Theatre vs Drama: What's the difference?

Ivor Houlker
Tuesday, 14 April 2020
"Theatre and drama seem so closely related [...] that despite all radical transformations of theatre, the concept of drama has survived as the latent normative idea of theatre"

A lot of the time we tend to call what we are doing 'theatre' without thinking much about it. At the same time, most of the people looking for what we are doing on google call what we are doing 'drama,' presumably without thinking much about it either. The distinction is not one that's generally discussed much in the Hong Kong theatre field, so it's worth doing a little bit of clarification here to make sure we're all on the same page.

What is drama?

When talking about the ancient Greek theatre, the origin of the word 'drama,' it simply referred to action - (δρᾶμα, drama), which is derived from "I do" (δράω, drao). Not the text, not the story, just the stuff that was done. The word wasn't used in English to describe anything theatre-related until after Shakespeare's time, and its use to describe a genre of play is even more modern. Its rise in usage coincides with its application as a genre to radio and television programmes.

If you google 'drama,' you're likely to find one of the top hits is Korean Dramas (or maybe I only get this due to their popularity on Hong Kong). Gradually the main popular use for the word has become almost synonymous with television soap operas, which are characterised by

"an emphasis on family life, personal relationships, sexual dramas, emotional and moral conflicts; some coverage of topical issues; set in familiar domestic interiors with only occasional excursions into new locations."

In spite of this genre name being only one of the possible meanings, it leads to a lack of clarity around the term. If someone tells me they do 'drama' I am more likely to picture them doing something embarrassing on TVB than I am to think they make contemporary theatre.

From an academic perspective, a good argument about the use of the term 'drama' comes from Peter Szondi, for whom drama is associated with a specific literary-historical event, the drama as it arose in Elizabethan England and through the German classical period. For Szondi, this 'absolute drama' was characterised by:

  • The dominance of dialogue
  • The exclusion of anything external to the dramatic world (such as the audience)
  • The unfolding of time as a linear sequence in the present
  • The adherence to the three unities of time, place and action

Szondi saw twentieth century drama (Piscator, Brecht, Bruckner, Pirandello, O'Niell, Wilder and Miller) as an attempt to escape from this to some extent, while still adhering to the dramatic form, singling out Brecht in particular for breaking with the tradition by introducing epic theatre. However, in more modern academic work by Hans-Thies Lehmann, Brecht's innovations are still considered part of the dramatic tradition. For Lehmann, Brecht's innovations seemed to so impress Szondi and Barthes that they prevented them from realising the full possibilities of theatre beyond drama, of which Brecht's epic theatre only represents only one small piece. For Lehmann, Szondi is still not able to imagine theatre without drama:

"without the representation of a closed-off fictional cosmos, the mimetic staging of a fable."

Lehmann treats theatre as its performance, and not as its literature, which enables him to show how theatre and drama have become separated in today's theatre. He identifies this theatre as postdramatic - we'll come back to this after we look at the definition of theatre.

What is theatre?

Theatre is another word derived from Ancient Greek, which comes from θέατρον (théatron, “a place for viewing”), from θεάομαι (theáomai, “to see", "to watch", "to observe”). It could mean the seating area, but also the people who were sitting in it. In English it acquired the meaning “building where plays are shown” in the 1570s, while its more general use in the sense of “plays, writing, production, performance on stage, the art of theatre” dates from the 1660s.

Theatre vs. Theatre, Theatre vs. Drama... what is theatre?
Theatre vs. Theatre, Theatre vs. Drama... what is theatre?

Theatre vs. Theater

In American English, there has been a more recent attempt to distinguish between these two meanings by designating 'theater' to mean the building, and 'theatre' to mean the art. Outside the US, this seems like a fairly pointless distinction, but it appears to lead to heated arguments and a large volume of search traffic for people trying to work out the difference between the two spellings. Since most of the world gets along fine without a second spelling, and since they're identical in speech anyway, context is probably more important than spelling.

Theatre nowadays can be used to describe any form of performance that takes place before an audience. It doesn’t even have to take place in a ‘theatre’ (or 'theater') building - it describes a situation in which one or more people are watching one or more people. If we follow Peter Brook in The Empty Space:

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."

The openness of this definition is what makes theatre preferable to drama, to us and to many other modern companies and universities, when talking about our field of work. Theatre includes more modern types of performance which might not come under the more limited definition of ‘drama’ or carry its specific connotations (like the TVB example...). Theatre does not have to be drama, and many theatrical works influenced by postmodernism reject or at least do not focus on elements of drama in their performance. To understand this further we'll have a look at what Hans-Thies Lehmann describes as post-dramatic and pre-dramatic.

When is theatre not drama?

"Classical drama offers just one possibility for the theatre. It does not appear this way only from the perspective of contemporary postdramatic theatre. Through considerations of ancient theatre confirmed and enriched along postdramatic lines, drama also appears as predramatic or as a-dramatic theatre [...] As a form of theatre, drama simultaneously stands in conflict with the theatre, in which alone it exists."

In Postdramatic Theatre, and also in Tragedy and Dramatic Theatre Lehmann considers various forms of theatre that are not drama. In Postdramatic Theatre he includes examples such as Tadeusz Kantor, The Wooster Group, and Forced Entertainment as examples of the postdramatic, while in Tragedy and Dramatic Theatre he argues for discussion of the Ancient Greek tragedy as a pre-dramatic form; that it is better approached without the preconceptions of drama attached to it. While the dialogical-dramatic form gradually grew out of it, it was not central to the original form.

Should I tell the Drama Department?

Well, in Goldsmiths (University of London) at least, what was previously the Drama Department is now the Theatre and Performance Department. I think it's a good choice, because it shows that the people in charge have a good idea of the lively discussion around what theatre and drama actually mean, are inclined towards the most contemporary interpretation. It's likely that if a drama department is still content to call themselves that, then they might benefit from being introduced to Lehmann's work.

However I would advise against going up to tell them that they're wrong. After all, it may be the case that their focus really is only drama, and that this specific part of theatre is the only thing they are capable of teaching. Or perhaps they know and just don't want to have to pay to change the signs.


I hope this goes some way towards explaining why we don't call ourselves or our courses 'drama' even though it would probably do very well with search engines. It's not that we don't do anything that could be called 'drama' - we obviously do, and we include it in our teaching as well since it's still a very significant part of theatre. However, we are trying to create new and original work, so we find that drama is too limiting a definition for what we are exploring these days. 'Theatre' gives us more freedom to do weird stuff.