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From Ritual Drama to Ancient Theater

History of Theater Project by Darci Clark

Relief of Greek Theater Performance

Today it is commonly thought that ancient Greek theater developed from religious ritual drama. The so-called ritual theory of drama was formed more than a century ago and focused primarily on evidence for the development of Greek theater.[1] Many other ancient cultures, however, practiced some type of religious ritual drama even though it did not evolve into theater as we know it today. The sanctuaries or locations where these ritual dramas were performed were different from our modern concept of theater where an audience simply watched the performance. The seating area in the sanctuary was much smaller and was designed so the deity’s cult statue could observe the performance as well.[3]

Egyptian Cult Statue of Amun-Re

Prior to the acceptance of ritual theory, Aristotle’s dramatic work Poetics stated that Greek tragedy evolved from dithyrambic choruses and comedic phallic songs.[3] In a dithyramb, the chorus members would sing a refrain while one member sang or recited an improvised story. Aristotle also wrote that tragedy was an imitation of serious and complete action which resulted from the human instinct to imitate.[4] An alternative to ritual theory has been proposed which separates the origin of theater from dramatic ritual. Author Eli Rozik states that, “ritual is a mode of action and theater a kind of medium.”[5] He insists that even though ritual uses the medium of theater that does not prove that theater originated from it. Rozik further states that ritual is performed with purpose and intention and if theater is only a neutral medium it cannot be assumed to have purpose and intention. Therefore, any medium used in ritual was not as important as the meaning behind the ritual itself.[6]

I understand Rozik’s argument, but still think ancient theater likely originated from cultic ritual drama. The fact that religious ritual drama did not lead directly to a tradition of true theater in all areas where it was practiced, such as in Egypt, does not necessarily mean that it didn’t in Greece.[7] Understanding the differences between “ritual drama” and “drama” are important when studying the origins of theater:

Roman Female Theater Mask

Ritual Drama:
*Religious
*Performers and spectators are all considered participants
*Has a fixed text
*Purpose is to produce a desired effect

Drama:
*Secular
*Division between actors and audience
*Has a variable text
*Purpose is to entertain [8]

Ritual drama was performed to placate the gods and secure a society’s survival. The plots were derived from the myths of the god in whose honor the ritual was performed.[9] Theatrical drama is a civic and social event which features an entertaining performance in front of an audience. An audience is necessary for drama to be considered true theater. Some dramatic rituals, like many of those performed in Egypt, are not true theater because only the king and priests were allowed to participate or observe.[10]

These pages discuss some of the ritual dramas performed in the Ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome and whether they influenced the development of true dramatic theater in those areas:

Mesopotamia and Anatolia
Egypt
Crete, Mycenae and Greece
Italy
Works Cited

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FOOTNOTES
[1] Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller, “General Introduction,” The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama, edited by Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1-2.
[2] Inge Nelson, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama,(Oxford, Oakville, CT:Aarhus University Press, 2002), 9-10.
[3] Eli Rozik, The Roots of Theater: Rethinking Ritual and Other Theories of Origin,(Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), Introduction,viiii.
[4] Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb, Living History: History of the Theatre Fifth Edition, (New York: Mc-Graw Hill, 2008), 29-30, 2, 39.
[5] Eli Rozik, The Roots of Theater: Rethinking Ritual and Other Theories of Origin,(Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), Introduction,xi.
[6] Eli Rozik, The Roots of Theater: Rethinking Ritual and Other Theories of Origin, Introduction,xi.
[7] Ronald J. Leprohon, “Ritual Drama in Ancient Egypt,” The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama,edited by Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 286.
[8] Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller, “General Introduction,” The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama, edited by Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 4.
[9] Inge Nelson, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama,(Oxford, Oakville, CT:Aarhus University Press, 2002), 12-13.
[10] Ronald J. Leprohon, “Ritual Drama in Ancient Egypt,” The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: From Ritual to Drama,edited by Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 286.

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