Thoughts On: Why Drama Is Not A Genre


Why Drama Is Not A Genre

Thoughts On: 'Drama'

An attempt to classify and explore the concept of drama.

Today we will be doing something a little different. I will be sharing with you an essay that I didn't write specifically for the blog. The topic of this essay is linked to a previous post on Yorgos Lanthimos that you can find here. In such, we will be discussing the different kind of dramas, revising the 'spectrum of drama' idea and focusing more on drama in a hierarchy. Though the format of this post is a little different I hope you enjoy...


1. Drama: The Cinematic Present & The Greek Past

Drama is a term that we, in the modern day, take for granted. It has been bastardised over many centuries and reduced to something rather meaningless. What we often categorised as ‘drama’ are the kinds of stories that simply aren’t romances, thrillers, horrors, comedies, etc. This is particularly true in cinema. What constitutes cinematic drama is anything that is narrative-based without clearly being a ‘genre film’. The characteristics of ‘drama’ are then negatively centered, reducing the ‘genre’ to a net for dregs.

To define drama positively, there is only one clear rule: conflict. Drama is the bringing about of a story through conflict of some kind. However, conflict and drama are in all filmic stories whether they be comedic, thrilling, scientifically fictitious or horrifying. The two are inseparable, especially as they are conceptualised in anglophone societies. In Britain, for example, it is common to hear phrases such as ‘don’t start drama’ or ‘don’t be so dramatic’, all of which mean ‘don’t induce or breed conflict’. This colloquial use of ‘drama’ as interchangeable with ‘conflict’ has infected the way in which we conceptualise of forms of storytelling and cinema. The ritualistic term of ‘drama’ has then long outlasted its meaning.

To return the birth of ‘drama’, we arrive in Ancient Greece. It is from the Ancient Greeks that we have received the word ‘drama’ as well as the loose concept. The idea of drama as it was presented in Late Latin was bound not to the original Greek meaning, but what it described: theatre. ‘Drama’, through translation, then came to mean theatre and, after sometime, ‘drama’ was replaced by ‘play’. What ‘drama’ initially meant for the Greeks, however, was not just theatre, but ‘action’. Dramatos thus meant ‘play, action, deed’ having derived from Dran, meaning ‘to do, act, perform’. Our labelling of theatre as ‘plays’ mirrors these initial meanings but, whilst this element of Dramatos has been preserved somewhat, it has decayed away from the word ‘drama’ itself. This seems to be why there is such a convoluted set of connotations around drama, especially when we use the word outside of the context of theatre and plays, and within cinema. There is also a paradox in the term ‘dramatic film’ or ‘European drama’, as the term translates, conceptually, to ‘cinematic play’. And to describe film as theatre is functionally incorrect.

The idea of ‘drama’ as conceptualised by the Greeks is simultaneously clarified and complicated if we approach it through Aristotle’s Poetics. In what is regarded as the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory, Aristotle characterises and then explores forms of drama as poetry. And for Aristotle, poetry doesn’t necessarily just describe literature with rhythm (which is how we broadly think of poetry today). In Ancient Greek, poetry was an ambiguous term possibly meaning ‘fiction’ or, literally, ‘thing made or created’. Poetry was creation, and for Aristotle it was memetic expression; it was the an instinctive act of imitation. And so he describes drama, in reference to the works of Homer, Nomes, Nichochares, etc., thusly: ‘... the name ‘drama’ is given to such poems, as representing actions’. What Aristotle describes here is drama emerging from poetry and thus drama physically representing the making of something through imitation. Drama is poetry in action.

There is much that could be questioned if we were to continue to explore the etymology of these key words and the validity of their translations, but, leaving things as such, Aristotle seems to shine some crucial light on how drama was initially conceptualised. Drama was not just conflict - friction that makes things move in a narrative manner - but the manifestation of conflict in a made-up story. Drama was then a phenomenon of storytelling, not a classification and not a genre.

 2. Drama Is Not A Genre: The Basic Hierarchy Of Classification

Genre is an Ancient Greek concept. The word ‘genre’, however, is French, and its meaning is quite well preserved. ‘Genre’ connotes ‘style’ - it means ‘kind’ or ‘sort’ - and it has etymological links to ‘gender’, which itself leads to concepts of classification such as ‘genus’, ‘family’, etc. The Ancient Greeks gave way to the idea of genre through their classification of poetry/drama. For the Ancient Greeks, there were three genres of drama: comedy, satyr, tragedy. Aristotle, however, uses ‘comedy, tragedy and epic poetry’ in Poetics. You will notice that, unlike us the modern day, drama is not mentioned as a classification, rather, it is classified.

It is this key realisation that lies at the heart of this essay. To use the concept of drama effectively in modern day cinema we must stop using it as a classification. Drama is classified. To properly classify drama, it needs to be separated from genre entirely, and in such, a hierarchy of classification must be constructed. This hierarchy will be in the realm of poetry (imitation), but the realm of poetry itself can be thought of as medium: the novel, play, book, song, etc. To discuss drama we will be using cinema as our realm or medium of poetry/imitation. And whilst Aristotle differentiated imitation with ‘medium, objects and modes’, we will be using a more complex set of terms that, as said, initially classify imitation by medium before pushing forward to discuss mode, form and then genre.

2a. Drama

In the realm of poetry or storytelling, drama is the most pure manifestation: it is action, it is conflict. All stories have conflict, but almost no stories are just conflict. This is because, to tell a wide range of stories, we utilise modes, forms and genres. Drama will then stay isolated above these classifications as it is the physical manifestation of imitation (poetry). To discuss drama, we have to question the action of a narrative, and thus drama broadly encapsulates narrative, story, plot, theme, character, etc. Drama is the physical representation of all such devices through conflict. Mode, form and genre will specify the function of narrative, story, plot, theme, character, etc.

2b. Mode

Modes define intention; they are methods of imitation. The key modes of cinema are: narrative, documentary, animation and avant-garde. These terms broadly describe how you will approach and represent drama. And whilst I believe that avant-garde can be described in such terms, we shall not focus on what appears to be non-narrative here. Instead, we will only focus on classifying narrative cinema.

2c. Form

Forms are general rules that are usually dictated by a culture or time. Forms of cinema are described continentally or nationally - Asian, European, Italian, French, German - in terms of (technological) epochs - silent, talkie, black and white, colour - and in terms of movements - Surrealism, Impressionism, Constructivism, etc.

2d. Genre

Genres are sets of conventions that dictate what tropes and archetypes will populate a story. Comedy, for example, will use tropes such as the gag and archetypes such as the fool. Genre falls at the bottom of the hierarchy because there are countless genres, all of which are slightly connected and conceptually debatable.

3. The Complex Hierarchy Of Classification

Specificity will provide the tools to better understand how each set of classifications we have presented are both separate and distinct. Thus, it is through subsets that we will see modes transition into forms and forms transition into genres.

3a. Sub-Mode

Sub-modes are a means of specifically describing the tone, texture and feel one attempts to tell a story with. Bill Nichols classifies the modes of documentary as: poetic, expository, observational, reflexive, etc. Because we are considering documentary as a mode itself, we can rename these sub-modes. Narrative has been broken down into linear, non-linear, etc modes. But, I believe the sub-modes of narrative represent somewhat unexplored grounds as narrative is described by form, sub-form, genre or sub-genre before sub-mode.

3b. Sub-Form

Sub-forms are more complex superstructures of storytelling defined by greater geographic, cultural and temporal specificity. In such, we can see Basque film as a sub-form of French and Spanish cinema and Flemish and Dutch-language film as sub-forms of Belgian cinema. Included in this, however, come sub-movements, such as the Czech New Wave or French Impressionism. Moreover, another subset of cinematic form involves the auteur: the cinema of Bresson, Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Godard, etc.

3c. Sub-Genre

Sub-genres are the manifestation of chaos at the bottom of the classification hierarchy as any number of sub-genres can be created from the already huge, ambiguous and confounding pool of genres. So, whilst we could specify steampunk as a sub-genre of sci-fi, we shall not try to describe the phenomena generally as it is too organic and complex.

4. The Infinite Hierarchy Of Classification

The validity of The Hierarchy Of Classification is embedded not in its ability to specify bounds, but to facilitate the creation of new bounds. Whilst one could possibly attempt to diagrammatically represent all the cinematic modes, to represent all sub-modes, forms, sub-modes, genres and sub-genres - and in relation to one another - would be impossible. This is because modes, forms and genres are always changing and being invented. It would then be a naive blunder to suggest that the Hierarchy of Classification can be complete and fully representative. To seek this outcome is, in fact, rather pointless. We only need the presented sets and subsets so that we have a language to describe films. Semantics is entirely subservient to this.

5. Organising Drama

The key purpose of this essay is not just to organise pre-established sets and subsets of classification, and to argue semantics, but explore and invent a new subset that will allow us to understand cinematic drama all the better.

Drama is the apex set in the Hierarchy of Classification because all stories have drama in its most basic form within them. Basic modes, forms and genres are multitudinous, drama is singular. There are, however, different kinds of drama. It is because we do not define drama satisfactorily (a problem we have already addressed) that we can’t classify it, and instead clumsily use it as a genre. Alas, by recognising the sub-modes of drama, it possible to classify drama.

5a. Sub-Drama

Sub-dramas describe the most basic representation of conflict itself. Mode, form and genre distinguish the rules, structures and conventions of action, they do not have the ability to describe the nature of drama, rather, its manifestations. There are, in my view, four sub-dramas that describe how the nature of conflict is manipulated. As was emphasised in referencing the Infinite Hierarchy of Classification, these four sub-dramas are not the end all and be all. They are just a start, and there could be more.

The sub-dramas we will reference are determined by mapping drama onto a spectrum of verisimilitude. Aristotle implies that drama is bound to verisimilitude by describing poetry as imitation. Poetry is the imitation of life. Drama is poetry in action suggest Aristotle. And so drama will be determined by how accurately and faithfully it imitates, or represents, reality.

6. The Spectrum Of Drama

There are two extremes of imitation. One one end is replication: realism. On the other is fabrication: unrealism. And there is a grey space in between. Whilst we have the language to describe sub-modes, forms, genres, etc, there has (to my knowledge) been no concrete proposal of language that deals with what lies in between mode and drama itself. In search of terminology and language of this kind, you can only come across one word: melodrama.

Melodrama, though it is constructed with Ancient Greek, is not a Greek term. It does, however, conceptually emerge from the Greek tragedy. Melodrama comes from mélodrame, a 19th century French word, that combines the Greek melos, meaning ‘music, song, dance’ and dran ‘to do, act, perform’. We, in the modern day, use melodrama to classify a genre. But, whilst the melodrama is a classification, it is not a genre. Melodrama describes conflict, it does not necessarily supply conventions, tropes and archetypes like genre does; ‘sci-fi’ suggests that scientific truth will be manipulated into fantasy, ‘melodrama’ merely suggests that conflict will be intensely contrived. All other ways in which we could describe melodrama are bound to other genres, most commonly the tragedy or romance. This suggests that we have a word that classifies drama not a genre.

6a. Melodrama

Melodrama is the unrealistic extreme sub-drama. The term itself describes an approach to drama that is unreal; that is music. There is profundity in this term for it describes drama in terms of harmony, suggesting that contrived stories are perfectly orchestrated imitations of life. The conflict within melodramas is then contrived as to resonate with our unconscious like music does. Its philosophy on the representation and interpretation of truth is: Truth emerges from the imitation of life when the imitation is as precisely structured as possible.

6b. Biodrama

Whilst melodrama strings together the conflicts of life in a highly structured and coherent manner, a class of drama that operates in complete opposition of this would accept life as it is. And thus we come to realists drama: bio-drama. Bios, is Ancient Greek for life. Biodrama is the drama of life, unadulterated and as pure and messy as social being itself is. Its philosophy of truth is: Truth emerges from the imitation of life when the act of imitation merely allows us revisit sequence of life in the third person.

6c. Typhlodrama

Between melodrama and biodrama is a haze with two distinct sub-dramas within. The first of these is typhlodrama. Typhlo translates to blind, and thus typhlodrama is blind drama. This describes an approach to drama that is contrived like the melodrama, but nonetheless imitates real life somewhat faithfully; it just bends the rules a little. The typhlodrama is then blind to the reality within biodrama. Its philosophy of truth is: Truth emerges from imitation when reality caps contrivance; we need only be so realistic.

6d. Tuphlodrama

The final sub-drama is opposed to typhlodrama. Tuphlo means deaf, and so tuphlodrama describes an approach to drama that is tone-deaf; deaf to the music of melodrama. Tuphlodrama is close to realism, but with very obvious touches of contrivance. Its philosophy of imitation is: Truth emerges from imitation when reality is perturbed by an artist’s hand.

7. Sub-Drama In Cinema

Understanding what each of these sub-dramas are provides us language to describe the history of narrative cinema in regards to conflict as a driving force of narrative. With melodrama and realism being firmly established ideas, we conflate the sub-dramas that they represent with film modes, forms and genres. Melodrama isn’t a genre. And whilst realism has been represented by the mode of Realist film and forms such as Italian Neorealism, these movements merely centralise biodrama as opposed to the melodrama and typhlodrama that Hollywood has so often represented.

The Hollywood typhlodrama is something we are all very familiar with, but have never had the language to describe. Action, romance, adventures and fantasies are all examples of genres that use a kind of drama that is clearly contrived (and so bears some relation to melodrama), but has hints of realism within. The gritty, pseudo-realist Hollywood films such The Dark Knight Trilogy and Bourne series, are all expressive and obvious examples of typhlodrama.

Because Hollywood has had genre to explain its typhlodrama and melodrama, we find no issues when confronted by essentially radical forms of storytelling via the musical and sci-fi film. European cinema, which has historically been associated with realism, has run into categorical issues due to its prevalent use of tuphlodrama. Tuphlodramas are quite Bretchian in that they break the illusion of both reality and fantasy. We often describe tuphlodramas as just dramas, art films or plain strange or weird. This is especially true with the cinemas of Europeans auteurs such as Bresson, Godard, Tarkovsky and Bergman. Confronted by confounding European cinemas, audiences are so often left silenced save the words: I don’t know how to describe what I just saw.

A general rule of thumb then is, when you want to say a film is weird, you’ve found tuphlodrama. In understanding tuphlodrama as a sub-drama, confounding cinemas can become accessible.

8. Ban 'Drama'?

To conclude our classification, we should ask what we should do with the word 'drama'. Are we to rebel against it and demand it no longer be used by sites such as IMDb, Netflix and so on?

Of course not. 'Drama' has evolved with language and so is self-justifying in a way despite its confounding and confused nature. And, to mention the obvious, it is not likely that anyone is going to change language around our semantic debate here. Nonetheless, I think our classification is a powerful tool for those interested in the theoretical side of cinema, and for those who watch films by directors like Bresson, Lanthimos, Jodorowsky, Lynch and many more, and simply want to know how to describe and analyse them. It is for you that 'tuphlodrama' in particular matters. So, let us not ban 'drama', rather see it as a question of sorts.


This essay is somewhat limited in its scope as it bears no analysis of specific films - some of this can be found here. However, I hope you find this thought provoking. If so, what are your thoughts on everything covered today?

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