Preclassical Drama Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 2121 words.)

The Ancient Near East and Egypt

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Because of their proximity to Greece and their role as the home of the first great civilizations, the Near East and the eastern Mediterranean basin have been closely scrutinized for performances that may have influenced the Hellenic inventors of drama. Greece was in fact the meeting place of three powerful traditions, though it is not always easy to distinguish them in detail. The latest to be identified may be the oldest, and it is not to be confused with the so-called cradle of civilization, a conception of the ancient Near East that has been to some extent discredited. Before the Indo-European Greeks migrated into the southern Balkans in the beginning of the second millennium b.c.e., the inhabitants of what are now Greece, Crete, the Aegean islands, and western Anatolia shared a culture with the southeastern Europeans that can be identified through a family of artifact types, including religious figurines and other paraphernalia of ritual. Marija Gimbutas identified this as the Civilization of Old Europe in The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe. The roots of this cultural complex reach back into paleolithic times, but between about 7000 and 3500 b.c.e., “the inhabitants of this region developed a much more complex social organization than their western and northern neighbors, forming settlements that often amounted to small townships, inevitably involving craft specialization and the creation of religious institutions.” Many artifacts from this early period bear significant resemblances to those of the classical period that are connected with classical drama. Though not unique to this part of the world, the presence of masked figures and animal masks in a region whose earliest dramatic actors wore masks and (in comedy) animal costumes is probably no coincidence. As Gimbutas observes, “masks and masked figures, life-size or in miniature, of ancient Greece, Minoan Crete and Old Europe, imply liturgy and drama whose emphasis is theatrical. It is quite conceivable that all three belong to the same tradition.”

The second tradition to establish itself in Greece was that of the Greeks themselves, who brought with them the Indo-European language and myths that would provide the raw material of the earliest true drama. These people were to distinguish themselves from their neighbors in historical times by their passion for language, poetry, and debate; their extreme individualism; a love of the arts; and their secular temper. The aggressive and entrepreneurial character of the Greeks eventually brought them into contact with the more highly developed civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, which provided the third great component in the context from which theater was to take shape. Their possible contributions to the origins of Greek theater have been perhaps overemphasized in the past because of a diffusionist ideology of Western civilization. All civilized arts did not necessarily flow from the East, and it is impossible to establish any positive links between the pageantry of Egypt and the Near East, on one hand, and the theater of Greece, on the other. Still, it is certain that Greek culture was stimulated in various ways by contacts with Egypt and the East in two formative periods: first, in the Minoan-Mycenaean age (c. 1600-1100 b.c.e.), and later, from the Orientalizing period in Greek art (c. 750-650 b.c.e.) through the time in the sixth century when the dramatic festivals were instituted in Athens.

Both Egypt and Mesopotamia have traditions of predramatic activity at least as early as the third millennium b.c.e., centuries before the Greeks themselves arrived in the southern Balkans. These traditions fall into two categories, with some overlap: literary dialogues of the sort that later produced the Song of Songs and the Book of Job, and sacred liturgies and pageants that followed a semidramatic scenario. In Mesopotamia, the Sumerian pageant of the “sacred marriage” solemnized each year the divine royalty’s mystical union with the gods in what is fancifully described as a “mystery play” and a “great religious drama” with pantomime, incantation, and music. Although this ritual was discontinued...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)

The Origins of Greek Tragedy and Comedy

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The cardinal fact for the study of Greek dramatic origins is Aristotle’s remark in the De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) that tragedy developed “from the leaders of the dithyramb,” a song and dance in honor of Dionysus. There were other Greek cults whose rituals included mimed scenes from the life of the gods, such as the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis and the Delphic combat of Apollo with the Python. These rituals or liturgies were comparable to similar presentations in Egypt, but only the Dionysiac cult developed the capacity for myths from which the dramas of tragedy sprang. The worship of Dionysus was a late arrival in Greece, possibly coming from...

(The entire section is 3087 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bergmann, Bettina, and Christine Kondoleon, eds. The Art of Ancient Spectacle. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. In nineteen essays, explores events such as combat in the arena, festivals, theatrical productions, processions, and banquets in terms of their forms and the visual arts created for them.

Bieber, Margarete. The History of the Greek and Roman Theater. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. Explores the ancient roots of Greek and Roman drama.

Cheney, Sheldon. The Theatre: Three Thousand Years of Drama, Acting, and Stagecraft. New York: McKay, 1972. Provides history and interpretation of the development of performance and stage acting. Bibliography.

Kirby, E. T. Ur-Drama: The Origins of Theatre. New York: New York University Press, 1975. Discusses ancient origins of theater.

Lexova, Irena. Ancient Egyptian Dances. Translated by Diane Bergman. New York: Dover, 2000. Using numerous illustrations, investigates the origins, nature, and role of dance in Egyptian culture, including gymnastic, imitative, dramatic, and lyrical performances. Bibliography.

Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur W. Dithyramb, Tragedy, and Comedy. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1962. Provides history and criticism of Greek tragedy and comedy.

Schechner, Richard, and Mady Schuman. Ritual, Play, and Performance. New York: Seabury Press, 1976. Explores a host of topics related to the very early origins of theater, including shamanism and meditation, social dramas and ritual metaphors, and magic.

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theater: A History. 3d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999. Traces the development of theater in a contextual manner, examining the social, political, and economic conditions of each era. A small chapter on early theater, followed by more substantial chapters on Greek and Roman theater.