The terminologies “genre”, “form”, and “style” are fundamental concepts in drama and theatre studies and are frequently employed in the analysis, creation, and pedagogy of theatre. Their precise definitions can be somewhat fluid and are often interrelated, but they serve to categorise and describe theatrical works in distinct ways. Below, I will attempt to differentiate these three terms. I fully expect some disagreement among readers of The Drama Teacher. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy academic debate!
The term “genre” refers to the categorisation of plays and performances based on their thematic content, narrative structure, and the emotional response they are intended to provoke in the audience. Genre conventions guide writers and audiences alike in setting and meeting expectations about the nature of a dramatic work.
In dramatic literature, genres are broadly characterised by their plot and the overarching mood. For instance, tragedy traditionally depicts human suffering, leading to catharsis, the emotional release felt by the audience. Comedy, on the other hand, aims to entertain and amuse, typically featuring a lighter tone and a happy resolution. There are numerous subgenres and hybrids, such as tragicomedy, which blend these elements in various proportions.
These categories are not just labels; they carry a set of conventions that inform the audience of the type of narrative they are about to experience and the intellectual and emotional engagement required. Theatre genres are often shaped by historical traditions and audience expectations, influenced by cultural shifts, often evolving over time.
Examples of Theatre Genres and Subgenres
- Sub-genres include:
- Revenge Tragedy: Often contains elements of the supernatural and focuses on the protagonist’s moral dilemma about seeking vengeance.
- Domestic Tragedy: Focuses on the downfall of an ordinary person, rather than nobility.
- Historical Context: Originated in ancient Greece, tragedy was considered the highest form of drama.
- Significance: Tragedy confronts the most serious and profound aspects of human existence.
- Sub-genres include:
- Sub-genres include:
- Satirical Comedy: Uses wit to criticise societal norms and behaviours.
- Romantic Comedy: Centres around love, typically concluding with marriage or the promise of happiness.
- Historical Context: Comedy also began in ancient Greece but was considered a lower form than tragedy.
- Significance: Comedy offers social critique through humour, providing a relief from the more severe aspects of life.
- Sub-genres include:
- Historical Context: Became popular in the Elizabethan era, where the lives of monarchs and the nation’s fate held dramatic appeal.
- Significance: Engages with political and national identity issues, reflecting on leadership and governance.
- Musical Theatre
- Historical Context: Evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries, incorporating elements from operetta and vaudeville.
- Significance: Uses music and dance to enhance emotional expression and storytelling.
- Historical Context: Emerged in the 19th century and was particularly popular in Victorian England.
- Significance: Emphasises moral polarities and emotional escapism, often reinforcing societal norms.
The “form” of a play or theatrical performance refers to the structural framework, organisation, and methods of storytelling employed by the playwright and performers. It is the framework or skeleton upon which a play is built, comprising the narrative’s architecture and how the story is told. This encompasses one-act plays, multi-act plays, monodramas, and epics, to name a few. Theatre form contains the script’s layout, including acts and scenes, as well as certain theatrical conventions such as monologues, dialogues, chorus, soliloquies, and asides.
Dramatic forms can range from linear narratives that follow a clear chronological progression, as seen in most conventional plays, to more experimental and non-linear structures that might feature flashbacks, parallel plots, or abstract sequences. Different cultural traditions have produced a variety of forms; for example, the classical Greek five-act structure, the tight one-act play, or the Japanese Noh play that combines poetry, dance, and music.
Examples of Theatre Forms and Narrative Structures
- Linear Narrative
- Climactic Structure: Builds to a single climax followed by a resolution.
- Episodic Structure: Comprises multiple scenes or episodes, not necessarily directly connected.
- Historical Context: This form has dominated Western storytelling since Aristotle’s Poetics defined its structure.
- Significance: Provides clarity and a sense of causality to the audience.
- Non-linear Narrative
- Reverse Chronology: Begins with the ending and moves backwards in time.
- Cyclical Structure: Ends where it begins, creating a cycle.
- Significance: Challenges the audience’s perception of time and memory, often resulting in a more active viewing experience.
- Epic Theatre
- Techniques: Includes the use of narration, direct address, and montage.
- Historical Context: Developed in the early to mid-20th century as a reaction against Realism and Naturalism.
- Significance: Aims to incite social change by forcing the audience to confront societal issues.
- Theatre of the Absurd
- Techniques: Characterised by circular dialogues, nonsensical situations, and existential themes.
- Historical Context: Emerged after World War II, reflecting the perceived meaninglessness of life.
- Significance: Forces the audience to confront the absurdity of the human condition (out of harmony).
The “style” of a play or performance is concerned with the manner in which a story is told and presented on stage. It encompasses the use of language, directorial choices, design elements (such as set, costume, lighting, and sound), acting techniques, and the overall aesthetic approach.
Styles of performance can be reflective of particular historical periods, such as the presentational acting mode of Elizabethan theatre or the minimalist aesthetic of many contemporary performances. Other stylistic movements include Naturalism, which strives for lifelike authenticity; Expressionism, which seeks to represent internal psychological states; and Surrealism, which aims to unlock the subconscious through illogical and fantastical sequences.
Stylistic choices are often heavily influenced by the prevailing philosophical, political, and artistic movements of the time, and can vary widely even within the same genre and form. For instance, a Shakespearean tragedy (genre) in the form of a five-act play can be presented in the style of a 19th-century Melodrama, or it could be reimagined in a modernist manner with abstract staging and unconventional acting techniques.
Examples of Theatre Styles and Production Approaches
- Techniques: Includes detailed sets, naturalistic acting, and believable dialogue.
- Historical Context: Rose to prominence in the late 19th century as a reaction against melodrama and the artificiality of the theatre.
- Significance: Strives to create an illusion of reality, offering the audience relatable experiences.
- Techniques: Uses distorted and exaggerated costumes and sets to represent emotional experiences.
- Historical Context: Originated in Germany in the early 20th century.
- Significance: Offers insight into the subjective experiences of characters, often reflecting societal anxieties.
- Techniques: Often involves a “slice of life” presentation with minute attention to detail in sets, props, and costumes.
- Historical Context: Developed as an extreme form of realism in the late 19th century.
- Significance: Naturalism portrays life with scientific objectivity, often focusing on issues of heredity and environment.
- Techniques: Emphasises the use of choruses, prologues, and epilogues, and adherence to the three unities (action, time, and place).
- Historical Context: Based on the principles of Greek and Roman theatre.
- Significance: Classical works often deal with issues of fate, destiny, and the gods’ role in human affairs.
Each of these imposes a certain discipline and approach to performance, demanding specific techniques from the actors and creative team.
Genre, form, and style are distinct but complementary concepts in theatre. Genre is a category of work that provides the audience with expectations about the type of content and emotional journey. Form is concerned with the structural approach to storytelling and the organisation of dramatic material. Style is focused on the execution and the aesthetic choices that give a performance its character and texture.