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  The word ‘drama’ (Greek, ‘action’, ‘enactment’) was first used in a technical sense to refer to staged performances of previously-written plays by Aristotle in his Poetics (4th century  BCE), and much theorizing about the art of drama, especially in its literary form, also begins with his work. But in modern times, as anthropology, archaeology and palaeography have revealed more and more about human activity in the world, the idea of ‘drama’ contained in the second definition above, ‘enactment’, has been shown to have far wider scope than Aristotle could possible have imagined.

The essential ingredient of drama, as Aristotle pointed out, was mimesis, the imitation or representation of reality. A palaeolithic cave painting of an antlered dancer at Trois Frères in France gives the clue to one kind of such representation in earliest times—a clue backed up by evidence throughout the world. The dancer is representing an animal, mimicking its movement in dance. Perhaps he is part of some ritual, designed to persuade watching spirits to bring success to a hunt; perhaps he is part of a re-enactment of the hunt afterwards, to celebrate its success; perhaps he is part of what might be called an abstract representation of hunting, performed for no other purpose than entertainment. When, in ancient Israel, a goat was ceremonially loaded with the sins and guilt of the entire human community, and driven out into the desert to be eaten by wild animals, this ritual was both real and symbolic, ‘drama’ in both senses. When the priest in a Christian mass gives each worshipper bread and wine, he is simultaneously re-enacting Christ\'s actions at the Last Supper and creating a new action, real and of its moment. In both cases, the ritual element, the real action, perhaps predominates over the dramatic. But when Indian temple dancers (for instance) parade as teeth-flashing, high-leaping demons and the gods who vanquish them, or welcome an invisible Lord Krishna with submissive movements and flirtatious, caressing glances (re-enacting the story of his seduction of the cowgirls), emphasis has moved the other way, and performance is more dominant than ritual. The fights and seductions in Noh drama, or the apparitions of ghosts and demons in Chinese classical drama, clearly have links with ritual, but exist—that is, have meaning—almost entirely at the moment of performance only, and for the entertainment of the spectators. They are drama not ritual, in the same way as fights in Shakespeare or mad-scenes in Schiller are performance pure and simple.

To call a dramatic performance ‘pure and simple’ is, in fact, to sidestep another of the large issues first raised by Aristotle: the purpose and effect of dramatic performance. In a phrase which has become cant, he said that the function of drama—he was talking specifically about the awesome (literally awful) events depicted in such Athenian tragedies as King Oedipus—was to ‘purify’ the spectators by arousing ‘pity and terror’ (that is, identification with the characters and their dilemmas, and horror both at the events shown and at the possibility that one\'s own inner feelings or thoughts might lead to similar catastrophe). At one level this is a ritual function and Athenian drama was part of a huge religious festival, full of rituals of all kinds from dance to sacrifice, from procession to public prayer. But at another level Aristotle was hinting at the feeling of exaltation, of psychological repleteness, which entertainment (and not just drama) can induce. (It is this exaltation, the moment of surrender, the door between rational self-control and abandonment to the ‘higher reality’ and ‘higher perception’ of instinct, of which Dionysus was god. To bring about such exaltation, in the myth, he gave mortals two unique gifts: sacred dance and wine.)

The festivals of Dionysus in Athens were concerned most specifically with this ecstasy. The drama competitions were merely one way among many of inducing and celebrating it. Performance-spaces were so arranged that, in the open air, all spectators could see other spectators: the audience was itself part of the occasion, and identification was not just with the characters depicted in the drama, not just with the professional actors and singers who depicted them, not just with the Chorus (amateurs, selected representatives of each area of the town), but also with the other watchers, other participants. This identification still happens in performances of religious drama throughout the world, and it can still occur in our secular theatres today, with spine-tingling effect.

Aristotle was neither a priest nor a practitioner of theatre. He was an academic, formulating theories and relying on evidence. For this reason he had far less to say about what we might nowadays think of as the anthropological and psychological functions of drama (about which one can merely assert, not prove, one\'s views) than he did about actual, extant plays. He proved his points by references to specific plays, all of them comparatively recent (written about a century before his time) and still in the current repertoire. (Even then, he was selective: his theories fit the plays of Sophocles which he adduces as evidence, but have little relevance to much other surviving Greek tragedy, notably the work of Euripides.) He dealt with written plays only; orally-transmitted traditions were of merely passing interest, perhaps because he felt that they were inaccessible to his hearers and readers, or were mutable evidence, in a way which written texts were not. This factor has led, in drama studies ever since (at least until this century), to the view that written drama is somehow a different art form from any other kind and, in the West at least, that it is superior. (In Western comedy, written drama is even called ‘high’ comedy, and improvised comedy ‘low’ comedy, as if the possibility of scholarly attention had somehow elevated the form.) The word ‘drama’ is still sometimes claimed to mean the tradition of written theatre only and the result, given the oral, accretive traditions of most Eastern art forms, is that for Western scholars it has tended to mean just Western plays and methods of performance.

Aristotle divided drama into two main hierarchical genres, tragedy and comedy. Although the section of Poetics dealing with comedy is lost or fragmentary, and most of his surviving writing is therefore to do with tragedy, his views have nonetheless tended, in the West, to be applied to drama of every kind. Because the precedent he set for thinking about drama was founded on the philosophical basis of logic, it imposed on the plays he analysed the logical values he deemed necessary for life. Embedded in his hierarchy of genres was a reflection of moral and social status (which the Roman writer Horace later conflated in his poem about why and how to write, The Art of Poetry; ‘poetry’ here really means ‘literature’). With increasing literacy and the desire for classical knowledge, which marked Western intellectual life during the Renaissance, it was inevitable that these ideas would influence the development of drama; a strong awareness of generic distinctions, formal structures and social status determined the way plays were written and perceived. Generally, for example, tragedy was assumed only to afflict the highly-born; comedy covered a broader social range. Poetry was the language of tragedy, elevated above everyday utterance as the emotions and dilemmas depicted were thought to be elevated; prose was for everyday speech, and for comedy.

Such distinctions—as well as comparatively minor ideas derived from Aristotle and the plays he described, such as the five-act structure—affected much Western drama in the Renaissance and beyond, both fine work (such as that of Racine) and a slew of dull, rule-rigid and formulaic plays. But there was a vigorous alternative tradition, an almost postmodernist eclecticism, which can be seen in the work of such writers as Calderón, Shakespeare, and Molière. They drew inspiration partly from classical theory, partly from vernacular tradition, and partly from their own imagination and the needs of each individual play as they wrote it. The commedia dell\'arte and the auto da fé are the two best-known traditions which underlie such drama, and they now have the melancholy distinction of being less well-known than the dramatic styles they influenced. Other theories such as the alchemical idea of the four humours which inspired Jonson\'s comedy of humours led to dramatic experiment as fascinating as any of the theories of the absurd or alienation which dramatists have used in our own time.

Although there were technical developments in theatre practice over the following hundred years (in such matters as scenery design, lighting and make-up), there was little advance in dramatic ideas. Classical Greek and Latin drama, and the plays of Shakespeare, and to a lesser extent Molière, were principal influences even on such literary giants as Schiller and Hugo; thousands upon thousands of ‘perfect’ dramas were written, much admired, and died—good examples are the opera librettos of Metastasio, made with strict adherence to Aristotelian rules and the practices of Sophocles and Seneca, but devoid of stage life to the point where not even the music of such geniuses as Gluck or Mozart can redeem them as dramatic spectacle. Change came in the 19th century, when adherents of naturalism advocated the application to drama of scientific techniques of observation and analysis, in deference to Darwin\'s theory that environment conditions behaviour. (This approach had been prefigured in novels, especially in France, since the beginning of the century; it began to permeate drama in the middle of the century, and was given impetus in 1880 when Zola published his influential essay ‘Naturalism and the Art of the Theatre’.) Strict application of such theories was often as unsuccessful, in dramatic terms, as had been rigid neoclassicism in preceding centuries. Formulaic and sententious melodrama, ‘well-made plays’ in which cardboard characters enacted their own downfall (a downfall caused not by the Aristotelian ‘tragic flaw’ but by their own wretched circumstances or some terrible inheritance such as poverty or syphilitic madness) in scenes to which no self-respecting computer would nowadays admit authorship, became the dismal norm. More successful naturalistic dramatists—the range is from Ibsen, at the top of the tree of quality, to such men as Sardou, Scribe and Jones, on the lower branches—exceeded naturalist conventions while still representing the everyday concerns of (middle-class) society rather than the neoclassical conflicts of love and duty.

Essential to naturalistic drama was the concept of illusionism, which aimed to give the illusion that ‘real’ events were happening onstage, to disguise the artifice of their production. The dramaturgy of naturalistic plays took this into account, specifying recognizable domestic settings and using apparently colloquial forms of speech. (This is the point, perhaps, at which Western dramatic practice is most remote from anything current in the East. Until the present century, when Eastern audiences began to see Western plays, and some Eastern writers for example Mishima began writing plays in Western styles, naturalism played no part whatever in Eastern dramatic art.) It is not essential, if illusionism is to be fully effective, that plays should be naturalistic, but it is necessary that the spectator participate in the exchange, imaginatively accepting whatever is represented, however supernatural or fantastic it may be. This participation, which Coleridge called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, is both an extension of, and something entirely different from, the reaction of ‘pity and terror’ predicated by Aristotle on his fellow Athenians at festivals of Dionysus.

In the 20th century, Brecht set out to challenge this apparently uncritical response from audiences by developing a drama which was anti-illusionist, and which exposed the artifice of its production; the epic drama which he created did not represent a political position, it was intrinsically political. The modes of production became as important as the playscript, thus countering the long-held primacy of the written text. At the same time, other dramatists drew on the vigorous vernacular tradition (for example music-hall), and on techniques from film and experimental fiction, to create other kinds of non-illusionist drama. Although ‘well-made plays’, history plays and their progeny still pullulated on the stage, a whole new kind of drama, fast-moving, constantly innovatory and challenging by its very unexpectedness, became the norm. Instead of purging the spectators by pity and terror, plays now used incongruity, absurdity (in the wide sense) and a kind of shared connivance in the spectacle, a shared awareness of the whole dramatic tradition of the past (shown, for example, in the parody of all kinds and at all levels) which has reinvigorated the form. Growing awareness of the rest of the world, in societies everywhere, has also brought Eastern ideas to bear on Western drama, and vice versa, in ways which have pluralized, eclecticized and transformed the art. TRG KMcL SS

See also dance; performing arts; theatre.Further reading Aristotle, Poetics; J.L. Styan, Drama, Stage and Audience; , Eric Bentley (ed.), Theory of the Modern Stage; , Raymond Williams, Drama from Ibsen to Brecht.



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