Now this issue has vexed me for over two decades of teaching high school drama. When do we refer to a dramatic work in terms of genre and in what context do we refer to the style of this work?
Let me begin with the premise that genre and style are slippery terms. I liken their closeness and confusion over when to use which term to that of realism and naturalism. Or perhaps the Internet and the web. Even in historical contexts, realism and naturalism belonged to separate artistic movements in the theatre and have (slightly) different characteristics in terms of form when we see works of this nature performed. Yet practitioners the world over refer to realism and naturalism (or realistic drama and naturalistic drama) as one and the same. Similarly, we often use the words Internet and web as interchangeable terms, yet they are not. The web only forms part of the larger Internet and the two are not one and the same. So it is with genre and style in drama.
If we travel back to the beginnings of Western theatre, we should be familiar with tragedy and comedy. In my teaching classes I refer to these terms as the two basic genres of theatrical works. But does classifying comedy and tragedy as genres refer to works of this nature in written form or in practice, or both? What if my senior drama class performed Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (often referred to as the greatest tragedy ever written) in the style of cabaret? (Or is cabaret a genre and not a style?)
I used to explain genre to students in terms of movies in video rental stores. Every movie gets categorised by its type into one section in the shop. Now that these stores barely exist anymore, today I refer to all the genres of music listed on a students iPod. Hip hop and pop are different types of music, just like comedy of manners and jukebox musical are different types of theatre.
When I explain the difference between genre and style to students of drama, I often use the analogy of Marxism and Communism (though probably an oversimplification). In a way, one is the theory and the other is this theory in practice. So genre should refer to a dramatic work as it is written (literary) and style should refer to the manner in which a work is performed. These definitions may help:
Genre: kind, category or sort, esp of literary or artistic work
Style: the manner in which something is expressed or performed, considered as separate from its intrinsic content, meaning etc.
According to the above definition of style, we can separate the manner in which a work is performed from its content, or in the case of a theatrical work, the way it is written. A play may appear to be intended to be performed in a certain style (from the page), but this doesn’t stop a theatre company from performing it in any style of their choosing. We can separate the essential qualities or features of a written play (attributes of its genre) from the manner in which it is performed (style).
Of course, few things in life are perfect. A few years ago, just after I had taught my students comedy was a genre, the senior curriculum authority published material for the same group of students clearly stating “…in the style of comedy” for a performance examination. So can we refer to comedy and tragedy as both genres and styles?
… if you leave one of my drama classes with more questions than answers, that’s a good thing!
What happens when historical periods and/or movements creep into our theatrical lexicon such as “in the style of Elizabethan drama” or “absurdism”? Is “Elizabethan drama” referring purely to a period in theatre history (1558-1603), a collective genre for theatrical works of this period, or not a genre at all but really a performance style? Is “absurdism” a theatrical movement (1950s, 1960s), a genre of works representative of theatre of the absurd in any time period, or a theatrical style?
One could rightly argue all this doesn’t really matter and that debating over terms is just semantics. Will debates such as these alter the nature of a drama students’ understanding of a particular work? It has certainly created some lengthy discussions in my senior drama classes in recent years and I would argue has probably enriched my students’ understanding of theatre. As I said to my Year 11 class only a few days ago after a long discussion about one aspect of theatre, if you leave one of my drama classes with more questions than answers, that’s a good thing! Students in junior classes are always looking for the quickest way to the one correct answer, but that doesn’t always cut it in a senior drama class. The nature of theatre is rich and colourful. Just like a great performance that leaves the spectator thinking about it for days to come, the theatre itself is always worthy of thought, debate and discussion.