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Classical Drama and Theatre

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Chapter 16: Late Classical Theatre and Drama

I. Introduction: Late Roman Theatre

Popular entertainment dominated the Roman stage from the turn of the millennium until the end of the Empire, leaving in its wake next-to-no dramatic texts of any sort from this entire period. That effectively brings to a close the study of Roman drama, indeed classical drama itself. Added to that, the ravages of time and the animosity of certain social forces against Roman theatre have collaborated to erase nearly all accounts of dramatic performance in the later Roman Empire. For some types of entertainment that comes as little surprise. Even when scripted, professional wrestling rarely leaves behind scripts.

Furthermore, close examination of the nature of "higher" entertainment in this day shows why its failure to be preserved comes as no surprise. Pantomime, for instance, a highly popular form of choreographed narrative resembling modern ballet, by definition entailed no text as such. And since talking was unnecessary, the masks used in this genre had no openings for the actor's mouth. Introduced in 22 BCE by two actors, Pylades and Bathyllus, pantomime came to dominate the belles-lettres of later Rome—even though it entailed virtually no lettres, belles or otherwise—and eventually displaced tragedy and comedy as the principal form of serious narrative entertainment. But outside of the occasional reference in ancient authors and a few detailed descriptions of particularly spectacular productions, no history of pantomime survives.

Exterior of the Colosseum (click to see larger image)That means we know little more about its nature than that the audience of pantomime tended to include educated people because, no doubt, it was generally more artistic and milder in content than its raunchier analogue, mime. Also, as a dance form, it focused on gesture and movement and included costume changes when a performer played different characters and often took the form of a solo danseur with a chorus as back-up that served as the narrator of the story. What words the chorus uttered are not preserved. And this is really all that can be said from this distant vantage point about the pre-eminent form of dramatic art in later Rome.

In general, when our sources speak of what happened in the theatre during the majority of the imperial age, their focus is almost invariably upon non-dramatic forms of entertainment. As today, sports commanded much attention. Besides gladiatorial combat, other types of Roman games presented to the public included venationes, wild beast hunts that often ended in gory kills, and naumachiae, artificial sea battles mounted in rivers or flooded arenas. Julius Caesar himself is said to have introduced the latter to the Romans just months before his assassination. (note)

Interior of the Colosseum (click to see larger image)The carnage these wrought is unimaginable, and while many races and creeds met gruesome ends to the tune of these brutal entertainments—and the victims were not only Christians or helpless slaves—the real suffering fell upon animals who died by the thousands on the Roman sand. Often imported from exotic locales just so the public could have a brief look at them before their demise, creatures of all sorts were then set at each other's throats in the arena and, while gladiators could appeal to the crowd to spare their lives, the animals were invariably exterminated. The ecological damage is incalculable and wholly unwarranted.

Outside of pantomime, those few serious dramas that visited the late Roman stage entailed, for the most part, revivals of classics. There is little evidence Romans after the first century wrote, much less watched, original plays. Mime lived on, of course, but rarely in a form even as erudite as "The Adulteress." History's notation of a performance here or there burlesquing myth or tragedy is really all that attests to the general public's awareness classical drama had ever even existed. In that light, it is a wonder the classics of theatre survived the age at all.

Women finally made it onto the stage, though not as serious performers but novelty acts usually centering around their sexuality. As with earlier Greek mime, masks were not used and performers tended to be either very good-looking or very ugly, something extreme and eye-catching. We hear of atrocities, too, the actual execution of criminals on stage, but it is unclear how representative these are of what constituted the usual fare among Roman entertainments. If an ancient author remarks on such a spectacle, it is a good guess, then, that it was a rarity.

Statuette of a Juggler (click to see larger image)The statuettes of jugglers and dancers preserved from Rome at this time are probably more typical of mime in this day. So, if there is a parallel with modern life, Roman mime probably most closely resembles modern television. To describe its content is virtually impossible, except to say it frequently had very little worth describing.

This cavernous absence of data makes the evolution in entertainment across the period of late Rome hard to assess. The literary tradition that passed the works of Euripides and Plautus, for instance, down through a succession of Medieval manuscripts records next to nothing about these popular spectacles, and it's not hard to see why—they probably offered little of lasting value—furthermore, many were probably not built around written texts. Yet, to have close to nothing from which to gauge for ourselves the nature and worth of such extravaganzas is frustrating.

It is to our fortune, then, the sands of Egypt again step up and shed, if only a faint light in a distant corner, at least some dim illumination on this gap in our understanding. To wit, the scraps of an ancient papyrus have been discovered containing fragments of dialogue drawn from what must be a late Roman skit or mime of some sort (see Reading 9). Written in a mixture of Greek and some unknown language, this playlet now named Charition after its principal character—the ancient name of this piece is not preserved—has been called a vaudeville, mostly for lack of a better word. If not great literature, Charition reveals what constituted entertainment during the age of popular taste, and it is not an appetizing sight.

II. The End of Classical Drama

Map of the Byzantine Empire (click to see larger image)Popular entertainment—the games, the circuses, and the mimes—did not end until Rome itself collapsed. Indeed, it took the complete economic collapse of central government in the western Empire to bring a halt to the crowd-pleasing spectacles that had dominated the theatres and sports arenas of the Roman world, and even then only half of it. While the general shift to Christian ethics helped undermine all forms of popular entertainment, it never squelched them entirely, as is evident in the East where chariot racing and mimes thrived long after 476 BCE.

Hippodrome, the horse racing track in Constantinople (click to see larger image)While the period of Byzantine theatre—in essence, late Eastern Roman theatre—really belongs to a study of the Middle Ages, it is worth glancing at what happened to classical drama in the aftermath of antiquity, if only to get a sense of how the story ends. Mime, in particular, appears to have thrived in this time. Despite the failure of any script like Herondas' to have survived from ancient Byzantium, other evidence makes it clear that mime continued to exist well into the early modern period.

Most of the evidence for this, however, is indirect. For instance, the constant railing of the Church fathers against the theatre in general—but, in fact, what they were really denouncing was mime—shows the persistence of low-brow burlesques that were probably much like Charition. Nor did the strong grounding of ancient theatre in the polytheistic traditions of the pagan world do much to assuage Christian leaders' fears about the potentially corrupting influence of classical drama. In the end, to them it was better to have no theatre at all than try to sort out the best.

III. Classical Drama after Antiquity

Furthermore, in their minds, what little from classical drama was worth saving was best readapted to Christian principles and thus rendered harmless to a virtuous readership, the very posture Hrotswitha adopted toward the relatively mild Terence. This notion can be seen in the Christus Patiens ("Christ Suffering," in the original Greek Christos Paschon), a medieval text reconfiguring Euripides' drama, and The Bacchae in particular, so as to tell the story of Christ, mostly by quoting the Greek out of context or recasting the words slightly. (note) The ready equation of Christ and Dionysus—both are youthful gods said to have died and later been reborn, put through cruel trials and abused by detractors (click here to read more about this)—made the conversion less cumbersome than one might expect. In theory, it is little different from what Plautus did with Menander, making this Christianized Euripides just one more permutation of Greek tragedy re-modulated for a new age and audience. (note)

Map of Islamic Expansion (click to see larger image)The majority of civilizations adopted or adapted classical drama in one way or another, with one important exception. Forged in the crucible of the early Middle Ages, a period of dynamic cultural metamorphosis, Islam stems largely from the genius of one man, Muhammad. An Arab trader who had intense visions of his god Allah beginning in the early 600's, Muhammad almost singlehandedly revolutionized the concept of religion and religious practices in his homeland, today's Saudi Arabia. Islam entails a novel form of monotheism, one of the strongest ever conceived. (click here to read more about this)

Islamic art: the Al-Hambra (click to see larger image)Building from but not dependent upon earlier Christian and Jewish theological structures—and, in particular, the ancient Hebrew scriptures known to us as the Old Testament—Muhammad took the second of the so-called Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt not make graven images," as an injunction against the creation of any realistic art which included theatre, along with realistic painting and statuary, all of which were sternly forbidden in Muslim culture. This effectively killed the tradition of theatrical arts among the most advanced societies of the early Middle Ages (600-1000 CE). As a result, no Islamic theatre evolved for many centuries, either in the Near East or the many parts of the world where Muslim culture predominates.

So, while the Muslims advanced the study of philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and, as we saw in Section 1, history, Islam's suppression of drama killed the theatre for a good millennium in the Near East which for many years was the richest and most culturally advanced civilization on earth. Cairo, the capital of Egypt and for many centuries a center of culture and learning, housed no theatre until the 1920's. It was, in fact, only in the second half of the twentieth century that drama, cinema and television began to make inroads into Islamic culture.

Other parts of the world worked more actively to keep alive the traditions of the theatre. As Western Europe, for instance, went through economic decline and cultural turmoil during the early Middle Ages, the memory of theatre still lingered in the public mind, and drama was not forgotten altogether, as is witnessed here and there in Medieval literature. In particular, mime persisted, perhaps conveying the conventions of Atellan farce to commedia dell'arte centuries later in the European Renaissance.

Chinese actor (click to see larger image)Moreover, the theatre of China and India which never collapsed as completely as its Western counterpart —Asian dramatic traditions have persisted basically unbroken since their invention—has maintained a species of performance built on a premise that views reality in ways unconventional to pragmatic Westerners. Eastern theatre, for example, arises from a set of cultural presuppositions that aim at and address a very different social context. That is, where the West tends to see reality rooted in concrete and reliable terms making it sensible, observable, measurable, and ultimately knowable, Eastern cultures have more often sought inner truths, an unchanging world accessed best through meditation and contemplation.

In this worldview, the material universe is merely an illusion fraught with conflicting sensations and distractions that corrupt the mind. Truth, instead, comes through the study of philosophy and religion, as humankind seeks the "common spirit" found in the "real world," the world of ideas. To join oneself with that inner truth is the goal of many Eastern philosophical and religious systems. An outgrowth of this conception, Eastern theatre which often looks "static" to Westerners, in fact, feeds on the perception that immutable truths underlie all human experience. More important, theatrical conventions grounded in such a climate have proven difficult to uproot, and thus Eastern theatre has continued in an unbroken tradition and much better condition than its coeval in the West.

IV. Conclusion: The Future of the Past

But to Westerners change does happen, even if it's only an illusion, so the relapse of Western civilization during the Middle Ages and its subsequent re-formation in the Renaissance based on a new set of social institutions restored institutional theatre throughout Europe. What little of ancient drama survived that cataclysm became a priceless resource for teaching practical lessons in plot construction and character depiction. Had more been saved, much time might have, too, in relearning the lessons of the past.

It seems, for instance, that the modern age is constantly re-inventing Menandrean drama, when any particular public finally grows tired of gaudy spectacles peopled by shallow characters and demands something "meatier" to chew on, something that, in Horace's words, "wishes to be in demand or called back to the stage." In other words, if we'd had Menander from the outset of modern times, his careful guidance might have opened our forebears' eyes and minds to the exigencies, power and possibilities of realistic drama. With that, we might have seen our way a little faster to the sort of drama Shakespeare created—or to be more precise, re-created.

Looking ahead, then, to Shakespeare's future is, in fact, a good way to end this course of study and a salutary measure that sounds a final warning note worthy of Cassandra. Because we have yet to see where modern theatre is headed—and one should recall that artforms can die out completely and so extinction is always a threat!—Shakespeare's drama, even though it seems firmly established in the canon of Western literature, is in reality an unfinished experiment. That his drama still plays well on our stages today makes it appear he has ahead of him a long and fruitful future as a classic , but our day represents only one phase, albeit a crucial one, in his investment as an enduring feature of Western culture, the sort of greatness his Greek tragic ancestors, despite the fact their work now lies in "rags and patches," have already achieved.

That is, until the man from Stratford-on-Avon has withstood the turning of the ages and as many evolutionary changes as Sophocles has seen since antiquity, our formidable Elizabethan cousin is still a schoolboy by the standard of the classical playwrights "with his shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly" across the Western stage. No Medieval centuries, for instance, have yet to cast the Bard as obsolete and "pagan." More important, his language is still comprehensible to English speakers—if only barely to many now—but all of this will change in the next few centuries, a mere tick of the evolutionary clock, and then will come the real test of his excellence and staying power. Let us hope for our progeny he survives his "middle ages" better than his classical comrades did—or if not, at least as well—for a world with no Hamlet or Bacchae to perform is that much less worth inhabiting.

**Postscript (2023). I've been watching the latest action movie franchises featuring superheroes, for example, Spider-Man, The Avengers and the Fantastic Four, and I've noted an interesting pattern that pertains to this class. Seen from a broad perspective, these works of modern cinema alternate between fight scenes and episodes of dialogue. This is, of course, exactly the same pattern seen in classical Greek tragedy and comedy, with the exception that in the modern works fights have replaced choral songs. It is worth noting, however, that the cinematic fight scenes are, much like Greek choruses, highly choreographed and have musical accompaniment. Also, while most Greek choruses are lyric odes often to some god, there are odes that describe battles (Antigone 100-161). Thus, the legacy of ancient theatre lives on even in places where you might least expect it.**

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know

Pylades [PILL-lah-deez]
Bathyllus [BATH-uh-luss]
Venationes [venn-nah-tee-YOH-nays]
Naumachiae [now-MOCK-key-eye]

Charition [car-RITT-tee-yon]
Byzantine Theatre
Christus Patiens (Christos Paschon)


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