Drama: In today’s usage, a serious literary work usually intended for performance before an audience. From the Greek dran, meaning “to do,” drama as we know it is generally believed to have arisen from unrelated ancient Greek and medieval Christian religious ceremonies. Greek comedy originated in fertility rites, Greek tragedy (the word means “goat song”) in rites of sacrifice. Following the decline of Rome, which had adopted the Greek dramatic tradition (but not its religious associations), drama virtually disappeared in the West, although miming and other ceremonies influenced by Greek comedy and tragedy may have kept a certain consciousness of drama alive. Medieval drama appears to have arisen independently in Western Europe from Christian rituals commemorating the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. With the advent of the Renaissance came the rediscovery of classical works and a fusion of classical and medieval traditions and conventions.
The term drama originally encompassed all works, whether in prose or verse, written to be performed onstage. Beginning with mid-eighteenth-century French productions of plays by Denis Diderot, however, the term came to be applied specifically to serious (as opposed to comic) plays that, whether they end happily or unhappily, treat some important (nontrivial) issue or difficulty. This usage is common today, although tragedy and comedy are still often defined as the two major divisions of drama. In addition, contemporary usage permits the term drama to be applied to a wide range of serious works. Thus, movies ranging from the silent science-fiction classic Metropolis (1927), the romance Casablanca (1942), Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeuristic mystery Rear Window (1954), and the mafia crime film The Godfather (1972) to the superhero thriller The Dark Knight (2008), the slave-narrative adaptation 12 Years a Slave (2015), and the bildungsroman Moonlight (2016) are all typically classified as dramas.
Although play is the most common synonym for drama, a play is a drama intended for performance. Thus, although all plays are, broadly speaking, dramas, not all dramas are plays. W. H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror (1944) and For the Time Being (1944) — though they involve acts, characters, and dialogue — are correctly referred to as closet dramas, not as plays, because they are meant to be read as poems rather than seen in a theater by an audience.