Playwright Part 3
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Historical conventions of playwriting can also be expressed in terms of genre. At many points in western history, genre definitions were inextricably linked to evaluations of the quality of dramatic writing. Hence, playwrights wrote plays that fit the conventions of their time and place. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries are unusual in that, in spite of the rapid rise of many new artistic ideas about theatre, new artistic movements have not supplanted earlier ones. Instead, we have a broad range of kinds of drama being produced all around us.
The oldest definition of dramatic genre is Aristotle's Poetics , written circa 335 BC in Greece. The forms of tragedy and comedy that he described over 2000 years ago still exist today. Tragedy in its oldest sense deals with human beings taking on superhuman forces, such as gods or fate. In the end the humans lose, but, because of the magnitude of their struggle, the mere effort is ennobling for the character and for the people in the audience. The ancient tragic characters were invariably kings, heros, or demigods. The diction of the plays was poetic and formal in style. The plays were intensive in structure, with the climax following logically from the action on stage. The goal of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is catharsis, or a purgation of pity and fear in the audience. In other words, the audience should empathize completely with the protagonist, emotionally following all the turns of the character's fortunes, until, when the character is ultimately defeated, we are purged of all of the (negative) emotions we have been vicariously sharing.
In the early 1700's, when the middle class began to supplant the artistocracy across Europe, common man tragedy as a new sub-genre of tragedy began. In the 20th century, the American Arthur Miller (see photo) has argued that tragedy need not and should not be about characters of elevated social station; instead, what a democracy like America proves is that each of us is capable of taking on the superhuman forces in life and that a simple, middle class hero is more representative of us today than a god or king. Miller's Death of a Salesman is one of his most famous plays and his best example of common man tragedy: a salesman believes his whole life in "the American Dream", that hard work and being well-liked will lead to prosperity for himself and his children, but he finds as an old man that he has been deceived and ultimately is worth more to his family dead than alive.
Comedy has a range of subgenres that can be understood along a spectrum from high comedy to low comedy. High comedy, while funny, shares the most with tragedy and tends to be specific to the culture that created it. For example, comedy of manners is a form of high comedy that emphasizes an "in group's" manners, speech, dress, and tastes. Much humour is made at the expense of those who are trying unsuccessfully to enter the "in group" or those who are completely ignorant of the "in group's" tastes. This style of comedy was particularly popular in 17th century France and England among the artistocracy. Recent movies like American Pie or other movies about teenagers have much in common with comedy of manners.
Comedy of character is comedy based on one or more comically exaggerated characters. The French writer Molière (see image) wrote many plays in which one central authority figure, for whom the play is usually named, has a greatly exaggerated fault which in turn causes comic problems for his family and friends. Examples include The Imaginary Invalid and The Miser. Even though he wrote in the 17th century, the idea is still common in television comedies: consider how many have been based on a single comic character: Roseanne and Seinfeld were two wildly successful ones.
Comedy of situation is familiar today as television "sitcoms," an abbreviation of the older term which means comedy based on situations, or plots. Seinfeld, while begun on Jerry Seinfeld's reputation, is an excellent example of a situation comedy. The characters may be funny, but it is primarily the situations in which they find themselves that are the source of humour and the longevity of the series. A television show that revolves more on comedy than plot would be Fraser.
Many comedies of character and sitcoms are also domestic comedies , meaning that they deal with domestic plots and relationships. A very typical comic plot, typical of theatre and feature films, is boy-meets-girl, then some impediment to their relationship arises, often in the form of the girl's or boy's family, problems are cleared up, and finally boy-gets-or-marries-girl. This is the most typical domestic comedy, but domestic comedies might also revolve around marital or family problems, like Married With Children , or even The Osbournes.
Satire is a form of comedy that uses contemporary events in an exaggerated or altered context as its primary source of humour. Often satire is aimed at politics, such as in the Saturday Night Live skits where cast members impersonate presidents or other Washington figures, or Comedy Central's Daily Show. Because it parodies current events, satire loses its relevence more quickly than many other forms of comedy. Parody, closely related to satire, usually makes fun of another art or cultural form. Mike Myers' grotesque seventies detective Austin Powers is a parody of James Bond; even the films' titles make the parody clear ( Gold Member as opposed to Gold Finger; Spy Who Shagged Me as opposed to Spy Who Loved Me).
Farce is an example of "low comedy." Because it relies more on physical than verbal humour, it can appeal to people from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds: the comedy of a character slipping on a banana peel need not be translated. Characters in farce are often one dimensional or cartoonish. Examples of farce are the Marx Brothers movies, many Monty Python sketches, or recent movies like Jim Carrey's Ace Ventura.
Melodrama is neither comedy nor tragedy, but combines some elements of each into its own unique form. It arose originally in the late 18th century, and several authors gained international fame writing melodramas by 1800. The defining elements of melodrama are an elaborate plot with many twists and turns, clearly defined hero and villain characters, and plots selected for maximum stage spectacle. Melodramas packed theatres throughout the nineteenth century; at this point in western history, cities were growing rapidly and theatres were the most popular entertainment for the growing middle and working classes in the new urban areas. Theatres often held up to 3000 spectators. One of the largest theatres in New York, The Bowery, became known as "The Slaughterhouse" because of the melodramas with gory spectacle that it frequently produced. Other enormously popular topics of melodrama were frontier stories, rags to riches stories, and stories about race relations. The stage adaptation of Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin remains the most popular play in American history: it held the stage consistently from 1852 until 1930, often playing in up to ten cities at once. The melodramas of the 19th century mark the peak of popularity of live theatre: more people went to see theatre than at any other point in western history. Melodramas are also important for us to understand in the twentieth century because the film industry copied melodramatic plots, characters, and use of spectacle when it began to seriously compete with theatre for the popular audience in the early twentieth century. Many of the most successful movies and television shows produced in the United States today follow the same formulas as stage melodramas. Consider the last western, mystery, or action movie you saw, and compare it with the defining features of melodrama: lots of plot twists, clear good guys vs. bad guys, and many special effects.
Tragicomedy is a twentieth century name given to plays that combine aspects of comedy and tragedy to make essentially serious points. It was applied retroactively to Shakespeare's late plays and seemed to capture the funny yet profoundly sad state of Beckett's characters in "Theatre of the Absurd" as well. In the 2000's, we are more likely to use the word drama to describe plays, movies, and television shows which are essentially serious but may have funny characters or episodes. In fact, serious writers today are likely to infuse some humour into their plays, allowing us to defuse our anxiety while watching difficult events on stage. Kushner's Angels in America is an excellent example of a drama that allows audiences at least as much laughter as anxiety over the very serious topic of AIDS.
The above genres are defined broadly, and many more subdivisions of each genre exist. Genres are most useful when used to understand plays, as guides against which to measure your experience of plays. When used prescriptively, as the way plays "should be" written or as a way to judge the quality of plays, genre definitions can be too restrictive. However, it is by recognizing genres -- by characters, plot elements, and themes -- that we know what to expect of a play or film and can settle in to enjoying it.
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