introduce others, such as melodramas and the tragicomedy. As for styles, this chapter will discuss absurdism and docudrama.
Tragedy and comedy are the most established and popular genres in theatre, and they are clearly opposites of one another. They have both existed since the beginning of Western Theatre.
In everyday life and language, the term “tragic” immediately speaks of the seriousness of an issue or an event. In theatre, the term and genre date back to the 7th century B.C. It had specific features, some of which are carried into today. In a classic tragedy, the protagonist needs to deal with ethical choices, rather than practical ones. An ethical choice entails high stakes for the character and demands him to make a difficult decision, sometimes even deciding between life and death, for him or someone else. For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the protagonist must decide whether to kill his uncle in order to avenge the murder of his father (who had been killed by his uncle). Classic Greek tragedies also used heightened language, such as verse.
The play opens with Oedipus, King of Thebes, trying to find a remedy for a terrible plague that is decimating his people. He sends his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle of Delphi to inquire about what needs to be done for the plague to be lifted. The oracle’s response is that until the killer of Laius, the previous king of Thebes, is brought to justice, the city will have to endure the plague. Oedipus swears he will find Laius’ killer and starts investigating among his people. He asks for Tiresias, a blind prophet, who might know the answer. When the prophet arrives, he tells Oedipus that although he knows who the killer is, it should be left alone and Oedipus should move on. This enrages Oedipus, who accuses Tiresias of being an accomplice in the murder, possibly with Creon. A verbal fight ensues, with Oedipus accusing Tiresias of being “a blind man that cannot see” to which Tiresias responds:
“So, you mock my blindness?Let me tell you this, You with your precious eyes,
you’re blind to the corruption of your life,
to the house you live in, those you live with”
While leaving, Tiresias calls Oedipus “A blind man, who has his eyes now.” When Tiresias leaves, Oedipus’ wife, Jocasta, who was also Laius’ widow, tells him not to care about prophecies, as they always fail. To prove her point, she tells Oedipus that a prophecy had determined that Laius would be killed by his own son, while he had actually been killed by bandits at a crossroad while traveling. This news startles Oedipus. He asks if there is anyone left of the train accompanying Laius during his trip. He discovers that a shepherd was with Laius the day he was killed. Since then, this shepherd had lived far away from town, removed from the social life of Thebes. Oedipus calls for the shepherd and Jocasta wants to know the reason why Oedipus is so upset about the incident, prompting Oedipus to tell a story of his past, when as a young man, he was accused by a drunk man at a banquet not to be his father’s son. He then went to the oracle of Delphi to inquire about the matter, but the Oracle told him instead that he would kill his father and bed his mother. Terrified by this prophecy, Oedipus decides never to go back home and wandered for some time until he got into a fight at a crossroad, where he accidentally killed a man.
In the meantime, a messenger comes from Oedipus’ homeland, announcing the death of the king. The news comes as a relief for Oedipus since he believes that now at least one part of the oracle of Delphi’s prophecy proved wrong. Yet he won’t return home to avoid the other part of the prophecy, the part about his sleeping with his mother. Yet, the messenger reassures Oedipus about this: Merope, the woman who raised him, was not his biological mother. He had been adopted as a toddler. A shepherd had rescued him after finding him abandoned and wounded in the woods and given him to Merope, who could not have children of her own. As it turns out, the shepherd who was with Laius when he was killed is also the one that was asked to dispose of Laius’ own son years before.
When the shepherd finally arrives in Thebes, he confirms the story to Oedipus, leaving the king distraught and ashamed of his own faults. While attempting to escape his fate, he had done nothing but embrace it: he had killed his father and married his mother. This discovery leads to the resolution of the play, with Oedipus blinding himself—thus making Tiresias’ prophecy true—and Jocasta killing herself. Both of those gruesome actions happen off stage and are reported to the audience, as violence in classic Greek theatre does not happen in front of the audience. Defeated and blind, Oedipus leaves Thebes, appointing his brother-in-law as the new king.
For the purposes of his argument, Aristotle analyzes Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (429 B.C). In his analysis, Aristotle outlined the important elements of a tragedy and used Oedipus the King as an example. King Oedipus is the so-called Greek Hero, the play’s protagonist, the character who undergoes the greatest change and who is stained by a tragic flaw, in Greek “hamartia.” Oedipus’ flaw is his arrogance: he was thought to be smarter than anyone, including the gods. That was what triggered his demise. Yet, because everything he did was fueled by good intentions, the audience empathizes with him and doesn’t want him to suffer the tragic ending. Oedipus, who had proved to be a good king and a good example for the people takes responsibility for his actions and decides to become the living proof of his own fault. The behavior of the character is therefore educational for the audience, who undergoes catharsis, a release of their emotions related to what the character had gone through.
Aristotle believed that the Greek hero needed to have high social status: he had to be someone that the common audience member – likely a citizen of Athens – could look up to because if a king commits a mistake and cannot escape his fate/the judgment/justice, despite being able to manipulate the rules to his advantage, it is clear to the audience that they have even less of that chance. Regardless, Oedipus also accepts his fate, as he recognizes his fault and makes amends – hence, he is redeemed and still stands as someone to look up to by the common audience member.
Along with characters being of noble birth, Aristotle mentioned a tragedy needing to deal with a subject of relevance, that is to say, something that goes beyond personal gain and is related to the commonwealth of the greater community. Going back to the main point of the tragedy as a genre: Oedipus has to make an ethical choice. Would pursuing justice for king Laius, despite having so many warning signs about this, be his downfall? Being an ethical character and a Greek hero, he moved forward in the pursuit of justice, basically sentencing himself to disgrace. It is important to state that in a classic tragedy, the protagonist is always a male character.
Classic tragedies have kept almost the same features up until the second half of the 19th century when the change in social patterns resulted in the rise of new issues and topics of interest. Within the Industrial Revolution, common people were able to improve their socioeconomic status thanks to their hard work, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit. It allowed for the rise of the middle class, a class of people with newfound wealth but not much Classic education. Their economic power soon started to weigh heavily on the social and cultural dynamics all throughout Europe and America. These people wanted their own culture and wanted to see their stories represented and celebrated. They had less interest in plays with kings, emperors, and princes having to face obscure and obnoxious prophecies, ghosts, and plagues. Yet, they wanted to go to the theatre! At the time, the theatre was just as much a place to go to be seen as a place to go to see something: going to the theatre granted acknowledgment of social status.
It was important to have a change in what was being staged in the theatre, to better highlight the shift in society: the downfall of the noble class who were literate but were slowly and surely losing their economic power, and the rise of the middle class and “self-made men.”
Playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen started writing plays that kept the structure of the classic tragedy, in terms of characters having to face ethical choices and dealing with a subject of relevance, but dismantled almost everything else. Characters were not of noble birth anymore but rather ordinary people the audience could recognize and immediately identify with. They still had to face extraordinary circumstances, but even so, those were all things that could very well happen to anyone in the audience. The protagonist could also finally be a female character. Several of Ibsen’s plays have a female protagonist, such as A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, and The Lady of the Sea. The dialogue is written in plain language, and the characters speak as they would in their everyday life.
Ultimately, modern tragedies, also called dramas, introduce the idea of realism: what we see on stage needs to be directly relatable to reality, the time, the place, and the society that generated it. I am not interested in watching a play about a distant king because we have nothing in common. Instead, I am interested in watching what happens to my next-door neighbor while he/she goes through a particular challenge because we share common ground and whatever he/she is going through could happen to me as well. Modern tragedies, therefore, become more personal to their audience.
Later in the 20th century, one of the greatest American playwrights, Arthur Miller, contributed to the relatively new genre with Death of a Salesman, which made a very specific and compelling statement. The play premiered in 1949 and won the Pulitzer Prize that same year. It is considered to this day one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. It is about the death of the American dream and about how that affected the life of a common man, Willy Loman. Miller wanted to point out that the relevance of the subject directly influences the lives of common people, not just of those high up on the social ladder. Hence, the title of the play. While it resounds a classical value, it highlights its difference: it is not Death of a King, but rather Death of a Salesman, a common man.
Dramas also don’t necessarily have a simplistically tragic ending. Classic tragedies ended with some outstanding act of violence, death, or situation of no return. Dramas, instead, are more rooted in the psyche and the journey of the characters. In A Doll’s House, the protagonist, Nora, leaves her husband and her children behind to go in search of her own identity. No one dies, but that is certainly not a traditional happy ending, particularly if you put the play in its context. It premiered in 1879, when women were not allowed to just walk out of a marriage and, even more so, leave their children behind. In truth, the play stirred up quite a storm back then.
It is safe to say that a comedy is the polar opposite of a tragedy. While watching a comedy, the audience will never feel a true sense of fear, although they might feel some pity for the characters as they go through a series of unfortunate practical events. It is a pity that generates from the idea of laughing at the expense of someone else’s misfortune, but a life-threatening situation is never its cause. You laugh at the guy slipping on the banana peel and landing on his ass, not at the guy falling off a building.
“Comedy humbles us at the same time it comforts us–we are not alone in our many failures.” (Wendy MacLeod)
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns;
Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns!
Nothing portentous or polite;
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
Nothing with gods, nothing with fate;
Weighty affairs will just have to wait!
Nothing that’s formal,
Nothing that’s normal,
No recitations to recite;
Open up the curtain:
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
Frenzy and frolic,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
Something for everybody:
Something that’s gaudy,
Something that’s bawdy–
Something for everybawdy!
Nothing that’s grim.
Nothing that’s Greek.
She plays Medea later this week.
Hundreds of actors out of sight!
Pantaloons and tunics!
Courtesans and eunuchs!
Funerals and chases!
Baritones and basses!
No royal curse, no Trojan horse,
And a happy ending, of course!
Goodness and badness,
Panic is madness–
This time it all turns out all right!
Comedies have several features, and here we will introduce them all.
First off, in comedies the characters have to face practical choices, not ethical ones. Characters ponder more about how to do things rather than deciding if they should do things. How can I steal money from my master? How can I pretend not to be seen while I am stealing food from the kitchen? How can I get out of the bedroom before the husband of the woman I am with comes in? Those are the kind of questions and situations that are typical of a comedy.
Needless to say, a comedy should generate hilarity and laughter… and have a happy ending!
Comedies, even more than dramas, feature characters that are common people, sometimes with not much psychological insight either.
Stock characters are very popular in comedies as well. A stock character represents an archetype, a category of people, and behaves how that category of people is expected to behave. Archetypes are therefore immediately recognizable because of their universality, which makes it easier for the audience to relate and react to. Because of their lack of psychological insight and depth, they rely heavily on stereotypes and cliché, almost reaching the level of caricatures. Examples of stock characters include the servant, the boss, the villain, the dumb blonde, the jealous husband, and the overprotective mother…just to name a few.
A particular and very popular style of comedy is Commedia dell’Arte, which originated in Italy in the 16th century and heavily uses stock characters. Commedia plays have created some of the most comedic scenes in history, and characters that have survived the test of time for their universality and comedic essence. While Commedia dell’Arte characters rely on elaborate costumes and specific physicality, they are all stock characters. The origin of each one of them often goes back to the actor who originated the role, in terms of accent and costume.
Below is a breakdown of some of the most famous ones:
- Arlequin – the funny servant, always dressed in a multicolored diamond-pattern pantsuit and wearing a half mask
- Pantalone (Pantaloon) – a greedy lawyer, always dressed in a red costume with a black cape and wearing a half mask with a long, crooked nose
- The Doctor – a doctor, with not much knowledge about anything, heavy set with a prominent belly, wearing a black ornate pantsuit, a white collar, a black cape, and a half mask with a big nose and some whiskers
- Colombina – the female servant, wearing a period-style dress, and no mask
- The Captain – the captain of a ship, who pretends to be valiant and heroic, but is afraid of everything. He wears a colored pantsuit – yellow, orange, or striped- a wide hat and a half mask with a long, pointed/phallic nose and whiskers
- Pulcinella – a belligerent servant, a loner and usually sad. He wears a white suit and a half-black mask with a prominent nose.
Commedia dell’Arte introduced the concept of slapstick comedy, named after a particular tool, the slapstick, which is a long and flat paddle used for beatings. The ingenious design of the instrument allowed the actors to successfully pretend to beat each other without actually getting hurt, as the paddle had two wooden leaves that, with minimal contact, would bang each other and make a lot of noise. Hence, the noise made the audience believe the hit must have been huge, while it really was not. Slapstick comedy today means a fast-paced comedy emphasizing larger-than-life movements and frequently involving some form of petty violence. The faster the pace, the more the comedy becomes farcical, or a farce. A good example of a farce is Michael Frayn’s Noises Off! or Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce.
Along with a fast rhythm, there are several other devices that are instrumental to a comedy. These include misunderstandings (like delivering a letter to the wrong person), foul language (curse words are always funny for some reason), violation of social hierarchy (like an old person pretending to be much younger or a servant acting up as the master), coincidences/ mistaken identities (like in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, where confusion ensues as four characters are two sets of twins), and extreme physicality (like, as we have just seen, Commedia dell’Arte). In most cases, comedies use most of those devices in their plots. Different from the tragic genre, comedy has always retained the same structure and used the same devices. Famous classic Greek comedic playwright Aristophanes (445-386 B.C.) used in his plays the exact same comedic elements as Shakespeare (1582-1616) or the contemporary Michael Frayn (1933).
Under the umbrella of comedy, there are several different styles. Situation Comedy, also known as Sit-Com, is one of them. In this kind of comedy, the humor comes from the situation the characters find themselves in. Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is a good example of a situation comedy, as everything that happens is dictated by the presence of two sets of twins (two sets of brothers separated at birth and unaware of the other’s existence) in the same location. American playwright Neil Simon is also famous for his situation comedies, one of which is certainly The Odd Couple. Sit-coms have become very popular on the small screen with the proliferation of TV series. Examples would include Ted Lasso, Only Murderers in the Building, Friends, How I Met your Mother, The Golden Girls… the list could go on and on and on.
Comedy of Manners, on the other hand, tends to rely on characters and their social status. They were particularly popular in the 19th Century and used to make fun of the social mannerisms of the aristocracy, especially in England. Oftentimes they embedded a very critical view of the targets of their comedy and were close to social satire. One of the most renowned authors of this kind of comedy is Oscar Wilde, who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and Lady Windermere’s Fan.
Romantic Comedies, as the name suggests, rely on the dynamic of a love story and on how the characters must overcome practical obstacles in order to be together. An example of romantic comedy can be Wycherley’s The Country Wife or Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. All of the Hallmark Channel’s movies can safely be considered romantic comedies.
A Comedy of Character is a piece that focuses on the adventures and misadventures of a character, generally the protagonist. Examples include Moliere’s The Miser, Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, and Goldoni’s Arlequin Servant of Two Masters.
Finally, a Comedy of Ideas is based on a philosophical concept brought to its extremes. An example includes Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, where the “idea” comes from the women of Athens, who decide that they have had enough of their husbands being off at war and go on a sex strike until their men came back home for good and stop the war. Another famous playwright of comedies of ideas is George Bernard Shaw, whose plays include Men and Superman, The Doctor’s Dilemma, and Pygmalion.
The tragicomedy is a genre that combines some elements of the tragedy with some elements of the comedy. In particular, a tragicomedy features everyday characters dealing with a subject of some relevance and oftentimes has a happy ending.
Good examples of a tragicomedy can be Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In Waiting for Godot, which premiered in 1953, Vladimir and Estragon discuss a variety of subjects close to existentialism, violence, and communication while they wait for their friend Godot to arrive. Yet, Godot never shows up. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s plays can also be considered tragicomedies.
American playwright Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize (2007) winning play August: Osage County also fits the description of a tragicomedy, portraying the dynamics of a dysfunctional extended family who gather in rural Oklahoma because of the disappearance of a family member—who is later found dead. The play features scenes of intense comedy while also tackling issues like addiction, racism, and incest. More recently, Letts’ play The Minutes (2021) also combines comedic and tragic elements as it investigates the troubled past of a small community while presenting the apparently innocuous, unassuming, and underwhelming personalities of small-scale politicians and community leaders. In Tracy Letts’ plays mentioned above, there are not a proper happy endings, but the tone masterfully keeps the balance between high and low notes, leaving the audience thinking about what they are laughing at and about if that should be the case.
The term melodrama was first utilized in France in the 19th Century and indicated a drama with a melody and some music. They were a popular form of entertainment in Europe into the early 20th century, where they slowly developed into operettas and eventually into musicals. Melodramas originated in response to the need of the newly formed middle class to have their own style of social and cultural entertainment.
In a melodrama, the action (whatever happens to the characters) is more important than the characters themselves (who tend to overplay their emotions and emerge as stock characters). As a matter of fact, even today when we say someone or something is melodramatic, we usually mean that it is overly emotional.
In a melodrama, the characters are usually ordinary people who face extraordinary—borderline impossible—circumstances. Themes and subjects tend to be rather serious, with a distinct division between good and evil, culminating in a happy ending. The main idea behind most melodramas is that something wrong has happened or is about to happen and justice needs to prevail, and it does. A common plot line would involve a damsel in distress being sexually threatened or harassed until the hero comes and saves her from the villain. Plots tend to be straightforward, following the cause/effect chain of events, stereotypical, and therefore predictable. The audience has an underlying perception of what will happen and how it all is going to end.
Spectacles would play a major role in a melodrama, with music being part of said spectacle. An interesting example of Melodrama is The Phantom of the Opera. While we are most familiar with the brilliant 1986 musical version by Andrew Lloyd Webber, it was originally a novel and categorized as a melodrama, written by Gaston Leroux in 1910. The complexity of the musical itself transcends the simplicity of a melodrama, yet some elements of it still remain, such as the clear division between good and evil, a great deal of spectacle, the presence of stock characters (such as the diva, the damsel in distress and the lover) and of course, a happy ending. Melodramas have transferred well to other media as well, such as to the small screen as soap operas.
Theatre of the Absurd
Theatre of the Absurd stands for the kind of plays written right after World War II, during the shocking aftermath of the war. Mostly in Europe, playwrights and artists in general had a very hard time coping with the loss, the annihilation of human lives, the horrors, and the massive physical destruction all around them. Communication, words in general, had not been able to prevent any of it and it was felt that words could no longer create bridges or make sense of anything. As a result, the plays that came out of this period tend not to rely on logic per se but rather on a structure that is somewhat circular to show that there can’t be any actual change in anything from the beginning to the end of the play and that all that is left just has to be silence.
What was the purpose of these plays? Mostly, it was an attempt to let the audience experience the absurdity of witnessing something without any apparent or coherent logic and to push them out of their complacency. Complacency is what they considered responsible for the horrors of the war. At the same time, it was a way to highlight the complex human condition, with its existential conundrums and queries that exhaust our minds in search of solutions when there are none, and we are basically alone in a meaningless world. Realizing all this would have the effect of liberation, allowing the audience to move forward.
The most influential playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd style are the Romanian-French Eugene Ionesco and the Irish Samuel Beckett. Examples of plays in this style include: Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, The Bald Soprano and The Lesson; Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. In the U.S.A., the playwright that is the closest in style to the Theatre of the Absurd is Edward Albee, whose plays navigate a different kind of logic, often inherent to the world of the play rather than to reality itself. Some examples of his plays include The Zoo Story (1959), The Sandbox (1960), Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), A Delicate Balance (1966, Pulitzer Prize winner), Seascape (1975 Pulitzer Prize winner), and Three Tall Women (1991 Pulitzer Prize winner).
Documentary Theatre, also called Docutheatre or Verbatim Theatre
Documentary theatre uses real documented stories and turns them into a theatrical piece that is presentational and direct, without much support coming from other common elements of a theatrical production (such as costumes or scenery). Usually, the plays are based on real people and most of the lines come from interviews that the playwright conducted personally, or that are part of archival material.
Pioneers in this style include American playwright Anna Deveare Smith, author of Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, a play about the riots following the acquittal of the officers accused of the beating of Rodney King. Smith conducted about 300 interviews in order to put together the different points of view she needed for her play, which she wrote and performed as a one-woman show. Venezuelan playwright and director Moises Kaufmann also utilizes this style in his plays. With his company, the Tectonic Theatre Company, he wrote The Laramie Project, a play about the infamous hate crime against Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. The young man was kidnapped, tied to a fence naked, and brutally beaten. He was found the following morning, still alive, but in a coma. He never regained consciousness and died at the hospital a few days later. The perpetrators later admitted that they wanted to “teach him a lesson” since he was gay. When they were working on the play, Kaufman’s theatre company stayed in Laramie to interview. The play resulted in an orchestra of voices, with actors playing several roles and introducing the characters to the audience.
In verbatim theatre, the performers never attempt to become a character because there is no character, but rather a real person whose words alone are worth being spoken out loud and in front of an audience. Then what is the difference between a documentary and a documentary theatre piece? The narrative, and, of course, the medium. The artist presents the facts dryly, but truthfully, and the audience has to make up their minds and fill in the gaps with their imagination.
Characters of Noble birth/Ordinary People
Comedic Devices (misunderstandings, mistaken identities, etc.)
Comedy / Comedic Styles
Comedy of Manners
Comedy of Ideas
Comedy of Character
Commedia dell’Arte (and its characters)
Language: Verse vs. Ordinary Language
Oedipus the King
Subject of Relevance
Theatre of the Absurd
- Wendy MacLeod is an American playwright and professor. She teaches at Kenyon College ↵