Comparison Between Drama & Comedy in Theater

By Nicole Schmoll ; Updated September 15, 2017
Learn about the difference between comedy and drama.

Comedy and drama are historical genres of theater. Both genres formed out of ancient Greek theater more than 2,500 years ago. The genres, or styles, are contrasting and have been carried over to films and television series or shows as comedies, sitcoms and dramas. Learning about the similarities and differences between comedy and drama will help you better appreciate these historic art forms.

Tragedy

Greek tragedy began as an art form around 535 B.C. The first Greek tragedies were based on godlike figures who appeared to have ideal lives, until fate or an enemy changed their circumstances drastically, bringing their idyllic lives to a screeching halt. Hope is maintained throughout the basic tragedy. Somehow the hero will prevail; however, in the end, the hero fails and the play or story ends in tragedy. Plots focus on characters’ reactions to the tragic circumstances that befall them. Struggle, suffering and sadness are common elements of any tragedy. The hero in a tragedy has a character flaw that causes him to err in judgment, leading to his undoing or death.

Drama

In one sense, both comedies and tragedies are dramas because both genres are acted out on stage or on film. Today, drama has come to refer to a genre of play or film, which is serious, somber or sad in nature. Like a tragedy, calamitous circumstances befall the hero of the story. The plot unfolds in the hero’s reaction to these circumstances. Hope is maintained throughout and unlike a tragedy, the hero ekes out some form of triumph in the end, overcoming the circumstances that threatened to destroy the hero at the outset of the drama.

Comedy

Comedy began 50 years after tragedy in ancient Greek theater. Like tragedies, comedies were performed in outdoor theaters. Unlike dramas and tragedies, comedies are lighthearted and not serious. Comedies center around an ordinary character who experiences trouble in life and is thoroughly flawed. Unlike the hero of a tragedy, the hero of a comedy is an all-around flawed human being who, because of the flaws, encounters situations that turn the world upside down and make for outrageous humor. High comedy consists of satire, which criticizes life while low comedy introduces plot devices like mistaken identity and misunderstanding to create humorous situations.

Mixed Form

A fourth category of play called mixed form combines elements from drama and comedy to create an experience in between the classic forms. Heroic drama is a mixed form that features heroic characters in extreme situations that result in happy endings. Melodramas are musical dramas that feature serious circumstances with happy endings. Many television shows are melodramas and feature clearly defined good and evil characters where evil is always overcome by good. Tragicomedies are like melodramas but more complex and with obviously humorous situations mixed in.