Drama, like poetry and fiction, is an art of words. In drama, the words are mainly dialogue: people talking are the basic dramatic action. The talk may be interrupted by wordless activity sword-fighting, love scenes, silence but such activity will derive its significance from its script or context of dialogue.
If not, we are dealing with pantomime and not with drama. In general theory, however, the line between drama and the related arts is not so easy to draw. Film is even less literary than theater, and yet film scripts have been published to be read. At what point of verbal artistry do they cease being scenario and production notes and become drama? Conversely, to what extent is the concept of drama covered by Pirandello’s “three boards and a passion” as a formula for theater?
Such questions are posed by the double aspect of dramatic language. As written words, drama is literature; as spoken words in a spectacle, it is theater. Dialogue can be performed directly, intact, but stage directions, however skillfully written, do not Dramacool survive the transfer from script to stage.
Their referents in performance speech manner, movement, costume, drama masks set, etc. – are creations of the theater rather than of literature. The fact that successful playwrights make more money in the box office than in the bookstores is evidence that for most people the theatrical medium of drama masks and film acting takes precedence over the literary one and that they find reading a play a pallid substitute for seeing it.
As stage spectacle a play is intensely there a three-dimensional and audible progress of coherent, absorbing, physical action. ‘While words are consecutive and reading is an act in the time dimension, seeing a play is an experience of both time and space.
At any one moment the spectator may be simultaneously aware of weather or time of day or of rich or shabby furniture, or of one character speaking, another listening, and someone crawling noiselessly toward the speaker with a knife between his teeth. The spatial concreteness and immediacy of staged drama enlist the attention of a larger set of the spectator’s sensory responses, and do so more intensely, than the purely imaginative evocations of printed play ever can.
Still, the popular assumption that the theatrical medium of drama is primary may be challenged. Performance is no more the play than the concert is the symphony. Most plays, like symphonies have been written to be performed, but the artistic construct exists complete in the written words, just as the melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, and orchestration of the symphony “are” in the printed score. The only difference between a printed play and a printed musical composition in this respect is that for most of us it is easier to “see” and “hear” a play in the imagination than it is to “hear” the music in the read score.