Through the centuries, the conventions of drama have been altered in many different ways. These conventions are the setting, plot, characters and staging. The main factor which has been a dominant force during the changes of conventions has been the society. The society present during the time in which a play was written had a direct influence on the plot and characters. This is because drama is defined as a representation of life.
Four plays which have been selected from Greek, Elizabethan, Restoration and Modern times can be analysed to show and represent the changes of drama. These plays are Oedipus the King , Macbeth , The Way of the World and A Doll s House .
The early origins of drama came from the Greek. Drama in Greece,450BC was not readily available to the society. Plays were only put on twice a year during great religious celebrations. At these festivals, where the plays were performed competitively, the main focus of theme was about the Gods. These Gods were superior to everyone and represented wealth and power. The fact that they were immortal signified their importance and dominance. Greek drama was also based on the aspects of tragedy and dramatic irony. The tragedy meant that the play often ended with a noble person being destroyed by the Gods. The noble person was led by his own downfalls or flaws which often resulted in his death. This is evident in the story of Oedipus the King where Oedipus tries to outwit the prophecy which the Gods predicted, but fails to do so and ends up in exile. The interesting technique of the dramatic irony in Greek plays meant that the audience had prior knowledge of the play and knew the events that will
take place before the characters. The staging of plays in Greece took place in huge amphitheatres the size of large sports stadiums. These were used to accommodate the whole city. Despite the enormous amount of people watching the plays, the acoustics in the amphitheatre were excellent, so good that you could hear a pin drop. All the characters acting in the play had to wear bold and bright masks on their face which concealed their own features. The main purpose of these masks was to help the audience distinguish the type of character from their expression. Such elaborate masks were used because of the large number of people sitting near the back unable to have a clear view of the actors. Due to some of the crowd sitting far away, all actions and
gestures were made to be larger-than-life and over-emphasised. Another important and unique aspect to Greek theatre was that they consisted of a chorus. This chorus, was able to express the action happening throughout the play with song and dance. Scenes of violence were never acted out, so the chorus became quite vital in providing a
Elizabethan theatre was another period of drama which occurred during the sixteenth century. Most plays written during this time focused on kings and royalty. This was because they were very influential in society when the play was written. Though Elizabethan plays were still based on tragedies, writers (particularly Shakespear) were
able to develop some comedy into the story line. The audience found this comedy to be amusing not only in the dialogue but also because of the fact that men played the roles of women. Along with comedy and tragedy, other important story lines at the time were deceit, death and murder. The staging of Elizabethan theatre was situated at places
like the globe in London where the audience was seated around three sides of a platform projected into their midst. This was commonly known as an apron stage. It was by this type of stage that enabled a closer, more personal feel between the actors and audience. The audience of the Elizabethan theatre was able to entertain people of most classes, where the upper class was given comfortable seats with cushions while the lower classes had to stand. A unique feature of the Elizabethan theatre was the use of soliloquies during a play. These are moments when a character is able to voice their inner thoughts and emotions without the other characters hearing (even if they are still on stage). Such soliloquies enable the audience to enter the mind of the character and understand what is happening. Usually the only character to use a soliloquy is one with a guilty conscience, for example Macbeth. In the play Macbeth , Macbeth speaks in soliloquy while he is carrying out or devising dirty deeds. The language which is used during the texts such as Macbeth is Elizabethan language. This is quite metaphorical and poetic with many of the speeches being quite long.
By the eighteenth century, drama had changed yet again during the restoration period. This time, the focus had shifted from royalty and drama was now based on the upper class society. The plays written during the restoration period were all to do with dramatic irony and comedy of manners. This type of comedy meant that the main issues dealt with during the play were concerned with up-to-date dress and fashion standards as well as the behaviour of men and women under the new code of permissiveness. The code of permissiveness which prevailed that society was able to do basically anything they pleased, came about with the restoration of Charles II to the throne. As a result in the change of throne, the attitudes of characters became more carefree. The characters in the play The Way of the World are all constructed as witty and cynical, adopting a worldly attitude to marriage. This is because after joking around and laying terms on what a married life is going to be like, a business man gets the better end of the deal and gains all his new-wives money. A new type of theatre called for a new type of staging, so the staging of restoration theatre took place in an indoor venue which was artificially lit. The stage was totally separated from the audience by a framework called the proscenium arch. A new feature to this stage was the addition of curtains. When a curtain was raised or opened it signified the beginning of a scene or act, but if the curtain was lowered or shut, it symbolised the end. Those attending the restoration plays tended only to be people from the royal court and upper class society where the pleasure-loving lords and ladies wanted to be noticed. Often servants of royalty would attend but would be seated in the upper most balcony. The reason for the lower classes not attending were that they simply could not afford it and did not particularly enjoy the subject of the plays. Another major change which came out of restoration theatre was that the roles of women were finally played by real women. However, it was the uneducated middle class women who played these roles because it was still considered unacceptable for women to act.
The last period to be discussed from the late nineteenth century is modern theatre. Modern theatre mainly focused on the impact males had on society by depicting their dominating influence. Examples of such male society were that only men drafted the laws and everything was said and done from a male point of view. This dominance was cleverly reflected by the themes of serious, real life situations and problems within society. The play A Doll s House , deals with the position of women in marriage by turning them into mens play toys so she can not be herself. This play, like the many others created by modern theatre are about elaborate deception and double standards. The staging which was used for modern theatre is called a picture-frame stage. It consisted of stove, tables, chairs, vases, ornaments to show a domestic setting. Basically it looked like a furnished room minus the front wall. The type of dialogue used during plays of modern theatre is just like normal conversation. There are no long speeches or prose because modern theatre tries to be as realistic and as close to the
truth as possible.
With the chain of order the importance of hierarchy seems to be diminishing with each dramatic period. This is because the most influential characters in each play have gone from the Gods, to royalty, to the upper class, then to males. The decline of importance
symbolises that society has changed from a group that was interested in watching plays about morals and history, to a society that was interested in asking questions like why did that happen?, then moved on to a community that just wanted to watch drama
for its entertainment value. Another reason that explains why the order of drama has changed is because society is now able to value and appreciate all the different styles and kinds of drama. This is because we have been educated, understand and want to learn more about the poor and suffering people of the world.
The different types of stages used during the various period of drama have eventuated from the now old and historical amphitheatres, to the apron stage, to the indoor venue with the proscenium arch finally to a picture-frame stage. These changes have been mostly due to the advances in technology and the theatre budgets which seem to always increase, allowing bigger and better structures to be built. The main plot of the play also influences what kind of stage is to be used.
The subjects of strict tragedy, to tragic-comedy, to comedy of manners, to social problems have more or less gone from being serious to quite funny. These variations can directly be affected by the change of society. In Greece lots of emphasis was on religion, so plays were written about worshiping the Gods. The Elizabethan era focused on the hierarchy and rulings of the king, so plays were adapted to involve their successors. In the Restoration period, society wanted to see witty plays about dissolute people like themselves. The modern theatre was written to reflect and serve the
interests of ordinary people.
The role of women in drama has evolved in a way which could still be improved. They have gone from being the Goddesses of love and desire, to characters played by men, to characters only suitable to be played by middle class women to eventually characters played by all women but having no authority or power. This construction has been influenced by the men who have written the plays because they fear that the women characters may become too superior and that audiences won t enjoy such a play. The construction of weak females has also been influenced by general society which simply accepts that women are useless and don t deserve any role other than to seduce men and serve their desire.
Overall drama seeks to represent the truth about life. It does not fully complete this task because it is only able to construct versions of life which are symbolic. Drama is not the same as life because it has developed its own language and conventions for picturing reality. Drama can never be the absolute truth because different values are always being represented by different ideologies and different people may read these in different ways.