Historical Development of Drama

Figure 1.-- This engraving is based on a painting by Victorian artist L.J. Pott. He painted numerous historical scenes. This work illustrates a moving scene in which Prince Arthur, the rightful claimant to the throne, pleads with Hubert de Burgh, an agent of King John, to spare him from being blinded with a red hot poker.

Initially we began working on modern plays. The play is, however, a literary form that predates novels by millenia having been an important form in ancient Greece. Our knowledge of these ancient plays is limited. We do have some information about Shakespeare in the 16th century. The boy characters from the history plays tend of course to be Shakespearean versions of actual historical persons. In other plays the characters are fictional and purely imaginary. HBC has already archived movie versions of the plays. We already have a few Shakespearean images of boys from the Olivier films or from paintings (e.g. the princes in the Tower from "Richard III"). There were also some important French authors. We are less familiar with boy characters in the French plays.

Ancient Drama

Drama was an important literary form in the classical era. Theater was popular in both Greece and Rome. Some of these plays have survived to the modern age, but many Greek plays are lost. We have tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides from the Greek period. Probably the most famous of these is "Oedipus Rex" (Oedipus the King)--a tragedy about a royal figure who unwittingly killed his own father and committed incest with his mother, then put his own eyes out when he learned of the horrors he had committed. Aristotle wrote a famous critical work, entitled The Poetics, in which he holds up the "Oedipus Rex" of Sophocles as the ideal tragedy, the example to be imitated. Greek dramatists competed with each other in play-writing contests, the winner being highly honored. The plays were often performed at a pagan festival such as the Feast Day of Dionysus. The actors performed using large masks through which they spoke to outdoor audiences seated, usually, in amphitheatres with seats in a semicircle and rising row by row (as in a modern stadium). The Roman drama of Seneca (for tragedy) and of Plautus and Terence (for comedy) derived ultimately (with many changes of course) from the drama of Greece. We assume there may have been theatrical performances of some type in other ancient societies, but we have virtually no information at this time. The knowledge of the great dramas of Greece was almost totally lost during the so-called Dark Ages. After the fall of Rome, theater disappeared as Europe slipped into the dark ages. Theater did not emerge again until the late medevil era. And when it did emerge again in Europe, the individuals involved had no knowledge of the classical tradition in drama. The dramacists of the Renaissance did, however, have some familiarity with classical traditions of drama. This developed as Renaissance scholars recovered ancient manuscripts from Arab, Spanish, and Byzantine sources. The knowledge of clasical drama, however, developed only very gradually in the Renaissance. The Latin drama of Rome was, for instance, a huge influence on Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists.

Medieval Drama: Passion and Morality Plays

Passion Plays are medieval dramatizations of Christ's Passion. Traditionally Christ's Passion is seen as the last few day's of Christ's life, the period of intense suffering from the Garden of Gethsemane to his Crucifixion. The medieval passion plays gradually grew in length and commnly included Old Testament scenes as well as the Resurection. They evolved from the religious fest days and varied in content because of a wide range of local influences. They began to appear in the 10th century in a basic form and had reached their peak of development n the 14th century. There were regional differences as the the style and content. In addition to the cycle plays (based on Biblical stories), there were also Morality Plays (allegorical plays in which personified virtues and vices competed for the soul of man. These medieval dramas are of considerable historic importance because they represent an expression of the fervent religious belief of medieval Europe. They were also the first appearance of formal drama in Europe since classical times. Althoug the Church had played a role in the evolution of Passion Plays, they wereunable to mantain control of these productions which over time became more popular entertaiment than religious celebration. Ecclesiastical (Catholic and Protestant) and civil authorities acted to supress the productions in the 16th century. The Oberammergau Passion Play is the most important one to survive.

Renaissance Drama

The great drama of Renaissance Europe is concentrated in two countries--England and Spain. England is by far the most important. This leads us to wonder why theatrical plays were so much more advanced in England and why boy characters emerged in England and not in other countries. Lope de Vega, of course, was the Spanish Shakespeare, and he wrote hundreds of plays. But they are much more formal and less realistic than Shakespeare's plays, and they don't feature the same kind of comedy as we have exemplified in characters such as Falstaff. Boy characters are very rare and quite insignificant when they do occur. There was virtually no professional theatre in 16th-century Germany--only ad lib farces and knock-about comedy performed by schoolboys and town amateurs who had regular non-theatrical jobs. The French produced a rather sterile academic kind of drama based on classical models, and had almost no boy characters. The Italians went in for commedia del arte--a kind of street theatre with stock characters that was mostly improvised and didn't have set plots and certainly not written-out scripts. The English actors became famous on the continent, and we know that they travelled to Germany and performed English plays (untranslated apparently) for German audiences. But this was an exotic import rather than a native dramatic tradition. Tradition such as it was in Germany involved quite a primative sort of drama. The English theatre was by far the most advanced and sophisticated in all of Western Europe. And the tradition of sophisticated plays being performed by companies of men and boys (for the women's parts) and designed for a cross-section of the middle-class public was almost uniquely an English phenomenon as was the tradition of dramatic blank verse (sometimes intermingled with prose for the lower-class or lower-toned scenes) which developed as the medium of dialogue.


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Created: April 30, 1998
Last updated: 1:42 AM 9/7/2011