In the world of theatre, the terms ‘drama’ and ‘play’ have become synonymous, and both are frequently and generically used to refer to an on-stage production of a story. However, these two words do have a very distinct and subtle difference, which has become more pronounced in recent years.
The first difference is going to be in the meaning of the words themselves. A drama is a very specific mode of fiction that is represented through actors in a performance,[i] whereas the definition of a play will be much more inclusive and can refer to other modes of fiction. The word drama is a derivative of the classical Greek word meaning ‘action’ or ‘I do.’[ii] The word play is an English word that was adopted by many other European languages. Its literal translation is ‘play’ or ‘game.’ Throughout Europe, this term was used to describe all theatre until Shakespeare’s time. As literary performances became more sophisticated, the term drama was adopted in English to refer to a specific type of play. This division persists in the television and film industries and drama is studied as a genre in film studies.[iii]
The terms play and drama share a very long history of referring to similar theatrical performances. Theatre itself, including plays and dramas, originated from the ancient Greek division of acted performances. At the time, there was only a division between drama and comedies, both of which were represented in the two-mask symbol associated with Greek theatre-one laughing while the other is crying.[iv]
Because the term play was essentially the equivalent to drama until around the 16th century, the history of both is encompassed in the history of theatre. The earliest roots of which are found in classical Greek drama. While the exact origin is not known, by the 5th century BCE, they were routinely included in competitions and festivities. Most of the works from this time have been lost, but several notable dramatists are Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Menander.[v] This style of theatre was adopted by the Romans in the 4th century BCE, and expanded considerably. It became a thriving and diverse art form that expanded beyond the walls of the theatre and included acrobatics, street theatre and nudity. Again, most of the works from this time are lost, with the exception of some written by Seneca.[vi]
In the Middle Ages, most theatre presented liturgical dramas as they were staged by the Church, though there were several secular ones from this era as well. A large number of those surviving came from France and Germany and during the Elizabethan Era of the 15th century, morality plays became a distinct dramatic form, and this is where the division between the terms play and drama becomes solidified. Common playwrights from this period include Shakespeare, Marlowe, Thomas Middleton and Ben Johnson.[vii]
Outside of Europe, theatre also evolved in the East. Fragments of Sanskrit drama from the 1st century AD indicate the beginnings of theatre in India. These performances were sophisticated and included acting, dance, music, dramatic construction, architecture, costuming, make-up, props, the organization of companies, the audience, and competitions. Chinese drama also had very early origins, with some evidence that theatre there started around 1000 BCE. Initially, it focused on mines, happiness and acrobatics, however, shadow puppetry emerged as a dramatic form some time later.[viii]
During the 18th century, women began to start acting on stage alongside men and plays began to take many different shapes, and incorporated themes of experimentation, meta-theatricality, and social critique.[ix] These different modes persist today.
As drama is a narrow type of a play, there is less variety found in this realm than in the entirety of different plays. However, there are still distinct forms of drama. Opera is a form of drama that incorporates dialogue, dance and song. Pantomime, or panto, is a musical, comedy production staged for families that includes songs, gags, slapstick, cross-dressing and topical humor based on a famous fable or folk tale. Mime is a form of drama in which the entire story is told through movement of the body. It lacks dialogue and speech entirely. Finally, creative drama incorporates activities and games into an educational experience with children.[x]
To a larger extent, the term play incorporates a much wider variety of theatrical productions. Aside from the drama, there is also comedy, which is marked by a distinct wittiness, unusual characters and strange circumstances. A farce is a type of nonsensical play that involves slapstick humor. A satire play will make a political or social statement by showing it through comedy. A restoration comedy is a type of historical play that explores the relationships between men and women, which has been considered a taboo topic at various times throughout history. Tragedies explore darker themes such as disaster or death and will often feature a protagonist with a tragic flaw that leads to his or her downfall. Historical plays focus on a specific historical even and can also be tragedies or comedies. These types of plays were a favorite of Shakespeare’s. Musical theatre, initiated by the ballad opera in America, presented a new type of play that was held to specific conventions. The theatre of cruelty came about in the 1940s and this type deals with very heavy issues such as patients with mental illness and conditions in Nazi Germany. Finally, the theatre of the absurd is a distinct style that denies all rationality, and instead embraces the inevitability of the dark human condition. This writing style seeks to leave the audience with many philosophical questions.[xi]