Although theater is a comparatively late phenomenon in the history of human culture, its origins are obscure. Drama in the Western world goes back to Greek origins scarcely more than twenty-five hundred years ago—well within the period of recorded history—but information about the origin of Greek drama is scant and not always reliable, coming as it does from sources such as Aristotle, who wrote long after the fact. Other cultural traditions, however, though never fully documented from the beginnings to the appearance of a fully developed theater, have provided a series of models that suggest not only what may lie behind Greek drama but also what social and psychological impulses underlie all drama. Subdramatic rituals and performances in various parts of the world have illuminated several aspects of drama and theater.
The study of the origins of drama is therefore only in part a historical undertaking. Because of its appeal to the emotions and other functions of the mind that are not strictly rational, even fully evolved theater may be comparable in some ways to the rituals of prescientific peoples. Students of the theater hope, therefore, to learn something of the first principles of drama by investigating the theatrical performances of undeveloped cultures. Such cultures, often designated “archaic” to indicate their preliterate condition, invariably observe rituals of a theatrical character.
One of the great universals in such predramatic rituals is dance, described by Sheldon Cheney as “the great mother of the arts” and documented in artifacts such as cave paintings as early as 15,000 b.c.e. Although the motions of dance may be as purely formal and abstract as the sounds of music, most dance traditions have a demonstrably mimetic element. War dances that are mock contests, love-pantomimes related to fertility rites, and the animal dances of hunting societies testify to the mimetic use of dance. The horned, phallic dancer on the wall of the Trois Frères cave in southern France is our earliest example of such imitation. There is no way of telling at what point these dances were accompanied by the rhythmic chants of poetry or by the sound of musical instruments; the combination of dance, music, and song in rituals may be as old as human culture itself.
As it is no more than a step from imitation to illusion, the mimetic intention of a subdramatic song and dance may have the effect on a spectator of belief—for example, that the animal spirit represented in a buffalo-dance is real and not merely an imitation. A small child might easily be so deluded, but it is in the nature of religious ecstasy for an adult spectator, and even the performer himself, to make the additional step from self-conscious fantasy to a belief in the reality that is imitated. Modern theater succeeds even when a rational audience accepts the fiction that the action imitated on the stage is the real thing. By the same token, a religious congregation believes in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of its deity, just as the community witnessing a buffalo-dance accepts the reality the dancers before it are imitating. As an aid to such quasi-dramatic illusion, costume is a common adjunct to archaic performances. The dancer on the wall of the Trois Frères cave is dressed in an animal skin, complete with a mask and the antlers of the animal he represents. The mask is notably widespread in dance customs throughout the world. Representing the features of an animal, an ancestral spirit, or a god, masks symbolize the transformation and the illusion that are common denominators of ecstatic ritual and actual theater. A vestige of the theater-mask tradition remains in the playbook convention of listing the cast of characters as the dramatis personae, or “masks of the drama.”
An important difference between the mimetic performance of a preliterate dancer and the representations of true drama is the level at which the mimesis is accepted. Where the audience of a play believes in the symbolic correspondence between the actor and his role, archaic audiences—and often the performers themselves—take the correspondence further. As Johan Huizinga points out in Homo Ludens,when a certain form of religion accepts a sacred identity between two things of a different order, say a human being and an animal, the relationship is not adequately expressed by calling it a “symbolical correspondence” as we conceive this. The identity, the essential oneness of the two goes far deeper than the correspondence between a substance and its symbolic image. It is a mystic unity. The one becomes the other. In his magic dance the savage is the kangaroo.
The magical content of much predramatic activity has led some investigators to the study of shamanism as the earliest type of theatrical performance. The shaman, whose name originates in the title of the Siberian spiritual healer, is a kind of medicine man who deals with the spirits; he does his work in a trance state, using rituals chiefly for healing the sick. Shamanism is believed to have originated in central Asia and Siberia in...
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