Discovering the Relevance of Words
Time is not linear it is conceptual.
Cleopatra’s life is closer on a timeline to the moon landing than it is to the building of the great pyramids of Giza. The T Rex lived closer to human beings than to a Stegosaurus, if you follow a timeline.
But if we’re playing a game of one of these things is not like the other, you can bet humans and moon landing are sitting on the sideline.
When we discuss theatre history we often group things much more conceptually than strictly chronologically. I mean, chronologically, there are thousands of years of undocumented nothingness between the plays of the Romans to the Medieval Mystery plays but conceptually one lead to the other. Realistically the Roman were writing about a century later than the Greeks, with a different audience and performance style in mind. Conceptually, though, the Greek Dithyrambs that were sung for the god Dionysus became the Tragedies (“Goat Songs” literally, plays practically), and became Greek and Roman theatre being performed at festivals to honor the gods. Conceptually, then, the Dark Ages followed and the Catholic Church resurrected theatre as a way to spread the message of the Bible. Slowly the stories found their way out into the churchyard, then into the streets and marketplaces, and soon were being performed by the trade guilds and craftsmen.
Then came the Renaissance, where human nature was explored through comedy in Italy and Shakespeare wrote about kings, princes, and prominent people’s living ordinarily extraordinary lives.
Stuff happened and the Epic Plays emerged looking at lives larger than life, which gave rise to the naturalists taking on the everyday struggle of humanity.
Finally, as those of us educated in America are often taught, America happened and western civilization was complete. In terms of theatre this meant Neil Simon invented word play, Edward Albee jumped on board with the absurdists, and Musical Theatre happened.
Conceptually, each era of theatre you look at tells us about the people. The same, of course, is true of literature. We don’t read Greek Mythology to figure out why the seasons change. Even the most uneducated among us will not argue there is truth in Apollo driving a chariot carrying the sun across the sky, but there is truth in the stories being told. The myths tell us a truth about the people who were telling them and their relationship with the world by which they were surrounded.
If you were to look down any type of timeline of theatre history the earliest potential citings would include early religious ceremonies, shamanism, Egyptian rituals, and the like. Performance became relevant as a way or celebrating or promoting that which must be worshipped within a society.
The Greeks taught how to appease the gods and make sense of the natural world. Order out of chaos.
The Mystery plays of the dark ages taught Bible lessons. The morality plays quite overtly taught morals. The epics began hero worship, “be like this man, aspire to him, but have not his fatal flaw” (also prevalent in Greek tales).
Playwrights like Ibsen began to question society and societal norms, is social responsibility greater than the rights of the individual?
The Harlem Renaissance and early civil rights era playwrights celebrated standing up for social justice and equality.
Look up any style, or era, of theatre, any subgenre of writing and you will find authors creating art toward that which they worship. The art of a given time tells us much about the society of that time.
We can easily see that when we look back through a timeline, but often ignore the truth when mired in our own era. (An obvious example of this phenomenon would be fashion – no one looks backs at the 80’s and says, “that looked good”… yet, at the time— you get the idea).
Rather than taking a history lesson on what each past era’s literature can tell us about that culture and time, let’s become present in the now.
What is our theater aside from performing, recreating, and reimagining the classics?
What do the movies, plays, and television shows we watch today say about us as a culture?
What do we worship?
In one hundred or one thousand years or thousands of years, what will remain of our Ancient culture, and what will anthropologists and historians think of Honey Boo Boo and our obsessive Celebrity Worship? Are these our gods: idiots and rich people?
That which you value most, aspire to, idolize, or ponder becomes what you worship. To worship simply means to show reverence and adoration for or to honor with religious rites. How many people schedule their evenings around a television program, or block out time for Netflix at the end of each day, ritualistically?
To each our own, and there are plenty of programs on the idiot box that actually inspire thinking, but on the whole, what do our bread and circuses say about us as a culture?
(Answers may vary based on geography)