Drama Criticism

Boost your enthusiasm for the theater and live performance by exposing yourself to more drama criticism. Drama criticism has a long history reaching back centuries. Its roots date back as far as ancient Greece when Aristotle wrote Poetics, which expounded on the structure, components, and techniques used in the crafting of various works, including dramatic productions. Aristotle covered aspects of tragedy foremost in the treatise, but also noted the differences between comedy and tragedy and discussed elements of each. Aristotle lived just after a golden age for Greek drama, which included the playwrights Aristophanes, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides.

Unique to the literary form, dramatic works are written to be performed by live actors in front of an audience. Theatrical performances have immediacy. Both the stage directions and dialogue contribute to the ideas shared from the stage and the emotions felt by the viewers. Actors, directors, set designers, and costume designers all add to the collaborative effort of making the written words come alive for spectators.

Dramatic works, regardless of whether they are performed live for a critic in the audience, can be analyzed, interpreted, and compared to other theatrical pieces as well as literature more broadly. An important distinction is that drama “criticism” in this strict sense does not constitute positive or negative reviews of the work, typically found in newspapers or magazines. Those reviews are typically written to entice or dissuade potential audience members from seeing a performance while it is running on a local stage. They are typically based on a specific theatrical run of a particular work.  

Drama criticism, instead, endeavors to look more deeply into some aspect of the play being analyzed. One may choose to focus on a particular aspect of the work. The critic will then use evidence from the work to support the opinion being volunteered on elements, including the characters, themes, historical or political context, style, or setting of the piece. For instance, a critic may look at all of William Shakespeare's historical plays and make determinations about what constitutes fact, rather than conjecture, in those retellings. Another critic might analyze the theme of madness in the works of Tennessee Williams. Or, one might compare and contrast the novella Orlando by Virginia Woolf and the stage adaptation by Sarah Ruhl.

Reading drama criticism provides a foundation upon which to become more deeply immersed in at least one aspect of theatrical work and might spark a reconsideration of an author's intentions when they wrote a particular play. Criticism might deepen one's appreciation for a play, encourage a reader to seek out a production, or make a connection between a dramatic work and another author with whom the reader is familiar.

Critics like William Goldman, Harold Clurman, C. Carr, and Bonnie Marranca established themselves in the field and published hundreds of pieces of criticism over their careers, especially in the twentieth century, for various publications, including The New RepublicThe Nation, and The Village Voice. Much of their work was sparked by performances in New York City's Broadway district, an international destination for theater.

With the advent of the internet, a new wave of theater critics has continued the tradition of the form. At the same time, major newspapers have reduced staff sizes, relegating most drama criticism to academic or professional journal settings. Regardless, there will always be a place for people to shed new light on dramatic literature through creative and illuminating analysis and interpretation.

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Drama Criticism Resources

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  • The Civil Rights Theatre Movement in New York, 1939–1966: Staging Freedom, 1st Edition

    The Civil Rights Theatre Movement in New York, 1939–1966: Staging Freedom, 1st Edition

    Gale   |   2019   |   ISBN-13: 9783030121884

    This book argues that African American theater in the twentieth century represented a cultural front of the civil rights movement. Highlighting the frequently ignored decades of the 1940s and 1950s, author Julie Burrell documents a radical cohort of theater artists who became critical players in the fight for civil rights both onstage and offstage, between the Popular Front and the Black Arts Movement periods. This book recovers knowledge of little-known groups like the Negro Playwrights Company and reconsiders Broadway hits, including Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, showing how theater artists staged radically innovative performances that protested Jim Crow and U.S. imperialism amidst a repressive Cold War atmosphere. By conceiving of class and gender as intertwining aspects of racism, this book reveals how civil rights theater artists challenged audiences to reimagine the fundamental character of American democracy. It demonstrates that American theater's resistance to Cold War oppression has a more extensive and complex history than has been traditionally acknowledged, places the American Negro Theatre in a wider scope of theatre history, and explores the legacy and meaning of arguably the most important social movement of the twentieth century.

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  • Drama for Students

    Drama for Students

    Gale   |   2014   |   ISBN-13: 9781414449432

    Each volume of Drama for Students contains easily accessible and content-rich discussions of the literary and historical backgrounds of 12 to 15 works from various cultures and periods. Each play covered in this new resource was specially chosen by an advisory panel of teachers and librarians—experts who have helped us define the information needs of students and ensure the age-appropriateness of this reference's content.

    Each volume (beginning with volume 27) will include two "Literature to Film" entries. Entries profiling film versions of plays not only diversify the study of drama but support alternate learning styles, media literacy, and film studies curricula.

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