Since the beginning of Western Civilization—
indeed, in a manner of speaking, its progenitor—
Dramatic Art has both reflected and affected
who we’ve been (and are) and what we’ve said and done
in every aspect of our lives
There are three elements of this discussion:
- the role of dramatic literature,
- the effects of dramatic performance, and
- the historic context, which over the centuries has evolved into our cultural heritage.
The first pertains especially to Cold Reads, through the playwrights’ words. It argues that all literary art is Poetry or Prose (or Drama)—in parentheses because it’s written to be seen and heard, and since we don’t attend performances, we don’t know Drama.
The second emphasizes the emotional power of the Wholly Human Art on stage, compares it to religion, distinguishes it from other forms of art and entertainment, and examines instances when playwrights’ plays turned the world around.
The third explores the role of plays throughout our 2,500-year evolution, from their roots in Ancient Athens to the latest Broadway smash, revealing their love/hate relationship with Theism and the secular Powers That Be.
The following links open essays on these elements, with further links to related posts.
For the first two thousand years of Western Civilization, the only literary art most people knew was what they saw and heard on stage—they couldn’t read.
Ergo, from the Ancient Greeks to long past Shakespeare, great writers spoke to the masses through great plays—plays that helped them understand the world and the people in it.
Even after the printing press, books were dear and rare, and the masses remained illiterate until the Nineteenth Century, when Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers in an affordable monthly magazine. Only then did the common people take up reading for themselves (and to their families), and only since the movies has the wholly human art become outmoded, impotent, and ignored—but by no means irrelevant.
This argument makes the case for the notion that of all the ways we human beings spend our idle time, only Drama, live on stage, is quintessentially human—people playing people in a world imagined by a person and constructed by a crew of people, telling stories about people, doing things those people do, to entertain and benefit an audience of people.
It also explains the transcendental magic that happens when a well-made play’s well-played, and we willingly suspend our disbelief, allowing actors in the here and now to be transformed as other people somewhere else. In this regard, it’s like religious faith—forsooth; it sprang from pagan rites; in sooth, in function, form, and purpose, they remain the same. The one distinction is focus: one on God, the other Humankind.
It’s also like spectator sports—the emotional. adrenal surge when our team scores a goal. Or like a high school prom, a funeral or wedding, a political campaign—name any real-life drama and compare it to theatrical performance. The only difference is the focus.
When a well-made play’s well-played, it sinks into our collective conscience, and it takes us all into another world, where life has meaning; we’re mesmerized, and we walk away more human than we were.
“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
If we are to have a future, we must understand our our past. We must know, for instance, that dramatic art emerged from Greek religion became the voice of Athenian democracy; that it was banned by the Catholic Church for nine hundred years years and then (ironically) revived by that same church to attract lost souls to mass; that it overflowed into the streets and secularized, blossomed into Shakespeare; that there was no theatre at all in America until the early Eighteenth Century, and only found its voice in Eugene O’Neill—and then came movies.
These instances and many more are listed here and embellished in related posts.
Think of cavemen telling tales around a fire, passing them down through generations for thousands of years, enhanced by gesture and expression, song and dance—memories prompted by wall paintings and rock art—until text of The Epic of Gilgamesh was transcribed in the Twenty-First Century (BCE).
A cold read is a campfire with a script.
In 534 BC, Thespis stepped away from religious ritual to speak solo lines in character, creating theatre, used by religion and the state to create Greek democracy in 509 and usher in the Golden Age, chronicle and protest its decline and fall over the next two centuries, and devolve in form and (censored) substance by the and of the Fourth Century, just before the rise of Rome,
The Roman Empire
Roman plays—copies of these lesser Greeks—were first performed in 240 BCE, to honor Jupiter, and while they were Republican (and pre-Christian), they paid homage to the gods; but with the (ironically) simultaneous reversals (First Century CE) to the decadent Empire and the Catholic Church, theatre too descended into spectacular extravaganzas and street performers, playing tragic gore and greed, revenge, ambition, jealousy, and comic irony, buffoonery, directed at the new, preposterous religion.
The Dark Ages
The tide turned slowly over the next three centuries as the Empire spread, decayed, and Christianity gained enough respect for the Emperor Constantine to convert (312 CE), and for the Emperor Theodosius to outlaw the practice of any other religion (393), ban all plays, and excommunicate all actors and producers.for the next 600 years.
That same church (ironically) brought them back (c. 1000 CE) to spread the Gospel and word of God (and lure the masses to mass).
Church plays overflowed into the streets and spread all over Europe (1200-1400), performed by laymen, while lesser forms of entertainment sprang up, with secular themes, and early Renaissance scholars translated ancient Roman plays.
The Protestant Reformation
Church and state used plays as powerful platforms, prompting secular kings and queens to constrain religious content in favor of mundane plots and themes. Elizabeth I of England banned church plays in 1558, and barely thirty years later (c. 1590) Shakespeare shows up on the London stage.
Shakespeare died in 1616. Four years later Puritan Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Puritans religiously opposed all forms of pleasure, especially theatre, which they considered decadent and sinful. In 1642, sanctimonious Oliver Cromwell took control of England in and closed all theaters for 18 years, until the Restoration of Charles II.
The New World
English theatre bounded back with a flourish after the Restoration, and to this day most Brits know Shakespeare like the Bible. Meanwhile, the Puritans, faced with retribution, fled across the sea to join their fellow Pilgrims in the New World—where there would be virtually no theatre for the next 200 years.
Meanwhile, all over Europe, the lively art lived on, producing literary masterworks that remain in the repertoire to this day.
The Industrial Revolution
Once socially accepted in the US (early 1800’s), plays spread like wildfire; by 1900 every major city had at least one resident company, and the rails and waterways transported touring troupes—but the repertoire was trashy farce and moral melodrama, and the impetus was greed.
Meanwhile, Europe argued Neo-Classic vs Romance, dabbled with Symbol vs Natural, and settled on domestic Realism—until the Great War triggered futurism, expressionism, surrealism, existentialism—antiestablishmentarianism.
The 20th Century
The first great American playwright was Eugene O’Neill, who paved the way for the wave of dramatists that followed, whose plays have set the standard for world drama ever since, but by then the masses were attending motion pictures, watching television, and stage plays all but vanished from our lives.
The Digital Age
These days, for reasons ranging from the Pandorian Box of spectacular distractions we embrace to the astronomical price of seats, uninspired productions, and our deep-seated prejudices, Americans categorically reject dramatic art—despite the fact that since the 1930’s, American playwrights have ranked among the best in the world. The problem is, we only see them when they’re filmed.
The fact is, theatre and religion are one and the same—with one exception. Religion bows to a god who offers afterlife, while theatre leans to human beings here and now.
The fact is, democratic government was born in the Theatre of Dionysus.
The fact is, theatre is the one and only truly human art, revealing who we are, which leads to the third force.