Theatre History Essay, Research Paper
Question 1 – Faith and the Theatre
Throughout history, religion has played perhaps the most important role in the influence of cultural and societal trends. The ethics and values that a society holds dear are a direct result of the faith that binds that society together. Faith is something that governs, something that punishes, and when in jeopardy, it is something that people don t mind fighting over. Faith is a reflection of many things. Like literature, theatre has proven to be a reflection of faith. Both theatre and faith share common ground-they are both art forms of emotion, self-expression, and self-discovery. Faith influences society and society looks for an outlet of expression. Society often finds that outlet in theatre and despite restrictions, theatre has always had a way of outlining the best and worst of a society s faith.
Before the widespread growth of Christianity over the last 2000 years, a majority of the world was polytheistic. In the Abydos Passion Play, possibly the earliest surviving evidence of theatre existence, Osiris, son of the supreme god, Geb, is murdered in a jealous rage and then later resurrected. After his resurrection, Osiris is unable to live on earth and goes on to live in the afterworld, judging the souls of others (8). This story strongly resembles the Christian passion play and although there is no definite proof that it was ever actually acted out in theatrical form, just the story itself and what it could possibly imply is enough to make one uneasy (9). The fact that the Abydos story is so much like the passion of Jesus Christ is interesting considering that they are separated by 2500 years and take place under totally opposite cultural roofs. This coincidence supports the notion generally agreed upon by most theatre scholars that as a social barometer, theatre has always been one step ahead of societal trends. As a twenty-first century Christian, it would appear that the theatre of ancient Egypt has had the last laugh.
Theatre and faith would once again reflect each other in ancient Greece. As Christians, we believe that God is all knowing, all-powerful, and is always on our side. To polytheistic ancient Grecians, gods were merely a step above humans. Some were smarter than others were, some were meaner than others were, and all were mischievous. Theatre in ancient Greece existed with a specific purpose in mind. More than just entertainment, it was a tool. Theatre was used to show Gods what it was like to be human. Plays were written taking the extremities of the human experience and delivering them in a way that the gods could understand. It was in this era that theatre began to take on a more noticeable form. Tragedies like Oedipus Rex and Antigone were written to show the gods how cruel twists of fate and suffering affected human beings. Dramas and comedies were written and performed at festivals such as the City Dionysia where plays were presented and awards were given (17). All theatre in ancient Greece was written and performed expressly for religious purposes. Festivals were held, sacrifices were made, and orgies were to be had-all in the name of the gods. It is here that the relationship between faith and the theatre was at it s most tangible and deliberate.
After the fall of ancient Greece, the theatre and it s implications began to get increasingly more political and as a result, more dangerous to be involved in. This was perhaps most notable in the theatre of ancient Rome. In the days of the ancient Romans, the Italian peninsula was split into two sections: Etruria and Attella. Etruria had a reputation for favoring physical stature while Attella favored mental stature. With the combined influence of these two regions, theatre became increasingly sensational. Less attention was paid to the classics and more attention was given to jugglers, flute playing, prizefighting, and gladiatorial combat (50). The theatre of ancient Rome can be compared to American television, as it was more pulp than substance (49). While an extremely small amount of Roman plays survive today, the writings of theatre historians like Cicero and Horace have left us a lot of information about this period. In addition, the writings of a sensational storyteller named Suetonius outline the violence and sex associated with theatre during the Roman era. As true theatre all but disappeared under the carefree excess of pagan Rome, it was soon outlawed by Constantine in 325 A.D. after a dream in which he saw a vision of a white cross the night before he sent his troops into battle. After praying to the God of the cross he had seen, Constantine found himself victorious in battle the next day and swore allegiance to what ending up being the God of Christianity. Constantine then declared Christianity as the official religion of Rome under the Edict of Milan and set out to establish a definite canon of books for the Holy Bible. At the time, theatre had manifested itself into many different forms, one of which was gladiatorial combat. A large percentage of slaves forced into gladiator sports were Christians. Therefore, when Constantine outlawed theatre in Rome it was to save the lives of the Christians slaves being murdered. Once again, faith and the theatre had met hand in hand.
As Christianity gained rapid influence and popularity, many different sects of Christianity with many different slants began to spring up over Europe and North Africa. As an official dogmatic view of the religion began to come into form, theatre was kept alive only through underground mime troupes and storytellers that traveled throughout Europe. As the dark ages approached, mimes and minstrel shows began to take shape and in 970 A.D., a German nun named Hrosvitha began to write plays on Christian morality. Hrosvitha s stories began to gain immense popularity and drama found new life through the Christian church (85). Cycle pageants based on different views of the Bible, known as Vernacular Drama were also quite popular. Amongst the most popular of these was the 2nd Shepard’s Play. Dedication to the church in the medieval ages produced a very different but involved period for the theatre. Drama was an excellent way of communicating to a highly illiterate society the themes and messages outlined in the Bible (87). Ideals of Christian faith were brought to life through theatre. Whereas in the East, drama was still looked at as distasteful because of the legacy of ancient Rome, the Western world was putting drama to good use.
As the Middle Ages ended and the renaissance began, the mechanics of culture turned from the spiritual to the material. Secular ways and the praise of the individual gave way to many new art forms such as classical music, opera and the Comedia del Arte, a form of mime acting. By this time many plays from both ancient Greece and Rome had been long since destroyed, but a small amount of works from playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides had survived the test of time. A rediscovery of the classics was in order. A resurgence of Aristotelian philosophy and neo-classic behavior would soon result. The discovery of the new world and the abolition of the feudal system had transformed the Western world into a merchant based economy and as religion began to play a smaller part in the life of the renaissance man, theatre began to expand and redefine itself in many new ways. Mankind was expressing himself in new ways and the theatre of the renaissance was a direct reflection of this behavior.
Since ancient Egypt, the relationship between faith and the theatre is relative to the society that produces it. History is a testament that theatre is capable of radiating truth and lie, blasphemy and praise. In ancient Rome, theatre was a method of killing innocent Christians. During the Middle Ages, the same peoples it once killed used theatre for missionary purposes. When religion was taken out of the picture during the renaissance, there was no religion to be found in renaissance theatre. Theatre and faith prove to be an interrelated cycle of human will.
Essay 2 – The Role of the Playwright
The role of the playwright has changed many times since the dawn of theatre. As in most art forms, the degree of respect (or lack thereof) given to playwrights is largely dependant upon the society that produces them. To some cultures, playwrights were hallowed and considered almost superhuman in the eyes of society. In other cultures, they were regarded as being one step above garbage men. Different societies have always valued certain art forms more than others have. Theatre is one particular art form that has always been greeted with a large degree of speculation. When the value of theatre diminishes, so does the consideration for the writers behind it.
No one doubts that a primary function of theatre is to make people think. Other than the gods themselves, nothing else was more important to the people of ancient Greece than the concept of thought. In Greek philosophy, the closer people were to figuring out the meaning of how, the purpose of why, and the quest for when, the closer they were to deciphering the mysteries of the gods. Theatre was a way of communicating to the gods what it was like to be human – by idealizing the human experience in either tragedy or comedy (15). Naturally, a medium that could not only please the gods, but also entertain and inspire thought at the same time was highly regarded. As a result, playwrights were particularly popular people in ancient Greece. Playwrights like Aristophanes and Aeschylus and were kings among men. Theatre was such a strong enterprise during this era that competitive festivals such as the City and Rural Dionysia were often held and awards were given to the best writers (18). Sophocles, Euripides, and Thespis, winner of the first City Dionysia tournament, were often among the honored (17). We know of many other playwrights that were also honored but unfortunately their work has long since been lost. Only a small handful of plays from this era still exists today.
The next step in the evolution of the playwright s place in society occurred in ancient Rome. In contrast to ancient Greece, the culture of ancient Rome was very practical. For the most part, Romans were uninterested in theoretical discussion (51). They wanted things they could see, things they could touch. For this reason, Roman theatre tended to be less about inspiration and more about sheer entertainment. Romans, much like the Greeks before them, largely rejected foreign cultures and although they did embrace the classical mentality of theatre as a medium to please the gods, their own societal characteristics made them reject most of what was distinctly Greek (51). The writings of the Roman literary critic Horace tell us that Roman theatre was much more highly sensational and focused more on form than on substance. Eventually, an increase of sex and violence led to much corruption and in 325 A.D. the emperor Constantine had theatre outlawed. It was because of this corruption and emperor s harsh decision that the reputation of the Roman playwright was significantly less than it was in Greece. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the invading Visigoths destroyed almost all evidence of drama (73). In fact, even less Roman drama exists than what little we have from Greece. Of what did survive, a man named Seneca wrote a large portion of it. Despite the stigma of sexuality and violence that theatre acquired during the Roman Empire (and to this day has never fully escaped) the plays of Seneca, while brutish and realistic, deal for the most part with morality (57). Seneca s use of soliloquies, asides, and the interpretation of the superhuman world served as the basis for a lot of renaissance literature. What was not looked upon as a main attraction in it s own time is now considered masterful.
The Middle Ages, while not perhaps the most popular arena for playwrights to be living in, are an important study of the playwright s place in society. As the growth of Christianity spread throughout Europe, the attention of Europeans alike was directed to the church. Unfortunately, the stigma of theatre left behind by the Romans remained. Theatre was associated with pagan religions and often times, traveling shows featuring mimes troupes made fun of Christian theology (71). Because of this, theatre as a whole almost did not survive. Luckily, theatre manifested itself into nomadic tribes exhibiting novelty acts such as juggling, tumbling, and simple storytelling to stay alive. Eventually, as Christianity grew, it s teachings began to work their way into these traveling shows and it was soon discovered that theatre made for a good form of ministry. The Church soon began incorporating theatre into a kind of Christian play called Liturgical Drama (85). The boost of theatre in church was aided by short plays on Christian morals written by members within the church. In particular, a canoness at the monastery of Gandersheim, Germany named Hrosvitha and a Benedictine abbess named Hildegard of Bingen were amongst the forerunners of this movement (87). These liturgical dramas were performed during Church services. The primary focus of all medieval drama was to serve the church and the playwrights of this area are a reflection of this ideal. A playwright was considered as a missionary of sorts. For the first time in hundreds of years, the image of the theatre was gaining favor in the eyes of Christians. This era marked the birth of the pastoral playwright. This trend would continue for hundreds of years and vernacular drama, another kind of religious play would also increase in popularity. A few examples of vernacular drama plays are The Play of Saint Nicolas and The Miracle of Theophile (94). Unfortunately, most medieval drama, both liturgical and vernacular remains anonymous and for the most part, is gone forever (94).
The renaissance marked a change in mentality from religious to secular. After being the center of attention for nearly a thousand years, the shift from God to man unlocked new doors for the playwright and for theatre. Theatre began evolving from its medieval incarnation into new forms such as opera, intermezzi, and the comedia del arte. In addition, a rediscovery of the classics paved the way for a new take on old material. It is important to remember that the appeal of the playwright and the appeal of the theatre have not always gone hand in hand. This was never truer than it was for the playwrights of the English renaissance. In Elizabethan England, the theatre was quite popular. To escape the highly conservative theatre circuit in central London, budding young playwrights decided to drop their church-related theatrical upbringing and a new theatre industry made it s home in the highly suspect Southwark region below the Thames river. Playwrights were a dime a dozen in this era. The church had been responsible for a boom in literacy and as the amount of people that could read and write increased, so did the amount of playwrights. Unfortunately, the number of playwrights during this time period helped detract from their reputation and esteem (154). More than anything else, theatre was a business to the English. It was an industry and playwrights were merely a part of the money making process. Southwark was notorious for being high in prostitution, gambling, and other debauchery. Playwrights were not paid very well and like most theatre companies, were in both trouble and debt a lot of the time (157). A few Elizabethan playwrights who had their share of fame and folly are Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson. Despite their poor reputation, Elizabethan playwrights were the best there has ever been. Educated and particularly feisty, the playwrights of this era gave us the best drama and comedy in the history of the theatre and it s largely due to the excellence of drama during this time period that theatre exists in the abundance it does today. The renaissance was a time for rediscovering human virtue, for looking at accomplishment in the present rather than in the afterlife. Like the time period itself, the playwrights of this era were daring, unrestrained, and wonderful.
Society has looked at the playwright in many different ways and under many different lights. The praise or damnation society gives its theatrical masterminds is relative to where a certain culture is at a specific time. For the Greeks, to praise the gods through verse and drama was extraordinary. For the Romans, it was pointless to watch fake emotion when they could see the real thing in a gladiator fight. During the Middle Ages, playwrights were pastoral and were regarded with quiet respect, merely servants of the Lord. Lastly, renaissance playwrights, keeping in the tradition of the era were both praised and shunned for they re various achievements and disabilities. No matter whom, when, or where, the notion of the playwright as a pivotal figure in both literature and the human experience has been reserved indefinitely.