History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now

Comedy and tragedy



The main purpose of the present textbook is to encourage the reading and writing of plays. The plays are presented in a way to emphasize why scholarly and public attention have been continuously paid to them. There is also another goal: helping to make better known plays too much ignored, especially in the non-English literature. A particular emphasis is laid on action, what are the characters doing, or not doing.

The pleasure of drama

“It may possibly be imagined by severe men, that I am too frequent in the mention of the theatrical representations, but who is not excessive in the discourse of what he extremely likes? Eugenio can lead you to a gallery of fine pictures, which collection he is always increasing, Crassus through woods and forests, to which he designs to add the neighbouring counties. These are great and noble instances of their magnificence The players are my pictures and their scenes my territories. By communicating the pleasure I take in them, it may in some measure add to men’s gratifications this way, as viewing the choice and wealth of Eugenio and Crassus augments the enjoyments of those whom they entertain, with a prospect of such possessions as would not otherwise fall within the reach of their fortunes” (Steele, 1710 The Tatler no 182, June 8).

Definition of drama

"A drama is the imitation of a complete action, adapted to the sympathetic attention of man, developed in a succession of continuously interesting and continuously related incidents, acted and expressed by means of speech and the symbols, actualities, and conditions of life. No definition in a paragraph, however comprehensive in terms, of what a drama is, can more than indicate its limitations and proportions. For the unskilled in particular, large elucidation is necessary to bring out the hidden meaning of the above descriptive phrases...As stated by Aristotle, a complete action is one that has a beginning, a middle, and an end; or, as it may be put, it contains a premise, an argument, and a conclusion. The premise or the beginning is a fact or state of facts, undisputed, accepted; for the action must have a sure starting-point. No antecedents, at least in the way of action, are required to explain it. Shakespeare tells, for example, in 'Romeo and Juliet' nothing of the causes or former incidents of quarrel between the Montagues and the Capulets. It is a sufficient beginning that the two houses are at deadly enmity" (Price, 1913 pp 1-3).

Tragedy versus comedy

“As a perfect tragedy is the noblest production of human nature, so it is capable of giving the mind one of the most delightful and most improving entertainments. ' A virtuous man,' says Seneca, 'struggling with misfortunes is such a spectacle as gods might look upon with pleasure' (On providence’). And such a pleasure it is which one meets with in the representation of a well-written tragedy. Diversions of this kind wear out of our thoughts every- thing that is mean and little. They cherish and cultivate that humanity which is the ornament of our nature” (Addison, 1711 The Spectator no 39, April 14).

“Tragedy is an imitation of life in passions; it is comedy only which imitates both passions and habits. A tragic actor, then, is to be estimated, not as he always copies nature, but as he satisfies the general opinion of life and manners. He must neither on the one hand debase his dignity by too natural a simplicity of manner, nor on the other give it a ridiculous elevation by pompousness and bombast. He cannot draw much of his knowledge from real life, because the loftier passions are rarely exhibited in the common intercourse of mankind; but nevertheless he should not indulge himself in novelties of invention, because the hearts of his audience will be unable to judge where their experience has no power. Much study should strengthen his judgment, since he must perfectly understand before he can feel his author and teach others to feel. Where there is strong natural genius, judgment will usually follow in the development of great passions, but it may fail in the minute proproprieties of the stage: where there is not a strong natural genius, the contrary will be generally found. For the common actions of great characters he must study the manner of the stage, for their passions nothing but nature” (Hunt, 1894 edition pp 2-3). “The passions of comedy are more faint than those of tragedy; they are rather emotions and inclinations for if they strengthen into a powerful character they become tragic. Thus sentimental comedy, in which the passions sometimes exert all their strength, is nothing more than an alternate compound of comedy and tragedy, just as the Orlando of Ariosto or the Lutrin of Boileau is a mixture of seriousness and pleasantry. It is more difficult to conceive passions than habits, principally because the former are less subject to common observation. In comic characters we generally recognise the manners or peculiarities of some person with whom we are acquainted, or who is at least known in the world; but of the deeper tragic passions we have only read or heard...The chief qualification of a comedian is an instantaneous perception of everything that varies from the general seriousness of human nature, or from that behaviour which is contemplated with a serious indifference. This variation must nevertheless be found in real life, or it becomes farcical; and as the actor shows his genius in the conception of humorous character, so it is in the nice division of comedy from farce that he shows his judgment. Such a division is a mark of his genius also, for however an able comedian may sometimes indulge in forced humour, a perpetual caricature is always a mark of a lesser genius: it is like bombast in tragedy; it paints to the senses not to the heart, and diverts the attention of the audience from too close an examination into the player's imitative talent” (Hunt, 1894 edition pp 23-29).

Murder and suicide

“Murder and suicide, which are easy devices in the hands of a capable dramatist, should be sparingly used in the theater. Physical violence loses much of its tragic impact unless it is shown to be inescapable. It is a quick way out for the playwright who doesn’t know what else to do or, with a more conscientious artist, an equally easy way of bringing his plot to a full stop…Violent death is seldom the solution of anything, in life or in fiction. It is too often a makeshift device. Do you remember Lessing’s anecdote? A spectator at a play asked his neighbor what a certain character died of. ‘Of the fifth act,’ was the reply, and Lessing adds that in ‘very truth the fifth act is an ugly disease that carries off many a one to whom the first four acts promised a longer life” (Clark, 1947 p 81).

Plays available on the Internet

Links on the Internet are provided to the complete version of the plays, with modern spelling. A more complete list of plays in English on the Internet is given in the "Added material" subsection presented below.

Chronology of plays

The dating of the plays is referenced according to the year first published or presented on stage, whichever came first, more rarely the year it was written in cases when neither the one nor the other occurred until much later. Included in Pre-World War (WW) II plays are plays up to 1945, as the main difference in style in 20th century plays occurs before and after that date.

Boulevard theatre

A separate French section during 19th and 20th centuries is given to Boulevard theatre in view of its prominence over other countries.

17th century English

From the Elizabethan period, English theatre developed to Jacobean and Caroline styles, offering in general more cynical tragedies and darker comedies. Restoration theatre emphasized the satiric to the detriment of romantic comedy, unlike Shakespeare who featured both aspects.

17th century French

17th century Spanish

18th century English

18th century French

18th century Spanish

18th century Italian

18th century German

18th century Scandinavian

19th century English

19th century French

19th century Spanish

19th century Italian

19th century German

19th century Russian

19th century Scandinavian

19th century American

20th century English

20th century French

20th century Spanish

20th century Latin American

20th century Italian

20th century German

20th century Russian

20th century Scandinavian

20th century East European

20th century American

20th century Canadian

21st century English

21st century French

21st century Italian

21st century Spanish

21st century Latin American

21st century German

21st century Russian

21st century Scandinavian

21st century East European

21st century American

21st century Canadian

Added material