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Produced by National Arts Centre Théâtre français
© BNF Gallica
Pantalone, one of the Commedia Dell'Arte characters, print by Maurice Sand, 1862.

Theatre Genres


Comedy has no precise definition and its boundaries are broad. Generally it is a play about ordinary people, written in a style that is amusing, or at least agreeable, and has a happy ending. Comedy was born in Athens, shortly after tragedy. At first it ridiculed the city’s celebrities, but then evolved to deal with human relations in a gently mocking, often comic manner: conflicts between parents and children, between slaves and masters. This type of comedy spread to the cities of ancient Greece, then to ancient Rome, before it disappeared when the Roman Empire collapsed. The Middle Ages saw the beginning of farce: short plays for common people with physical humour which usually revolved around one character trying to deceive another. Renaissance artists rediscovered Greek and Roman comedy, added characteristics of the farce, and created the beginnings of comedy as we know it today. Two major factors quickly influenced it for the better: first, the commedia dell’arte developed plots and defined archetypal characters; then Molière built comedy around a structured plot, emphasizing laughter (not always kindly) and, most importantly, using the characters’ psychological shortcomings as the main source of comedy.

On comedy:

  • La Comédie by P. Voltz, Armand Colin.


Tragedy was born in the sixth century BC, when the Athenians invented theatre. A tragedy is a play that recounts the ordeals and death of a person of high rank (a king, a great general, a mythological hero) who confronts a situation from which there is absolutely no escape, often because he or she has made some serious transgression. These situations go beyond personal suffering and often involve the fate of an entire people: for instance, unless Oedipus finds the person who murdered the king who preceded him, the gods will allow the plague to decimate the people of Thebes. The great Greek writers of tragedy, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, wrote plays that are still being produced. In England in Shakespeare’s time, and in France in the age of Corneille and Racine, playwrights adapted the concept of tragedy to their own cultures. Though very few tragedies are written today, the idea of the tragic – this feeling of foreboding when a hero has no escape and we are forced to recognize the powerlessness inherent in the human condition – still serves as a driving force for many playwrights and directors.

On tragedy:

  • Lire la tragédie by Alain Couprie, Dunod.*
© Jean-François Léger
Pier Dufour in Ilô by Louis Ayotte and Pier Dufour, shows for adults by Kobol Marionnettes, 2003.

Title: Îlo

Playwrights: Louis Ayotte and Pier Dufour

Production: Kobol Marionnettes, 2003

Director: Marcelle Hudon

Marionettes created by: Mathieu René.


Drama was born in the mid-eighteenth century and portrays the trials of ordinary people. It differs from tragedy in several respects. Its characters are not of high rank; their predicament is not inescapable; their actions will not jeopardize the future of a state or a people; and the outcome is not necessarily death. Drama portrays characters whose desires come into conflict with powerful forces like the past and social conventions (Ibsen), the psyche (Strindberg) or a society’s economic, social, and political fabric (Bertholt Brecht). Since Samuel Beckett, traditional drama has lost popularity as contemporary theatre places less emphasis on the plot.

On drama:

  • Théorie du drame moderne by Pierre Szondi, L’Âge d’homme.

Theatre takes different forms, some of which are independent disciplines.

In puppetry, which was used in Oriental theatre before it appeared in Europe, performers use stringed puppets, hand puppets and stick or rod puppets. Shadow theatre is similar to puppetry, using rigid or jointed shapes to project shadows on a screen to tell a story. The theatre of objects gives life to the inanimate; the object becomes a leading character.

Commedia dell’arte was born in 14th century Italy. Using a fairly detailed plot, performers improvise lines and use stylized gestures. Each actor interprets a comic character identified by a mask (Harlequin, Pantaloon, and the others) that immediately conveys his or her character’s disposition.

Mime, physical theatre and theatre of images all use the body’s great potential for expression. Actors working in these disciplines rely on pose, gesture, posture, facial expression or dance to breathe life into a character.

Theatre for young audiences offers plays written specifically for audiences of children or adolescents. The issues discussed concern these audiences directly. These shows often use other techniques like puppetry. In Québec, most of the companies playing to young audiences rehearse longer than conventional theatres, and often display considerable imagination.

Invisible theatre, invented by the Brazilian Augusto Boal, is improvised by actors in a public space with the intention of alerting spectators to a particular social problem. Those who happen to witness the scene might think they are seeing a real incident!

Other art forms include a large theatrical component.

Performance art appeared in the 1960s and was initiated by visual artists. Whereas a rehearsed, simulated performance takes place in a theatre, performance art invites the audience to watch a real action unfold that may combine several arts: theatre, dance and video. In performance art a play is performed several times and is always unique.

The classic or traditional circus is often a travelling troupe with a ringmaster, clowns, acrobats and animals. It usually performs in a ring or rings within a circular structure. The modern circus, which is often a departure from the animals and sequins of the traditional circus, draws inspiration from different types of theatre and other artistic disciplines.

Opera, musical theatre and musical comedy rely above all on music and voice. Opera, a classical art originating in Italy early in the 16th century, takes great stories, often culled from the world’s dramatic literature, and sets them to music. In musical theatre, the score comes first: the actors’ and musicians’ performances, the situations and the images all arise out of it. Musical comedy, popularised by American films of the 1930s, builds a plot around songs and dance numbers.

Variety spectaculars have one unbreakable rule: the numbers performed take a wide variety of artistic forms. On a single stage (often a very large one), artists dance, sing, do acrobatics and sometimes add special effects. Many extras and some animals contribute to the show.

Related resources

On puppetry:

  • Les marionnettes by P. Fournel (dir.), Bordas.

On shadow theatre:

  • Théâtres d’ombres : tradition et modernité, Collectif, L’Harmattan.

On the theatre of objects:

  • L’Objet théâtral  by Anne Ubersfeld, CNDP.

On commedia dell’arte:

  • La Commedia dell’arte by Pierre-Louis Ducharte, Éditions d’Art et d’Industrie.

On mime, physical theatre and theatre of images:

  • L’Expression corporelle du comédien by Jan Doat, Librairie théâtrale.

On theatre for young audiences:

  • Apprivoiser le théâtre by Hélène Beauchamp, Logiques.

On the circus:

  • Le cirque, du théâtre équestre aux arts de la piste by Pascal Jacob, Larousse.

On opera:

  • Histoire de l’opéra by Richard Somerset-Ward, Éditions de la Martinière.

On invisible theatre:

  • Jeux pour acteurs et non-acteurs by Augusto Boal, la Découverte.

On performance art:

  • Performances : l’art en action by RoseLee Goldberg, Thames and Hudson.

* All reference books are in French. English references still to come. Please write to us with appripriate English suggestions.