Drama terms

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Last updated: December 2, 2019

Ab ovo (Latin, “from the egg”):
This phrase refers to a narrative that starts “at the beginning” of the plot, and then moves chronologically through a sequence of events to the tale’s conclusion. This pattern is the opposite of a tale that begins in medias res, one in which the narrative starts “in the middle of things,” well into the middle of the plot, and then proceeds to explain earlier events through the characters’ dialogue, memories, or flashbacks.

Act
a major division of a play.

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Alliteration
The repetition of consonant sounds, especially at the beginning of words. Example: “Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.” Hopkins, “In the Valley of the Elwy.”

Anagnorisis
a recognition or discovery, especially in tragedy – for example, when the hero understands the reason for his or her fall.

Antagonist
A character or force against which another character struggles. Creon is Antigone’s antagonist in Sophocles’ play Antigone; Teiresias is the antagonist of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.

Antihero
A protagonist who possesses none of the qualities, such as bravery, honestly, and unselfishness, of the traditional hero.

Arête
implies a humble and constant striving for perfection and self-improvement combined with a realistic awareness that such perfection cannot be reached.

As long as an individual strives to do and be the best, that individual has arête. As soon as the individual believes he has actually achieved arête, however, he or she has lost that exalted state and fallen into hubris, unable to recognize personal limitations or the humble need to improve constantly. This leads to overwhelming pride, and this in turn leads to a downfall.

Aside
Words spoken by an actor directly to the audience, which are not “heard” by the other characters on stage during a play. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago voices his inner thoughts a number of times as “asides” for the play’s audience.

Assonance
The repetition of similar vowel sounds in a sentence or a line of poetry or prose, as in “I rose and told him of my woe.” Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” contains assonantal “I’s” in the following lines: “How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, / Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself.

Audience
In the literary analysis of drama, the name given to the intended receiver (i.e. this takes the place of “the reader”)

Blank verse
Lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Blocking
The spatial grouping and movement of characters on stage.

Typically, good blocking ensures that all characters are visible to the audience, that the stage is not cluttered with a clump of actors in any one area, and that important action or actors remain positioned in such a way as to emphasize their centrality to the story. The term should not be confused with blocking agent.

Blocking agent
A person, circumstance, or mentality that prevents two potential lovers from being together romantically. The term should not be confused with blocking.

Buffoon
a term for someone who provides amusement through inappropriate appearance and/or behavior. Strictly, a buffoon describes a “ridiculous, but nevertheless amusing person.

” In broader terms, a buffoon is a clown-like, publicly amusing person, such as a court jester.

Caricature
A representation, especially pictorial or literary, in which the subject’s distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic or grotesque effect.

Catastrophe
The section of the play that contains the unknotting of the entanglements of the plot and initiates the denouement or falling action of a play.

Catharsis
Aristotle’s term for the purgation or purification of the pity and terror supposedly experienced while witnessing a tragedy.

Characterization
The means by which writers present and reveal character. Although techniques of characterization are complex, writers typically reveal characters through their speech, dress, manner, and actions. Readers come to understand the character Miss Emily in Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” through what she says, how she lives, and what she does.

Character
An imaginary person that inhabits a literary work.

Literary characters may be major or minor, static (unchanging) or dynamic (capable of change). In Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona is a major character, but one who is static, like the minor character Bianca. Othello is a major character who is dynamic, exhibiting an ability to change.

Chorus
A group of characters in Greek tragedy (and in later forms of drama), who comment on the action of a play without participation in it. Their leader is the choragos. Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus the King both contain an explicit chorus with a choragos. Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie contains a character who functions like a chorus.

Climax
the culmination of a conflict; a turning point, often the point of greatest tension in a plot.

Clown character
A comic character who may be simpleminded, an ironic commentator, or an actual jester.

Comedy
a literary work, especially a play, characterized by humor and by a happy ending.

Comedy of Manners
Satirizes the manners and accepted traditional customs of a given segment of society.

Comic relief
The use of a comic scene to interrupt a succession of intensely tragic dramatic moments. The comedy of scenes offering comic relief typically parallels the tragic action that the scenes interrupt. Comic relief is lacking in Greek tragedy, but occurs regularly in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Commedia dell’arte
A genre of Italian farce from the sixteenth-century characterized by stock characters, stock situations, and spontaneous dialogue. Typically, the plot is an intrigue plot and it involves a soubrette who aids two young lovers in foiling the rigid constraints of their parents.

Often there is a zani, or foolish-servant, who provides physical comedy in contrast to the anguish of the young lovers. In the end, the couple achieves a happy marriage.

Complication
Any incident that further entangles or intensifies the conflict in a story or play. Complication builds up, accumulates, and develops the primary or central conflict in a literary work.

Concealment
the term given to describe when a character hides within a scene in order to overhear and/or discover information by listening to other characters.

Conceit
A finely wrought phrase, often an extended metaphor, and, in excess, an overly elaborate analogy.

Conflict
a struggle between a character and some obstacle or between internal forces, such as divided loyalties.

Convention
An implied agreement by the audience to accept an artistic reality for an everyday reality. Like other art farms, drama depends for its effectiveness on certain conventions, such as the stage. The audience accepts this partial representation of reality, using its imagination to complete the illusion.

Crisis
a high point in the conflict that leads to the turning point.

Delayed emergence
the technique of characters revealing information about another character before the audience has seen him.

This technique has the effect of creating expectations of the delayed character that can then be compared to the character himself when he is revealed.

Dénouement
the resolution or the outcome (literally, the “unknotting”) of a plot.

Deus ex machina
A god who resolves the entanglements of a play by supernatural intervention. The Latin phrase means, literally, “a god from the machine.

” The phrase refers to the use of artificial means to resolve the plot of a play.

Development
The phase in the action after the exposition has been presented and the entanglements in the plot begin building to the climax.

Dialogue
The conversation of characters in a literary work.

In fiction, dialogue is typically enclosed within quotation marks. In plays, characters’ speech is preceded by their names.

Diction
The selection of words in a literary work. A work’s diction forms one of its centrally important literary elements, as writers use words to convey action, reveal character, imply attitudes, identify themes, and suggest values.

We can speak of the diction particular to a character, as in Iago’s and Desdemona’s very different ways of speaking in Othello. We can also refer to a poet’s diction as represented over the body of his or her work, as in Donne’s or Hughes’s diction.

Didacticism
the artistic philosophy that art should not just entertain, it should instruct or inform.

Disguise
To wear masks, false hair, character makeup, or clothing either to conceal a character’s identity.

Double entendre
(French, “double meaning”): The deliberate use of ambiguity in a phrase or image in order to convey more than one possible meaning–especially involving sexual or humorous meanings.

Dramatic irony
The form of irony in which the audience knows something a character in the play does not.

Dramatic monologue
A type of poem in which a speaker addresses a silent listener. As readers, we overhear the speaker in a dramatic monologue.

Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” represents the epitome of the genre.

Dramatis personae
Latin for the characters or persons in a play.

Exposition
a setting-forth of information. In fiction and drama, introductory material introducing characters and the situation.

Extrinsic idea
The idea(s) the play expresses on the literal level—it is often verbalized by a character. In Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Lena remarks, “Seem like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams—but He did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile.” The words have a strong effect on her son and move him to a course of action.

Falling action
The action after the climax of the play.

Farce
comedy based not on clever language or on subtleties of characters but on broadly humorous situations.

Foil
A character who contrasts and parallels the main character in a play or story. Laertes, in Hamlet, is a foil for the main character; in Othello, Emilia and Bianca are foils for Desdemona.

Foot
A metrical unit composed of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, an iamb or iambic foot is represented by ?’, that is, an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. Frost’s line “Whose woods these are I think I know” contains four iambs, and is thus an iambic foot.

Fourth wall
The invisible wall of a set through which the audience sees the action of the play.

Gesture
a physical movement, especially in a play.

Hamartia
a flaw in the tragic hero, or an error made by the tragic hero.

High comedy
Elegant comedies characterized by witty banter and sophisticated dialogue rather than the slapstick physicality and blundering common to low comedy.

Hubris (hybris)
a Greek word, usually translated as “overweening pride,” “arrogance,” “excessive ambition,” and often said to be characteristic of tragic figures.

Iamb
An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, as in to-DAY. See Foot.

In media res (Latin “In the middle of things”):
The classical tradition of opening an epic not in the chronological point at which the sequence of events would start, but rather at the midway point of the story. Later on in the narrative, the hero will recount verbally to others what events took place earlier. Usually in medias res is a technique used to heighten dramatic tension or to create a sense of mystery. This term is the opposite of the phrase ab ovo, when a story begins in the beginning and then proceeds in a strictly chronological manner without using the characters’ dialogue, flashbacks, or memories.

Inciting incident/event
The first incident leading to the rising action of a play.

Irony
A contrast or discrepancy between what is said and what is meant or between what happens and what is expected to happen in life and in literature. In verbal irony, characters say the opposite of what they mean. In situational irony, the opposite of what is expected occurs. In dramatic irony, a character speaks in ignorance of a situation or event known to the audience or other characters.

Low comedy
In contrast with high comedy, low comedy consists of silly, slapstick physicality, crude pratfalls, violence, scatology, and bodily humor rather than clever dialogue or banter.

Meter
The measured pattern of rhythmic accents in poems.

See Foot and Iamb.

Metonymy
a figure of speech whereby the name of a thing is substituted for the attribute which it suggests. Example: The pen (power of literature or the written word) is mightier than the sword (force).

Monologue
A speech by a single character without another character’s response. See Dramatic monologue and Soliloquy.

Motivation
The reason a character does something.

Neoclassicism
Drama imitative of Greek or Roman classical models. Popular in France in the 17th and 18th centuries, it follows the principles of (a) verisimilitude, (b) five-act plays, (c) didacticism, and (d) strict adherence to the unities of time, place and action.

Objective
The goal a character has in a particular scene or throughout a play.

Obstacle
A character or situation in a play that creates conflict or delays or prevents a character from achieving an objective.

Onomatopoeia
The use of words to imitate the sounds they describe. Words such as buzz and crack are onomatopoetic.

Parody
A humorous, mocking imitation of a literary work, sometimes sarcastic, but often playful and even respectful in its playful imitation. Examples include Bob McKenty’s parody of Frost’s “Dust of Snow” and Kenneth Koch’s parody of Williams’s “This is Just to Say.

Pathos
A quality of a play’s action that stimulates the audience to feel pity for a character. Pathos is always an aspect of tragedy, and may be present in comedy as well.

Peripeteia (Also spelled peripetea, Greek for “sudden change”)
The sudden reversal of fortune in a story, play, or any narrative in which there is an observable change in direction. In tragedy, this is often a change from stability and happiness toward the destruction or downfall of the protagonist. Also known as reversal.

Playwright
author of a play (NOTICE THE SPELLING).

Playwright’s words/voice
Lines in a play that express the author’s feelings on a subject.

Plot
the episodes in a narrative or dramatic work – that is, what happens – or the particular arrangement (sequence) of these episodes.

Poetic Justice
The operation of justice in a play with fair distribution of rewards for good deeds and punishment for wrong doing

Props
Articles or objects that appear on stage during a play.

Protagonist
the chief actor in any literary work. The term is usually preferable to hero and heroine because it can include characters – for example, villainous or weak ones – who are not aptly called heroes or heroines.

Raison d’être
French word meaning “reason for being”, it is the reason behind the character’s words or actions.

Recognition
The point at which a character understands his or her situation as it really is.

Resolution
The sorting out or unraveling of a plot at the end of a play, novel, or story. See Plot.

Rising action
A set of conflicts and crises that constitute the part of a play’s or story’s plot leading up to the climax.

Satire
A literary work that criticizes human misconduct and ridicules vices, stupidities, and follies.

Scatology
Refers to so-called “potty-humor”–jokes or stories dealing with feces designed to elicit either laughter or disgust.

Scene
a unit of a play, in which the setting is unchanged and the time continuous.

Slapstick
Literally, two hinged wooden slats attached to a handle. When the device strikes a person, a loud smack is heard.

The term refers to any comedy that features physical, often abusive, pranks.

Soliloquy
a speech in a play, in which a character alone on the stage speaks his or her thoughts aloud.

Stage direction
A playwright’s descriptive or interpretive comments that provide readers (and actors) with information about the dialogue, setting, and action of a play.

Staging
The spectacle a play presents in performance, including the position of actors on stage, the scenic background, the props and costumes, and the lighting and sound effects.

Stock Characters
A character type which relies heavily on cultural types or names for his or her personality, manner of speech, and other characteristics. In their most general form, stock characters are related to literary archetypes, but they are often more narrowly defined. In the Old Comedy of Greek drama, common stock characters included the alazon (the imposter or self-deceiving braggart), the bomolochos (the buffoon); and the eiron, the self-derogatory and understating character.

Stock characters in Elizabethan drama include the heroine disguised as a handsome young man, the gullible country bumpkin, and the machievelle as a villain. Stock characters in medieval romances include the damsel in distress, the contemptuous dwarf, the chivalrous, handsome young knight, the wild man of the woods, and the senex amans (the ugly old man married to a younger girl). In modern detective fiction, the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold, the hard-drinking P.I., and the corrupt police-officer are stereotypical stock characters. Stock characters in western films might include the noble sheriff, the whorehouse madam, the town drunkard.

Subject
What a story or play is about; to be distinguished from plot and theme.

Subplot
A second plot subsidiary to the main one in a play.

Suspension of disbelief
The audience’s willingness to accept the illusion of conventions of a theatre performance.

Synecdoche
A figure of speech in which a part is substituted for the whole.

An example: “Lend me a hand.” See Metonymy.

Tragedy
a serious play showing the protagonist moving from good fortune to bad and ending in death or a deathlike state.

Tragic flaw
A weakness or limitation of character, resulting in the fall of the tragic hero.

Othello’s jealousy and too trusting nature is one example. See Tragedy and Tragic hero.

Tragic hero
A privileged, exalted character of high repute, who, by virtue of a tragic flaw and fate, suffers a fall from glory into suffering. Sophocles’ Oedipus is an example. See Tragedy and Tragic flaw.

Tragicomedy
a mixture of tragedy and comedy, usually a play with serious happenings that expose the characters to the threat of death but that ends happily.

Unities
derived from a passage in Aristotle’s Poetics, this is a term given to the notion of a unity of time, space and action. In the 1500s A good play, according to this doctrine, must have three traits: unity of action (realistic events following a single plotline and a limited number of characters encompassed by a sense of verisimilitude), unity of time (meaning that the events should be limited to the two or three hours it takes to view the play, or at most to a single day of twelve or twenty-four hours compressed into those two or three hours), and unity of space (meaning the play must take place in a single setting or location).

Verisimilitude
The sense that what one reads is “real,” or at least realistic and believable. For instance, the reader possesses a sense of verisimilitude when reading a story in which a character cuts his finger, and the finger bleeds.

If the character’s cut finger had produced sparks of fire rather than blood, the story would not possess verisimilitude. Note that even fantasy novels and science fiction stories that discuss impossible events can have verisimilitude if the reader is able to read them with suspended disbelief.

Word play
Verbal fencing, punning, or mock bickering.

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