Genre is a set of traits, rules or structural conventions that determine how a play can or must unfold. Genre has come into being, we believe, because such sets of traits, rules and structural conventions started to repeat and form patterns over time. We can say that a play is a tragedy because it looks like other plays that are tragedies, but the collective term ‘tragedy’ for a certain type of play may be a description that came after the plays, not before them.
In any case, it must have been a long and gradual evolution, even before tragedy and comedy and some other genres start appearing in the historical records of Ancient Greece.
Let’s look at this (somewhat simplified) account of how genres might have come to exist in the first place, before we move on.
Theatre, as in performing something in front of someone, has roots that go back even to before the classical world, to continents beyond Europe. It comes from communal, religious and secular rituals, and its purposes were spiritual, didactic and may have involved some form of societal cleansing. Society – the tribe, the village, the polis (or city) – was to learn something from these dramatic rituals. What makes us focus on the Ancient Greek world is that this is when theatrical texts started to be written down, and many of these texts – these plays – survive to this day, complete or in fragments (though the majority of the plays written then are lost for ever). Moreover, philosophers and others applied a meta-perspective to the theatre and started to describe it from the outside, and some of these descriptions survive too. These descriptions include Aristotle’s account of the rules of genre.
What we need to understand is that the ‘rules’ of genre aren’t really rules, but rather elements of theme and story we expect to see in certain types of play. To reiterate what was stated in the video, there are historical reasons for this – and in different places, and in different points in time, people have had changing ideas about how closely the rules should be adhered to.
Since our ideas about genre come out of Ancient Greece, the ostensible cradle of western civilisation, many have thought that we must copy their behaviours exactly, because they knew what they were doing. In such a view, the past (a golden age) is always better than the present, and ought to be imitated. This is the conservative view.
For more progressive theatre practitioners, genre is mere suggestion. It is something from which you can pick and mix, or perhaps use it to defy expectation. Begin a play as if it were a comedy, but end it in tragedy and you have Romeo and Juliet, for example.
In what follows we will look at the history of genre in order to investigate why it has become what it is.
Next: Ancient Greece