Dramatic Terms *Updated!*

Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama:

PlotThe Story of the play.

Character – Any person appearing in the play

Dialogue – The spoken interactions between the characters.

Idea – The central meaning of the play. The themes.

Music – The elements that deal with sounds.

Spectacle – The overall look of the play.


Absurdist-  Also known as “Theatre of the Absurd.” Life is hard and then you die.  Opposed the structure of realism, because absurdist’s saw reality as chaotic.  Samuel Beckett is the most famous Absurdist.

Autos Sacramentales- Short allegorical plays on liturgical themes. Popular in Spain’s Golden Age, 1580-1680. Lope De Vega wrote about 400 of them.

Commedia Dell’Arte- Italian for “Comedy of Art,” it was a form of improvisational comedy that relied on stock characters and standard comedic routines. Popular in Italy from the 1500s-1700s.

Comedy- A dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion.

Epic- Epic Theatre saw plays that were large in scope, cast, length, and political/social issues.  Bertolt Brecht wrote Epic plays.

Hero’s Journey– involves a protagonist, or hero, who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed. There are several specific steps and archetypal characters that must populate this type of story. * Click here for more on the Hero’s Journey.

Masques- Short, symbolic plays for the Stuart Court. They were expensive with elaborate costumes. Ben Jonson wrote these. England, Circa 1598

Melodrama- A dramatic work that exaggerates plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions, often with stereotyped characters. Celebrates virtue above all. Current Hollywood cinema loves Melodrama.

Miracle Play- Also called Saint’s play. A fictionalized account of the life, miracles, or martyrdom of a saint. Popular in Early Medieval Theater.

Morality Play- A drama with a strong lesson about good conduct and pious behavior. Popular during Medieval times and the Early Tudor period- the 15th and 16th Century.

Naturalism- A popular style of theatre in Europe, starting in the late 1800s. Coinciding with Realism, Naturalism focused on the illusion of reality. Trying to make theatre appear as realistic as possible. Three dimensional sets with perspective were first used. Chekhov, Ibsen and August Strindberg are all known for their Naturalistic dramas.

The Problem Play- A Child of the well-made play, Ibsen made this style of theatre popular with A Doll’s House in 1893. It is a less plot-driven, more character-based format, where characters engage in discussions, and this serves as the action of the play.

Pantomime- A type of musical comedy stage production, designed for family entertainment. Loosely based on well-known Fairy Tales.

Pantomimi- Wordless spectacular dances that rendered dramatic stories through stylized gestures. Popular in Roman theater 63 BCE.

Satire- Poking fun at social institutions or people in a clever and intelligent fashion. 

Slapstick- A broad style of comedy that usually involves pratfalls and contrived plots. Much of the humor arose from one character beating another character with a prop called a “Batacchio,” which translates, in English, to Slapstick.  Was popularized during the height of Commedia Dell’arte in Italy.

Tragedy- A dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically that of a great person destined through a flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or society, to downfall or destruction.

The Well-Made Play- Adheres to strict technical principles. It used conventional romantic conflicts and standard plot contrivances. In 1825, this was the theatrical norm.


Baroque- A style of European architecture, music, and art of the 17th and 18th Centuries, they followed mannerisms and is characterized by ornate detail. In theatre, it meant engaging the tensions between order and chaos, and between reality and illusion. Fantastical or comic plots with themes of duty, deception, and passion. A midsummer Night’s Dream is an example.

Expressionism- Truth (or beauty) isn’t what the eyes see, but what the mind projects. Showed the psyche of the main character rather than objective behavior.  Peaked in the 1920s with Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape.

Experimental- Offers new ways of experiencing drama and reconsidering history. Does not adhere to traditional theatrical narrative tropes. May include song, dance, movement and multimedia interactions as part of the experience.

Harlem Renaissance- was an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, New York, spanning the 1920s. At the time, it was known as the “New Negro Movement”, named after The New Negro, a 1925 anthology edited by Alain Locke.

Modernism- a style or movement in the arts that aims to break with classical and traditional forms. Modernity is often viewed as negatively impacting character’s lives.

Neo-Classicists- Critics, intellectuals, tried to imitate Greek theatre, they were rule-happy, and believed that drama should teach a moral lesson.

Post-Modern- Emerged as a reaction against modernist theatre. Most postmodern productions are centered on highlighting the fallibility of definite truth, instead encouraging the audience to reach their own individual understanding.

Realism- A literary movement of the late 19th Century that saw playwrights adhering to real life situations. Focusing on everyday life of middle-class, or lower-class characters.  Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen modernized theatre with their realism plays.

Baroque- A style of European architecture, music, and art of the 17th and 18th Centuries, they followed mannerisms and is characterized by ornate detail. In theatre, it meant engaging the tensions between order and chaos, and between reality and illusion. Fantastical or comic plots with themes of duty, deception, and passion. A midsummer Night’s Dream is an example.

Sturm and Drang- German theatre was changed radically by the romantic movement known as Sturm and Drang, which translates to “Storm and Stress.” It idolized Shakespeare, and dismissed the neo-classical dramatic unities. Goethe’s Faust is a good example; the story is a romantic tribute to the human spirit.


Allegory- A narrative in which the story represents a specific abstraction or idea.

Allusion- A reference to a person, place, idea, or event in history or literature.

Aside- A short speech made by a character to the audience that other characters cannot hear.

Comic Relief- The use of humorous scenes, characters, or speeches in a drama. Lightens the darkness of the play.

Convention- Any feature of literature that has become the norm.

Denouement- (Pronounced Day-New-Maw) Literal translation- French word meaning to unknot. It is the final part of a play, movie, or televsion show, in which all strands of the plot are concluded. May include a resolution.

Diction- The playwright’s style of language. The specific choice of words.

Empathy- To feel with a character. Sympathy is to feel for a character.

Exposition- A Literary Device used to introduce background information.

Foil- A Character who, through difference or similarity, brings out a particular aspect of another character.

Foreshadowing- Ominous hints of coming events to create suspense.

Irony- Contradictions that reveal a reality that differs from what appears to be true.

-Dramatic Irony- When a character believes in a different reality from the one the audience knows to be true.

-Situational Irony- When a character’s actions create a result that is the opposite from the character’s intentions.

-Cosmic Irony- When a character believes that gods or supernatural forces are on her side, when they are actually against her.

Metaphor- A direct comparison between two things.

Monologue- Long Speeches delivered to another character or the audience.

Perspective- The painted backgrounds of sets became more and more realistic. During Renaissance.

Play-within-a-play- A secondary drama presented by characters in the play.

Setting- All the details of time and location of the play.

Soliloquy- A speech in which a character is speaking his thoughts, revealing feelings.

Subplot- A secondary plot that is intertwined with the main plot.

Subtext- Implicit meaning under the surface of a play.

Suspension of Disbelief- The audiences willingness to accept the artificial world of the play.

Symbolism- A device where an object, event, or action is used to suggest a meaning beyond its literal .


Agon (Aww-gahn)- In classical Greek old Comedy, a scene with a debate between the two opposing forces in a play.

Antiphonal Song- Call and response style singing.

Deus Ex Machina- Latin for “god from a machine.”  Refers to a playwright’s use of a forced or improbable solution to an unsolvable situation.

Harlenquinade- A British Comic theatrical genre.

Parabasis (Puh-Rob-uh-sis)- Scene in Classical Greek Comedy in which the chorus directly addresses the audience members and makes fun of them.

Pasos- Humorous sketches written in prose, used as comic interludes between scenes of longer dramatic works. Popularized in 1560 in Spain by Lope de Rueda.

Quem Quaeritis- Translates to, “whom do you seek?” Tropes. Tropes were simple but dramatic ceremonial elaborations of parts of the Christian Church service or liturgy. Popular in Early Medieval Theater, 925

Raking- The angling of the stage. How the terms upstage and downstage originated.

Sotie- The word comes from ”sot” which means “fools.” These are short satirical plays made up of fools who made observations on contemporary events. Popular in France during their Renaissance.


Antagonist- Character in direct conflict with the protagonist.

Dynamic Character- A Character that goes through a lot of changes.

Foil- A character who serves as a contrast to the protagonist, either opposes or mirrors them to push them toward action.

Protagonist- The Main Character in a play. Literally translates as “one who is willing to suffer.” *Fun fact: A Protagonist is always the character that goes through the biggest change.*

Static or Flat Character: A character that doesn’t change.

Stock Characters:

-Pantalone- A form of Commedia dell’arte stock character. A miser, a letch, a dirty old woman.

-Il Dottore- Another stock character: often a friend of the Pantalone, a gossip. A doctor, or professional of some kind.

-Harlequin- Another stock character: a servant who knows more than the master.

*THE THREE UNITIES* Neo-classicist principle: Unity of Time, Place, and Action.

-Unity of Time- Play must take place within a twenty-four hour period of time.

-Unity of Place- Play should be in one location, or in locations that could easily be reached within the unity of time.

-Unity of Action- Play should have one main action and be either Comedy or Tragedy.

Click Here for more thorough info on some of these definitions

6 thoughts on “Dramatic Terms *Updated!*”

  1. Helpful. Please, what textbook can i get for extensive study of drama. Where i can learn about various playwrights and their methods etc… Thanks.


    1. The correct term is Theater of the Absurd. It is a specific genre from the 1950s and 60s made popular by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco.
      Here is a reference:


      Abstract theater is a more general term used to describe theater that doesn’t follow traditional plot driven Aristotelean structure. The genres closest to abstract are Dadaism and Surrealism.
      Here is a link for more on that:



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