Drama as a Social and Historical Object

Why is drama a social and historical object?


Drama and culture

Where, when and how a drama is performed, promoted and received by different audiences can influence the way it is viewed and evaluated. While dramatic performances can introduce or highlight ideas, values or codes of social conduct that are particular to cultures and histories, they may or may not contain actions that can be recognised in other cultures or in other dramatic texts. Analysis of the responses audiences in contemporary cultures have to drama is often associated with the field of study called reception theory. Analysis of the responses audiences in historical cultures had to drama can often be found in studies of theatre history. Analyses of the responses non-western audiences have had to western forms of drama may also be discussed in the field of postcolonial theory.

Examples: Consider the variations of subjects represented and audience responses to plays and films written and performed throughout Australia’s history.

Also, consider theories of Community Theatre, Feminist Theatre, Indigenous Theatre, Intercultural Theatre, Postcolonial Theatre, Postmodern Drama, Reception Theory and Theatre History.


Aston, Elaine. An Introduction to Feminism and Theatre. London; New York: Routledge, 1995.

Casey, Maryrose. Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre 1967-1990. St Lucia, Qld: U of Queensland P, 2004.

Fotheringham, Richard. Community Theatre in Australia. Sydney: Currency Press, 1992.

Gainor, J. Ellen. Imperialism and Theatre: Essays on World Theatre, Drama and Performance. London; New York: Routledge, 1995.

Gilbert, Helen and Joanne Tompkins. Post-Colonial Drama. London: Routledge, 1996.

Holub, Robert C. Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction. London; New York: Methuen, 1984.

Malkin, Jeanette R. Memory-Theater and Postmodern Drama. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1999.

Pavis, Patrice. The Intercultural Performance Reader. New York: Routledge, 1996.

van Erven, Eugene. Community Theatre: Global Perspectives. London; New York: Routledge, 2001.

Watt, Stephen. Postmodern/Drama: Reading the Contemporary Stage. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998.

Worthen, W.B., with Peter Holland. Theorizing Practice: Redefining Theatre History. Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

A French definition of drama:

While the term ‘drama’ originated in Ancient Greece, it was also adopted to describe a particular form of theatre that developed in France in the eighteenth century (called ‘le drame’ in French). The theatrical form emphasises the moral seriousness of life and encouraged reflection upon the norms and mores of French society. The themes and issues represented in the texts reflected a growing cultural emphasis on developing a fair and civil society that developed during the period of the French Enlightenment. This style of theatre was initially defended by a famous French theatre theorist called Denis Diderot who argued that dramas needed to be more realistic if they were to intensify the feelings of audiences and elevate their sensibility. The ideas and forms introduced by this new way of identifying drama remained in circulation throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a result of this different emphasis, the word ‘drama’ is still used today to describe forms of drama that can be identified as emotionally ‘compelling’ or morally ‘serious’ rather than comic or tragic.

Examples : Plays by Voltaire (and possibly Racine).

References: Diderot, Denis. The Paradox of Acting. New York: Hill and Wang, 1957.

Non-western forms of drama

Aristotelian theories of drama have deeply impacted upon the study of theatre and drama in western traditions of scholarship. However, there are also other theories that describe and classify ‘acted’ texts and performances that have evolved in different cultures.


Barba, Eugenio. A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer. London: Published for the Centre for Performance Research by Routledge, 1991.



Another very influential drama theory was produced independently of western drama in India. The Natyasastra (or Art of the Play) is a classical Sanskrit system of classifying drama written around the first century B.C. by the Indian theorist Bharata. The system of classification has profoundly influenced the development of Indian dramatic forms and theories. The treatises that make up this work offer much longer and more detailed assessments of the composition and construction of elements in texts and performances. However, unlike Aristotle’s general use of the term mimesis, these works contain comprehensive accounts of the elements required for performance including what is needed for successful delivery and casting of roles.

Examples: Kathkali Dance


Bharata-Muni. The Natyasastra. New Delhi: Munishiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1996.

Zarrilli, Phillip. Kathkali Dance Drama. New York; London: Routledge, 2000.



Like Indian theories of drama, the systems of classifying drama produced in Japan focus much more on defining the elements in a performance rather than the composition of the written forms used in performances. Comprehensive and influential theories and discussions of drama emerged in the Medieval period and the first major Japanese theorist was a man called Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443). Zeami wrote and performed within a tradition of performing art called nō theatre and his works closely examine and explain the energies and abilities that performers need to master this art form. The theories Zeami outlines in his treatises identify what those pursuing this profession need to know about the artistic words (geiden) and secrets (hiden) of performance and his ideas remain extremely influential.

Examples: nō theatre, Suzuki theatre


Zeami. On the Art of the No Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. Princeton, Princeton UP, 1984.


Performance as drama

While substantial theories have been produced to describe and analyse written and acted art forms developed in a number of different cultures, the performance of actions, stories and texts for audiences is an activity that can be identified in nearly all cultures. Since dramatic performances are not always associated with theatrical activities, the study of drama can also include the study of ‘theatrical’ human actions and performances in a variety of different contexts and cultures. This kind of study is sometimes related to Drama Studies and Theatre Studies but it is specifically addressed in a relatively new field of study called Performance Studies. Refer to "A Brief Guide to the Discipline"

Examples: Culture as performance, Gender as performance, Tourism as performance.


Carlson, Marvin. Performance: A Critical Introduction. New York; London: Routledge, 1996.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. New York; London: Routledge, 2002.



Aristotle’s theories have profoundly influenced the development and criticism of western theatre and his use of the term ‘drama’ has stimulated much discussion throughout the history of theatre. While Aristotle used the term drama to apply to forms of poetry that were acted in theatres of his day, this term now incorporates a range of different texts, activities and media. Dramas or ‘acts’ can still be identified within the many different kinds of texts and activities that have evolved around the world, but there is clearly much room for interpretation in classical distinctions. Students of drama therefore need to consider many different notions of drama and consider the definitions explored within the fields of literature, drama, reception theory, theatre studies and performance studies.


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