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Classical Drama and Theatre

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Chapter 2: The Origins of Theatre and Drama

I. Introduction to the Question of the Origins of Theatre and Drama

Although the origin of Western theatre itself does not strictly fall within the scope of the study of classical drama, Greek drama is the earliest form of theatre attested in the West and so it behooves students of classical drama to review what constitutes the background of the subject they are exploring. Furthermore, the question of the origin of Western theatre makes an excellent test case for the theories explored in the previous chapter, a chance to apply the definition of "theatre" constructed there to the issue of where and when theatre as such arose. In other words, using the definition of "theatre" constituted above lends focus to the search for its origin, especially when we look for art forms antecedent to the earliest Greek drama which center on language, impersonation, and audience and which led to, or may have led to, theatre.

This also predicates a certain approach to the question. While we are looking for audience, impersonation, and spoken language in performance, we will not be looking for other things which from a modern perspective one might presume are prerequisite to drama. Theatre buildings, for instance, are not absolutely obligatory, nor are dramatic scripts. Even more important, we must not seek "progress" across time, especially the sort of advancement measured by modern technological standards. And we must avoid seeing merely theatrical elements in society as evidence of theatre as an "autonomous activity." We are looking for the institution of theatre, not just presentational devices of any sort, because all societies, even those without the custom of institutional performance, have viewers and viewed but do not necessarily have "theatre." Our sources are nothing less in scope than society itself. Any autonomous activities that involve impersonation, audience, and language—festivals, celebrations, rituals, and the like where people watch other people speaking and playing roles—may give evidence of where theatre came from.

II. Where to begin? The Documentary Evidence for Pre-Classical Drama

Before embarking on our search, we must address a problem that immediately confronts anyone exploring the origin of Western drama. There is a pitiful dearth of written texts available for reconstructing the path that led to classical drama. Those dated to the early periods of Greek history are particularly scarce, and artistic sources (vase paintings, in particular) are little better. Indeed, remarkably few instructive depictions of early drama exist at all—about twenty representations of choruses and dancing painted on vases surviving from the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE—and even so it is not clear how these may connect, if they do at all, to institutional theatre.

Herodotus (click to see larger image)Furthermore, there is no written source on early theatre and drama contemporaneous with the period in which the art form arose. All our documentation comes from later authors. That is, it is secondary evidence, and so its bearing on our search for origins is at best suspect. Even Herodotus, who lived in the age of classical drama, presents few reliable data about the preceding century in which theatre developed as an art form. In all the nine books of The Histories he notes only twice what seem to be theatre-like activities (note).

First, in Book 2 he describes an Egyptian festival that involves a ritual mock battle which may include an early form of drama.

Herodotus, The Histories, Book 2.58-63 [Herodotus is discussing the origin of the Greek gods and their connection to Egyptian deities.]

(58) Indeed, as to solemn assemblies and parades and processions, the first people to do these things were the Egyptians, and from them the Greeks learned them. My evidence for this is as follows: theirs (i.e. the Egyptians' ceremonies) seem to have been created over a long time, whereas the Greek ceremonies were created recently.

(59) They assemble, the Egyptians that is, not once in the year but at many assemblies, often and most eagerly at the city of Bubastis in honor of the goddess Artemis, secondly at the city of Busiris in honor of Isis—indeed in this city is Isis' largest temple and the city itself was built in the midst of Egypt's delta; Isis is in the Greeks' language Demeter—thirdly at the city of Saïs in honor of Athena they assemble, fourthly at Heliopolis ("Sun City" ) in honor of Helios (the sun), fifthly at Buto in honor of Leto, and sixthly at the city of Papremis in honor of Ares.

(60) When into what is now the city of Bubastis they arrive, they do the following things. They sail, men together with women and a large number of each in every boat, and some of the women carry rattles and shake them, and the men play flutes the whole way, and the remaining women and men sing and clap their hands. Whenever they come to a new city, they bring their boat close to shore and do the following: some of the women do the things I just said, others abuse and shout at the women in that city, others dance, others hitch up their skirts and stand up. These things in every city along the river they do. When they come to Bubastis, they have a festival and make great sacrifices and drink grape wine more in this festival than in the whole year remaining. They gather, whatever there is of men and women but no children, as many as 700,000 as the locals say.

(61) And these things are done in this place . . . They beat themselves after the sacrifices, all men and all women, very many thousands of people. For whom (i.e. the god Osiris) they beat themselves, it is not righteous to say. Whatever Carians (i.e. Greeks from Asia Minor) are living in Egypt, they go so far as also to cut their foreheads with daggers and in this make it clear that they are foreigners and not Egyptians.

(62) In the city of Saïs, when they gather for sacrifices, on a particular night they all light many lamps out in the open around their houses in a circle. The lamps are really saucers filled with salt and oil, and on top there is the wick itself and this burns all night, and this festival has the name "The Lamplighting." Those of the Egyptians who do not participate in this all-night festival still observe the night of the sacrifice by lighting lamps—everyone does this—and so not in Saïs alone is there the lighting (i.e. of lamps) but also throughout all Egypt. The reason that the light (or "the day" ) and the honor (i.e. of this rite) was given to the night itself is explained in a sacred myth concerning this (festival) . . .

(63) . . . but in Heliopolis and Buto the pilgrims perform only sacrifices. In Papremis, sacrifices and rites, as elsewhere, are performed. At the setting of the sun a few of the priests attend to the statue (of Ares), but the majority of them hold clubs made of wood and stand at the temple's entrance while others make vows (i.e. to protect the god's statue), more than a thousand men, all holding clubs and these stand opposite the rest in a mass. The statue, being as it is in a small shrine made of wood and plated with gold, they escort (this statue) on the day before to another sacred building. And those few left behind with the statue pull a four-wheeled wagon carrying the shrine and the statue which is in the shrine, and the others standing at the front gates (i.e. of the temple) do not let them enter, but those who vowed to defend the god strike those resisting (i.e. preventing the advance of the statue into the temple). Thereupon a battle with clubs, a rather large one, ensues, and they split skulls and, as I understand, many even die from their wounds; not, however, according to the Egyptians does anyone die. This all-night ceremony became a tradition for the following reason, say the locals: that there lived in this temple Ares' (i.e. the god of war) mother, and Ares who was raised elsewhere came -- after having become a man -- wishing to lay with his mother, and the servants of his mother, for not having seen him before, did not look the other way when he entered, rather they fended him off, and he fetching men from another city handled the servants roughly and went inside to his mother. For this reason this fight in behalf of Ares at the festival has become a tradition, they say.

While this passage seems to some scholars to present data which fit into a scheme of evolution advancing toward drama, careful examination of the passage clouds the picture considerably. The celebration outlined above looks more like a religious ritual incorporating impersonation than any sort of play with which we are familiar, less a Eugene O'Neill drama than a Catholic mass, especially the way the church ceremonies were performed in the medieval period when pageantry, processions and narrative-oriented rites were often used. The truth is there are no clear, unambiguous records preserved of early theatrical forms in any ancient Western society prior to the rise of classical drama in Greece.

The desperate state of this situation has led scholars to search in other arenas for evidence of early Western drama. If Greek historical data prove lacking, perhaps other cultures have somehow preserved analogues comparable to what must have existed in early Western civilization. This supposition—that evidence drawn from other cultures may have bearing on the origin of early theatre in the West—opened the way for tracking down the relics or "fossils" of primordial theatre, presumably to be found in other cultures' theatrical rituals. These rituals have, as some scholars presume, been frozen in time and may represent what prehistoric drama in the West looked like.

But where does one begin such a search? What limitations are there to a cultural treasure hunt of this ilk? How does one recognize data which pertain from those which do not? Admittedly, some form of theatrical art must have preceded and led in one way or another to Greek drama, but lacking even a hint of what it looked like, how do we proceed? It is like trying to reconstruct dinosaurs without a single fossil of a dinosaur to go on, relying on only what their descendants or evolutionary kin look like. If there were no fossils of dinosaurs, it seems unlikely anyone would be able to deduce reliably even that dinosaurs ever existed, much less their appearance or behavior. This is comparable to what historians face in trying to reconstruct the origin of drama. But, when there is virtually no historical evidence to go on, reconstruction based on the study of "living fossils" is the only option, sad to say.

As we proceed down this path then, we must bear in mind at all times that our search may be an exercise in futility, especially because it risks a great danger that lurks behind all historical investigation. It might end up saying more about the historians than the history itself. That is, in our reconstruction we may be seeing what we want to see in history—or more likely what we are programmed by our culture to see—and not what was once really there.

This is how the fallacy can run: first, we decide what "primitive" forms of theatre must have looked like, then we look for "primitive" rituals exhibiting those characteristics and finally, when we find them, we call such data evidence of the forerunner of classical drama. Reasoning of this sort is obviously circular. We have ended up where we decided we would end up, and by no one's definition is that "progress" of any kind. Indeed, we may have learned something but it is not about the origins of Western theatre, rather about ourselves and our culturally prescribed biases, a fine subject for the therapy couch but not for the history seminar room. Before we head off on this perilous trek, let us begin by reviewing past scholarship on the origins of Western drama.

III. Research on the Origins of Theatre and Drama

The search for the origins of theatre is a very old one, dating back at least to the Greek philosopher Aristotle who lived in the century after the Classical Age. His investigations, now seen as "data" about classical theatre, are—and one must always remember this—the results of his own investigations into theatre history and, just like ours, no more or less reliable than the data on which they rest. Because he lived in antiquity and speaks so often from authority about the ancient world, we must never forget that Aristotle is, in essence, secondary evidence when it comes to the birth of Greek theatre, an event which occurred two centuries before his day. Exactly how "secondary" are the data he presents—that is, how much better his conclusions are than our own investigations—lies at the crux of an important issue in evaluating his contribution to our understanding of primordial Greek drama. We will return to Aristotle and this conundrum when we address the classical sources pertaining to this issue later (see Section 1, Chapter 4). For now, let us proceed to more recent scholarship.

The Golden Bough by James Frazer (click to see larger image)The modern "scientific" search for the origins of Western theatre is grounded in a revolutionary book by an important nineteenth-century anthropologist, The Golden Bough by James Frazer. His work constitutes one of the seminal documents of anthropology, and in many ways its publication in 1896, with later expansion and republication in 1915, sparked the scientific investigation of human culture. The Golden Bough entails a massive compilation of data about cultures all over the world and operates on the premise that there is a discernible, universal progression of global culture over time, in Frazer's words the "slow and toilsome ascent of humanity from savagery to civilization." In economic terms, that meant to Frazer a culture's evolution from hunting to grazing to growing crops and, in terms of intellectual development, "progress" from magic to religion to science, an ideology which Frazer studiously applied to the wide range of cultures he studied. Though he addressed drama and theatre as such relatively little, others used his methodology to approach that subject. To early anthropologists, comparing theatre with religion and ritual proved particularly productive. A mere two decades after the first publication of The Golden Bough, no fewer than six new theories concerning the origin of theatre had appeared in print.

But there are grave fallacies demonstrable in this early research. First and foremost, the equation of early and "primitive" on which many of these early studies are founded is fundamentally misguided. All societies do not march to the beat of the same drummer. They develop and progress by their own standards which are not necessarily congruent with the ideals eventually adopted by modern Western civilizations. All in all, our values are not the only ones possible, nor is our culture the paradigm of all others. Modern history makes it all too obvious that by nobody's yardstick should we serve as the measure of all things.

In particular, technological superiority does not always go hand and hand with cultural advancement, an equation popular in the West. Frazer's assumptions, in fact, played into the preconceptions and biases prevalent in his day, such as that dark-skinned natives are by nature "primitive" when compared to light-skinned people of European descent. Even more so did his tenet that human culture is ultimately knowable in a scientific sense. Such positivism indeed assumes that science and scientific knowledge represent the culmination of civilization. So, following positivistic principles and the dictum of evolutionary biology that species tend generally to evolve slowly from one type to another by proceeding through a series of transitional forms, those studying the religion and rituals of "primitive" peoples, which they presumed served as the forerunners of theatre, expected to see in them evidence of the state of early Western civilization and thus not only what early Greek culture and theatre looked like but the pattern of gradual evolution followed by all human societies. Of course, in the end they did not find those transitional forms nor, in fact, any compelling evidence for such an evolution.

If anthropological investigation of human culture on a global scale did not proceed exactly as expected, Frazer's work left in its wake a new beginning for the study of the origins of theatre, and for that alone modern scholarship owes him a great deal. Still, immediate and conclusive answers to the great and perplexing problem of theatre's most remote beginnings were not forthcoming. In fact, many more questions than answers rose out of these early modern studies, which is not in itself a bad thing but can lead to confusion. What is more significant and disconcerting, a dramatic change of academic venue occurred at this juncture in scholarship. The study of early theatre passed largely into the hands of anthropologists, not theatre historians. In other words, the study of world cultures was seen to do at least as much good for a researcher investigating this issue as it was to read ancient Greek. Aboriginal Western drama was now a question of sociology, not ancient Greece or theatre or even Aristotle.

Likewise, information from later periods such as the Classical Age seemed of less interest than that which dealt with the rituals, myth, and magic of "primitive" societies. For instance, sacred dances in early Greece began to receive more attention than the later choruses of Euripides, and theatre fell by the wayside as "theatrical" practices took the center stage of scholarship. The underlying question of the relationship between religious rituals and later theatre was not often addressed directly, because it was assumed that these early celebrations must in some way have led to theatre. Few seemed to question how a sacred dance is "theatre" or how such a thing might evolve into drama. While much was learned in this sort of study, the central question, "About what? Theatre or ritual?," did not get asked as much as it should have.

Bronislaw Malinowski (click to see larger image)Frazer's work stimulated others to study myth in general. Their work also contributed to the question of the origin of theatre, inasmuch as early drama is almost exclusively centered around myth. One such researcher, Bronislaw Malinowski, worked on the nature of myth. He theorized that mythological thinking functioned in society as a means of rationalizing the institutions prevalent in the day. In Malinowski's words, "[Myth] is a statement of primeval reality which lives in the institutions and pursuits of a community. It justifies by precedent the existing order . . ." Some of his followers—called "functionalists" because they focused on myth as an organ of society that functioned to justify the existing regime—applied Malinowski's theories to theatre.

It is true that all but a few early Greek dramas narrate stories drawn from myth and that many include aetiological ("explanatory") elements. In other words, they explain cultural or physical phenomena by asserting a mythic precedent and so are in line with Malinowski's theories. For instance, Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound concerns the Titan who, according to Greek myth, brought fire to man so humans might have the benefits of its warmth and the use of the forge. This play clearly contains aetiological elements (i.e. how humankind came to possess and use fire). But are all dramas aetiological? Can some not be merely good narrative or exciting theatre without necessarily explaining to the audience why something exists in their world? Here again, theory falls short of encompassing the great breadth of drama, even from its earliest day.

Claude Levi-StraussOthers later have continued the debate, in particular, Claude Levi-Strauss whose complex and sometimes unfathomable theory of structuralism explores the nature of prevailing dualities in culture which art and myth seek to "mediate." That is, drama allows poets to express the ineffable collision of opposites which make human life otherwise incomprehensible. It is hard to argue against such a wide-ranging thesis, which means it is equally hard to argue for it. Suffice it to say that all these researchers deal in abstracts and, while their work is fascinating and inviting, it is still pure speculation in the absence of concrete evidence for what drama actually looked like in prehistoric antiquity.

And, unfortunately, in more than one case, what they say often says, as so often, more about modern societies than early ones. For example, the mechanistic principles underlying Malinowski's functionalism is arguably the product of the increasingly mechanized twentieth century, a tendency not evidenced as such in classical antiquity. In other words, Malinowski found in myth what appealed to him as a modern man facing a world of machines, but it is not at all clear that Aeschylus felt the same. Whether or not functionalism applies to the past, its attraction today stems largely from how well it resonates in our lives, not the ancients'.

We should note also that, when Frazer earlier had sought "primitive" culture among dark-skinned people, he was pursuing a "politically correct" path in his day. Despite the fact that the data militate against this sort of thinking and to debunk such a view represents a correct and better documented view—not to mention, a more fundamentally humane perspective!—such a posture of multi-cultural acceptance and openmindedness is still no less politically correct for our age than Frazer's "primitivism" was for his. Like him, we are all still the products of our times, and what sells as theory is still to a great extent simply a matter of what sells. It is probably apocryphal but there is a story of an anthropologist who, as she was getting up to speak before her peers, was greeted by them enthusiastically. When she got to the microphone, she said, "By your warm applause I can see that I must be doing something wrong." Touché!

IV. Some Answers to the Question of the Origins of Theatre and Drama

All of this leaves us still with the question of the origin of theatre as an institution. Anthropological research has shown that there are without doubt "theatrical" elements in all societies, past and present, involving all three of the essential elements of theatre: audience, impersonation and language. Virtually every culture ever studied has audiences who watch performances of some sort, often rituals in which priests or celebrants impersonate others in relating important narratives. These rites are also repeated, just as plays are. Language, however, is more of a problem since it is not essential to all early rituals—many of them are sung, danced or mimed—but it is not essential to all modern theatre either. One must remember that the presence of spoken language is only a guideline and notably the weakest of the three elements cited in the previous chapter as essential to theatre.

Nevertheless, while anthropologists' work has indeed found a dizzying array of "theatrical" elements in cultures spanning the planet, the question yet remains whether or not these entail the earliest vestiges of—or even analogues of the earliest forms of—institutional theatre in the West? That is, "Do theatrical elements constitute proto-theatre, and if so, how?" Can we trace a direct line from them to theatre? And that is the issue we need to investigate before proceeding any further.

While it looks to be an unanswerable question, theatre historians can take some comfort, indeed some clues about how to resolve this issue, from the fact that theatre history is not the only discipline facing this problem. Indeed, it benefits and behooves theatre historians to examine how their colleagues in other fields have confronted the challenge of reconstructing lost worlds. When scholars in other disciplines are left with no choice but to fill in areas where data is lacking and to construct cogent scenarios across gaps in their information, they are essentially performing the same process of inference that theatre historians of early drama do.

For instance, though the study of hominid evolution—and specifically the search for the predecessors of homo sapiens—is often seen as a "science," it is at heart a historical enterprise exemplifying some important lessons about dealing with controversial and fragmentary data. In this branch of paleontology, scholars are broken into groups quaintly referred to by some as "lumpers" and "splitters" (note). Lumpers are those who see the evidence for early hominid forms as belonging to a single line of development which leads one way or another to modern humans. Splitters see the same data as evidence that there are many dead-end offshoots from the main branch that has ended up with modern humans. That is, to a lumper a hominid fossil is a direct ancestor of modern humans and represents a stage in the evolution of our species. To a splitter, the same fossil comes not from a direct human ancestor but a form of hominid that may share a remote ancestor with homo sapiens but is not a direct member of our genetic line, a great-uncle, so to speak, but not a great-grandfather.

Likewise, the historians of early theatre can be divided into lumpers and splitters. The lumpers see a single line of development in which all attested early rituals contribute to or develop into theatre. The splitters of theatre history see each different ritual as representative of a different line of development, not steps which necessarily led to theatre. Both are right in some ways and wrong in others.

Lumpers are right if one looks at theatre not as a coherent art form but the sum of its component parts. All theatrical rituals are surely proto-theatre in one way or another but they are not institutional theatre, nor does combining them arbitrarily produce theatre. When non-Western societies stir together language, audience, and impersonation, all the ingredients of institutional theatre, they do not always cook up theatre in our sense of the word. Thus, while the recipe for theatre requires the existence of its component parts, it takes more than that to bake a play.

If splitters are more correct in that respect, they also fail to appreciate fully the commonality in human rituals, for instance, in fertility rites or marriage ceremonies. By splitting hairs they create chaos where coherence, in fact, rules, and from that comes a profound despair for order. So, for instance, it cannot be denied that the ancient Chinese also developed theatre which, though very different from Western theatre, is still theatre and is called "theatre" in all its institutional splendor. Minor, superficial discrepancies do not necessarily signal different evolutionary paths.

Thus, the lesson to be learned from the lumper-splitter debate is that the way one approaches theatre is crucial in assessing its origin. If one sees it as any sort of performance with viewers and viewed, theatre arises from everything in society because we are naturally imitative as a species, or "mimetic" as Aristotle put it. But that raises an entirely different question, not one that will by necessity lead us to an answer about the origins of theatre in the West. The fact is, theatrical elements can turn into "theatre," but they do not have to, certainly not by Western standards which may be part and parcel of the theatre in the West but not elsewhere.

And so the final answer seems to be that, since theatre is first recorded in ancient Greece, we must conclude in the absence of further evidence that it began somehow in that place and time, and indeed rather abruptly, to judge from the evidence. For it is there that the components of theatre are first attested as existing within a truly institutional theatre and, to be fair, we must give credit where credit is due. In sum, the "theatrical" is, no doubt, as old as humankind, but the "theatre" is only as old as the pre-classical Greeks.

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know
The Histories
James Frazer, The Golden Bough

Bronislaw Malinowski [mal-in-OFF-ski]
Aetiological [ee-tee-oh-LODGE-ick-ull]
Claude Levi-Strauss
Mimetic [my-MET-tick]


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