Drama since dawn of man

Theatre Histories

August 25, 2006

In the last chapter of this exhaustive textbook, the authors posit the idea that perhaps "theatrical spectating is itself old-fashioned and may soon be outmoded". Thankfully, such a concept is pure hypothesis.

Despite gloomy predictions of the downturn in trade in London's West End or the homogenisation by global corporations of Times Square, we only need to turn to this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival to see that live theatre is far from moribund. More than 1 million tickets sold last year and 1,800 shows this year suggest that it will take more than globalisation and the digitisation of modern society to diminish the power of live performance.

This compelling narrative demonstrates how performance is woven into the bedrock of human history. The authors approach their subject teleologically, offering a view of theatre history that is directly linked to four periods in the development of communication technology: theatre in oral and written cultures; print cultures; the age of modern media; and finally "performance in the age of global communications". As a result, theatre of the past century dominates the book's second half.

The first two parts, charting the emergence of performance from the pre-literate past to the 19th century, offer a more enjoyable read, incorporating a tremendous amount of anthropological and religious detail that contextualises and enriches understanding, whereas the treatment of 20th-century theatre practice is necessarily brief.

The global reach of this history offers tantalising comparisons between different eras. A focus on notions of comedy reveals the book's impressive range. Phillip Zarrilli describes in detail the Powamú (Bean Dance) ceremony of the Hopi, who have lived in what is now northeastern Arizona for about 7,000 years. This fertility ceremony, still performed today, lasts eight days and involves dramatic enactments of Hopi mythology. But the serious rituals are undermined by the antics of Táchkutí, clowns known as "mudheads" in sack-like masks, who "dash around the village making crude jokes, eating like gluttons and falling over themselves". In coastal West Africa, the Egúngún masquerade of the Yoruba people features the character of Gorilla (Inoki) who waves his "naturistically carved wooden testicles and a penis painted red on the tip" at unsuspecting women in the audience, "much to the amusement of other spectators". Such sexual comedy is used to parody the main action in Korean Kut shamanistic ceremonies and seen again in Greek Satyr plays.

Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei describes such comedy as a "safety valve, allowing the oppressed to poke fun at their masters". It is strange to see how such subversive comedy transforms over time. In 17th-century Japan, after centuries of civil war, the shogunate was so alarmed by the emergence of Kabuki performers - "female prostitutes who danced and enacted satirical playlets and bawdy sideshows" - that they banned them from performing, only for Kabuki to be taken up by young male prostitutes. The shogunate then insisted that only less appealing older men could perform Kabuki. Ironically, these men - known as onnagata - gained tremendous popularity, and now Kabuki is a highly respected art form.

A similar transformation took place in Sanskrit drama. Mahendravarman, a 7th-century south Indian king, wrote The Hermit/Harlot , a hilarious body-swap farce and "trenchant send-up of the religious orders". By the 10th century, early Sanskrit drama was giving way to Kuttiyattam, a form of high-caste drama that "allowed lengthy preliminaries and elaborations". It came to be performed over 35 nights.

There are other striking similarities across the ages. Exorcistic shadow puppet performances in Bali feature a "proto-typical comic duo" of servants who serve as a model for every double act since. The comical stichomythic banter of Plautus's comedies is closely echoed by Samuel Beckett's existential tramps. Commedia dell'arte troupes, who based their semi-improvised plots on the Roman comedies, were among the first professional companies in Renaissance Europe and in turn inspired Shakespeare and Moliere.

What emerges is a sense of cultural interdependence that belies any notions of social Darwinism. The process of theatrical history is not seen as evolutionary: the Japanese Noh teachings of Zeami, Stanislavsky's Russian "system" and Bharata's Natyasastra are accorded equal value. The authors resist positivistic readings of theatre history, instead equipping the reader with a range of critical tools. Each chapter is accompanied by case studies and different interpretative responses. Such variety introduces the student to the basics of critical theory and refuses to allow the reader easy answers.

Jeremy Piper is the artistic director, Challoner Theatre Company. He is currently studying for an MA in Teaching English with Shakespeare's Globe at King's College London.

Theatre Histories: An Introduction

Author - Phillip B. Zarrilli, Bruce McConachie, Gary Jay Williams and Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 544
Price - £70.00 and £24.99
ISBN - 0 415 2 5 and 228 3

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