Home » Studying Drama » “Studying Drama”

“Studying Drama”

Summary of Michael Patterson`s:
“Studying Drama”

The text “Studying Drama”  written  by  Michael  Patterson  deals  with  the
question  how  drama  as  a  literary  genre  really  works  and  with   its
development from its origins in Ancient Greece till nowadays.
At  the  beginning  of  the   text   Patterson   exemplifies   the   general
characteristics of a play.  In  a  play  environment  and  setting  are  not
described directly to the reader like in  a  novel  those  informations  are
given via stage directions. A drama is always intended to be performed on  a
stage and characters communicate in dialogues.

Furthermore Patterson explains that the origins  of  drama  lie  in  Ancient
Greece, where the verb “dran” meant “to do/act/perform” and the  Greek  noun
“theatron” can be translated with “a place of viewing”. The term  “play”  is
normally connected to children who  also  act  out  roles  recreating  their
imaginations  by  situations  they  have  encoutered  in  real  life.   Here
theatre/drama is seen as a world of  “making  believe”,  where  actors  wear
costumes, perform roles and pretend things which emanate  from  an  author`s

Patterson constitutes childrens`s play as a  natural  impulse  with  a
functional value, where they prepair themselves for their  adult  existence.
After that the author discusses the aspect that drama can be  understood  as
an  experience  of  transcendence.  People  involve  themselves   with   the
willingness to play at being someone else, which stands for a  great  common
ground of humanity.

Now Patterson leads to the point  in  what  ways  drama  differs  from
poetry and narrative fiction. He explains that poetry and  prose  offer  the
feeling of transcendence as well but that these genres are  always  reported
as tough they would lie in the past. By reading  a  novel  for  example  the
reader is mostly confronted with a sense of distance, as if the emotion  was
already experienced or the action was already complete.  Drama  in  contrast
communicates a sense of action in the present. Even  if  a  person  knows  a
play well he is still able to  enter  the  plot,  feeling  the  tension  and
experiencing events as they really happen. Drama is the  genre  of  present-

As a further aspect Patterson  focuses  on  the  objectivity  of  drama.  In
contrast to drama, lyric  and  poetry  express  individual  and  subjunctive
emotions of the writer, written from the point of view of a character  or  a
fixed narrator, whereas a drama writer can contradict himself in public  and
is able to put his identity in each character but also to give them  an  own
voice. Therefore establishment of writer`s own opinion gets difficult.
Afterwards Patterson comes  back  to  the  point  that  a  play  is  usually
intended to be enacted, therefore  concentration  of  time  is  persued.  In
extreme this could mean that stage time equals real time.  The  opposite  of
concentration is time compression; hereby for example events of a whole  day
are presented as if they happened in a matter of minutes.  A  novel  usually
ranges over a longer period of time, changing location  is  possible.  Drama
is intended to be performed with a high  level  of  realism  and  a  defined
location. Poetry and fiction are conceived  to  be  enjoyed  by  the  reader
alone; he decides what he likes to read by his individual choice. Plays  can
be enjoyed as pure literature as well,  but  its  full  potential  is  first
achieved  when  it  is  presented  on  stage.

But  there  are   much   more
difficulties in seeing a play staged than  reading  a  novel  at  home.  For
performing a place (building) is needed, performers  and  audience  need  to
assemble at the same time. Drama is intended to take  place  in  public  and
therefore drama can be constituted as the  most  public  of  all  the  arts.
Moreover drama can have other functions than delighting people. It  can  get
to a threat to oppressive regimes,  as  happend  in  the  German  Democratic
Republic, where theatre provided a political  forum  for  democratic  debate
and  as  a  consequence  caused  collapse  of  Communist  regime.

clarifies that a play poses greater danger to the status quo  than  hundreds
of isolated individuals reading poems and novles at a non-pubic place.
Furthermore the author informs the reader about Aristotle`s theory of  drama
which is the origin of all dramatic theories. Aristotle wanted to  jusitifiy
drama in terms of its purposefullness. In Ancient Greece  watching  a  drama
was inseparably connected with the idea of catharsis.  This  was  understood
as a medical term, a purgation of soul.  By  watching  a  tragedy  spectator
should feel pity for the hero`s downfall and fear for its  outcome.  Thereby
purgation, flushing out the bad juices of the body, takes place. When  these
emotions are flushed out, people can leave theatre  less  pitying  and  less

So Aristotle was the first and most famous who  tried  to  justyfie
drama as being socially useful though not going into great  detail.  Further
on Aristotle developed some ideas about nature of drama. He defined  tragedy
as serious drama where an action is immitated (mimesis) and reprocuction  of
reality on stage takes place, though an exact photographic copy  is  out  of
question. Action is an important fact referring to nature  of  drama.  Plays
are about important individuals, usually a character lies at the  centre  of
a drama, who is revealed  and  determined  by  events  of  the  play.  As  a
consequence characters  proceed  from  action.

Aristotle  also  listed  the
components  of  drama:  Plot,  Character,  Dialogue,  Meaning,   Music   and
Performance, he suggested that in contrast to epic, the  action  of  a  play
should be single and taking place  between  twentyfour  hours.  Hence  drama
tends towards a greater  concentration  of  incident  and  time.  The  Greek
philosopher divided drama into three unities (action, time and place).
In addition  to  that  Patterson  takes  a  nearer  description  of  several
components of drama. The plot hast to be differenciatated from  mere  story,
because the story can be seen as raw material  that  the  playwright  shapes
into a plot by using historical subjects on stage  for  example.

complexity of historical events needs to be simplified that a good  dramatic
plot can be constituted as a carefully a  shaped  version  of  a  story.  In
Aristotle`s concept of drama a play must have  beginning,  middle  and  end.
Because history is all middle (has no beginning or end in  common  sense)  a
point to begin the play has to be chosen. This  intruductiorary  part  of  a
play is called exposition. The playwright can create a  formal  prologue  or
establish  the  starting  point  by  a  short  scene,  possibly  played   by
characters which have no further importance to the play.

A quick recital  of
the background which is used for instance  in  more  modern  plays  is  also
possilble. History does not contain neat engings  as  well.  In  traditional
drama everthing aspires to a sense  of  completeness  (death,  marriage).  A
tragic death stands for this finality although often a  good  character  who
points forward to a more hopeful future appears. A serious modern play  ends
without a definite outcome and the sense of finality is  harder  to  achieve
in realistic drama than in more poetic forms, because life in fact does  not
yield clear endings.

The character is another  component  of  drama.  Patterson  underlines  that
characters in a drama are revealed through action; they  are  introduced  by
what they say  or  do  and  are  judged  by  the  audience.  The  fact  that
characters can be determined by a particular  situation  they  only  have  a
very little existence outside  drama.  A  novel  in  contrast  provides  the
reader  with  background  information  or  allows  him   speculating   about
characters` past lives. Concept of character  has  evolved  considerably  in
history of drama.

The earliest form of characters where chorus  leaders  who
provided an individual voice to responses from a chorus. In former times  it
was not allowed that more than one character  appeared  on  stage  at  once.
When that rule was relaxed there were extending  possibilities  of  dramatic
interaction with portrays of extreme types. In  times  of  Greek  drama  and
during Medieval periods characters remained generalized figures with  little
psychological nuance but with beginning of Renaissance a  new  psychological
complexity of dramatic  characters  and  complex  individuals  arose.  Those
“rounded characters” as they are  still  most  familiar  to  us  today  lead
Bertold Brecht to experiment with  so  called  “flat  characters”.

characters of today are mostly  presented  in  naturalistic  mode  not  only
determined by dramatic situation but products of heredity  and  environment,
so that a drama of today gets more  and  more  close  to  a  novel  where  a
speculation about a characters` existence outside the play is possible.  The
theory of Konstantin Stanislavski, a well known  theatre  director,  pleaded
for seeking out given circumstances  of  a  character  that  the  actor  can
approach a role from clues in  the  text  or  by  his  own  imagination.  So
providing a full biographical background for a  character,  by  a  conscious
investigation   of   its   psychological   motivation   becomes    possible.

Stanislavski`s aim is rounding out dramatic roles that  might  otherwise  be
flat (“There are no small parts, only small actors”, compare page  57,  line
14). Today people emphasise on psychological characterisation by  discussing
critics about nature of drama and flaws  in  characters.  The  new  kind  of
character is a character without past or any of the given  circumstances,  a
character who refuses to reveal  its  own  background.  Playwrights  develop
characters freed of accidents of individuality who can  more  easily  become
representatives  of  human  condition  (non-naturalistic   characters).   In
contrast to that realistic characters offer the opportunity that people  can
match their behaviour against their own.

Afterwards Patterson leads to the next component of drama, the dialogue.  He
explains that all serious drama in  Western  Europe  was  written  in  verse
until eighteenth century and that the same  linguistic  register  maintained
in  all  dialogues  of  classical/neoclassical   drama.   It   was   William
Shakespeare who mixed up dialogue by using blank verse and often moved  from
poetry to prose. Later on playwrights little  by  little  tried  to  imitate
everyday speech in their stage dialogues (authentic dialogues), even  though
that is  only  an  impression  because  conversations  on  stage  are  still
logically developed sequences.

Performance is also an important component. The written text should be  seen
as basis for performance. Reading a drama is  always  more  accessible  than
seeing it on stage because difficult passages can be reread and  directorial
interventions are out of question. Physical setting is one of  performances`
main areas. Here characters appear and the manner in  which  the  lines  are
delivered becomes obvious. Theatrical signs can be found in each element  of
performance, the study of these signs is called semiotics. Stage  directions
give an indication of where the action is set. For example  Shakespeare  was
writing for a bare stage, was free to roam but  at  the  end  of  nineteenth
century audience demanded more authentic settings; so more  and  more  plays
were written for one location that an elaborately  authentic  set  could  be

Making drama more expressive,  stage  scenery  was  created  by
lightning  and  also  sound  effects  became  more  important.  In  semiotic
analysis one distinguishes between icon, index and  symbol.  An  icon  is  a
thing for what it is (Patterson uses the example of the  Christmas  tree  in
Henrik  Ibsen`s  “Nora-  A  Doll`s  House”).  The  index  points  about  the
environment of that icon, a symbol represents a  particular  situation  (the
dishevelled  tree  as  a  symbol  for  disharmony).  Lightening   may   make
statements about action of  a  play,  characters`  appearance,  gestures  or
moves might tell something about  the  inner  feelings  of  a  character  or
reveal characters` actual thoughts.

Soliloquies  were  primarily  used  for
deceitful characters. In realistic dialogue  soliloquies  became  impossible
because people normally do  not  talk  to  themselves.  Gestures  and  moves
became more important when meaning of realistic plays  began  to  depend  on
sympathetic performances. Now Patterson focuses on interpretation  which  is
the most important component  communicating  to  an  audience.  A  resultant
problem is that plays which are not performed very  often  could  easily  be
misunderstood because it gets difficult  confuting  a  bizarre  staging  for

As a next main aspect Patterson  informs  the  reader  about  the  different
dramatic genres. A  tragedy  involves  death,  better  said  the  deaths  of
several  individuals,  no  recovery  is  possible.  A  false  step,  not   a
compulsory evil act but a very foolish one, whose consequences  are  out  of
all proportion to the cause, leads the hero to  catastrophe.  Overconfidence
(hubris) will invariably be punished by downfall  (nemesis).  The  world  is
seen as an ordered place  where  events  are  not  governed  by  chance  and
defiance as a magnificent value in human society. In drama  of  Middle  Ages
tragedy as a literary genre does not appear.

First with the new humanism  of
Renaissance the sense of a great figure who refuses to conform,  taking  the
easy way out, accept his fate and finally plunges himself  and  others  into
tragic downfall was rediscovered. Patterson emphasises if the figures  avoid
their tragedies that they then lose our respect. During time tragedy  became
less important because changes of moral  values  in  society  like  loss  of
religious face,  loss  of  a  sense  of  human  individuality  and  loss  of
admiration for great heroic figures for example.

That  development  already
began in eighteenth century when “bourgeois tragedies” came up. Here  tragic
events  are  put  into  middle-class/working-class   background.   Patterson
underlines that those tragedies could be easily avoided by “throwing  a  sum
of money onto the stage” whereas no gifts of money can  save  the  classical
ancient heroes (compare page 63, lines four  to  8).  Nowadays  a  play  may
generate pathos towards the victim so that a mixed sense of  admiration  and
horror is not created.

Comedy is a more populist genre with a  plot  about  every-day-figures  from
common life. Its origins lie in fertility festivals,  story  in  most  cases
turns around two lovers who find  their  path  to  happiness  blocked  by  a
figure with some power over them. Finally the blocking figure is removed  or
his attitude has changed, lovers can come together  and  celebrate  a  happy
ending together with the audience. As a consequence a  comedy  derives  much
more closely from the social context in which it is  written  and  therefore
possesses the universal impact of tragedy. Moreover Patterson mentions  that
a play with comic structure may also  occasionally  develop  seriousness  of
theme that it is no longer regarded as comedy. Black comedy caused  reversal
of classical comedy. In traditional comedy society was secure  and  laughter
was generated by those individuals  who  stepped  beyond  social  norms.

tragi-comedy the serious  is  blended  with  the  comic,  a  permanent  play
between  tension,  laughter  and  pain.  Moreover  Patterson  differentiates
between humoristic and satiric black comedy:  A  humorist  includes  himself
and the follies of all humankind in  his  laughter  and  sees  life  as  the
biggest joke of alls whereas a satirist  points  at  others  and  laughs  at
their follies. At the end of his text Patterson points  out  that  a  tragi-
comedy does not represent  a  dilution  of  conventional  genres,  rather  a
strengthening to demands of contemporary society.
Ruhruniversitt Bochum
Studiengang: Anglistik
Kurs: Literatur I
Dozent: Dr. phil. Herbert Geisen

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Leave a Comment