Primitive Drama Analysis

Greek Drama

The infancy of Greek drama can be traced to the sixth century b.c.e, perhaps earlier. The Greeks chose to honor the god Dionysus, also known as Bacchus and Iacchos, by establishing an annual festival dedicated to his worship. This Greater Dionysia was celebrated in March and was eventually followed by a second festival in Dionysus’s honor, the Lenaea (“wine press”), held in the winter. The popularity of this “god of many names” among the ancient Greeks is understandable. His mother was Semele, a mortal princess seduced by Zeus. He was associated especially with wine and fecundity. It is believed that huge phalli were prominently featured at the Dionysia. Maenads (sometimes called bacchantes), female devotees of Dionysus, danced frantically at the god’s feasts. According to legend, these priestesses would race over the countryside in a sexual frenzy, even snatching up and biting the heads off small animals.

The earliest festivals featured a large chorus of singers and dancers. The term “orchestra” is derived from a Greek word that means “dancing place.” The first evolution of the chorus produced a leader. An exchange of speech, song, or chanting between leader and chorus was then possible. The chorus dressed as goats (an animal believed sacred to Dionysus) or as satyrs (a mischievous, lecherous mythical half-goat, half-human companion of the god). In fact, the word “tragedy”—a dramatic form central to...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Egyptian Drama

The cult of Osiris and Isis proved important in the development of early Egyptian drama occurring around 2000 b.c.e. The first Greek historian, Herodotus, who traveled widely throughout the Middle East during his lifetime (c. 484-425 b.c.e.), wrote that Isis, goddess of the Moon, and Osiris , god of the Sun, were the only gods worshiped by all the Egyptians. Because a common practice of the Greeks and Romans was to identify the gods of other peoples with their own, Herodotus referred to Isis as Selene (one name for the Greek goddess of the Moon) and her husband as Osiris Dionysus. Herodotus also associated Isis with Demeter, Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility, because swine were sacrificed to both. He particularly identified Osiris with Dionysus because their festivals agreed exactly, except for the matter of choruses and the substitution of eighteen- to twenty-two-inch-long sex toys for the huge Dionysian phalli. Herodotus appeared to suggest that Osiris and Isis were once human rulers of Egypt; that Osiris was slain by Seth, Egyptian god of evil; that his widow and son, Horus, eventually avenged his death and secured the throne of Egypt; that the virtues and sufferings of Osiris and Isis changed them into gods; and that Osiris rose from the dead.

Greek authors allude to dramatic performances in honor of Osiris but give little detailed information. Fortunately, a recovered ancient stele, an engraved stone pillar, bears an inscription giving a brief account of the world’s first recorded “passion play” as performed annually at Abydos, the city in which Osiris was entombed and to which Egyptians made pilgrimages, thus creating a cult of the deified king. Ikhernofret, a royal representative, was apparently responsible for organizing the performance, and he listed the parts he himself acted, some thirteen in number, on the stele. The play dramatizes at length the saga of Osiris in many elaborate scenes performed during a long progress to the symbolic tomb from which the man-god would arise. Whereas the Greek plays lasted hours at most, Ikhernofret’s description suggests that the passion play extended through several weeks. Some version of the passion plays continued to be performed until sometime around 500 b.c.e. The stele inscription is proof that more than forty centuries ago, the passion plays of Abydos were a vibrant part of Egyptian life.

Indian Drama

The tradition of Indian drama is ancient and has mythical origins. Bharata Muni’s Nṭya-stra (between 200 and 300 c.e.; The Nṭya shstra, 1950) describes the legendary ancient creation of theater. The text notes that when the world passed from the Golden Age to the Silver Age, people began to lose their innocence and develop vicious practices. The Hindu god Indra asked Brahm, the creator of the universe, to give all the people a diversion from their vices. The four Vedas, the sacred books of Hinduism, were forbidden to the lower caste, so Brahm fashioned another Veda from the elements of speech, song, mime, and sentiment. This Veda was the Nṭyaveda. When Indra reported that no god possessed the requisite dramatic skill to use the holy book effectively, Brahm taught the art of dramaturgy to the great sage Bharata so that he might popularize the Veda. He, in turn, taught it to his hundred sons. Thus, tradition has it that the celestial Nṭyaveda was brought from heaven to earth for the moral improvement of the people.

In The Nṭya shstra, Bharata consolidated and codified earlier traditions in dance, mime, and drama. No other ancient book matches the comprehensive study of dramaturgy found in Bharata’s work. The treatise provides exhaustive notes on production and direction. It furnishes every conceivable detail of makeup, costumes, colors, and jewelry. It directs the...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Chinese and Japanese Drama

Evidence is found in the earliest Chinese history of the mimetic art of shamans, important precursors to Chinese theater. A shaman was a priest or intermediary who could, so it was believed, invoke and communicate with spirits and gods. His special powers were revealed through a performance combining singing, dance, gesture, posture, and costume. According to Confucius (551-479 b.c.e.), shamans were practicing in China as early as the third millennium b.c.e. During the Tang dynasty (618-907 c.e.)—an era known for the flourishing of the arts—Emperor Ming Huang (685-762 c.e.) founded imperial music and drama academies, where several hundred boys and girls were trained to sing and play instruments for the amusement of the court. The emperor was said to have tutored the young performers himself in the Pear Garden of the Imperial Park at Changan (later Xian). Acrobatics became as much a part of the performance as costume and makeup. More mature Chinese dramas did not arise until the thirteenth century. However, most traditional Chinese drama could be called opera, for not until the twentieth century would a Chinese audience consider a piece to be theater without music or singing of some kind.

The origins of Japanese drama lie in the sacred dances, religious ceremonials, and folk dances of ancient times. The oldest of these dances was kagura, associated with the legend of the Japanese sun goddess. In the seventh century, gigaku, a processional dance play in which masks were used, was adapted from a Chinese dance form. As the twelfth century approached, bugaku, of Chinese, Hindu, and Korean origins, superseded gigaku as a popular court entertainment and as a Buddhist ritual dance. It was replaced, in turn, by the dengaku, a simpler and more acrobatic form of entertainment favored by the general public. Arising at the same time was the sarugaku , which began as a comic, mimic dance, then developed into more serious forms. These dances eventually resolved themselves into separate techniques. For example, the sarugaku was refined in such a way that it became the basis of the N drama, which was perfected by the fourteenth century Buddhist priest Kan’ami Motokiyo and his son Zeami Motokiyo. The perfection of the N theater laid a solid foundation for the eventual development of the highly stylized Kabuki, which arose in the early seventeenth century.


Arlington, L. C. The Chinese Drama from the Earliest Times Until Today. 1930. Reprint. Bronx, N.Y.: Benjamin Blom, 1966. Arlington traces the origins of drama in China. He describes its actors (in both male and female roles), the costumes and makeup, superstitions and stage slang, and accompanying music and musical instruments.

Fey, Faye Chunfang. Chinese Theories of Theater and Performance from Confucius to the Present. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Provides a historical overview of four major periods in Chinese theatrical history, starting with antiquity and ending with the twentieth century. Much of the analysis is presented in English for the first time.

Gargi, Balwant. Theatre in India. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1962. The first two chapters, “The Birth of Theatre” and “Greek and Hindu Theatre,” are the most valuable for understanding early theater. The chapters “Classical Dance” and “Folk Dance” are also of some interest.

Ley, Graham. A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Explores the original conditions of production for tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays in ancient Greece and provides observations on all aspects of performance.

Mackerras, Colin, ed. Chinese Theater from Its...

(The entire section is 489 words.)