- The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama
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Recent years have seen a rebirth of interest in the contentious theory that drama sprang from ritual, from both within and outside of Classical studies. On the crest of this "New Ritualism," Eric Csapo (Classics) and Margaret C. Miller (Classical Archeology) have assembled an up-to-date collection of research on the prehistory of drama. As a counter to the default "Hellenocentrism" that has historically dominated the subject, this new and innovative volume features essays devoted to comparative studies of ritual and drama in medieval European, ancient Egyptian, and classical Japanese cultures. Considering all of the specialized knowledge involved, the editors have labored heroically to produce a dialogic exchange among the participant authors and their respective fields, both through their editorial process and through the inclusion of topical introductions and seminar-style discussion summaries for each group of essays.
Csapo and Miller emphasize a distinction between the strictly evidence-based approach of their project and the more synchronic interests of anthropology and other work categorized as "New Ritualism" in recent Greek studies (1, 3). Yet the closest the various authors come to a consensus is the idea that ritual and drama share limited aspectual frameworks or "matrices" rather than an evolutionary or developmental linkage (132, 361, 362, 369, 391, 392). A direct development from ritual to drama cannot be proven from the evidence, but how is a ritual framework or even the frequently invoked "Dionysian matrix" anything other than synchronic and theoretical? The term "ritual drama" is adopted by some of the authors to suggest a continuum that would hypothetically "range from an unusually dull Calvinist prayer meeting to Miss Saigon" (3, 4–7). With "ritual drama" placed somewhere in the vast middle range of this continuum, the editors indicate that most of today's Hellenists would recognize Greek drama as closer to ritual than "drama as we know it," leaving the latter's rise to the Renaissance or even as late as the 18th century (4).
The editors begin their general introduction by dismantling the usual categories that have distinguished ritual from drama in historical Western discourse, showing how binary oppositions such as religious versus secular or efficacious versus entertaining are seldom mutually exclusive and usually overlap in actual practice. The remainder of the comprehensive introduction includes a concise history of ritual origin theories and their subsequent reception.
The essays in Part One examine the evidence of sixth century BCE vase paintings depicting "komasts" or "padded dancers" and speculates on their relevance to "predramatic ritual" (41). Much of this material will be new to theatre historians outside of Greek studies, and as a whole the section provides a helpful summary of the questions and arguments surrounding not only the so-called Komast vases, but also of the interpretation of vase painting as evidence for performance history in general. The second section of essays, "The Emergence of Drama," features an eclectic selection of topics including: a positive reevaluation of Aristotle's theory that dithyrambic hymns were the precursor of tragedy; an analysis of mythic vs. "realistic" depictions of ritual (which includes a helpful review of the scholarship on vase paintings as documentary evidence of Satyr plays); a discussion of possible narratives in the representational contents of the depicted Komast and Satyr dances; and a wide-ranging essay that ultimately identifies the self-referentiality of the chorus as the "medium that makes Greek theatre a ritual" (245). The essays in Part Three include the cross cultural comparative studies identified above, ending in a discussion that links the ritual dramas of ancient Egypt, Japan, and medieval Christianity through their origins in "centralized, self-ratifying, theocratic political systems" [End Page 166] casting the coincident rising of Athenian democracy and the flowering of tragedy as "one of the acute interpretive challenges for the cultural historian" (361).
An even more acute interpretive challenge is the problem of...