2.2 Possible Origins Of Theatre

We will start by looking at how dramatic/theatrical/cultural performances (which we will call ‘theatre’) originated, particularly, though not exclusively, in Europe. As this involved not only a separation of functions, for example, between the religious and the dramatic content of certain performances, but also a formalised physical separation of performer and audience, we will also look in detail at the creation of a performance space and its significance for the meaning of utterances.

A common view of the origin of theatre in Europe is that of the development of theatre in ancient Greece. Two broad views are what might be termed ‘the hierarchical’ and ‘the horizontal’. The former is best known as ‘the Cambridge thesis’ attributed to Harrison (1912), Murray (1912) and Cornford (1914). This interpretation saw formalised theatrical performance as a development from ritual, more specifically, the rituals surrounding the religious festival of the Great Dionysia. Friedrich is strong on this point: ‘Greek tragedy was as close to ritual origins as any form of drama could be. That there is a connection between the first fully-fledged European drama and religious ritual could not be more patent’ (1983:159). (The time frame here is about 600-500 BCE.)

A different perspective is taken by Schechner. He believes the Cambridge thesis’ emphasis on ritual origins has dominated our view of theatre to the detriment of other factors such as play, games, sports, dance and music. He notes that the English language distinguishes between these whereas other languages (not specified) do not. All of these factors are, for him, related horizontally and not hierarchically, the latter perspective being the result of the foregrounding of ritual origins, something which he claims has never been proved archaeologically (1988:6). Brockett (1991), too, notes that certain post-war views of origin point to theatre’s independent development in societies which have many performative activities such as weddings and courts. From this perspective ritual and theatre can be seen as co-existing modes (amongst others) in which the same elements might be used for different functions.

Whatever the precise origins may be, it is known that in Europe by about the 5th century BCE what is now called classical theatre was established in Greece. The Roman theatre came later, starting about 360-240 BCE and then spreading throughout their empire. Associated with Roman theatre were such performances as gladiatorial combat, venationes (in which humans fought animals) and the placing of such people as Christians into the arena with wild animals. (Such activities would seem to lend some support to Schechner’s point about the horizontal relationship between ritual, play, games etc. though we are here dealing with a later time period to that of the origins’ time frame.) However, with the eventual Christianisation of the Romans (Theodosius I outlawed all other religions in 393 CE) some of the excesses of the theatre were curtailed and there were fewer state festivals (and thus fewer performances) given in honour of pagan gods.

From c.400 the western and eastern sectors of the empire were formally divided for administrative reasons, Rome becoming the western centre and Constantinople the eastern. Rome was conquered in 476 but at first theatre was left untouched. Indeed, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who ruled much of that area till 536, even restored the theatre at Pompeii. But as order crumbled during the 6th century, state recognition and support for the theatre ceased, causing it to decline and then fall into obscurity in the western territories. The last definite performance in Rome is known from a letter dated 533.

Though this signalled the end of European theatre for hundreds of years, theatrical elements survived in at least four different kinds of activities: the remnants of the Roman mimes; Teutonic minstrelsy; popular festivals; and pagan rites. The mimes were storytellers, jesters, tumblers and rope dancers. (Skills we will later see exhibited by clowns and fools generally and the Commedia del’arte in particular.) The scop, a feature of the Teutonic tribes, was a singer and teller of tales and the principal preserver of the tribes’ chronology and history (Brockett). MacKechnie mentions that the gleeman also had a similar tribal role (1931:2), and such a figure is listed in Christen’s encyclopaedia of clowns and tricksters (1998). MacKechnie also traces the links between jongleurs and troubadours as itinerant entertainers in the 10th and 11th centuries (pp.4-6). And it was these wandering entertainers who are seen by Hartnoll as a transitional force, with links both forward and backward. ‘Carrying with them the germ of the theatre, ready to take root again when conditions proved favourable, they lived as best they could and handed on the skills and technical tricks bequeathed to them by earlier generations of mime-players’ (1976:32).

As for the festivals and rites that flourished in Europe, these were the events that attracted the itinerant entertainers and in which ordinary people could also sing and dance and behave out of character. Once again we find the Christian church imposing itself on these important aspects of social life either by moral denunciation or by recuperating them into the Christian calendar – Christmas and Easter correspond to two significant pagan festivals: mid-winter and spring-fertility festivals respectively (Brockett passim). Indeed, much of our knowledge about this theatrical ‘dark period’ comes, according to Molinari, from condemnations by the church. He cites those of Alcuin (c.791), the Council of Tours (813), and Bishop Abogard (836) (1975:75-8). Yet by a historical irony, it was the church that played a crucial role in the re-development of theatre in Western Europe.

In the 8th century in England tropes were introduced as a musical embellishment of the liturgy and these developed in the following century a dramatic dimension with identifiable characters representing Biblical action. Burns notes that during such performances a separation of functions evolved between the religious and the dramatic. For practising Christians a mass was a real transaction between heaven and earth, a genuine communication with God. But as these tropes were not essential for this communication to take place the congregation attended more and more to the dramatic content. ‘In this way began the long slow process of structural division between actors and audience which seems to be essential before drama can develop as a separate art’ (1972:24). (We must not forget, however, that this division had occurred much earlier in Greece.)

The church remained central to its further development. These dramatic elements of Christian ritual were formalised into introit plays by monks writing in Latin between 950 and 1250. This was a European-wide phenomenon: the Mystery plays of England, the mysteres of France, the sacre rappresentazioni of Italy, the autos sacramentales of Spain, the Geistspiele of German-speaking lands, as well as examples in central and eastern Europe (Hartnoll 1976:37). Of significance is that in 1210 Pope Innocent III ordered that plays should be presented outside the church and when higher clergy further said that priests should not take part in the staging of sacred subjects outside the church this encouraged local people to take more control of the organisation of dramatic festivals (Bucknell 1979:83). In the early 14th century the action also moved out into and around the streets as it became part of the Corpus Christi processions (Burns p.73). Bucknell further notes: ‘Once the drama left the church, the characters and the contents of the plays became less formal. Local customs, words, humour, accents, and impersonations of the local dignitaries were slowly woven into the fabric of the performance’ (p.83). Hartnoll is very specific about the increasing secularisation, both in its causes and consequences. For example, the fact that the processional plays involved different scenes allowed a convenient division of labour so that different guilds were able to take responsibility for scenes connected to their work. Thus, the shipwrights staged the story of Noah’s ark, the carpenters dealt with the Tower of Babel, and the fishmongers staged Jonah and The Whale (1976:44). Moreover, and this is of interest for the purposes of this dissertation, she underlines the crucial significance of the comic element in these plays.

It is important in the development of the theatre because it was the interpolation of comic scenes which did not appear in the original stories that led to the use of the vernacular. And this in turn was the chief factor in the emergence of a national theatre in each separate country of Europe. Greek tragedy, though it may have had touches of humour…reserved its buffoonery for the traditional satyr-play which followed. But almost from the beginning the mediaeval play, which was a tragedy with a happy ending, fused the two together.
(p.45, emphasis added)

Such secularisation continued and in 1576 Burbage built the first permanent theatre in England for plays only (called ‘The Theatre’) at Finsbury Fields in London (Burns p.72). And it is with this development of what for us is recognisably ‘a theatre’ that we can clearly see what Burns above called ‘the structural division between actors and audience’. We now need to consider such separations and divisions in detail in order to see their impact on utterance.

2.1 Performance>

2.2 Possible Origins Of Theatre

2.3 Theatrical Space>

2.4 Performer And Audience Interaction>

Contents>