What Characteristics Distinguish Modern Drama From Traditional Drama? (2023)

What Characteristics Distinguish Modern Drama From Traditional Drama? (1)

The modern drama is characterized by its unique subject matter — from the romanticization of the folks living in poverty to a more strict, grounded depiction of life — as well as its particular use of symbols, imagery, and metaphors. Although modern drama has evolved over time, its aim of using theater to challenge and experiment upon social norms remained constant.

But what characteristics distinguish a modern drama from a traditional drama?

Traditional Drama:

  • Often dealt with supernatural concepts such as fate and the role of the gods/God in human affairs.
  • Characters were often noble, royal, or somehow exalted in position.
  • Was very structured and ended with a clear plot resolution.
  • Lofty speech, such as verse or poetry, is often incorporated in dialogue.

Modern Drama:

  • Often focuses on relatable problems and social issues.
  • Characters are usually average, everyday people.
  • Doesn’t always confine itself to a clear structure and may end without a resolution.
  • Features natural, realistic dialogue.

Beginning of Modern Drama

While modern drama is sometimes referred to as “20th-century drama,” many argue that it actually began in the late 19th century with playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen is often referred to as the “father of modern drama,” as the 1879 debut of his play A Doll’s House marks the beginning of the modern theater movement for many scholars. In general, modern drama tends to refer to plays written from the late 1800s to the present day.

What Characteristics Distinguish Modern Drama From Traditional Drama? (2)

A Doll’s House was particularly revolutionary because it broke from traditional theatrical forms at a time when both American and European audiences were desperate for something new. Throughout the previous century, the theater had reached a low point in the Western world — fiction and poetry, on the other hand, flourished.

Between the mid-1700s and mid-1800s, literature soared to new heights thanks to landmark works by novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Meanwhile, the field of poetry was awash with new talents like Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Keats and the at-the-time-unpublished Emily Dickinson. Yet, for the most part, the world of theater was fairly stale.

The fact that Ibsen came from Norway, a country that didn’t have much of a theatrical history of its own, may have initially appeared to be his greatest weakness. But, as it turned out, it may have ended up being his greatest strength. That is, Ibsen more or less developed his own ideas about what drama should be, and, consequently, appealed to the rising demand for intellectual theater. The younger generation, in particular, lauded Ibsen’s work since they were fed up with the injustices of traditional society and eager for more scientific and philosophical views of humanity.

Modern drama caught on quickly as its popularity spread throughout both Europe and America. Soon enough, myriad works began appearing — and many of them revolutionized each of the five elements of drama, which include:


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What Characteristics Distinguish Modern Drama From Traditional Drama? (3)

Thought, Theme, and Ideas:

Theater at large got much more down-to-earth as modern drama became the norm. Rather than provide mere entertainment or repeat so-called time-honored lessons of morality, plays began to take more incisive, critical looks at the state of the wold. Playwrights began delving into themes and topics such as:

  • Politics
  • Social ills and reform
  • Women’s rights
  • Class relations
  • Race relations
  • Effects of industrialization
  • Familial relationships
  • Anxiety, depression and mental health
  • The “American Dream”
  • The effects of war

Action and Plot:

Traditional theater tended to fall under a few different categories — tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and so on. Moreover, the structure of each genre was pretty rigid. Since the times of Aristotle, many plays followed the classic dramatic structure: conflict, rising action, turning point, falling action, and resolution.

While some modern plays follow a similar structure, things aren’t always so clear-cut. Modern plays don’t always guarantee a clear resolution, in order to inspire the audience to think for themselves and form their own opinions on what they’ve just seen. Additionally, some forms of modern absurdist theater — works that could fall into the movement of Dadaism, for example — focused on creativity and innovation, regardless of traditional plot structure.


One of the more revolutionary aspects of modern drama in its early days was that it featured characters who would not have been considered important enough to carry a traditional drama. A Doll’s House revolves around an ordinary housewife named Nora; Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is about a traveling salesman and his family; and Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof centers on a man with alcoholism.


The majority of modern plays use very realistic, natural language. There are exceptions, however, especially among absurdist forms of modern theater. Bertold Brecht, for instance, was a fan of epic theater, which was based on Greek poetry. Samual Beckett, on the other hand, favored theater of the absurd, where the characters sometimes spoke “nonsense talk” as a way to express existential angst. But, in most cases, modern theater that doesn’t fall into those categories uses rather colloquial language that reflects its subjects.


In most of the earliest forms of classical drama, music was an important part of many performances. Lines were alternately spoken, chanted, or sung by a chorus. Music is used in a variety of different ways in modern drama, depending on the style. Musical theater has become a genre in its own right, while other modern dramatic pieces either don’t use music at all or use it sparingly, such as to indicate intermission.

Famous Modern Plays

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw: While Pygmalion is the often hilarious story of a professor who attempts to transform a Cockney flower seller into a duchess, it has some pretty deep social undertones. Shaw shamelessly spotlights the issues arising from the British class system and advocates for women’s rights.

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What Characteristics Distinguish Modern Drama From Traditional Drama? (4)

Long Day’s Journey into Night by Edward O’Neil: This Pulitzer award-winning play is an autobiographical piece in which O’Neil chronicles a day in the life of an American family. It touches on themes ranging from addiction and isolation to the all too real realities of loneliness and emotion.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard: Revolving around two briefly mentioned characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this one is a great example of absurdism at its finest. The dialogue can be purposely hard to follow and often seems to come completely out of left field. This is intended to be symbolic of how hard it is to actually convey meaning through communication. At times hilarious, at others tragic, the play constantly forces the audiences to attempt to separate illusion from reality.

Fences by August Wilson: Set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, Fences follows a Black man named Troy Maxon and his unstable relationship with this family, especially his son, Cory. The play provides the audience with a realistic snapshot of America during the middle of the 20th century and interrogates racism, love, and responsibility.

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What Is Modern Drama in Literature?

Much like staged, dramatic works, novels and poetry collections written during this time leaned into modernist elements. Not only do examples of modernist literature address social tensions, mental illness, the impacts of war and poverty, and other subjects that impacted everyday readers, but writers of these works experimented with style, too.


What Characteristics Distinguish Modern Drama From Traditional Drama? (5)

From playing with different points of view and harnessing colloquial dialogue to playing with time and structure, these works challenged the limits of what could be done in writing. A few examples include:

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: Published in the wake of World War I and the 1918 Pandemic, Woolf’s novel takes an honest look at the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a fictional high-society woman. Set over the course of a day, Mrs. Dalloway details Clarissa’s attempts to prepare for a party, but becomes so much more than that. Featuring a finely drawn interior perspective; a point of view that flits in and out of other characters’ minds; and time jumps, Woolf’s novel is considered one of the greatest English-language novels ever written.

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot: Considered one of the most important poems of the 20th century, The Waste Land is a 434-line poem that fuses well-trodden stories, such as the legend of the Holy Grail and the Fish King, with vignettes set in then-contemporary society. In addition to alluding to many classical works, the poem leans into satire; features abrupt changes in terms of who’s speaking and setting; and is divided into five separate sections.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: This Southern Gothic novel is often considered one of the greatest in 20th-century literature. Taking its title from a translation of the Odyssey, the book is centered around the death of Addie Bundren and her poor, rural family who are attempting to honor her dying wish: to be buried in her hometown. With 15 different narrators, inconsistent chapter lengths, and a stream-of-consciousness writing style, Faulkner captures the best of what modernist literature has to offer here.

Other significant modernist writers, at least in the Western canon, include Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabokov.


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Which characteristics distinguish modern drama from traditional drama? ›

Q. Which trait distinguishes modern drama from traditional drama? The plot of a modern drama does not always follow a strict structure and might end without a clear resolution. While traditional drama usually stuck to a five-act structure, modern drama can vary from three to eight acts.

What are the characteristics of a modern drama? ›

Modern Drama Characteristics
  • Realism. Realism is the most significant and outstanding quality of Modern English Drama. ...
  • Play of Ideas. Modern Drama is essentially a drama of ideas rather than action. ...
  • Romanticism. ...
  • Poetic Plays. ...
  • History and Biographical Plays. ...
  • Irish Movement. ...
  • Comedy of Manners. ...
  • Impressionism.

What is the difference between ancient drama and modern drama? ›

Ancient drama was performed outdoors using natural light while contemporary drama is performed indoors using artificial light.

What is the difference between traditional drama and absurd drama? ›

Without it, a drama can not be called a drama in traditional dramas. Traditional dramas and the Theater of the Absurd have different plots. The difference is that the plot of the Theater of the Absurd is fractured and scattered. Generally speaking, traditional dramas are arranged in time, place or logical order.

Which one of the following characteristics distinguish modern tragedy from traditional tragedy? ›

What is one characteristic that distinguishes modern tragedy from traditional tragedy? the use of the common man rather than royalty or nobility as the main characters.

What is traditional drama? ›

Traditional dramas are the art performances performed in some particular rural areas and have been carried out from generation. So, it depicts the culture and customs of that particular region. Further, also deals with religion, dresses, and traditions followed by major communities.

What are the main characteristics of drama? ›

A drama is a piece of writing, which is artistically presented with dialogues. A drama is attractive, impactful and real as it presents characters along with a natural and credible aspects. It is very similar to a short story as it also comprises characters, plot, setting as well as symbolism.

When did modern drama begin? ›

Modern drama emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unlike earlier forms of drama, it was focused on average people, often chronicling their alienation from modern society.

What is modern theatre? ›

Modern theatre includes performances of plays and musical theatre. The art forms of ballet and opera are also theatre and use many conventions such as acting, costumes and staging. They were influential to the development of musical theatre; see those articles for more information.

What is the difference between ancient Greek Theatre and modern stage? ›

Modern theatre is seen as a religious place whereas Greek theatre was only considered as an art form. Modern theatre is a place for everyday life whereas Greek theatre celebrated festivals and major events. Modern theatre focuses on music while Greek theatre focused on spoken words.

How do serious dramas today compare and contrast with dramas of the past? ›

How do serious dramas today compare and contrast with dramas of the past? Serious dramas today feature heroes who are not highborn and who may have more 5an one flaw. Many of these dramas highlight social issues, in addition to or instead of personal issues. Acting today tends to be realistic, symbolic, or heightened.

What is Indian classical drama and its characteristics? ›

The roots of drama in the Indian subcontinent can be traced back to the Rigveda (1200-1500 BCE), which contains a number of hymns in the form of dialogues, or even scenes, as well as hymns that make use of other literary forms such as animal fables However, Indian drama begins its classical stage in the 3rd-4th century ...

What are 3 characteristics of Theatre of the Absurd? ›

Absence, emptiness, nothingness, and unresolved mysteries are central features of many Absurdist plots. For example, the action in Waiting for Godot centers round the absence of a character Godot who is long awaited.

How is absurd play different from traditional play? ›

Absurdist playwrights, therefore, did away with most of the logical structures of traditional theatre. There is little dramatic action as conventionally understood; however frantically the characters perform, their busyness serves to underscore the fact that nothing happens to change their existence.

Which of the following characters could be found as the hero or heroine in a traditional tragedy? ›

Which of the following characters could be found as the hero or heroine in a traditional tragedy? *Generally, the hero or heroine of a tragedy is an extraordinary person - a king, queen, general, nobleman, etc.

What is the difference between modern and traditional tragedy? ›

Main Difference – Classical vs Modern Tragedy

The main difference between classical and modern tragedy is that classical tragedies have a unified plot with one royal or noble protagonist whereas modern tragedies feature ordinary people with realistic problems.

What are the main features of a traditional tragedy? ›

Characteristics of Traditional Tragedy
  • Tragic heroes and heroines.
  • Tragic circumstances.
  • Tragic irretrievability.
  • Acceptance of responsibility.
  • Tragic verse.

What are the characteristics of classical tragedy? ›

According to Aristotle, tragedy has six main elements, including plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song.

What are the main characteristics of drama? ›

A drama is a piece of writing, which is artistically presented with dialogues. A drama is attractive, impactful and real as it presents characters along with a natural and credible aspects. It is very similar to a short story as it also comprises characters, plot, setting as well as symbolism.

What makes modern drama modern? ›

Though these writers were very different, their work shared characteristics that were representative of a new form of drama known as modern drama. Unlike the earlier drama of Shakespeare and Sophocles, modern drama tended to focus not on kings and heroes, but instead on ordinary people dealing with everyday problems.

What are the characteristics of the 20th century drama? ›

Common themes in the new early 20th century drama were political, reflecting the unease or rebellion of the workers against the state, philosophical, delving into the who and why of human life and existence, and revolutionary, exploring the themes of colonization and loss of territory.

What is modernism in relation to drama? ›

Modernism in the theatre is the act of bringing the stage and the forms of modern life, at one time, to a critical relationship. As stated by Worthen, the modernist period or the modern world we live in today began in the mid-1800s.


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