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Play (Theatre)

A play is a form of writing for theatre. It is divided into acts and scenes. 

Plays are made up of many of the same components as novels, novellas, and even narrative poems. However, they are told through the actions and dialogues of characters more than they are passages of description. Writers convey their intentions primarily through the way characters interact and what they say to one another. Sometimes, the audience is asked to participate in certain parts of a play. Other times, the actors move through the crowd or use what is known as dramatic irony in order to let the audience know something the other characters do not.

Play pronunciation: pl-aye

Play Definition


Definition and Explanation of Play 

Plays use dramatic elements to create stories that enhance an audience’s understanding of a topic or situation. They are a powerful way of storytelling that requires the audience to react to the plot, setting, characters, conflict, and resolution in a genuine, immediate way. Writers make plays lifeline and thought-provoking. Their dialogue must be convincing and relatable while also interesting and engaging. Playwrights often work to build dramatic tension throughout their storyline so that when the climax comes, it’s quite exciting, and everyone is involved. 


Why Do Writers Write Plays? 

Plays are a way for writers to confront subject matter in front of a live audience. They enable writers to create situations that the audience reacts to as they’re happening. This often leads to increased emotional response and even audience participation. Rather than reading the description of someone feeling sorrow, the audience can see them experiencing it in front of them. Live performance allows characters to feel alive in a way that novels and poetry does not. 


Examples of Plays 

The Tempest by William Shakespeare 

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s best-known poems, written sometime between 1610 and 1611. The majority of the story takes place on an island with only a few key characters. There’s Miranda, her father Prospero, Caliban, a monster-like/savage figure, and Ariel, a spirit. The play uses music and song and taps into themes of betrayal, magic, and revenge. It contains tragic and comedic features but was listed in the First Folio as a comedy. Some interpret the play as a fable in which Shakespeare plays a part, as Prospero. Parallels have been drawn between Prospero’s renunciation of magic and Shakespeare’s withdrawal from the stage. 


Oedipus Rex by Sophocles 

Oedipus Rex is a tragedy that recounts the story of Oedipus, the king of Thebes. He falls into fulfilling a prophecy that he tries to avoid by murdering his father and marrying his mother. In the end, he blinds himself. The play is meant to highlight the importance of fate and how one cannot avoid what the world has in store for them. 


A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry 

A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959 and followed a black family in South Chicago as they try to improve their lives. The father dies, leaving the family with an insurance payout. Some of the money goes to a new house in a white neighborhood while the rest of the money is invested in Beneatha’s education. Unfortunately, things don’t turn out as well as they could’ve. The New York Drama Critics’ Circle named the play as the best of 1959. 


Elements of Plays 

  • Plot: the order of events in the story. 
  • Setting: where and when the play takes place. 
  • Characters: the people on stage, acting out the storyline. 
  • Dialogue: the way of communication between the characters in the play. 
  • Conflict: a challenge the characters have to solve in order to achieve their goals or make their lives better. 
  • Resolution: how the story ends.


Types of Plays 

  • Tragedy: dark, sorrowful, and dramatic. Tragedies are usually based around human suffering, disaster, and death. They usually end traumatically for most characters involved. Sometimes there is a traditional tragic hero. Ex. Romeo and Juliet 
  • Comedy: light in tone, intended to make the audience laugh. They usually have a happy ending with offbeat characters doing absurd things. Comedy might be sarcastic, fantastical, or sentimental. Farce is a sub-genre of comedy. Ex. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 
  • History: focuses on actual historical events. Can have elements of both tragedies and comedies. They were popularized by William Shakespeare. Ex. King John. 
  • Tragicomedy: contains elements of both comedies and tragedies. The play might be series, with some comedic moments and a happy ending. 
  • Melodrama: emotions are more important than details in melodramas. 


Origins of Theatre 

The root of western theatre is in Athens, Greece, where the word “theatre” comes from. Theatre as part of a broader practice that included festivals, politics, and religious rituals. It was an important part of a Greek citizen’s life to attend theatrical productions. It often involved the evaluation of orators and included tragedies, comedies, and the “satyr play,” a type of tragicomedy. The tradition of theatre expanded under the Roman Empire, where Etruscan actors first performed in the 4th century B.C. 

When Rome encountered Greek drama, it became popular within the Empire. Important works were created throughout this period, although many are lost. In the Early Middle Ages, church sin Euprpe staged dramatized versions of biblical events, developing into morality plays in the 1400s. (For example, Everyman.)


Play Synonyms 

Drama, dramatic performance, theatre performance, live performance, theatrical, stage show


Related Literary Terms 

  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
  • Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.
  • Dialogue: a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.
  • Narrative Poem: contain all the elements of a story and are normally longer than average.
  • Prologue: the opening to a story that comes before the first page or chapter.
  • Tragedy: a type of drama that explores serious, sometimes dark, and depressing subject matter.
  • Satire/Satirical Comedy: used to analyze behaviours to make fun of, criticize, or chastise them in a humorous way.


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