What Is a Play?


As the basic unit of theatre, a play is not a thing so much as an event, an action surrounding a conflict. It can also be seen as a piece of literature, and its 2500 years of written practice has given rise to two primary taxonomies for understanding the nature and potential of dramatic form.

One method of understanding plays is to classify them. Duration is one method of grouping plays, but the more useful, although subjective, approach is through genre. Tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, dark comedy, farce, melodrama, documentary, and musicals are some of the classifications that have been given to types of drama, but generic classification is subjective to a high degree, and plays often escape easy designation.


Comedies are plays which are designed to be humorous. Comedies are often filled with witty remarks, unusual characters, and strange circumstances. Certain comedies are geared toward different age groups. Comedies were one of the two original play types of Ancient Greece, along with tragedies. An example of a comedy would be William Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” or for a more modern example the skits from “Saturday Night Live”.


A generally nonsensical genre of play, farces are often overacted and often involve slapstick humour. An example of a farce includes William Shakespeare’s play “The Comedy of Errors”, or Mark Twain’s play “Is He Dead?”


A satire play takes a comic look at current events people while at the same time attempting to make a political or social statement, for example pointing out corruption. An example of a satire would be Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.


These plays contain darker themes such as death and disaster. Often the protagonist of the play has a tragic flaw, a trait which leads to their downfall. Tragic plays convey all emotions, and have extremely dramatic conflicts. Tragedy was one of the two original play types of Ancient Greece. Some examples of tragedies include William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and also John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi.


These plays focus on actual historical events. They can be tragedies or comedies, but are often neither of these. History as a separate genre was popularized by William Shakespeare. Examples of historical plays include Friedrich Schiller’s Demetrius and William Shakespeare’s King John.

Historically, scholars and theatre practitioners have relied upon two primary ways of analyzing the structure of particular plays. Aristotle initiated analysis of a play according to its components 2500 years ago, and yet his list of a drama’s six parts, with the modern addition of a seventh, convention, is still useful to understanding how a play functions. Another way to evaluate a play’s structure is to break down its temporal order. With an appreciation that plays exist in time and therefore within a theatrical experience, Aristotle’s observation that drama has a beginning, middle, and end can be expanded to include the groupings of the preplay, the play proper, and the postplay.

(This is an excerpt from the book Theatre: Brief version by Robert Cohen)