©Damen, 2012

Classical Drama and Society


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A Guide to Writing in History and Classics

 

SECTION 1: THE ORIGINS OF WESTERN THEATRE

Chapter 1: Theatre and History, An Introduction

The study of classical drama is a sub-field of theatre history which is, in turn, a branch of history. As such, it is best to begin any exploration of classical drama by examining the nature of history and theatre, how they are defined, and the methodologies most profitably employed to gain a better understanding of both. The technical term for the study of historical methods is historiography.


I. What is History?

The word "history" has several connotations in English. A standard—and rather dry—interpretation of the word is the definition found in Webster's dictionary: "the branch of knowledge that deals systematically with the past." Among more entertaining and revealing ways of viewing "history" are Henry Ford's who called history "more or less bunk" and that of an infamous, anonymous student who said it was just "one damn thing after another." The modern historian and historiographer Simon Schauma has suggested history should be seen as "the study of the past in all its splendid messiness." From all these perceptions one thing is clear: no clear consensus exists about what constitutes history.

A. Historia and the Definition of History

Herodotus (click to see larger image)If history is messy by definition, the origin of the word itself is not. What it meant originally and how it came to be a technical term for a type of scholarship is well known. Furthermore, in investigating the origin of this term, it is possible to gain insight into the nature of history itself. "History" derives from an ancient Greek word, historia, which Herodotus, the "Father of History" as he has been dubbed, applied to his study of the events leading up to the Classical Age in Greece. There can be little doubt, either, that the popularity of early historical researches such as Herodotus' ultimately gave the word a special, if not entirely new meaning, "research into the past." Prior to that time, historia carried the broader sense of "any general inquiry or investigation."

Map of the Aegean Sea region, including Ionia (click to see larger image)It is worth noting that Herodotus' interest in the past was part of a growing tendency toward "scientific" thinking in his day, an intellectual revolution set in motion a generation or two before his lifetime. This so-called Ionian Revolution caught fire when philosophers began debating the nature of what they perceived to be the primordial "elements" underlying and constituting all matter (water, air, earth, fire), in particular, how these elements make up the world. Herodotus later extended their study of the physical origins of the universe to what he saw as "inquiries" into the "elements" of human life, the historical events that predicated the world in his time. His premise that through the investigation of former times it was possible to see the origins of current events still grounds much of the study of history today. In any case, "history" originally meant "questioning," and only later by implication "questioning about the past." As general as that is, "questioning" still remains one of the better definitions of history, since posing questions—along with its close correlatives, debating and arguing—is still a major element in historical investigation.

Besides being so complicated in origin and definition, the word "history" is also used in several different senses today. It can refer to the actual past ("We will look at the history of World War II."), as well as a record of the past ("This book, however, is only one history of World War II."). It can also connote a method of inquiry aimed at comprehending the past ("One way to look at World War II is through economic history."). Theatre history is an example of the last and entails viewing the past through the lens of drama and theatrical production.

With so much indefiniteness surrounding the term "history" along with so many interpretations of what historians do—or ought to do—it seems unlikely any consensus will emerge about what history is, or should be. Perhaps, then, it is better to begin not with the rules but the game itself and look at what historians actually do and how they work. That is, let's examine the practice beneath the theory with the hope that through that we may come to understand more fully what history is. If not, we can at least publish a better job description.

B. Historians as Scientists

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor

To be a historian is to do not just a single job. From one vantage point, historians operate much like scientists. They dig into the past through various means, just as archaeologists investigate ancient buildings or epigraphers study ancient inscriptions or papyrologists read the ancient writings preserved on papyrus—papyrus is a form of "paper" used in antiquity—or, for that matter, in much the same way paleontologists hunt for dinosaur fossils. The work entailed in professions like these, in fact, can be seen as overlapping with that of historians, but being a historian is not limited to any particular technical enterprise such as DNA analysis, excavation or studying particular sorts of remains. Nevertheless, historians in some ways function as scientists making deductions based on the gathering of evidence.

But in at least one important way the equation of history and science is invalid. While historians may look like and act like and even sometimes refer to themselves as "scientists," they are not really scientists because they cannot do something essential to all good science, at least in the modern sense. What underlies the work of all modern chemists, physicists, biologists and their fellow scientists is the formulation of testable hypotheses borne out through the replication of data. That is, modern science rests principally on the ability of scientists to set up criteria which can be tested in laboratories of some sort and confirmed in other laboratories time after time. If one lab can replicate another's results, the work is seen as having a certain degree of validity.

Historians, on the other hand, cannot replicate their data—as the maxim goes, history cannot be repeated!—which means by definition there can be no "scientific experimentation" in history, because no one can turn the clock back and play with the variables of the past. Historians cannot take Pericles, for instance, out of classical Athens and see if the Parthenon would rise even in the great Athenian statesman's absence. This means that it is fundamentally impossible to know exactly how important Pericles was to his age, whether he controlled his times more than his times controlled him. Human history happens only once, and the relationship of cause and effect can be deduced only by assembling and comparing unique, one-sided, and invariably skewed observations from and about the past.

C. Historians as Detectives

In that respect, historians don't resemble scientists so much as detectives investigating a crime. That is, given the incomplete and unreproducible remains of an event, they must assemble a picture of what most likely happened from the pieces of data left behind, which are called collectively evidence. Such evidence, then, becomes all-important to historical investigation, and one's understanding of the nature of evidence constitutes a basic element in creating any sound history. Hence, historians tend to classify evidence into two basic categories: primary and secondary. Primary evidence is comprised of accounts given by eye-witnesses who were present at an event. Secondary evidence includes everything else, usually accounts recorded after the fact by people who were not eye-witnesses but gained information about the event they are describing in some second-hand fashion.

Papyrus Text of a play by Sophocles (click to see larger image)In historical studies, arguments about the nature of the past often come down to a disagreement about whether information constitutes primary or secondary evidence. There is a good example of this in classical drama. It is not as clear as it might seem on the surface that the play text which has come down to us as Sophocles' Antigone constitutes unadulterated primary evidence for fifth-century BCE (i.e. classical) Athenian drama (note). It is debatable, for instance, whether certain passages in the play were composed by Sophocles at all. In particular, when his heroine Antigone in one notorious speech (905-915; see below, Chapter 11) seems to undo all she has said before about why she defied the king and buried her brother, her speech is so out of character with the tone of her earlier ones that many scholars believe it can only have been appended to Sophocles' tragedy by some later person. If so, that part of the text of Antigone can no longer be said to constitute primary evidence for classical Greek drama, which is not to deprecate it or the play as a whole, only to posit the particular passage as evidence of post-classical theatre. So it is clear that the interpretation of data, which is central in the construction of any credible history, is all too frequently open to debate.

As it turns out, then, the historian's job is not just gathering or recovering data, though those are important tasks, but evaluating historical information and constructing from it a coherent vision of the past. Many historians spend much of their time working—to express it metaphorically—between pieces of evidence, that is, drawing lines that connect the facts into a unified picture of history. This process of assembling data to create some larger picture of the past is conducted through a process called inference, which involves the evaluation of data in such a way that one can make general conclusions about the past and produce a cogent vision of what actually happened long ago. This will, by nature, stress certain facts and approaches to the data over others, distinguishing some as central and relegating others to a less important status.

The methodology used in making this choice is crucial. Sound history either incorporates all known data into the reconstruction of the past or discounts information which conflicts with its particular vision of history by showing that it is secondary or unreliable, sometimes both. The value of inference cannot be overstated in history. In inferring some larger picture of the past from scant and fragmentary data, historians are able to project general trends and create a more widely meaningful understanding of history. The worth of all this is that, even where there is little to go on, it is possible through inference to make cogent deductions about what was most likely happening on a large scale during a certain time period.

But inference is also a tricky business. The key word in the last sentence of the paragraph above is "cogent." Implying "forcing" which is its literal meaning, "cogent" deductions involve persuasion and what constitutes persuasive is all too often a matter of personal or cultural predilection. That is, persuasion depends on what a person is inclined to believe, and often that means trained to see as persuasive.

Our own culture shows well how that works. Western civilization is, for instance, steeped in threes, a feature called tripartition and traceable to our remote ancestors, the Indo-Europeans. To us, if there is only one fact supporting a assertion, no viable trend can be established because a lone fact is unique, possibly just a random error. If, however, there are two facts supporting an assertion, the argument for a general trend is better, though two is open to the charge of mere coincidence. But if three facts can be cited in support of some assertion, we are acculturated to see this triad as transcending random error and mere coincidence and making the case. To Western minds, three facts generally constitute substantive proof that a trend exists. The same, however, is not true for other cultures which may prefer to have two or four or five facts before accepting the existence of a trend. Others do not see trends at all but view all things as singular and unique. So, what is persuasive to us is not necessarily persuasive to others. It depends on the type of evidence a culture programs people to embrace as "cogent."

D. Historians as Lawyers

With this, the presentation of the data in a cogent form becomes an all-important element in the process of creating history, which means that how well historians argue their cases plays an important role in how well the histories they construct are received. Because many historians do not spend their time uncovering new evidence, they are not really detectives so much as lawyers who work at assembling a story that makes the data appear to make sense. Instead, they present a case using the evidence which their detective counterparts have already uncovered. And, just as trial attorneys review the facts of a case and make a closing argument to a jury, historians try to persuade others, both their colleagues in history and those outside the field, to look at things from a certain vantage point.

Like most successful lawyers, too, the authors of well-received histories very often utilize their culture's innate predilections to bolster their arguments. That is, they put together a winning case by intriguing their audience with their presentation of the facts and inducing them to buy into their view of the past. To put it simply, they tell a good story, and good history is often—lamentably all too often!—a good story.

Historiographers know this well and can readily show how every age, including our own, is inclined to believe what it wants to believe about the past and how the "best" historians in each age are in many ways those who play their audiences best. This is not to discredit history as wholesale fiction or historians as inveterate liars, because there are clear constraints on any historian's narrative range since the facts of the past delimit in large part how any history can be told. Nevertheless, within the scope allowed by the data—and it can be very wide—inference plays a central role in how far a historian may lead an audience to read their collective past, which is where the historian and the lawyer share a trade. Given limited knowledge about some past event, each seeks to persuade a jury of peers who vote according to how successful that disposition of the data seems to them.

That may seem to place history at some remove from fact, which it can be and, in fact, sometimes is, though it does not have to be necessarily. In the hands of credible professionals, history encompasses, if not the truth itself, at least the pursuit of truth, given that historians do not yet command the sense of reliability that their academic colleagues in the "hard sciences" appear to wield. Unfortunately, the draw of "science" in studying the past can be very great, and the result of this is that, when historians attempt to import seemingly scientific, quantitative methods into their discipline, often they just lose sight of the larger picture.

Pyramids (click to see larger image)For instance, to analyze the pyramids of Egypt as structures only and not as the megalithic dreams of ancient Egyptians, which is what they really are, is to lose sight of the human record and miss the central point of studying their history, that is, not what these pyramids are but what they mean. Indeed, measuring the pyramids—how high they are or heavy or positioned in alignment with certain stars—may look on the surface like a more accurate history of these structures than the almost certain untruths affixed to the stories that come down to us about them, such as that the king who built the Great Pyramid at Giza prostituted his daughter to pay for their construction, or so Herodotus claims. Such a story seems, on the whole, most unlikely.

All the same, even if people lie and stones do not, the human record of the pyramids still contains an invaluable, unique account of the emotional journey humankind took in remolding a hostile world. However inaccessible the real reasons the pyramids were built, our modern struggle to understand them lies at the heart of their history and is an enterprise which cannot be subverted without undermining the very point of history at all. To discount the contentious and bigoted cacophony of human voices which bring us the historical record will, in the end, serve only to lead us away from the very thing we seek in history, the historical reasons we are where we are today.

The issue at hand is, then, how to evaluate the human factor in history and the nature of the truth it encodes. In spearing such a slippery fish, it comes down to the question, "Do historians and the written records of the past lie?" So, for instance, "Is Herodotus presenting a fair and unequivocal record of the Persians' attack on Greece in the fifth century BCE?" The only reasonable answer to this question is "Not very likely!," at least inasmuch as Herodotus shows again and again that he is biased toward his own people, the Greeks—and toward the Greeks who lived in Athens, in particular.

But that is not the most productive way to look at the question. To be fair to Herodotus and his incomparable and invaluable account of early history, we must pose the question differently, asking, for instance, "How much could Herodotus have changed the reality of what happened in the past to concoct the history he wanted? Could he, for instance, have made the Greeks the winners of a battle, when there were veterans in his audience who had been at that battle and knew the Greeks did not win it?" It seems highly unlikely. No matter how much Herodotus may have wished to re-tally some defeat as a victory, he could not have changed any battle's ultimate outcome.

Reconstruction of the Battle of Thermopylae (click to see larger image)He could, however, alter his readers' way of looking at the situation, as he appears to have done with the famous Battle of Thermopylae (481 BCE). In that confrontation between the Greeks and the Persians, hundreds of Greeks died and the Persians were not stopped from entering southern Greece and subsequently sacking Athens. No matter how much Herodotus may wish it were not so, he cannot change the fact that it was in many ways a devastating defeat for his side.

Nevertheless, he can also point to every positive thing possible in it, for example, when he recalls the heroism of those who died, how long they held the massive Persian forces at bay, that they were ultimately betrayed by one of their own and not overcome by the Persians' greater strength or cunning, and finally that the Greeks who died gave their compatriots the time to retreat and, by sacrificing their own, saved many lives. The Persian king Xerxes surely saw things otherwise. So in casting the battle as a "patriotic" victory, Herodotus does not alter its outcome or things well-known about the Greeks' defeat, but he does slant the evidence to make the Greeks seem more heroic and the battle, in the long run, less calamitous. In other words, he writes—but does not rewrite—the past.

So, the human element in history is not entirely reliable, nor entirely unreliable. It all comes down to this: a good historian must be savvy about human nature, seeing informants for what they are—neither complete liars nor perfectly objective witnesses—and most important of all, must understand what makes a good story because the narrative art is so deeply implicated in the formation and expression of history. The fact is that all records of the past are, in the end, biased and distorted accounts that mix together elements of truth with fabrications which have been cooked up to make someone somewhere along the way look better, or worse.

This abiding truth is far from a modern discovery. The conundrum of creating history was well articulated by an Arabic philosopher of history, Ibn Kahldun (1332-1406 CE).

All records, by their very nature, are liable to errornay, they contain factors which make for error.

The first of these is partisanship toward a creed or opinion. For when the mind receives in a state of neutrality and moderation any piece of information, it gives to that information its due share of investigation and criticism, so as to disengage the truth it contains from the errors; should the mind, however, be biased in favour of an opinion or creed, it at once accepts every favourable piece of information concerning this opinion...

The second factor conducive to error is overconfidence in one's sources. Such sources should be accepted only after thorough investigation...

A third factor is the failure to understand what is intended. Thus many a chronicler falls into error by failing to grasp the real meaning of what he has seen or heard and by relating the event according to what he thinks or imagines.

A fourth source of error is a mistaken belief in the truth. This happens often, generally taking the form of excessive faith in the authority of one's sources.

A fifth factor is the inability rightly to place an event in its real context, owing to the obscurity and complexity of the situation. The chronicler contents himself with reporting the event as he saw it, thus distorting its significance.

A sixth factor is the very common desire to gain the favour of those of high rank, by praising them, by spreading their fame, by flattering them, by embellishing their doings and by interpreting in the most favourable way all their actions...

The seventh cause of error, and the most important of all, is the ignorance of the laws governing the transformations of human society. For every single thing, whether it be an object or an action, is subject to a law in it...

And it has often happened that historians have accepted and transmitted stories about events which are intrinsically impossible, as did Al-Mas'udi when relating the adventures of Alexander the Great. Thus, according to him, Alexander was prevented by sea monsters from building the port of Alexandria. Thereupon he plunged to the bottom of the sea in a glass case enclosed in a wooden sarcophagus, made a picture of the devilish monsters he saw there, cast metal statues in the shape of these beasts, and set them up on the walls of the buildings; no sooner had the monsters emerged from the sea and seen these statues than they fled away, and thus the city was completed. All of this is related in a long tale full of impossible myths...

Another cause of error is exaggeration... The real cause of this error is that men's minds are fond of all that is strange and unusual, and that the tongue easily slips into exaggeration. (trans. Charles Issawi, An Arab Philosopher of History [London 1950] 27-29)

This fairly pessimistic view of history is, unfortunately, hard to contradict. If so inclined, one could be even more pessimistic than Ibn Kahldun and, as some modern behaviorists do, say that certain biases are coded into us by nature and that we are limited in our perspective of history merely by being human. Certainly the problem of the transmission of historical data should be added to Ibn Kahldun's list of things historians should go sit down and feel depressed about. Mistakes in the copying of manuscripts, sometimes intentional misreadings, fill the pages of history.

So if there is little hope we can be good historians, what can we do to be better ones? As Ibn Kahldun suggests, we historians need to examine their sources carefully and accept that no source is entirely objective. We must further recognize that errors of transmission can affect the nature of the evidence and that the process by which data have come down to us is at least as important as the data themselves. And, finally, just as no history is objective, no historian is either, including any of us. We need to know about ourselves just as much as we must try to understand the past. But that comes dangerously close to making history the study of historians and not the past, which would be to miss the point again.

Nevertheless, if it is impossible to be a perfect historian, one can at least address personal biases and as far as possible try to distance them from one's work. For instance, it is difficult for those today living in democracies to see worth in the many tyrannies which occupy the past. In spite of that, it is unquestionable that some tyrants did great good for their societies. Pisistratus, for example, laid the groundwork for the glories of Athens to follow in the Classical Age. Without losing sight of the evil which tyranny can engender, we must not translate our own social values unquestioningly in our assessments of cultures past.

In conclusion, then, it is perhaps best to recognize that no voice from the past is necessarily truer than any other. In history, arguments and paradoxes are inevitable, and logic is not always the fastest thoroughfare leading to objective clarity. Given that, we can do little more than add another voice to the noise and confusion, the din and dissonance that is the"messy" business of history.

E. Historians as Prophets

Such a cloudy forecast is not without a silver lining, however. History is more than "story," more than the contraband of long-winded thieves and bigoted liars. When we admit that the order historians impose on the past is the point of writing history, we can see that there is and must be a clear, coherent relationship between the established historical facts and the context into which a historian puts them. In that light, historians are not so much scientists, detectives or even lawyers, but prophets, though prophets who operate in reverse. As epiphets, they "forecast" the past, trying to make the events of history look logical or inevitable from what preceded them.

In sum, if history, it must be granted, does not present on the surface an unadulterated record of what really happened in the past, it can be an excellent vehicle for the truth. Something greater than the sum of its parts, at its best it transcends the separate events and accounts that comprise it, rising at times above the dissonance and confusion it is made of. After all, the history of a people acting foolishly does not have to be written by fools.


II. What is Theatre?

In defining the theatre half of "theatre history," there is just as much uncertainty, for theatre as a term is no less difficult to get a handle on than history. Those who have tried to define it have often resorted to metaphors. For example, Samuel Johnson called theatre "an echo of the public's voice," Shakespeare called it "a mirror," Giraudoux "a trial," and Farquhar "a banquet." The last carried his comparison on at some length:

Like hungry guests, a sitting audience looks:
Plays are like suppers; poets are the cooks:
The founder's you: the table is this place:
The carver's we: the prologue is the grace.
Each act a course, each scene a different dish.

While metaphors like Farquhar's may contain a grain or even a bushel of truth, the reality they reflect is more poetic than scientific—a more concrete definition is in order here —so, just as we did when exploring the term "history," let's begin by going back to the origin of the word.

Reconstruction of a Greek Theatron (click to see larger image)Like the term history, "theatre" derives from an ancient Greek word, in this case theatron meaning literally "an instrument for (-tron) viewing (thea-)," which is problematical in and of itself. By this definition, a theatron refers to only the audience's part of the theatre, where the seats are, the actual "instrument for viewing," that is, the place from which the viewers watched the drama. That discounts the other parts of the Greek theatre where the performance, for the most part, takes place: the orchestra (dancing area), the skene (the tent behind the stage), and the parodoi (the side entrances into the orchestra).

Thus, theatron is too narrow a term to help us much in defining "theatre," less useful even than historia was in elucidating "history." After all, does theatre even require a specific "instrument for viewing" ? Street theatre, by definition, does not have a theatron, but few would say it is not theatre.

So, "theatre" is, in fact, harder to define than "history." In reality, theatre offers a very wide range of possibilities in both theory and reality. The American composer John Cage said that "theatre takes place all the time wherever one is." The critic Bernard Beckerman claimed that theatre happens whenever "one or more human beings, isolated in time and/or space, present themselves to another or others..." Neither constitutes a very restrictive definition. When it is not possible to tell theatre from a lecture, a tennis match, or astronauts on the moon, the search for a definitive definition is not over.

One modern theatre historian, Patti Gillespie, has referred to theatre as "performances by living actors that take place in the presence of living audiences," which is at least a more concrete definition. But it really only substitutes one abstract (theatre) for another (performance), which leaves open the question of what "performance" is. And her clear reaction against recorded performance ("living actors") is less than helpful. It is not the point here to carve up artistic territory but to define what theatre is internally, not to say or imply what it is not. It would be equally valid to assert that theatre is not car repair. And "living audiences"? As opposed to what? Dead audiences? Many actors claim to have performed before "dead" audiences, but surely that is not what Gillespie means.

The great theatre historian of the late twentieth century, Oscar Brockett, focused his studies in theatre history on theatre as an institution, or, as he puts it, an "autonomous activity" as opposed to merely "theatrical" elements in society at large. But that presupposes a society has some general recognition of theatre as a distinct art form and, inevitably, that means it must also have a representative word or way of referring to that institution, some sort of equivalent to our term "theatre." And such a definition is circular: "theatre" is what a society calls "theatre."

Moreover, equating vocabulary in different languages is a notoriously difficult enterprise. When translating words from a foreign language into English, we are imposing our views of life on another society. If we decide that some foreign word is equivalent to "theatre," are we not the ones asserting that that society has the institution of theatre? In the next chapter, we will see exactly this problem in assessing "theatre" in ancient Egypt, where there is no word exactly equivalent to our word "theatre," but there do appear to have been "theatrical" institutions, e.g. festivals that had some sort of performance-based component. The same difficulty exists in assessing whether Native American rituals, such as the buffalo dance, constitute "theatre." So, while Brockett's view of "theatre as an institution" is helpful in defining theatre and almost certainly points us in the right direction, it presents its own problems and suggests that ultimately a fully satisfactory definition of theatre may not be possible.

A. The Elements of Theatre

If there is no definition, can we at least delineate what constitutes theatre, just as we resorted to describing history? By looking for particular elements that are essential to theatre, perhaps we can gain, if nothing else, a sense of what theatre is.

To begin with, most theatre historians and critics would agree that language is fundamental to theatre. Whereas song predominates in opera and movement lies at the heart of ballet, the principal element in theatre is narrative language of some sort, which is not to say that song and dance cannot serve as elements of theatre, only that the spoken word tends to dominate even in musical theatre. It must be admitted that the definition of "language" has to be somewhat flexible in this case, because theatrical language can be sign language as in deaf theatre and the complex symbology of gesture found in some Asian theatre—much as with pantomime in Western theatre—but in all cases, language-based communication of some sort lies at the heart of the medium.

A second element fundamental to theatre is impersonation. In the same way that rules define a game or instruction underlies and shapes everything that happens in a classroom, impersonation is a formative component of theatre. A person or persons pretending to be people or things other than themselves is found in all forms of entertainment we call "theatre." The escape that such disguise provides to both performer and audience is, no doubt, one of the attractions of theatre. It opens the door to fantasy and all the enjoyments that unreality affords.

The third and last, but arguably the most important, element of theatre is the audience. Without an audience, without viewers viewing the viewed, how can there be theatre? The Greek theatron got at least that much right. The audience, the "watchers," constitute a crucial element in theatre, as can be seen from the simple fact that there is theatre for the deaf—there is, in fact, theatre for almost every disability—but not theatre for the blind. It is notable, too, that in antiquity there were blind poets, blind philosophers, blind politicians, blind musicians, but no blind playwrights or actors or any record of the blind being involved in or even attending theatre. It is curious, then, that we call those attending theatre the "audience," a word drawn from the Latin word for "hear" (audio), thereby attesting to the power of language, the first fundamental element of theatre listed above. But "spectators" is arguably a better term (from Latin specto, "watch"). After all, can we say that pantomime has, in a literal sense, an "audience" ?


III. What is Theatre History?

A. Defining "Theatre History"

Such wide open definitions of its component words complicate the process of creating a definition of "theatre history." Given that "history" is "story" and "theatre" is "seeing," we might be led to assert that theatre history is a "narrative of the development of performances viewed by audiences across time," but, as we just saw, that involves several absurdities. In particular, employing synonyms like "performance" does little to advance our understanding, and surely it is important to recognize in any definition put forth theatre's focus on language and impersonation and, most of all, the centrality of the audience. Thus, theatre history might be said to be the "reconstruction of the relationships between audience and language-oriented impersonation-based presentations in the past," but there are obvious problems with that definition as well. Even if it were possible to recreate ancient performances in their costumes, sets and even language, it is still impossible to resurrect the ancient audience.

This points to a fundamental difficulty in analyzing theatre in general: all performance is history the second it is over. The moment the word is said, the gesture is made and the lights go down, the illusion is gone and, if no new illusion arises, the theatre in the strictest sense of the word is done. The magic that arcs between viewer and viewed is a sequence of momentary flashes and that magic evaporates when either audience or play disappears. Moreover, unlike art historians, theatre historians cannot retrieve or study the work itself, because the most crucial element is lost and unrecoverable—that is, the original audience, that collective of watchers listening as a group and reveling in the theatrical illusion and conventions prevalent in their day—all of which certainly makes "authentic" reproductions of past theatres appear rather pointless. Reconstructions of ancient performances more often than not result in mechanical, boring theatrical events that use "authenticity" as a screen to mask their creators' lackluster, uncourageous artistic choices.

So, where does that leave our attempt to define theatre history? Trapped somewhere between the play and the audience, the living and the dead, theatre history turns by default into a study of the records of performance in a society, a culture's collective memory of the evolution of its theatre and drama. Imperfect as that definition is, it underscores an important point: theatre history involves the revival of past performances not necessarily on any real stage, but in the imaginary stage of the historian's mind. That makes it all the more important for historians to be aware of their own biases and cultural predilections since these may distort the picture unduly.

B. A Brief History of Theatre History

Given all this, what then should theatre historians seek in historical data? What type of information should be included or, more important, excluded from theatre history? What historical methodologies are valid? A brief overview of the history of this academic discipline sheds some light on this question and the state of the art.

The Mediaeval Stage by E.K. Chambers (click to see larger image)Theatre history as a modern scholarly discipline began in the nineteenth century, when the "scientific" approach to academic study was on the rise. Positivism, the conviction that all things are knowable and expressible and that movement through time shows a general progress toward better things, brought with it the notion that theatre historians should be looking for earlier, simpler and more primitive forms that over time lead to later, more complex and "better" forms. The quintessential example of this is E.K. Chambers' The Mediaeval Stage, a monumental study of theatre from late Rome to the sixteenth century. Chambers operated on the premise that the theatre preceding the Elizabethan Age was, in fact, making slow progress toward Shakespeare's theatre and that the roots of the great bard's drama can be seen in plays many centuries before his time. Typical of positivistic academicians, historians at this time saw theatres as "buildings," plays as "dramas," and recurrent theatre practices as "inherited rituals."

Later, in the twentieth century, this positivism was shown to involve several misconstructions of the data. That anything earlier is necessarily simpler and anything later more complex is, to be frank, utter nonsense, an attitude good for bolstering the sagging egos of later peoples, but hardly useful in assessing reasonably the "progress" of history. "Progress" itself contains within it an unnecessarily pro-present bias, for it assumes that we are moving "forward," that is, becoming better than our predecessors, when the data of history give much evidence that human evolution proceeds in cyclical rhythms with many peaks and valleys. The supposition that there is some sort of rectilinear progress over time toward an increasingly better everything is, in simple terms, untenable.

In addition, theatres are more than mere buildings measurable in wood and stone. They are, in fact, "spaces" for actors and audiences to interrelate, spaces which need not be material at all, if they can house the illusion that constitutes theatre. And plays are not just words, not just dramas, but scripts that only hint at the multitude of different sensations and occurrences which combine to make theatre. Not only are words not necessarily the most important thing happening on stage, they do not have to happen at all, although communication of some sort must occur in "theatre."

Funerary Chorus (click to see larger image)And infrequently are theatre practices merely inherited rituals which serve no real purpose other than to maintain tradition. More often, when traditional elements are seen in theatre, they play some sort of vital role. A good example of that is the chorus of Greek drama which is often cited as a relic of Sophocles' and Euripides' past, a thing later tragedians in the Classical Age supposedly despised ever more across time until they finally dropped it altogether. Euripides, in particular, is said to have been impatient with having to include a chorus in his plays and to have mocked the conventional inclusion of this singing, dancing crowd of passive onlookers who actually participate in the action only rarely. To some modern scholars, the choruses of his later plays seem notably lacklustre and ill-defined. But this is to overlook the importance that the chorus played in Greek theatre. It provided music and dance, a much-beloved element in all ancient Greek entertainment.

To wit, Greek history preserves a story that Athenian soldiers who were captured by their Sicilian foes during a failed attempt to seize the city of Syracuse in 413 BCE were able to rescue themselves from immediate execution by singing the beautiful choruses of the tragedian Euripides' later plays. If the story is true, it is strong evidence that audiences in antiquity, even ones at the moment hostile to the Athenians, appreciated and enjoyed the musical element in Euripides' plays. If, on the other hand, the story is not true, then it is even stronger evidence for the later ancients' enjoyment and appreciation of the chorus, because such a fiction assumes it was self-evident to the ancient mind that everyone loves a good Euripidean choral melody. A lie has to be probable if it's going to work.

In either case, Euripides' choruses are clearly not some burden imposed on him or his audience by dint of tradition, some boulder he must roll up the parodos like a tormented theatrical Sisyphus. Indeed, the chorus is one of the real joys of the ancient theatre and obviously a defining constituent of the playwright's art. The truth is, it is not Euripides but we who are uncomfortable with Greek choruses because communal songs such as these, when presented on stage, seem foreign and unwieldy to us. It is hard for many of us moderns to imagine how or why they were performed, and so we write them off as "primitive."

The reason for that is, at least in part, because we have lost the music that made them so enjoyable to the ancient Greeks. It's natural that a chorus is going to look weak and ill-defined if the text is spoken—instead of singing, try speaking any well-known and well-liked modern song such as Handel's Hallelujah chorus or imagine a crowd of farmers and cowboys chanting "Oklahoma OK!," and see if the song doesn't lose a great deal of its efficacy as art—indeed, a fairer estimation of the ancient evidence points exactly the other way. The ancients, including playwrights, actors, and audiences all loved the music in their theatre, and the chorus is no mere "relic" which tradition forced upon the tragedians but a vital and integral part of their medium.

So where should we look for the type of data that we can use in composing our study of ancient theatre and drama? The answer has to be, in everything imaginable. Our investigation must include a comprehensive examination of ancients' lives and society, especially their values and sense of what constitutes right-and-wrong. Surely their religion, what made them feel reverence and fear, what stirred them on a fundamental, emotional level is also central to theatre history. And we cannot discount philosophy, because from an understanding of their aesthetics—that is, what appealed to them as beautiful and worth regarding—as well as their sense of reason, we see what a classical audience was willing to believe and accept. The truth is, all facets of society involve theatre and are integral to the study of theatre history, a daunting but unavoidable prospect.


IV. Conclusion: A Methodology for Researching Classical Drama

It seems best, then, to approach theatre history and classical drama by moving through four stages in each period we study (not necessarily in this order):

• we will examine the society and the development of a period;

• we will survey the theatre history of the period, for instance, what is known about the spaces used for theatre, the costuming, make-up, and use (or non-use) of actors;

• we will embark on a review of the drama of the period;

• and finally we will carefully read, scrutinize and realize classical texts in the theatre of our minds so we can see for ourselves what makes a drama work—or, to the best of our ability, what could have made the drama work in its day—and to ground our study of ancient drama in a fuller appreciation of the world for which it was designed.

One way or another, I hope everyone of you will participate in the re-creation of the theatrical pieces we are going to review. Please do not elect to be passive participants in your education about this crucial phase of theatre; rather, choose to be involved and to care. Taking an active role in class is prerequisite not only to learning about theatre but to all learning.


Terms, Places, People and Things to Know
History
Historiography
Historia

Herodotus
Ionian Revolution
Primary Evidence
Secondary Evidence
Inference
Cogent
Tripartition
Battle of Thermopylae
Ibn Kahldun
Theatre
Theatron
Institution
Theatrical
Language
Impersonation
Audience
Positivism
Progress
Primitive
E.K. Chambers
Chorus

Course Description
Class Grading and Projects
Chapters
Syllabus
Slides
A Guide to Writing in History and Classics

 

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