ritual3.jpgLiterary Drama


Origins of TheatreTheories
No clear evidence, so all theories are conjecture.Theatre History 101 Chapter 1: Origins of Theatre

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Aristotle suggested that mimesis (imitation) is innate in humans; theatre probably came from the dithyramb, a hymn sung or chanted before religious rituals in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine, rebirth, and fertility. The word "tragedy' seems to have come from the Greek words for "goat" and "song"--so tragedy was a goat-song (whether sung to, by, or for the goat is anyone's guess).
Possible origins also include:
  • Judicial System -- necessity to speak in court required expansion, desire to perform and see performances.
  • Supreme act of an unidentified artist (Perhaps Thespis, perhaps Aeschylus) -- a revolutionary discovery -- to synthesize many other already existing elements.

However there were probably dramatic performances before Greek theater. For the primitive times of prehistory, there are obviously no written records of performances that might have taken place.

Today a play is performed on a stage in a theatre, but in primitive times the performances were probably often around a campfire. Rituals occurred about events in their daily lives: A Great Hunt, The Harvest, Feats of Heroism and Bravery, and maybe even some love stories. Music and dancing were probably involved. There are several theories how primitive drama developed from the practices.

  • Ritual Theory -- religious ceremonies that were performed is the most pervasive and accepted
  • **Storytelling** -- pleasurable and natural, a narrator elaborates by impersonating characters.
  • **Movement / Dance** -- imitating physical behavior of animals and humans, donning skins as garments -- eventually talking was added.
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It is much questioned. Here are some of the ideas:

  • Primitive religious rituals were usually connected with spring and the seasonal cycle; drama evolved as part of the celebrations
  • Sir James Frazer's theory (late 19th century)that early drama is almost exclusively centered around myths that were performed as rituals to win the favor of natural forces, then it is formalized.
  • People were impersonating gods, beings, or forces-- and there resulted a developing dramatic sense
  • Stories and myths grew out of the rituals to explain natural phenomonia and the storytelling becames more animated.
  • Aesthetic and enjoyment gradually overtakes the religious or utilitarian aims of ritual.
  • As it turned more secular --theatrical elements increased.
  • Eventually, rituals were abandoned or modified, but myths / stories remain as oral tradition and are acted out in simple drama.


Functions of Ritual:

  • a form of knowledge
  • didactic (to teach - primarily "religious")
  • to influence or control
  • to glorify the gods
  • to entertain and give pleasure

Theatre and Ritual
both employ:
  • similar means: music, dance, spectacle, masks, costumes, speech, performers, audience, stage, makeup, etc.
  • similar themes: (Joseph Campbell, Victor Turner on ritual): pleasure, power, duty.
  • similar production methods: a technical director to make sure things run smoothly.

performers and spectators are all participants
separation of actors and audience
has a fixed text
has a variable text
purpose is to produce a desired effect
purpose is to entertain
Source: Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller, “General Introduction,” The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama, edited by Eric SourceCsapo and Margaret C. Miller, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 4. adapted for this site.

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Classical Drama and Society


1: Theatre and History,
Some Definitions
Theatre and History,
Some Definitions

2: The Origins of
Theatre and Drama
The Origins of
Theatre and Drama

From Ritual Drama to Ancient Theater – Crete, Mycenae and Greece

Primitive Quizlet
Ritual, Dance and Theater Quizlet

aydos2.jpgEgyptian Passion Play
Egyptian Theater

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History of TheaterslideplayerEarly Theater
Early Man
Mesopotamia Theater
Outline of Primitive Theater Origins - Nova on Line

**Western vs. Eastern Theatre**

Origin of Chinese Drama - An analysis of the development of Chinese drama.
The Origin of the Hindu Drama - An examination of the mythical and historical origins of the Hindu drama.
Solar Myths, Tree Spirits, and Totems - An examination of the importance of solar myths, tree spirits, and totemism in the development of tragic drama.