When theatre people discuss plays, they speak in terms of those elements which comprise the structure of a play.

Critics evaluate a drama in terms of Plot, Theme, Setting, Atmosphere, Dialogue, and Characterization.

The following explanations of the elements of dramatic structure should help the actor to read with greater interest and skill, and to evaluate, with the knowledge that he knows and recognizes the composition of play.

These six (6) items: plot, theme, setting, atmosphere, dialogue, and characterization are called the elements or constituents of a drama.
The effectiveness with which each is developed determines the quality of a play.


The plot is the arrangement of story incidents. It may be complicated (as are many mystery stories), or it may be very simple (merely one man trying to acheive a single purpose).

Usually the plot is developed through an exposition in the beginning scenes that familiarizes the audience with the people and their problems.

The rising action is the series of events that take place as the plot advances to the climax (the highest point of tension).

The falling action is the series of situations which unravel the conflict and bring the play to a conclusion or solution.

If the plot of a play is weak, other elements must be exceptionally strong to compensate.


The theme of the play is the underlying idea which the playwright is seeking to develop through placing characters in conflicting situations.

Tragedy often has such universal themes as ambition, love, revenge, self-sacrifice, jealousy, and power.

Often the theme is difficult to state in a few words, but the underlying idea should be apparent in order to give the play unity and purpose.

The ability to discover the theme of a play will mark you, the actor, as an intelligent and critical theatre person.

Not only will you find play reading more challenging, but you will have a much greater understanding of your characterizations and the role of your character in developing the theme.


The setting of a play is the physical scenery which must establish the mood and play environment.

It should be so designed as to enhance the play and help the characters.

The playwright selects the best environment in which to set his plot. The scenic designer creates the actual scenery.

In reading plays, the actor should imagine the setting.


The emotional feeling which all the elements of the stage combine to establish is the atmosphere of the play.

Every play has a dominant mood or atmosphere.

Whether the play is a tragedy or a comedy will determine certain elements that build the mood. comedy is usually played in bright colors (a great deal of warm light), WHILE tragedy is intensified by somber set colors, and more cool diffused lighting.

The physical size and shape of the set, the colors used in painting it, the design and colors of the costumes, as well as the lighting, sound, and mood-music effects ALL contribute to the over-all atmosphere.


The playwright must develop his characters, plot, atmosphere, and theme through the speeches of his characters...the dialogue.

Not only must the speeches explain the plot, but the choice of words AND the manner of speaking must be true to each character type. He must always be able to develop speeches that are in keeping with the human beings that he has placed in the play and reveal the theme and plot through their dialogue.


Many plays are termed dramas of character, because the characterizations are the dominant interest.

Good characterizations are those which are vital and true to human nature.

The skill of the playwright in this area is dependent upon his understanding of prople and his ability to develop those characterizations through dialogue and action.

The actor should also become acquainted with the different forms of drama.

Besides your ability to analyze the play, you should be able to recognize the type of drama to which it may belong.

In general, there are three (3) large categories and those are comedy, tragedy, and melodrama.

A play may have elements of each, but one or the other predominates.


A comedy is a play in which the point of view is slanted to show the humor in life.

This may be done through humorous, silly or witty people: through situations that areincongruous: or through highly imaginative or poetic speeches.

Comedy may be divided into numerous types such as:


The two major divisions are high comedy and low low comedy.

In high comedy the humor and pleasure is derived from the brilliance of the dialogue and the elegant manners of the character. It is based on intellectual appreciation of clever phrases.

Low comedy is based upon situations which stress physcical discomfort.

1. The imagination is usually strained to accept ridiculous situations...incidents that could hardly happen in real life.

2. OR incredible feats of the hero.


Tragedy, like comedy, has many different classifications:

classic tragedy
serious drama
problem drama

In the narrow sense of the word tragedy means the defeat of the leading character. In many cases this means death, but not always.

Tragedy is presented from a serious point of view, and demands that the audience employ their imagination and emotional feelings.

In great tragedy, the audience should be left with a sense of exhilaration (rather than depression).

The tragic hero most often contains within his own personality a flaw which is the cause of his doom. However, tragedies may be centered in the fate of a whole group of people.

A social group which is defeated.

The reasons for the tragedy must seem plausible and understandable. Then a sense of pity and terror is evoked which leaves the audience exalted.

Perhaps more understanding of life and man.

Many modern serious dramas deal with tragic themes, but result in happy endings.


Melodrama is a mixture of:

The happy victorious hero

The complicated plots

Incidents that are contived to arouse terror, suspense, and shock.

Usually, the situaions are brought to the verge of a disaster that does not take place, and the plot is solved arbitrarily, or by coincidence.

Everything is done to create action, surprise, or fright.

Many modern plays contain melodramatic elements that are not recognized for what they are except under analysis.

These are the plays that have:

trite characters

a great deal of unmotivated thrill-action

and plots that are imposed unrealistically on thin themes.

Charles Northrup
Phone: (561) 649-0041
4610 Happy Landings North
West Palm Beach, FL 33415