Lecture Material:  Theatre History                                                                                                    Theatre Arts 5

Lecture One: Elements of Theatre and Drama                                                                        Terrin Adair-Lynch



The Basic Elements of Theatre


Script/Text, Scenario, Plan:

 This is the starting point of the theatrical performance.  The element most often considered as the domain of the playwright in theatre. The playwright’s script is the text by which theatre is created.  It can be simplistic, as in the 16th century, with the scenarios used by the acting troupes of the Commedia dell’ arte, or it can be elaborate, such as the works of William Shakespeare.  The script, scenario, or plan is what the director uses as a blue print to build a production from.  

The Process:

This is the coordination of the creative efforts usually headed up in theatre by the director. It is the pure process by which the playwright’s work is brought to realization by the director, actors, designers, technicians, dancers, musicians, and any other collaborators that come together on the script, scenario, or plan.  This is the works in progress stage.


The Product:

This is the end result of the process of work involved. The final product that results from all of the labors coming together to complete the finished work of script, scenario, and plan, in union with all of the collaborators in the process to create the final product. This is what the audience will witness as they sit in the theatre and view the work.


The Audience:

Theatre requires an audience.  For all of the arts public is essential.  The physical presence of an audience can change a performance, inspire actors, and create expectations.  Theatre is a living breathing art form.  The presence of live actors on the stage in front of live audiences sets it apart from modern day films and television.




Let us now look to the person who is responsible for the starting point of the theatrical event. The initial creator of the script, scenario, or plan, as outlined above. This person is the playwright. A playwright works in that branch of literature dealing with the writing and producing of plays for the theatre. The literary composition that is written specifically for the stage in play format by the playwright.   


The Playwright


What is a playwright?  According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “One who writes plays”.  


The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth

                                                                       To heaven;

And, as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.



In A Midsummer Night’s Dream

                                                                        William Shakespeare



How plays are written at any given time depends on many factors: the intended audience and purpose; the playwright’s current views about the human condition, and how the playwright perceives the truth around him.  A playwright must understand and know the established artistic and theatrical conventions of the theatre.  A playwright must appreciate the working procedures, materials, and technical aspects of a production.  Because the script is the starting point of the theatrical production, the process through which it comes into being is of primary importance.  There are many ways to write a play.  Sometimes a playwright starts with an idea.  Another playwright may begin with a single character in mind.  Some playwrights base their work on spectacle.  Plays can be tightly structured or episodic.  Regardless of the original inspiration, the work of the playwright is not just to set forth an idea, to create characters, or tell a story. A playwright recreates and restates the human experiences and the universal mirror of mankind. 

The script is the heart of the theatrical event.  It must be respected.



Steps of the Playwright’s Work


Playwriting and creating drama for each playwright is distinctively different. Plays can develop out of any combination of starting points and patterns. The processes by which drama is created for each playwright can be varied in the steps used to create the text.  Below is a simple list in a progressive order, but order can change depending on each playwright’s characteristic style and preferences for writing.  


The basic steps involved in the development of drama include:

1.        Coming up with Thought/Theme/Ideas to be expressed through the work.

2.        Determine the Genre and Style of the work

3.        Outlining Basic Action of the work and Creating Plot.

4.        Establish the Structure of the Play and Overall Framework

5.        The Development of Characters presented in the work.

6.        The Creation of Dialogue and the Language of the Characters.

7.        Creating Music: This can involve the Rhythm of the Language or actual Music Composition and the Lyrics of the songs.

8.        Establishing Spectacle: The visual and Environmental elements of the work.

9.        Research of Subject Matter and Relevant issues presented in the play.



Elements of Drama

Most successful playwrights follow the theories of playwriting and drama that were established over two thousand years ago by a man named Aristotle.  In his works the Poetics Aristotle outlined the six elements of drama in his critical analysis of the classical Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex written by the Greek playwright, Sophocles, in the fifth century B.C.  The six elements as they are outlined involve: Thought, Theme, Ideas; Action or Plot; Characters; Language; Music; and Spectacle.



1. Thought/Theme/Ideas

What the play means as opposed to what happens (the plot).  Sometimes the theme is clearly stated in the title.  It may be stated through dialogue by a character acting as the playwright’s voice. Or it may be the theme is less obvious and emerges only after some study or thought. The abstract issues and feelings that grow out of the dramatic action.


2. Action/Plot

The events of a play; the story as opposed to the theme; what happens rather than what it means. The plot must have some sort of unity and clarity by setting up a pattern by which each action initiating the next rather than standing alone without connection to what came before it or what follows.  In the plot of a play, characters are involved in conflict that has a pattern of movement. The action and movement in the play begins from the initial entanglement, through rising action, climax, and falling action to resolution.


3. Characters

These are the people presented in the play that are involved in the perusing plot.  Each character should have their own distinct personality, age, appearance, beliefs, socio economic background, and language.


4. Language

The word choices made by the playwright and the enunciation of the actors of the language.  Language and dialog delivered by the characters moves the plot and action along, provides exposition, defines the distinct characters.  Each playwright can create their own specific style in relationship to language choices they use in establishing character and dialogue. 


5. Music

Music can encompass the rhythm of dialogue and speeches in a play or can also mean the aspects of the melody and music compositions as with musical theatre.  Each theatrical presentation delivers music, rhythm and melody in its own distinctive manner.    Music is not a part of every play.  But, music can be included to mean all sounds in a production.  Music can expand to all sound effects, the actor’s voices, songs, and instrumental music played as underscore in a play.  Music creates patterns and establishes tempo in theatre.  In the aspects of the musical the songs are used to push the plot forward and move the story to a higher level of intensity.  Composers and lyricist work together with playwrights to strengthen the themes and ideas of the play.  Character’s wants and desires can be strengthened for the audience through lyrics and music.


6. Spectacle

The spectacle in the theatre can involve all of the aspects of scenery, costumes, and special effects in a production.  The visual elements of the play created for theatrical event.  The qualities determined by the playwright that create the world and atmosphere of the play for the audience’s eye. 



Further Considerations of the Playwright

Above and beyond the elements outlined above the playwright has other major considerations to take into account when writing.  The Genre and Form of the play is an important aspect.  Some playwrights are pure in the choice of genre for a play.  They write strictly tragedy or comedy.  Other playwrights tend to mix genre, combining both comedy and tragedy in one piece of dramatic work.




Drama is divided into the categories of tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and tragicomedy.  Each of these genre/forms can be further subdivide by style and content.



Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude.  The tragedy is presented in the form of action, not narrative. It will arouse pity and fear in the audience as it witnesses the action.  It allows for an arousal of this pity and fear and creates an affect of purgation or catharsis of these strong emotions by the audience.  Tragedy is serious by nature in its theme and deals with profound problems.  These profound problems are universal when applied to the human experience.  In classical tragedy we find a protagonist at the center of the drama that is a great person, usually of upper class birth.  He is a good man that can be admired, but he has a tragic flaw, a hamartia, that will be the ultimate cause of his down fall.  This tragic flaw can take on many characteristics but it is most often too much pride or hubris.  The protagonist always learns, usually too late, the nature of his flaw and his mistakes that have caused his downfall.  He becomes self-aware and accepts the inevitability of his fate and takes full responsibility for his actions.  We must have this element of inevitability in tragedy.  There must be a cause and effect relationship from the beginning through the middle to the end or final catastrophe.  It must be logical in the conclusion of the necessary outcome.  Tragedy will involve the audience in the action and create tension and expectation.  With the climax and final end the audience will have learned a lesson and will leave the theatre not depressed or sullen, but uplifted and enlightened.



Comedy should have the view of a “comic spirit” and is physical and energetic.  It is tied up in rebirth and renewal, this is the reason most comedy end in weddings, which suggest a union of a couple and the expected birth of children.  In comedy there is absence of pain and emotional reactions, as with tragedy, and a replaced use of mans intellect.  The behavior of the characters presented in comedy is ludicrous and sometimes absurd and the result in the audience is one of correction of behaviors.  This correction of behaviors is the didactic element of comedy that acts as a mirror for society , by which the audience learns “don’t behave in ludicrous and absurd ways.”  The types of comedies can vary greatly; there are situation comedies, romantic comedies, sentimental comedies, dark comedies, comedy of manners, and pure farce.  The comic devices used by playwrights of comedy are: exaggeration, incongruity, surprise, repetition, wisecracks, and sarcasm. 



Melodrama is drama of disaster and differs from tragedy significantly, in that; forces outside of the protagonist cause all of the significant events of the plot.  All of the aspects of related guilt or responsibility of the protagonist are removed.  The protagonist is usually a victim of circumstance.  He is acted upon by the antagonist or anti-hero and suffers without having to accept responsibility and inevitability of fate.  In melodrama we have clearly defined character types with good guys and bad guys identified.  Melodrama has a sense of strict moral judgment.  All issues presented in the plays are resolved in a well-defined way.  The good characters are rewarded and the bad characters are punished in a means that fits the crime. 



Tragicomedy is the most life like of all of the genres.  It is non-judgmental and ends with no absolutes.  It focuses on character relationships and shows society in a state of continuous flux.  There is a mix of comedy and tragedy side by side in these types of plays.



Style/Mode/ “ism’

The shaping of dramatic material, setting, or costumes in a specific manner. Each play will have its own unique and distinctive behaviors, dress, and language of the characters.  The style of a playwright is shown in the choices made in the world of the play: the kinds of characters, time periods, settings, language, methods of characterization, use of symbols, and themes.



Dramatic Structure

                Dramatic structure involves the overall framework or method by which the playwright uses to organize the dramatic material and or action.  It is important for playwrights to establish themes but the challenge comes in applying structure to the ideas and inspirations.  Understanding basic principals of dramatic structure can be invaluable to the playwright.  Most modern plays are structured into acts that can be further divided into scenes.  The pattern most often used is a method by where the playwright sets up early on in the beginning scenes all of the necessary conditions and situations out of which the later conditions will develop. Generally the wants and desires of one character will conflict with another character.  With this method the playwright establishes a pattern of complication, rising action, climax, and resolution.  This is commonly known as cause to effect arrangement of incidents. 


The basic Characteristics of the cause to effect arrangement are:


Point of Attack

The moment of the play at which the main action of the plot begins.  This may occur in the first scene, or it may occur after several scenes of exposition.  The point of attack is the main action by which all others will arise.  It is the point at which the main complication is introduced.  Point of attack can sometimes work hand in hand with a play’s inciting incident, which is the first incident leading to the rising action of the play.  Sometimes the inciting incident is an event that occurred somewhere in the character’s past and is revealed to the audience through exposition.



Exposition is important information that the audience needs to know in order to follow the main story line of the play.  It is the aspects of the story that the audience may hear about but that they will not witness in actual scenes.  It encompasses the past actions of the characters before the play’s opening scenes progress.


Rising Action

Rising action is the section of the plot beginning with the point of attack and/or inciting incident and proceeding forward to the crisis onto the climax.  The action of the play will rise as it set up a situation of increasing intensity and anticipation.  These scenes make up the body of the play and usually create a sense of continuous mounting suspense in the audience.


The Climax/Crisis

All of the earlier scenes and actions in a play will build technically to the highest level of dramatic intensity. This section of the play is generally referred to as the moment of the plays climax.  This is the moment where the major dramatic questions rise to the highest level, the mystery hits the unraveling point, and the culprits are revealed.  This should be the point of the highest stage of dramatic intensity in the action of the play.  The whole combined actions of the play generally lead up to this moment. 


Resolution/Obligatory Scene

The resolution is the moment of the play in which the conflicts are resolved.  It is the solution to the conflict in the play, the answer to the mystery, and the clearing up of the final details. This is the scene that answers the questions raised earlier in the play.  In this scene the methods and motives are revealed to the audience.


Categories of Plot Structure

Climatic vs. Episodic

Climatic Structure

I.                     Plot begins late in story, closer to the very end or climax

II.                   Covers a short space of time, perhaps a few hours, or at most a few days

III.                 Contains a few solid, extended scenes, such as three acts with each act comprising one long scene

IV.                 Occurs in a restricted locale, one room or one house

V.                   Number of characters is severely limited, usually not more than six or eight

VI.                 Plot in linear and moves in a single line with few subplots or counter plots

VII.               Line of action proceeds in a cause and effect chain. The characters and events are closely linked in a sequence of logical, almost inevitable development


Episodic Structure

I.                     Plot begins relatively early in the story and moves through a series of episodes

II.                   Covers a longer period of time: weeks, months, and sometimes years

III.                 Many short, fragmented scenes; sometimes an alternation of short and long scenes

IV.                 May range over an entire city or even several countries

V.                   Profusion of characters, sometimes several dozen

VI.                 Frequently marked by several threads of action, such as two parallel plots, or scenes of comic relief in a serous play

VII.               Scenes are juxtaposed tone to one another. An event may result from several causes, or no apparent cause, but arises in a network or web of circumstances


Outline of Playwriting

                Along with the basic understanding of these qualities the playwright must take the aspects of unity into great consideration.  At the center of every play there should be unity.  Unity in playwriting means harmony among the component parts.  Included in the next section of this project is an informative outline that can help a perspective playwright achieve unity in their work.  It also aids in the process of starting the initial development of a play and adds credibility to the work.  Some of these important aspects and considerations listed in the outline have been covered in some detail thus far, but others should be strongly considered before a playwright puts pen to paper or hands to keys. 


These important aspects include the following:

I.                     Research and Knowledge of:

a.        Themes and Subject Matter Explored

b.       Unity in the Genre/Form and Clarity of Style/Mode of the Intended Work

c.        Knowledge of the Time Period Presented

d.       Research of Any other Relevant data presented in the play

II.                   Inspiration:

a.        Painting/Photo that encapsulates the World of Play

b.       Metaphor that describes the themes at work in a single sentence

c.        Any other Relevant Ideas of inspiration

III.                 Concepts:

a.        Questions you should be able to answer:

                                                               i.      What does the play represent? What is its theme? Why is it important? Why does it deserve to be witnessed? What is the moral?  What universal truth does it illustrate? What excites you, the playwright, about the work? What aspects of the drama fires your imagination? What makes you feel zealous and impassioned? What moves you? What about the material gives you a deep feeling of satisfaction? What in the play makes it worthy of an audience’s attention? Why is it compelling?

IV.                 Predominant Elements: What is the leading element in your dramatic work?  

a.        Theme- Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets is a thesis play directly promoting the theme that the common man will continue to be oppressed until he succeeds in organizing into unions.  It is nearly a propaganda play.  Character and dialogue serve the theme exclusively.  The spectacle is limited to a bare stage.  The language is didactic to the point of preachiness.

b.       Plot-The Tavern by George M. Cohan is a play in which the predominant element is almost exclusively plot.  The action hurls itself relentlessly at the audience.  Character is continuously subservient to plot.  The theme, crime does not pay, is apparent from the beginning, and the spectacle requires on an upstage door and a winter wind (example of Music) so powerful it drives all the players to the wall.

c.        Character-All the plays of Chekhov have the predominant element of character.  One could barely choose plot as the secondary element.  It is also unlikely that one would choose language, because language in Chekhov is intentionally commonplace.  There is Theme in Chekhov, but it is subservient to character, it lays quiet and low in the play and rises gracefully and gently to the surface.

d.       Spectacle-Barnum by Mark Bramble and Michael Stewart won a number of prizes in New York, despite the fact that it has no plot, no characters of consequence, and no significant language; its theme, at best, could be stated, A circus causes sweat.  The sheer intensity and speed of the spectacle, the unrelenting energy, the nonstop sensation of movement, sound, and color; the surprises, the acrobatic feats, dances, magic, and razzmatazz overwhelmed and gratified audiences.

e.        Language-Under the Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas is subtitled “A Play for Voices.”  It is a demonstration of the most miraculous parade of words in the spoken English.  It is poetry at its most dazzling.  The theme is vague at best.  As for plot, it is a patchwork of incidents involving sixty-four characters in a tiny Welch town in the course of a summer day.  The characters are sketched, not developed.  The predominant element in this play is clearly the most radiant language ever assembled.  Spectacle would ruin this work.

f.         Mixtures-Most commonly you will find that the majority of plays have mixtures of all of the elements of drama.  The examples cited above are plays demonstrating one predominant element almost to the exclusion of the others.  Many playwrights tend to utilize a bit of all the elements.  One of the greatest exceptions and examples of incredible use of all the elements is the plays of Shakespeare.  The reason his plays tower above all others is that he fuses the elements of theme, plot, character, spectacle, and language so magnificently.  In Shakespeare we can marvel at the great skill with which these elements have been united.


V.                   Outlining: Beginning, Middle, and End

a.        Beginning:

                                                               i.      Prologue and or start of play with introduction of characters, date, place, time, setting, and exposition and inciting incident introduced

                                                              ii.      Point of attack, introduce primary conflict and central dramatic question

b.       Middle:

                                                               i.      Characters pursue objectives and encounter obstacles

                                                              ii.      Answers sought; goals of characters conflict with other characters

                                                            iii.      Characters attempt to overcome obstacles and challenges

                                                            iv.      Characters plan tactics, succeed, fail, attack, retreat, surprise, and are surprised, encounter major reversals and a crisis is reached

c.        End:

                                                               i.      Characters engage in final conflict (climax of play)

                                                              ii.      Characters main objective achieved of lost

                                                            iii.      Central dramatic question is answered, theme or ideas of play confirmed. Resolution where order is established





Artistic consideration in playwriting requires selection and arrangement.  Art is skill acquired by experience, study, and clear observations.  Playwrights must consciously set about making choices with a competent plan and creative imagination.  Only then than we consider the playwrights work as a viable start to the theatrical process. Before anyone begins to write a play it is important to understand the medium for which you intend on writing.  Writing for the stage demands an understanding of two fundamentals: the essence of drama and the nature of theatre.




Additional Notes: _______________________________________________________________________



Key Words:

1.        Aristotle “the Poetics”                        9. Spectacle                           17. Point of Attack

2.        Elements of Theatre                             10. Genre / Form                   18. Exposition

3.        Elements of Drama                               11. Tragedy                           19. Cause to Effect arrang.

4.        Thought / Theme / Idea                      12. Comedy                           20. Climatic vs. Episodic

5.        Action / Plot                                         13. Melodrama                      21. Tragic Hero

6.        Character                                               14. Tragicomedy                   22. Hamartia

7.        Language                                              15. Style/Mode/ “ism’         23. Hubris

8.        Music                                                     16. Dramatic Structure         24. Catharsis