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Theory of Spectatorship

Key Terms: Glossary

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act:  the primary division of the action of a play. A play can consist of a single act or comprise two, three, four, or five acts; ten-act plays are not uncommon in India. Also, to represent or perform an action onstage.

action:  what happens in the story line of a play; a plot consists of events that create the play's action.

acto:  Spanish term for an act of a play; in contemporary American theater, it is usually a short satiric play on social issues important to Chicanos.

afterpiece:  a short entertainment, usually a song or dance, performed at the conclusion of a play.

agitprop:  short for "agitation-propaganda," a form of drama that incites the emotions ("agitation") and then teaches social and political lessons to encourage the audience to engage in a particular political action. Clifford Odets's play Waiting for Lefty and the actos of Luis Valdez are agitprop.

agon:  Greek term for "debate" or "contest;" both tragedies and comedies had formal agons in which the central idea of the drama was debated.

alienation effect:  from the German term Verfremdungseffekt (from the verb verfremden, "to make strange"), this was Brecht's technique for making the audience stand back and objectively observe the action of a play so that it might judge its social issues. Elements such as songs, political speeches, signboards, storytellers, and direct address "alienate" the audience from the action of the play.

allegory:  a play in which symbolic fictional characters portray truths or generalizations about human existence; medieval morality plays were allegories, as is Dickens's famous story A Christmas Carol.

alternative theater:  from the German term Verfremdungseffekt (from the verb verfremden, "to make strange"), this was Brecht's technique for making the audience stand back and objectively observe the action of a play so that it might judge its social issues. Elements such as songs, political speeches, signboards, storytellers, and direct address "alienate" the audience from the action of the play.

ananke-:  Greek term for "necessity" or "that which has to be;" ananke was the force in the universe that kept "the natural order of things."

antagonist:  the character who opposes the protagonist, or central character of a play; for example, Iago in Othello.

antimasque:  grotesque parodies of masques, usually involving monstrous figures.

antistrophe:  one of the three principal divisions of a Greek play; it means "counterturn" (see strophe). Aoi-no-ue play: the "ghost play" in Noh drama in which a vengeful spirit returns to torment a wrongdoer.

apron:  the part of the stage closest to the audience and in front of the proscenium. In theaters without a proscenium (such as the Elizabethan theater), virtually the entire stage becomes an apron stage (sometimes called a thrust stage). In some historical periods, such as the Restoration, all acting took place on the apron.

archetypal character:  a recurring figure who transcends the particulars of time and place to take on a symbolic value with universal appeal; a primary example. For example, Prometheus is the archetype of the human who takes on suffering for the greater good.

archon:  a wealthy Greek citizen who provided the financial backing for the drama festivals; the forerunner of the contemporary producer.

arena theater:  theater configuration in which the audience sits on all sides of the stage; sometimes referred to as "theater in the round."

areítos:  pre-Columbian ritual dramas using song, dance, mime, and the spoken word that were performed in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other parts of the Caribbean; they represent some of the first performances recorded by Europeans in the New World.

aragoto:  the "rough" or masculine style of Kabuki performance, usually adopted in samurai and other military roles.

aside:   a performance convention in which a character speaks directly to the audience while the other characters do not hear him or her.

atmosphere:  the mood of a play created by scenery, lighting, sound, movement, and other effects.

Atsu-mori play:  "warrior play" in Noh drama in which a military man disguises himself as a priest to repent a life of violence.

autos sacramentales:  religious dramas performed in Spain during the Middle Ages; in the Renaissance they became secularized, but retained their allegorical nature. Also known simply as autos.

avant-garde:  an intelligentsia that develops new or experimental forms, especially in the arts.


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bailetes:  dance musicals in the Spanish-language theater.

ballad opera:  genre in which popular songs and ballads are inserted into the action to advance plot, character, or theme. John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1727) is the prototype of the genre, which gradually evolved into musical theater.

beat:  the smallest motivational unit of a playscript; it may be only a phrase or sentence in which a character manifests a particular need that must be fulfilled (see also unit).

benevolence:  a philosophic belief in the innate goodness of humanity and the corresponding belief that humans have an obligation to use their natural instincts of love and charity; benevolence (or "sensibility") is particularly prominent in sentimental comedies, domestic tragedies, and many melodramas.

bill:  the list and order of acts in a vaudeville show; also, the order of acts in a theatrical presentation.

blank verse:  poetic speech that does not rhyme; it is customarily written in iambic pentameter in English.

blocking:  the movement and positioning of actors on the stage.

bourgeois tragedy:  (also domestic tragedy and le Drame): serious dramas devoted to common people faced with everyday problems.

braggart warrior:  stock character of the Roman theater (and subsequent ages); he was portrayed as a boastful soldier who, in reality, was a coward. The most common Roman name was Miles Gloriosis; Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff is the best-known braggart warrior.

bufo Cubano:  Cuban versions of the minstrel show.

burlesque:  1. a comic parody of a serious work; 2. a theatrical entertainment comprising broadly humorous skits and short turns ("blackouts"), songs, dances, and frequently striptease acts.

business:  actions performed by actors, such as drinking, smoking, comic beatings, and the like.


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cabaret:  variety show, associated with the German theater, in which political skits and songs are performed in a restaurant and/or barroom.

canziones:  Italian word for "song," particularly those placed between acts of Renaissance comedies.

carros:  Spanish pageant wagons.

catharsis:  the emotional cleansing initiated by the tragic experience; for the character it is the recognition and acceptance of his or her error; for the audience, it is the sum total of the pity and fear created by the play.

ceremony:  an action performed formally and meant to sanction a political, social, or religious concept; it usually lacks the deeper significance of a ritual. Examples of a ceremony include a graduation or swearing-in.

character:  1. a person in a play; 2. the personality of such a person; 3. one of the six elements of drama as defined by Aristotle. (See also stock character and archetypal character.)

Children of the Pear Garden:  traditional term for actors in Chinese theater, so named because the Tang emperor Ming Huan established a school for actors in the pear garden of his estate.

ching:  a character role in Chinese opera, usually distingished by a painted face.

ching hsi:  the Peking Opera or, more broadly, Chinese opera.

ch'ou:  a stock character of the Chinese theater; the clown or trickster.

choreography:  the arrangement and movement of performers onstage; though the term cutomarily applies to dancers, it is also used to denote the orchestrated movement of actors, especially in stage combat.

choric speech:  a speech spoken by a group; also, a speech which describes offstage action.

chorus:  a group (usually 1215) of singer-dancers in Greek drama participating in or commenting on the action of the play; in other ages (e.g. the Elizabethan theater) the chorus was a single figure who speaks the prologue and epilogue and comments on the action.

ch'uan-ch'i:  form of classical Chinese drama derived from the southern provinces; forerunner of the Peking Opera.

chu-nori:  ("riding the sky") flying effects in the Kabuki theater.

City Dionysia:  spring festivals held in honor of Dionysus in Greek city-states; one of the highlights of these annual events was the presentation of a series of tragic and comic plays.

Classicism:  dramatic style that emphasizes order, harmony, balance, and the unities of time, place, and action. Characteristically, classical plays use few characters and follow a single line of action. Oedipus the King typifies the classical play.

climax:  the resolution of the protagonist's principal conflict; the climax usually grows out of the crisis and brings about a play's denouement, or falling action.

closet drama:  a play not intended for performance; such plays are usually read within a circle of acquaintances. Some historians believe Seneca's tragedies were closet dramas.

cocoliche:  comic dramas from Argentina dealing with the problems of immigrants.

comedia:  generic Spanish term for a play, both comic and serious.

comedy:  a primary dramatic genre that usually ends happily and treats its subject matter lightly.

comedy of humors:  comic genre that focuses on a single personality flaw of a character; it was based on the medieval belief that human behavior was influenced by bodily fluids (or "humors") and that an imbalance of these fluids led to erratic behavior.

comedy of manners:  comic genre that satirizes the behaviors, fashions, and mores of a given social class or set. Restoration comedies and Molière's Tartuffe typify the comedy of manners. Such plays demand a sophisticated and knowledgeable audience.

comic relief:  humorous scenes inserted in tragic or serious dramas that provide emotional relief from the play's weighty issues; comic relief can, however, also provide an alternate perspective to the serious issues of the play. The gravedigger in Hamlet provides both comic relief and a commentary on death.

commedia dell'arte:  popular improvised comedy performed by street entertainers during the Italian Renaissance; it featured such characters as Harlequin and Pantalone, and relied on physical or "slapstick" comedy (beatings, pratfalls, etc.).

commedia erudita:  "learned" comedy written for court academies in the Italian Renaissance; based on Latin models and observing the classical unities.

concetti:  set comic speeches by actors in the commedia dell'arte; for example, the Capitano's concetti might include boastful descriptions of his military prowess.

conflict:  the opposition of forces. In drama, there are two types of conflict: external conflict occurs when an individual is at odds with another person, society, or nature; internal conflict refers to an individual at odds with himself or herself.

context:  "given circumstances" of a text, including the historical, social, and interpersonal backgrounds of the characters.

cooperative federalism  Federalism in which the powers of the states and the national government are intertwined like the swirls in a marble cake.

convention:  an established technique or device which the audience agrees to accept as "real" in a performance; the "ground rules" under which a particular play will be performed. Examples include asides, soliloquies, the use of mime, and shifting scenery in view of the audience. Conventions change from age to age, from production to production.

corrales:  Spanish term for theaters.

costumbristas:  popular entertainments in Latin America that reflect the manners, dress, music, and dance of the common people.

coup de théâtre:  French for "stroke of theater"; either a sudden sensational turn in a play (e.g., when the screen falls in The School for Scandal) or a spectacular moment that stops the show (e.g., the ascension of Mephistopholes and Grizabella in Cats).

crisis:  that moment in a play at which the protagonist faces the greatest conflict; it is the turning point of the play and precipitates the climax.

curtain line:  1. the point where the curtain falls and meets the stage floor; it usually marks the line between the auditorium and the playing space in realistic theater; 2. a contrived line spoken as the curtain falls to end an act, usually to heighten the dramatic impact of a scene (especially in melodrama).

cyclic plot:  form of plotting especially popular in the modern theater in which the end of a play repeats the opening action, usually to show that there are no resolutions to life's problems and that humans are trapped in their existence.


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dama:  Spanish for "lady," the virtuous heroine of romance dramas.

deconstructionism:  postmodern critical approach that "constructs" new meanings of old texts by subverting (or "deconstructing") them; based on the premise that language is an imprecise instrument that has been manipulated by the traditional Eurocentric worldview. Theater productions, as well as written criticism, can be deconstructionist.

decorum:  Neoclassic belief that characters were required to behave according to expectations based on their social status, sex, age, etc.; sometimes referred to as beinseance ("good sense").

denouement (falling action):  the final outcome of the dramatic action in which the fate of the characters is determined, harmony is restored, and destinies are settled; it follows the climax.

deus ex machina:  literally, "the god from the machine," a reference to the practice of lowering a god onto the stage in the ancient Greek and Roman theaters; as a literary term it refers to a character that is introduced late in the play to provide a contrived solution to an apparently insolvable problem. See the ending of Tartuffe for an example.

deuteragonist(s):  secondary character(s) in a play.

dialogue:  the exchange of speeches by two or more characters in a play. Also, a generic term referring to the words in a script.

diction:  one of the six Aristotelian elements of the drama; it deals with the language of a play and the manner in which characters speak; as an acting term it refers to the clarity with which an actor speaks.

didactic theater:  propagandist theater whose primary aim is to instruct or teach. Most medieval religious plays were didactic in that they instructed audiences about the Bible or morality. Most modern didactic theater, such as Brecht's, is political.

Diderot's paradox:  the ability of an actor to exhibit extreme emotion while maintaining an inner control that allows for the successful artistic creation of the emotion; named for the eighteenth-century French philosopher and playwright, Denis Diderot.

didaskolos:  in the Greek theater, the "teacher" of the chorus; the forerunner of the modern choreographer and choral director.

dike-:  Greek term for "the natural order of things."

Dionysia:  communal celebrations in ancient Greece held in honor of the god Dionysus; a three-day theatrical competition was a central event in the Dionysia.

Dionysus (Roman, Bacchus):  Greek god of wine and-by extension-creativity, passion, and irrational behavior.

diorama:  a scenic representation in which sculptured figures and miniatures are displayed against a painted background; the effect suggests a realistic panorama.

director:  the theatrical artist most responsible for coordinating the work of the actors, designers, and technicians as they interpret the work of the playwright.

directorial concept:  the director's interpretation of the play and the means by which he or she achieves it.

disengaño:  Spanish term meaning "disillusionment," that is, the act of removing all illusions about the world; theater and drama was a means of achieving disengaño.

dithyramb:  hymns sung in honor of Dionysus in ancient Greece; according to Aristotle, these hymns gradually developed into plays.

downstage line:  performance mode in which the actors stand in a semicircle on the forestage and deliver their lines; the style was popular in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

drama:  a composition in verse or prose that portrays the actions of characters in conflict; the literary form of a play; a series of events involving intense conflict.

dramatis personae:  a list of characters appearing in a play; the Latin term for "persons of the drama." Characters may be listed by order of importance to the play, order of appearance, or (as in the Renaissance) in hierarchical order.

dramaturgy:  the art of writing and crafting plays.

drao:  a Greek word meaning "to act" or "to do;" drama derives from this term.

duke's seat:  the ideal seat in a court theater from which the ranking official could view the action (and especially the scenic perspective) from a perfect vantage point.


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