A Quick History of Drama

Written by Chris Jorgensen

Today marks the next step in covering the earliest of the literary genres. We went over the Epic, which as we all know now is the earliest form of storytelling that we have uncovered. So now I want to take a step forward in time, to where we now get to talk about Greek influences on this whole genre business. Today I want to talk about:

A Quick History of Drama(s)

I rarely ever get an excuse to use the parentheses in my titles. Anyway, let’s talk about the drama’s, and the oldest of we have access to. But first, we have to accurately define what the genre is. Drama is the term used for a play that is neither a comedy or a tragedy… Yeah, I don’t feel good about it either. That all being said, before the term “drama,” the standard word was play. Until Shakespeare’s time, this was the norm. This is why someone was a play-write, and they worked in a play-house. Modern terms have more defined the genre as time has gone on.

The theatrical culture began in Athens, Greece, and was the origin of the three forms of drama (tragedy, comedy, satyr play (and yes that was what it was, these would later become the satirical forms, but satyr plays were the “uncouth” or “irreverent” sort of plays that were like our more modern day burlesque plays)). We only have a few works from this period, and only from five major dramatists of the time. Aeschylus’ tragedy The Persians is the oldest surviving complete text we have dating back to 472 BC.

Once the Roman republic started to expand into Greek territory, it encountered the Greek drama and quickly adapted it. By 240 BC, while Greek drama was still flourishing, the Roman drama had started to take over. The Romans were turning it into a much broader form of entertainment than the previous full-length dramas performed by the Greeks. By the second century, there were established guilds around writing for theatrical performance.

The Medieval period was the time frame where the drama and theatre started to spread further east. During the Roman period, it had moved through most of Europe, and during this time between the 10th and 11th centuries. By the 11th century, it had moved into Scandinavia, Russia, and Italy.

The Elizabethan period (16th and 17th centuries) is where many may be most familiar because of Shakespeare. This is the time where there was a great upsurge in the theatre, and its popularity soared. However, as rich and extensive this particular part could be because of Shakespeare’s works, we could dedicate a whole month or two just on some of his works. So I will have to glaze over this section for the time being. Maybe in the future we will touch on it more.

Between 1660 to 1710, we have the restoration of comedy movement, which primarily regarded the English comedies. It was common for these comedies to take elements and plot-lines from older comedies, some dating back into the Greek and Roman plays. They would make the older plot-lines more modernized and would bring the stories into the modern theatre to help reinvigorate the comedy plays. There was a second wave in the 1690s that tried to be more socially aware and would appeal to the middle-class viewer and were even written to appeal to women as well. 

The modern and postmodern drama was a massive movement in the 19th century, much of which was using theatre to incorporate new and innovative ways. Many focus on modernist and realist forms, while using formal experimentation, meta-theatricality, and even integrated social critique into their plays.

We also have several different forms of drama performance that we didn’t cover, as I focused purely on the literature side. We have opera, ballet, mime, pantomime, etc. Since we are focusing on the literature side of things, I most likely won’t cross over into these fields as they are a much better medium for visual rather than written expression. Perhaps a video discussion, I don’t know, but writing about it would not do that sort of thing justice in my mind.

So there we have it, for now, a quick rundown of the history of drama and some neat facts to take in and spit out at your next dinner/work/family event. Next, I will start to evaluate where to move on from here. Do I move over to a new genre, or do I expand? I will go over a few things and see what fits best. So, until then.