A Beginner’s Guide to Drama


Drama is a form of literature acted out by performers. Performers work with the playwright, director, set and lighting designers to stage a show.

Live actors act as someone else called a character.

A play consists of:

  1. dialogue – where characters talk with each other
  2. action – what characters do in the play
  3. gesture – what the character shows through motion(s) and expression(s)

A script, written by a playwright, gives the actors words and cues to perform the dialogue, actions and gestures of their characters on stage.

As a reader, you can only imagine what the gestures, expressions and voices of the characters are like. Remember you must imagine the “sounds,” actions and scenery when you are reading a script.

Reading a play is like listening to a conversation, and using your imagination to guess at what the characters are like. This conversation is what actors will perform on the stage and will give you an idea of how other people, including the playwright, imagined the play to be.

Drama differs from short stories and novels because it is made to be performed by different actors in different locations throughout time. While the script remains the same, actors’ interpretations of a single role may differ.

If you have read a play and then see it, you may be surprised because the play may be different from what you had imagined. This is similar to reading a story and then seeing a movie of that story– it is rarely exactly what you had imagined.

Types of Drama



There are three basic types of drama:

  1. Tragedy – a serious, solemn play based on an important social, personal, or religious issue.
  2. Comedy – a play that shows the humorous actions of characters when they try to solve social, personal, or religious problems.
  3. Tragicomedy – a play or novel containing elements of both comedy and tragedy.

Analyzing Drama

How you react to a play will depend on:

  1. your individual perspective of the world
  2. your sense of humor
  3. you political attitudes
  4. your moral values

Analysis begins by asking what factors about the play shaped your response.

Aspects of drama that help you to enjoy and interpret a play:

  1. setting
  2. structure
  3. characterization
  4. theme
  5. dramatic irony

Setting – The scenic design and props. These add meaning and historical context to what characters do and say in the drama. Some components of the setting are as follows:

  1. the orchestra, the performance and dancing area for actors and chorus, which was utilized by Greek theater to inform audiences of what happens “off stage.” (i.e. no murders or suicides were shown; instead, a messenger would inform the characters of the news).
  2. lighting is used to show illusion of time, highlight an action, or emphasize an event or character. Lighting is more complicated today than it was in ancient times, because plays used to be shown only outside.
  3. costumes are used to portray age, class, profession or ethnic culture.

Structure – The way a play is organized into sections. Most plays are divided into acts and scenes.A traditional play follows the structural pattern of a traditional short story or novel. It has an introduction (exposition), conflict, climax, and a resolution (denouement).

Characterization – the way the actor portrays the character’s qualities and faults.

The actor plays a role that animates the character’s:

  1. traits
  2. moral qualities
  3. physical presence
  4. voice
  5. Qualities of a personality may be either physical and superficial (external) or psychological and spiritual (internal). Characters can possess both types of traits.

External characteristics (characteristics that flat, one-dimensional characters possess):

  1. names
  2. physical appearance
  3. physical nature
  4. manner of speech and accent
  5. manner of dress
  6. social status
  7. class
  8. education
  9. friends
  10. family
  11. community interests
  12. Internal characteristics
  13. thoughts
  14. feelings
  15. emotions

Types of Characters:

  1. Protagonist: The main character of a play, the one who is the center of action and holds your attention.
  2. Antagonist: The character who causes problems for the protagonist.
  3. Foil: The character that acts as the butt of the jokes. Also a character used to show contrast with the main character.
  4. Confidant: Friend or servant of the antagonist or protagonist who by “listening” provides the audience with a window into what the major characters are thinking and feeling.
  5. Stock Characters: Superficial roles. (Ex: comic, victim, simpleton/fool, braggart, pretender).

Theme: The central purpose or message of the play as developed by the playwright (i.e. the playwright’s message for the audience).

Dramatic Irony: The contrast between what the character thinks the truth is and what the audience knows the truth to be. This occurs when the speaker fails to recognize the irony of his actions.



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