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Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance. The term comes from a Greek word meaning “action” (Classical Greek: δρᾶμα, drama), which is derived from “I do” (Classical Greek: δράω, drao). The two masks associated with drama represent the traditional generic division between comedy and tragedy. They are symbols of the ancient Greek Muses, Thalia, and Melpomene. Thalia was the Muse of comedy (the laughing face), while Melpomene was the Muse of tragedy (the weeping face). Considered as a genre of poetry in general, the dramatic mode has been contrasted with the epic and the lyrical modes ever since Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 335 BCE)—the earliest work of dramatic theory.In English (as was the analogous case in many other European languages), the word “play” or “game” (translating the Anglo-Saxon plèga or Latin ludus) was the standard term used to describe drama until William Shakespeare’s time—just as its creator was a “play-maker” rather than a “dramatist” and the building was a “play-house” rather than a “theatre.” The use of “drama” in a more narrow sense to designate a specific type of play dates from the modern era. “Drama” in this sense refers to a play that is neither a comedy nor a tragedy—for example, Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1873) or Chekhov’s Ivanov (1887). It is this narrower sense that the film and television industries, along with film studies, adopted to describe “drama” as a genre within their respective media. “Radio drama” has been used in both senses—originally transmitted in a live performance, it has also been used to describe the more high-brow and serious end of the dramatic output of radio.
The enactment of drama in theatre, performed by actors on a stage before an audience, presupposes collaborative modes of production and a collective form of reception. The structure of dramatic texts, unlike other forms of literature, is directly influenced by this collaborative production and collective reception. The early modern tragedy Hamlet (1601) by Shakespeare and the classical Athenian tragedy Oedipus Rex (c. 429 BCE) by Sophocles are among the masterpieces of the art of drama. A modern example is Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill (1956).
Drama is often combined with music and dance: the drama in opera is generally sung throughout; musicals generally include both spoken dialogue and songs; and some forms of drama have incidental music or musical accompaniment underscoring the dialogue (melodrama and Japanese Nō, for example). Closet drama describes a form that is intended to be read, rather than performed. In improvisation, the drama does not pre-exist the moment of performance; performers devise a dramatic script spontaneously before an audience.
Classical Greek drama
Main article: Theatre of ancient Greece
Relief of a seated poet (Menander) with masks of New Comedy, 1st century BCE – early 1st century CE, Princeton University Art Museum
Western drama originates in classical Greece. The theatrical culture of the city-state of Athens produced three genres of drama: tragedy, comedy, and the satyr play. Their origins remain obscure, though by the 5th century BCE they were institutionalised in competitions held as part of festivities celebrating the god Dionysus. Historians know the names of many ancient Greek dramatists, not least Thespis, who is credited with the innovation of an actor (“hypokrites”) who speaks (rather than sings) and impersonates a character (rather than speaking in his own person), while interacting with the chorus and its leader (“coryphaeus”), who were a traditional part of the performance of non-dramatic poetry (dithyrambic, lyric and epic).
Only a small fraction of the work of five dramatists, however, has survived to this day: we have a small number of complete texts by the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the comic writers Aristophanes and, from the late 4th century, Menander. Aeschylus’ historical tragedy The Persians is the oldest surviving drama, although when it won first prize at the City Dionysia competition in 472 BCE, he had been writing plays for more than 25 years. The competition (“agon”) for tragedies may have begun as early as 534 BCE; official records (“didaskaliai”) begin from 501 BCE when the satyr play was introduced. Tragic dramatists were required to present a tetralogy of plays (though the individual works were not necessarily connected by story or theme), which usually consisted of three tragedies and one satyr play (though exceptions were made, as with Euripides’ Alcestis in 438 BCE). Comedy was officially recognized with a prize in the competition from 487 to 486 BCE.
Five comic dramatists competed at the City Dionysia (though during the Peloponnesian War this may have been reduced to three), each offering a single comedy. Ancient Greek comedy is traditionally divided between “old comedy” (5th century BCE), “middle comedy” (4th century BCE) and “new comedy” (late 4th century to 2nd BCE).[