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Absurdist Theatre (or Theatre of the Absurd)
Works of the mid-twentieth century apparently dramatizing the idea that human life is absurd and lacks meaning. Influenced by existentialism, such works, in reality, hint at human responsibility in that absurdity, i.e. if life is absurd and meaningless it is so because humans fail to exercise their own reason and independence, to take charge of their own lives and create their own meanings. Instead, characters in absurdist works are often seen caught in meaningless routines and/or hopelessly expecting help from imaginary outside forces, putting their faith in empty beliefs and problematic traditions. Representative authors include Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet.

A verse line consisting of 12 syllables. Common in French dramatic and narrative poetry since the 16th century.

A form of symbolism involving concrete persons, objects, and/or actions meant to represent ideas, concepts, or processes of a more abstract, intangible or spiritual sort. An allegory seeks to create a bridge between the sensory world and metaphysical or intellectual realms. Example: a woman holding a torch is an allegory for the idea of "liberty"

The period of human history from around 3,000 B.C. to the fall of the Roman empire (around 476 A.D.). Antiquity includes the literary works and other contributions of cultures, empires and civilizations like those of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and others. Antiquity was followed by the Middle Ages.

A novel involving the moral, spiritual, intellectual, and/or emotional education of a young hero or heroine. The reader is generally expected to identify with the main character and thus also undergo the educational transformation. (German Bildung: formation, training, education; Roman: novel)

Black Comedy

A literary genre involving the use of morbid, cruel, violent, gory, grotesque and tragic situations for comic purposes -- such works allow audiences to face difficult realities in a somewhat light-hearted way but also convey the author's critical messages against the cruelty and meanness of human beings, including the problem of enjoying such situations as if they were entertainment. As in the case of certain jokes, the laughter of the audience betrays complicity in the problems the author seeks to expose.

Blank Verse
Lines of unrhymed verse, usually iambic pentameter.

Bloomsbury Group
Group of thinkers, artists, and writers, many of whom lived in the residential district of London known as Bloomsbury, near the British Museum; the group began meeting in 1907and became a powerful force in British literary and intellectual life in the 1920's and 1930's; inspired by G. E. Moore's belief that "the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects" are the proper goals of human life and social progress; members included Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, E. M. Forster, Duncan Grant, and David Garnett.

Boedo Group
Literary group, active in Buenos Aires in the 1920s, that dedicated itself to the writing of highly politicized literature for social change.

Each one of the sections or chapters in a poetic epic like Dante's Divine Comedy. The word "canto" literally means "song"

Style, attitudes, and ideas in art and literature inspired by, and including, the culture of classical antiquity (primarily ancient Greece and Rome). The values of classicism are harmony, proportion, clarity, elegance, simplicity, restraint, idealism and universality.

A type of theatre generally defined as the opposite of tragedy and characterized by happy endings, amusing situations, and the portrayal of ordinary people in ordinary situations. Comedy often begins with a problematic or challenging situation that is reversed so that all turns out for the best. Comedy often ridicules and satirizes problems of human character and behavior and aims to educate by fear of such ridicule. The endings of comedies frequently feature marriages or reunions of characters formerly separated by adverse circumstances.

The idea that sin = punishment; divine retribution in Dante's Divine Comedy; it literally means the "counter-step" and is a notion similar to Karma, Moira, Namtar, and Fate; what you do is what you get

Two lines of verse which rhyme with each other.

A type of writing invented by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia around 3,300 BC. The word "cuneiform" means "wedge-shaped" and refers to the pointed marks made by sharpened reeds on clay tablets.

A poetic foot or unit consisting of one stressed (or long) syllable followed by two unstressed (or short) syllables.

Dactylic Hexameter
A poetic meter common in epic poetry and characterized by lines measuring six dactyls each. A dactyl is a poetic unit consisting of one long and two short syllables (or one stressed and two unstressed syllables).

Deus Ex Machina
Generally refers to a forced or highly artificial intervention or event which resolves a difficult situation in a literary work. The term is Latin for "god from a machine" and referred originally to the use of crane-like machinery, in Greek and Latin drama, to lower an actor, playing the role of a divine being, onto the stage.

The duty associated with one's caste in Hindu society; for example, the duty of a ksatriya or warrior is to fight.

Dramatic Monologue
A poem in which a first-person speaker addresses an imaginary audience.

Dramatic Poetry
Poetry which employs some element of drama or dramatic technique such as dialogue, monologue, emphatic or intensely expressive language, or a tense situation and emotional conflict.

The theory that knowledge, mainly in the natural sciences, should be grounded on observation, experiment, and evidence involving the phenomena of the material, sensory world.

European literary and philosophical movement which took place roughly between 1660 and 1770. Also called the Age of Reason. Central ideas and values of the Enlightenment include a belief in the powers of reason to understand nature and guide the human existence; a belief in the essential equality and dignity of all people and in basic human rights to freedom and happiness; a challenge to ignorance, superstition, deception, tyranny, and oppressive traditions; a humane and rational approach to the organization of human life and society; an emphasis on moderation, proportion, and balance.

Enuma Elish
The Babylonian story of creation, also known as the "Epic of Creation." The term refers to the opening words of the story, "When the heavens above ..."

Long narrative poem employing elevated language and telling of the deeds of a legendary or historical hero. Epics often involve long journeys, the undertaking of difficult tasks, complex sequences of adventures, as well as an underlying philosophical, religious and/or moral understanding of human actions, choices, consequences, fate, and the course of events.

A philosophical movement of the 19th and 20th centuries stressing individual freedom and human choice; existentialism is based on the idea that human beings shape their own existence and give meaning to it through their own choices and actions. The main figure in existentialism was the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980).

A symbol, something that stands for something else.

A unit of poetic rhythm defined by a certain number and order of stressed and unstressed (or short and long) syllables. Examples of feet are the iamb (one unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) and the trochee (one stressed followed by an unstressed syllable).

Free Indirect Style
A narrative technique which blurs the line between the narrator's and the characters' perspectives.

Free verse
Verse which is not metrical or whose meter is irregular.

The general type or form of a literary work, e.g. poetry, drama, novel, short story. A sub-genre of poetry is, for example, lyric poetry.

The tragic flaw or character weakness in a literary character. The word is derived from the Greek verb hamartanein "to miss the mark"

A concept referring to the aesthetic effects and philosophical concerns of the Japanese Noh drama. Hana means "flower." See also yügen.

Harlem Renaissance
Literary and artistic works produced by black Americans active in the lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and upper Manhattan (Harlem) sections of New York City from 1920 until about 1930 -- also known as "The New Negro Movement." The Harlem Renaissance celebrated African-American culture and its heritage. Representative figures include Langston Hughes and Alain Locke.

Excessive pride displayed by a character, at times taking the form of a boastful challenge to the gods or other higher powers--often resulting in harsh punishment.

A Renaissance philosophical and educational movement emphasizing the importance and dignity of the human existence, of the individual self, and of the here-and-now. Central aspects of Humanism include its interest in the earthly, secular life, the development of human virtues and potentials, the enjoyment and understanding of the material world, the betterment of the human condition, and the promotion of the aesthetic, intellectual and educational traditions of classical antiquity. Humanism originated in Italy in the 14th century in the work and ideas of figures like Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), and Giovanni Boccaccio.

A poetic unit consisting of two syllables where the first is unstressed and the second stressed. Examples: | to | or nót | to | (three iambs).

Iambic Pentameter
A verse line consisting of 10 syllables arranged into 5 iambs.

A system of ideas. A way of understanding reality.

The act of explaining the meaning of something; recovering the ideas that may be embodied in the symbols of literature.

The use of language to express something quite different from or opposite to its literal meaning.

An action and its consequences; the idea, in Hindu thought, that ones' behavior in life determines one's future reincarnations; what goes around comes around; the notion is similar to Moira, Namtar, Fate, and Christian ideas such as the Golden Rule and reward and punishment in the afterlife.

Lai (Lay)
Poetic narrative in rhymed verses of 4-8 syllables and stanzas of 6-16 lines. The genre is supposed to have Breton/Celtic origins and was used by northern French poets, the trouvères, and storytellers such as Marie de France around the 12th century.

Lex talionis

The Babylonian law, in Hammurabi's code, demanding "an eye for eye" and "a tooth for a tooth"


A human cultural practice involving the imaginative and expressive use of language in stories, poems, plays, and other literary genres. Literature is both a form of entertainment and a vehicle of ideas and thought expressed in symbolic form.

A figure of speech expressing an idea by means of the negation of its contrary, e.g. "this cake is not bad"

Littérature engagée
French: "engaged literature." Literature with social and political commitments, popularized after World War II by the French existentialists, believing in the idea of the artist's responsibility to society and to social change; a reaction against "art for art's sake" and against the "bourgeois" writer devoted only to himself or his craft rather than the betterment of the world and society.

Magical Realism
A modern Latin-American narrative technique characterized by the mixing of the real and the fantastic. The best-known figure in magical realism is the Colombian writer Gabriel García-Márquez.

Metaphysical Poets
Seventeenth-century British poets with an interest in psychological analysis of the emotions, love, and the combining of the intellectual and the affective, the secular and the sacred, the abstract and the particular; metaphysical poetry features a complex perception of life, conciseness of language, wit, directness, and the use of ingenious analogies and figures of thought. Representative writers include John Donne, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, John Cleveland, Abraham Cowley

The recurrence in poetry of a rhythm established by a pattern of stressed and unstressed (or long and short) syllables. The basic unit or pattern of meter is called the foot.

A figure of speech involving the designation of something by means of something else usually related or in close contact or proximity to it e.g. "wheels" meaning "automobile" (see also synecdoche).

Middle Ages
The period of Western history from the fall of the Roman empire (476 A. D.) until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453 A. D.). Also known as the Medieval Period and the "Dark Ages." The Middle Ages were characterized by the rivalries and conflicts between war-lords, the influence of the Catholic Church,and the subjection of the peasantry. The Middle Ages were preceded by Antiquity and followed by the Renaissance.

Term referring to art, literature, and music of the late 19th and the 20th century; a form of protest against the industrialized, militaristic, business-oriented, mechanical, bureaucratic, and technological nature of the modern world; literary modernism focuses on breaking away from rules and conventions, searching for new perspectives and points of view, experimenting in form and style; some modernists placed emphasis on art for its own sake; language and writing as an experience in themselves, without external referents; interest in subjectivity, the internal, psychic life of characters and the construction of reality from those inner perspectives; movements associated with modernism include Surrealism, Existentialism, Formalism, Symbolism, Dadaism, Expressionism, Impressionism, and others.


The ancient Greek concept of fate, understood as the portion or share corresponding to an individual as his lot in life and death. In Greek thought Moira is often an impersonal power, an order standing above both gods and mortals. Human character, choices, and actions are related to the fate of the person.

The ancient Sumerian fate, destiny--especially in its evil sense of death and tragedy.

A variety of Realism (see Realism) featuring an even greater emphasis on the depiction of social, political and economic struggles and calling for scientific accuracy in the representation of even very graphic, and at times unpleasant, aspects of the human existence.The most notable of the Naturalist writers was Émile Zola (1840-1902).

Styles, attitudes, and ideas in European art and literature during the 17th and 18th centuries and characterized by inspiration in the models from classical antiquity; reverence for order, reason, harmony, symmetry and rules; a reaction against the unruly individualism of the Renaissance; view of humankind as limited, imperfect, and in need of rational restraint. Neoclassicism is closely associated with the ideas of the Enlightenment.

Noh Drama
A highly stylized, abstract, and philosophical type of Japanese theatre influenced by Zen Buddhism and Shinto religious rituals. The word "Noh" means "talent" or "skill." Noh plays are very austere poetic dramas involving music, song, dance, and wooden masks. The tone of the performances is highly serious, in keeping with the tragic character of the represented situations. Central principles of the Noh drama are yügen ("mystery," "depth," "darkness," "beauty," "elegance") and hana ("the flower"). Yügen and hana are related to the spiritual and aesthetic effects of the intimation of a concealed truth, what Zeami Motokiyo defines as "the art of the flower of mystery." Noh plays often involve ghosts or ghostly characters and emphasize, through symbolism and stylized gestures, the formal, abstract, and spiritual aspects of human action, emotion and their consequences.
Noh plays feature a "Shite" (main figure, hero, the "doer"), "Waki" (a secondary protagonist/antagonist), and the "Tsure" (companions of the hero). A pine tree painted on the wall is a feature of all Noh stages.

An extended fictional prose narrative generally organized around character, plot, and certain themes or idea

Objective Correlative
A set of objects, situations, or events which stand for and evoke a particular emotion. A term associated with T. S. Eliot.

Having various different causes and sources, possibly resulting in a state of ambiguity or conflicting meaning related to the coming together of contradictory elements.

Imitation for the purposes of ridicule (compare Satire).

A variety of literary works dealing with the lives of shepherds and intended to represent the ideal of a peaceful, humble, and productive life contrasting with the destruction, pillaging, and arrogant pride often depicted in genres such as epic (see Epic).

The representation of a thing or idea as having human characteristics or identity.

A cultural, intellectual, political, and literary movement of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries characterized by the representation and analysis of the historical experiences and subjectivities of the victims, individuals and nations, of colonial power. Postcolonialism is marked by its resistance to colonialism and by the attempt to understand the historical and other conditions of its emergence as well as its lasting consequences.

A cultural and intellectual trend of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries characterized by emphasis on the ideas of the decenteredness of meaning, the value and autonomy of the local and the particular, the infinite possibilities of the human existence, and the coexistence, in a kind of collage or pastiche, of different cultures, perspectives, time periods, and ways of thinking. Postmodernism claims to address the sense of despair and fragmentation of modernism through its efforts at reconfiguring the broken pieces of the modern world into a multiplicity of new social, political, and cultural arrangements.

Ordinary language, resembling the natural flow of speech. The opposite of poetry.

A battle in the mind or the soul. A situation in literary works involving the representation of a character's internal (psychological, moral or spiritual) conflict.

A stanza of four lines.

A style in art and literature emphasizing the faithful representation of human life and social reality; realist artists often focused on the plight of the poor and the working classes and called for social reforms and the end of exploitation and injustice; preferred subjects include the normal, the everyday, the humble, the common, the practical; realism encourages an objective perspective and somewhat detached position on the part of the artist or author.

The period of Western history from about 1453 A. D. (fall of Constantinople to the Turks) to about 1650. Characterized by a renewal of interest in the pagan cultures of Antiquity (particularly Greece and Rome) and a surge of intellectual, scientific, commercial, and artistic activity. Emphasis on the self, the enjoyment of earthly life, exploration, discovery, and empirical methods. Followed by the Enlightenment.

An art involving the use of language in persuasion.

Movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in literature, philosophy, religion, art, and politics which was a reaction against Neoclassicism; stressed freedom from restraints and rules; also emphasized individualism, creativity, revolutionary political ideas, the use of the imagination over reason, reverence for nature, interest in the Middle Ages, mystery, transcendence, synthesis, and universality.

Sapphic Stanza
A poetic form used by and named after the Ancient Greek poet Sappho (7th c. BC). The form has been often used and adapted by European poets since the Renaissance. The sapphic stanza consists of four lines. The first three lines have five feet (trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee) and the last line two feet (dactyl, trochee)

A work that blends criticism with humor and wit as well as didactic intentions.

An explicit comparison between two objects, situations, etc. Similes generally involve the use of the words "like" or "as" in establishing the given comparison.

As Sanskrit (Hindu) poetic form consisting of two lines of 16 syllables exhibiting specific patterns of long and short syllables. Each half line is called a pada.

Socialist Realism
A literary movement defined in Russia in 1932 as having the purpose of promoting socialist ideals (social and economic equality, the satisfaction of the needs of all, and the providing of opportunities for education and the development of human potentialities); the ambition of works of socialist realism is the faithful representation of life, the unmasking of ideological deceptions, and the revelation of people's actual conditions of existence (social, political, and economic).

A grouping of two or more verse lines which may be defined by the number of lines, line length, metrical form, and/or rhyme scheme.

Stream of Consciousness
A literary technique involving expression through a flow of words, images, and ideas similar to the unorganized flow of the mind; the term was originally coined by William James, in his Principles of Psychology (1890), where it referred to the flow of inner mental phenomena.

Sturm und Drang ("Storm and Stress")
A literary movement in late 18th-century Germany that led to German Romanticism; the movement takes its name from the title of a play by Maximillian Klinger (the play was rich in drama and lyric poetry); emphasis on reform against social injustices, natural feeling in reaction to the formalism of Neoclassicism, the individual valued over rationalistic ideals of the Enlightenment.

A movement in art emphasizing imaginative expression as realized in dreams and presented without conscious control; focus on the representation of unconscious processes, the irrational, and juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous images following a logic of free association. Surrealism originated in France in the 1920's as a development of Dadaism. The movement's first manifesto was issued by André Breton in 1924. Representative artists of the movement include Breton and Salvador Dali.

Something that stands for something else.

A figure of speech involving the use of a narrower or a more general term to designate something, e.g. "a sail!" meaning "a ship!" (see also metonymy)

A stanza or group of three poetic lines.

Terza Rima
Tercets or groups of three poetic lines with interlocking rhymes: aba, bcb, cdc, etc. The form was employed by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy.

A type of play characterized by the depiction and dramatic treatment of misfortunes, disasters, and/or the death of the main protagonists. The opposite of comedy. The main protagonist(s) is often afflicted by a "tragic flaw" (see hamartia), a character problem which is related to the tragic outcomes. The genre appears to have originated in Ancient Greek choral songs and rituals in honor of the Dionysus (god of nature, vineyards, wine). The word tragedy is derived from the Greek: tragos ("goat") + oide ("song"), perhaps related to animal sacrifices in the original rituals. Thespis (6th c. BC) is said to have first introduced an actor interacting with the singing chorus. Aeschylus (525-456 BC) is credited with introducing a second actor. Sophocles (496-406 BC) introduced a third actor. Euripides (c. 480-406 BC) is another well-known ancient Greek tragedian. The plays became very popular as part of dramatic competitions during the Dionysia or festival in honor of Dionysus.

Rendering a text from one language into another.

A verse line of three feet (see Meter and Foot).

A Sanskrit (Hindu) poetic form adapted from the Vedas. It consists of 4 lines (padas) of 11 syllables exhibiting specific patterns of long and short syllables.

A poetic foot or unit consisting of one stressed (or long) syllable followed by an unstressed (or short) syllable. The opposite of an iamb.

A figure of speech involving the figurative use of a term. The term is derived from Greek tropos "a turn" (see also metaphor, metonymy, allegory, symbol).

A literary movement founded in Spain in 1919 and composed of young, experimental poets sharing the goals of completely breaking with tradition and creating a "pure" sort of poetry; upon his return from Spain in 1921, Jorge Luis Borges founded an Argentine Ultraist movement modeled after the Spanish one; the focus of his group was on experimental poetic forms; their magazine, Prisma, was published in the form of posters pasted on buildings and walls throughout Buenos Aires.

Weimar Classicism
Literary movement in Germany usually dated from Goethe's return from Italy in 1788 until Schiller's death in 1805; cooperative effort between Goethe and Schiller to establish a new poetic humanism; ideal of harmony and balance modeled on the ancient Greeks, but based more specifically on an emotional and organic harmony, optimistic unification between human beings and nature. A synthesis of Romantic, classical and Enlightenment ideas.

A concept related to the effects and concerns of the Japanese Noh drama. Yügen means "mystery," "depth," "darkness," "beauty," "elegance." Yügen has to do with the representation of the deepest spiritual aspects of Noh. According to Zeami Motokiyo, "the essence of yügen is true beauty and gentleness." See also hana.



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Last updated: 06/28/2006

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