Rule drama

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The rule drama , also known under the expression doctrine classique (classical doctrine), is a theater standard for the structure of drama , which emerged during the French classical period in the 17th century and continued into the 19th century.

Aristotle and Horace

In the poetics of the philosopher Aristotle , six essential elements of the drama are named: mythos (action), ethos (characters), lexis (speech), diánoia (thought, intention), opsis (look, scenery) and melopoiía (song, music). He also recommends doing without subplots and restricting the time to “a course of the sun”.

The Roman poet and critic Horace also called for the drama to be divided into five acts in his Epistula ad Pisones (v. 189). The choir was a necessary part of the drama for him. These rules were also often adopted in modern times. But his remarks are intended as a polemic against the Roman literature of his time, in which the drama was no longer a high priority. His statements do not apply to many of the classical Attic tragedies .

File division

From the comment of Aelius Donatus (320–380) on the comedies of Terence (approx. 195–158 BC), some Renaissance authors (see Accademia Romana ) concluded that the structure of a drama should obey (although the fragmentary utterances related only to the comedies of this author). Donatus' explanations go beyond Aristotle and Horace and were therefore considered to be a practical guide. This scheme, to be used with caution (it could neither refer to antiquity in general terms nor appear as a norm), can be found in many variants between Martin Opitz and Gustav Freytag .

Classification of the drama according to Gustav Freytag
  1. Exposure (initiation / protase)
    The actors are introduced, the dramatic conflict is announced.
  2. Complication (increase / epitasis)
    Increasing action - with an exciting moment (disaster)
    The situation is getting worse.
  3. Peripetie (reversal of the hero's fortunate circumstances)
    The action reaches its climax ( climax ).
  4. Retardation (slowing down)
    Falling action - with retarding (postponing, holding back, slowing down) moments
    The plot slows down to work towards the impending disaster in a period of utmost tension.
  5. Disaster or Lysis / Dénouement
    a) There is a catastrophe, the actors ( protagonists ) are condemned / condemned (e.g. Hamlet → his death, mass extinction)
    b) All conflicts are resolved, those involved are morally cleansed / purified ( catharsis ) (e.g. Nathan the Wise → everyone is related and happy, mass embrace)

French classic

During the Renaissance and French Classical periods , Horace was made an ancient teacher, for example by Martin Opitz ( Von der Deutschen Poeterey , 1624) and Nicolas Boileau ( L'art poétique , 1674). Other theater theorists and theater critics of the French classical period included Jean Chapelain , Madeleine de Scudéry and François Hédelin .

In the "classical" rule drama (especially by the authors Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine ) roughly the following was considered to be the law:

  • Units of action, place and time (" Three Aristotelian Units ")
  • Imitation (especially of the ancient models)
  • Probability ( vraisemblance )
  • Morality ( bienséance , i.e. anything offensive was not allowed to be shown, only reported)
  • Class clause , uniformity of speech
  • Distribution of persons: three-person rule, law of the chain of persons, prohibition of new persons according to the 1st act

These rules were also well known to the comedy poet Molière . He ironically quotes it in his one-act play The Critique of the School of Women (1663), as a response to critical objections to his comedy The School of Women (1662), and deliberately breaks it in his comedy Tartuffe (1664), in which the protagonist only appears in the third act.

A major break between this drama model and the Aristotelian drama was the choir, which was mostly abandoned outside of opera .


Following on from the classical poetics of rules and norms of the French language, Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700–1766) designed the program of a “reasonable” literature in his attempt at critical poetry before the Germans (1730). The clarity of style, taste and wit, and moral utility were important to him. Gottsched's rules had the character of instructions for the creation of tragedies .

Gottsched wanted to improve the quality of theater life by bringing the admired achievements of French court life closer to the still underdeveloped German-speaking area. He fought for literary drama and against improvised impromptu theater . In the meantime, however, there was already resistance to the “foreign” French influence. In France, too, the laws of the "regular drama" had increasingly wavered since the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes and especially since the death of the Sun King in 1715.

storm and stress

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing had opposed Gottsched and the regular drama in the Hamburg Dramaturgy (1767) and thus received some attention because it was linked to an emancipation of the citizens from the aristocracy and the Germans from the French, which resulted in the idea of ​​the " national theater " expressed. Such attempts at freedom paved the way for the " Sturm und Drang " movement .

In a deliberate departure from the regular drama, Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote his play Götz von Berlichingen (premiered in 1774) in popular prose and dissolved all ties to the units of plot, time and place. - Since Volker Klotz's portrayal ( Closed and Open Form in Drama , 1960), such a play has often been referred to as an “open” drama compared to the “closed” regular drama.

With this, Goethe did what he had already stated in his speech on Shakespeare's Day in 1771, in which he had "renounced" the classical theater, the rules of which he felt constrained in his work. In his opinion, genius can only develop in all its strength and greatness through exemption from these arbitrarily created “regulations” . Goethe sharply criticized the French poets who had adopted the rules of Greek drama.

Goethe disrespectfully describes the French tragedies as “parodies of themselves”, as “similar to each other like shoes”, “boring”. Using Shakespeare as a leading example, he propagated his ideal of poetry that is freely described from within, free of any rules.

Goethe was able to win over both the citizens who were alien to the noble court rules, as well as some German nobles who wanted the German drama to be upgraded compared to the "Frenching" of the drama (especially by Gottsched). In 19th century German nationalism , such statements were often interpreted as anti-French polemics. The rule drama was attacked in a similar way in France at the same time (see Denis Diderot's De la poésie dramatique , 1756).

19th century

The idea of ​​regular drama regained some attraction in the 19th century. By Gustav Freytag art of the drama , the "scheme of the five acts" was even easier (1863).

The appeal of such simplifications was related to commercial drama production in the 18th and 19th centuries. The five-act structure was the most renowned, in drama as well as in opera, and it seemed attractive to be able to prepare such dramas according to a recipe.


  • Hans-Jörg Neuschäfer (Ed.): La pratique du théâtre and other writings on the Doctrine classique , 3 vols., Michigan: Slatkine reprints 2007