African-American drama draws from at least two sources: the heritage of Africa and that of Europe. On the North American continent, those cultures met, interacted with Native American traditions and a new physical environment, and produced a culture that, while related to both Africa and Europe, is nonetheless distinct from both. For the historian of African-American drama, this heritage poses a series of complex questions: What kinds of events count as drama, in that Europeans have come to define drama primarily as a written text, while Africans have placed more value on the communicative capacity of such ephemeral elements as dance, music, and spectacle? If one focuses on written forms, then for whom have black playwrights written? What are the indicators—in terms of content and/or style—that signify the choice of a primarily black, white, or mixed audience? How have dramatists coded or masked their intentions so as to speak to these different audiences simultaneously?
If emphasis is placed on performance rather than upon a written script, then African-American drama begins on the slave ships, when Africans were forced to sing and dance in order to ensure their health and salability and to provide entertainment for white crewmen. Slave narratives and travelers' accounts attest to the fact that plantation owners encouraged their property to perform because they thought that occasional merry-making increased productivity and lessened the possibility of revolt, and because they seemed genuinely fascinated by the musical idioms, gestures, and the black body itself, all of which were radically different from what they knew of European tradition.
Long before black men were allowed on American stages, a caricature stage Negro made an appearance. The English dramatist Isaac Bickerstaff introduced a lazy, rambunctious West Indian slave in The Padlock in 1769; in 1795 the white American James Murdoch followed suit with The Triumph of Love, in which a stupid buffoon known as Sambo delighted audiences and initiated a derogatory stereotype that the American public seemingly will not let die. To counter this representation with spectacles more pleasing to "ladies & gentlemen of color," a free black man named Mr. Brown (first name unknown) opened the African Grove Theatre in lower Manhattan in New York City in 1821. This first, professional black theater company mounted productions of Shakespeare, dance and pantomime interludes, and King Shotaway (1823), thought to be the first play written and performed by African Americans. Though no script remains today, records indicate that it concerned a slave insurrection in the Caribbean. Produced within a year of the Denmark Vesey slave insurrection in Virginia, the play roused the ire of white spectators to the extent that a group of rowdies intent on "wanton mischief" destroyed the theatre building and forced the company's closure in 1823. With its demise, Ira Aldridge, who had been inspired to join the group after seeing the West Indian actor James Hewlett in Richard III, left for Europe where he eventually won gold medals from the Prussian and Austrian heads of state for his superior artistry in Shakespearean tragedies as well as in popular comedies. Sadly, Aldridge became the first of a long line of African-American expatriate artists who found greater acceptance abroad than at home.
The Sambo stereotype would solidify in the 1840s into the minstrel show. According to conventional theater history, minstrelsy began in 1828 when a young white performer named Thomas D. Rice observed an old, deformed Negro singing and dancing. He is said to have borrowed the man's entire performance (including his clothing), thereby initiating what would become an extremely popular form of entertainment—and a pattern of exploitation repeated by many other white performers who reaped great profit from their imitations of black art. More recent scholarship, however, argues that minstrelsy originated not with Rice and his colleagues who claimed that they were accurately depicting real African-American customs, but with black people themselves. In gathering to sing and dance, enact stories, and mock the cultured pretensions of their masters, slaves were creating a form in which improvisation and ecstatic response based upon the interactions of those assembled were more important than a fixed or written text wherein all elements are related to each other by an inviolable logic that does not give any space to the unplanned or unexplained. They were pioneering a form in which language was treasured for its power to stimulate the imagination and emotions. Given slave conditions, they were projecting a metaphysical stance and style that enabled them to survive with their intelligence, humor, and dignity relatively intact. But in performing for white observers, these slaves masked their behavior so that the owners could interpret their efforts as black incompetence rather than as a critique of what appeared to the slaves as white ridiculousness. Thus, white minstrel performers were offering white audiences a parody of black behavior that was, unbeknownst to them, already a parody of white customs. By the 1860s when black men were allowed to perform onstage, audiences had grown so accustomed to the black-face image that African Americans had to black up—adding yet another layer of parody.
Because of its topicality, improvised quality, and general construction as entertainment aimed at the masses, the minstrel show is usually not considered drama. Yet, it was particularly significant for what would follow, because any playwright wishing to represent African Americans onstage would have to confront the enduring legacy of minstrelsy's grinning darky. Furthermore, it signaled that performance modes rooted in African-American culture were likely to be characterized by masking, evocative language, improvisation grounded in a mastery of technique, episodic structure shaped as much by performer-audience interactions as by logic, as well as by ecstasy, and an ethical/aesthetic stance that seeks to affirm the humane even while it holds opposites in balanced tension.
Masking is at the core of The Escape; or a Leap for Freedom by William Wells Brown, who is generally considered the first African American to have a play published. First read from Northern, abolitionist platforms in 1857 by Brown, who was a successful fugitive, this text appears double-voiced, offering contradictory representations to audience members. Undoubtedly, abolitionist attendees at a reading agreed with the representation of slave owners as exploitative and religiously hypocritical, and they sympathized with the mulatto couple who, in fine diction, vow to seek freedom. They probably also found comic relief in Cato, the stereotypical buffoon who uses nonsensical words, pursues gluttonous pleasures, and apes white mannerisms. But Cato is also a trickster who, when beyond his owners' presence, sings freedom songs (in standard English) and cunningly schemes to turn every situation to his own advantage. Thus, when freedom is almost at hand, he jettisons the grinning mask, helps the runaway couple, and makes his own leap to freedom. In his trickstering, Cato seems to represent an independent spirit that will not be contained by social conventions not of his own making. That position could hardly have been a comforting prospect to those Northerners who, despite their antislavery convictions, believed in black inferiority, and yet, presumably it accurately reflected one attitude found among pre–Civil War blacks. Though the figure of the manipulative buffoon found no place in the theaters patronized by whites, its appearance in one of the earliest black plays identifies masking as an important African-American survival strategy. It is a representation to which African Americans have periodically returned in the musical comedies of Bert Williams and George Walker (Abyssinia, 1906; Bandanna Land, 1908), and in dramas as different as Garland Anderson's Appearances (1925), LeRoi Jones's (Amiri Baraka's) The Slave (1964), Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence (1965), and Ed Bullins's The Gentleman Caller (1969).
The use of theater as an arena for advancing social change continued in the first decades of the twentieth century, when W. E. B. Du Bois and others organized the pageant The Star of Ethiopia. Seeking to teach history to both blacks and whites, Du Bois and his pageant master Charles Burroughs crafted a series of tableaux linking Egyptian and Yoruba cultures with African-American heroes like Nat Turner and with the quest for freedom. Between 1913 and 1925, this pageant involved approximately three thousand people as performers and was performed in four cities before more than thirty thousand people. Not only did the pageant mobilize often competitive community energies, foster racial pride, and indulge a love of spectacle, but it also provided a model of nonprofessional, socially charged art that others would utilize. Thus, for example, inhabitants of Los Angeles mounted "50 Years of Freedom" in 1915 to combat the negative imagery of D. W. Griffith's film The Clansman, and in 1974, people dressed in Ku Klux Klan outfits appeared in San Francisco City Hall chambers as part of an effort to ban the display of regalia of groups advocating hate and genocide.
Angelina Weld Grimké's Rachel is the first twentieth-century full-length play written, performed, and produced by blacks. In this sometimes melodramatic coming-of-age play, a high-spirited young woman rejects marriage and the possibility of motherhood because she fears that future generations will be unable to escape the racism she has personally experienced. The production provoked a storm of controversy when sponsored by the District of Columbia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1916, because it implicitly defied the NAACP philosophy of racial progress led by an educated, black elite, whom Du Bois had termed "the talented tenth." For some, the play reduced art to the level of propaganda. Thus, when Alain Locke, one of the leading theoreticians and promoters of the Harlem Renaissance, and educator Montgomery Gregory founded Howard University's dramatic art department in 1921, they explicitly espoused an aesthetic that privileged technical beauty or art over social concerns. W. E. B. Du Bois took a different position, arguing both in his writings and his organization of the amateur Krigwa Players that the two were not so easily separated. Though short-lived (1925–1927), this drama group was significant because it extended Du Bois's efforts and those of Charles Johnson to foster formal cultural production and increase readership through contests and publication in the NAACP and Urban League magazines, Crisis and Opportunity. Additionally, the theater's manifesto propounded a standard of evaluation that would be echoed in the militant sixties. Namely, an authentic black theater had to be "about us…by us…for us…and near us."
Also differing with Locke's and Montgomery's emphasis on art divorced from a strong social referent were a number of women who won most of the drama prizes in the Crisis and Opportunity contests sponsored between 1925 and 1927. Protest against lynching, the lack of birth-control information, and racial discrimination against returning black World War I veterans were some of the issues that women like Alice Dunbar Nelson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Mary Burrill, and May Miller dramatized in plays like Mine Eyes Have Seen (1918), Sunday Morning in the South (1925), Safe (c. 1929), Blue-Eyed Black Boy (c. 1930), Nails and Thorns (1933), They That Sit in Darkness (1919), and Aftermath (1919). The antilynching dramas are of particular importance because these women, largely deprived of leadership roles in organizations like the NAACP or the Urban League, seemingly viewed the stage as an arena for advancing an important social agenda. Their work formed a continuum with the direct, anti-lynching campaigns launched by Ida B. Wells and other black women active in the Women's Club movement from the turn of the century to the early decades of the twentieth century. Additionally, the antilynch play was a genre in which black women predominated, producing more plays than either black men, white women, or white men.
The Great Depression of the 1930s largely stymied African-American efforts to establish their own theaters. One outlet for theatrical interests was the black church, where folk dramas such as "The Old Ship of Zion," "Heaven Bound," or "In the Rapture" began. Popular throughout the Midwest, East, and South, these dramas took their plots from the Bible. Often a given church would mount the same play over a number of years, so that novelty of story line was not an objective. Rather, dramatic appeal rested in the improvisational space allotted to comic by-play, the artistry with which spirituals were rendered, and the affirmation of a sense of communal solidarity in terms of both religious emotions aroused by the actual event and the creative energies marshalled in preparing costumes, sets, and participants for performance. The aesthetic evident in these folks dramas has parallels with such African traditions as festivals, for in both instances a community, sharing a set of beliefs and symbols, gathers to enact itself in a performance balancing fixed and fluid elements. That is, the broad parameters of a known plot, familiar spirituals, and performers whose personalities both onstage and offstage are known to the community are balanced against fluid performance specifics like the particular placement and rendition of individual songs and narrative episodes, the spontaneous extension of humorous moments, and the emotional dynamic between audience and performers. Through this symbolic practice, a value system is reaffirmed, and the individual is offered an opportunity to experience his or her relationship to a community. Started during the Great Depression, folk dramas like Heaven Bound, Noah's Ark, or The Devil's Funeral can still be witnessed in some black Baptist and fundamentalist churches.
The government inadvertently became another sponsor for dramatic activity during the Depression. Faced with the collapse of financial markets and the unemployment of millions of Americans, in 1935 the federal government established a relief program known as the Works Progress Administration. It included the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) that during its four years of operation annually employed some thirteen thousand theater workers who performed before approximately 65 million people in theaters, parks, schools, hospitals, and churches. With black units in twenty-two cities, FTP not only offered work to black performers, but also provided many of them with their first formal training in acting, directing, writing, and technical design. Offerings ran the gamut from adaptations of mainstream plays to musicals and dramas addressing contemporary social issues. One of its most popular shows with white and black audiences was a "voodoo" Macbeth directed by Orson Welles for the New York Negro unit of FTP. In setting this classic in the tropics, Welles was not only continuing the practice of making Shakespeare accessible to people with varying degrees of formal education, but he was also furthering a theatrical convention in which aspects of African-related culture are used to make mainstream fare more exotic or appealing. "Voodoo" Macbeth was soon followed by Swing Mikado, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan light opera; in more recent years, black "remakes" of white standards have resulted in such musicals as The Wiz (1975; adapted from The Wizard of Oz ) and Lee Breuer's The Gospel at Colonus (1983; adapted from the fifth-century Greek drama Oedipus at Colonus ).
In addition to delightful spectacles, the FTP also produced serious drama that questioned the fabric of American life. One such drama, Big White Fog by Theodore Ward, is a good example of a play that speaks simultaneously to both white and black audiences. Its realistic style with an immediately recognizable physical setting, operation of cause-and-effect within family relationships, and the hero's movement toward greater self-knowledge locates the text within the mainstream of American dramaturgy. The play's cultural specificity resides in it focus on the competing promises of Marcus Garvey's Back-to-Africa movement, a black capitalism derived from Booker T. Washington, and socialism within the context of the Depression. Furthermore, its dramatization of intraracial (as well as interracial) color prejudice adds powerful depth, because it captures a reality known painfully well by African Americans, but for the most part hidden from the view of the larger society. Produced first in 1938 by the FTP black unit in Chicago, it aroused a certain degree of controversy because of its seeming support of communism. It was subsequently remounted in New York in 1940 by the short-lived Negro Playwrights Company, which Ward had helped to organize along with other playwrights like Langston Hughes and Abram Hill (On Striver's Row, 1940; Walk Hard, 1944). Theodore Ward subsequently found critical praise and limited audience success with his historical drama about Reconstruction, Our Lan'. Begun in 1941, it was first produced off-Broadway at the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse in 1946.
Further fueling conservative concern about art and politics was a form of experimental theater known as the Living Newspaper. The format was initially conceived by FTP director Hallie Flanagan, who, like many other white American artists had been impressed by the theatrical experimentation she witnessed in Germany and Russia in the 1920s. The Living Newspaper hired unemployed workers to research current events that were then enacted by large casts in an episodic, panoramic fashion with minimal sets or costumes, in effect producing a kind of theatricalized newsreel. One of the first Living Newspapers to run afoul of its government sponsors was Ethiopia, which was closed after an initial preview because of fears that its powerful dramatization of Benito Mussolini's invasion of the African nation of Ethiopia would provoke protests and jeopardize relations with the Italian government, with which the nation was then at peace. Politics also seems to have been the explanation for not producing Abram Hill and John Silvera's script Liberty Deferred (1938), which utilized many of the Living Newspaper techniques to dramatize the African-American history. Though FTP fare was very popular with the American public, it nonetheless drew the suspicions of congressmen who regarded this first attempt at subsidized public art as a haven for allegedly anti-American, communist sympathizers. With the economy improving as the nation moved toward active participation in World War II, the Dies Committee killed the Federal Theatre Program in 1939.
Langston Hughes's Don't You Want to Be Free? (1937) stands in marked contrast to Ward's Big White Fog. While Ward's play had been sponsored by the Federal Theatre, Hughes's was produced by his own leftist-affiliated Harlem Suitcase Theatre. Like much of the agitprop, or agitation-propaganda play writing of the Great Depression, his play utilizes minimal scenery, a small pool of actors to play a large number of roles, and direct address to the audience, designed to encourage them to undertake a specific action. In this case, the text argues for an acceptance of working-class solidarity across racial barriers. The play's distinctiveness is marked by its use of poetry, gospel and blues songs, dance, and vignettes to suggestively chronicle black history from Africa to the United States. The validation of culture that Hughes had begun in experimenting with poetic form in The Weary Blues (1926) was here extended to the theater; his use of an episodic structure, knitted together and propelled by the emotional energy of black music as well as by the evocative intensity of language, provided a model that more contemporary playwrights like Amiri Baraka and Ntozake Shange would emulate in the 1970s. Hughes's later deployment of religious experience, which found commercial success in Black Nativity (1961), helped inaugurate the contemporary gospel drama genre, practiced by such artists as Vinnette Carroll with Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (1975) and Ken Wydro and Vi Higgensen with Mama I Want to Sing (1980).
World War II (1939–1945) brought in its wake increased militancy at home and abroad, as African Americans agitated for fair-employment practices, the elimination of restricted housing, and an end to segregated schools, and as Africans mobilized to gain their independence from colonial masters. This new aggressiveness was mirrored in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Using Langston Hughes's poetic query, "What happens to a dream deferred?", the young playwright explored the conflicting aspirations of the Youngers, a Chicago tenement family eagerly awaiting the arrival of a $10,000 insurance check paid upon the death of the father. Thirty-year-old Walter Lee's dream of owning a liquor store and hence of functioning as a man in terms espoused by the American middle class clashes with Mama's desire to purchase a comfortable house with a small garden, while Beneatha's medical studies and humanist philosophy come into conflict with her brother's chauvinism and her mother's religiosity. Sister-in-law Ruth's decision to seek an illegal abortion marks the battering that the older generation's Southern, sharecropping values have taken in the industrial North. Paradoxically, Mama's spiritual faith, rooted in the American slave experience, is congruent with Asagai's progressive social commitment based in contemporary, African anticolonial movements, for in wooing Beneatha, this Nigerian student speaks of the necessity of belief in human potential and the consequence struggle for human betterment.
Produced five years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision outlawing segregated schools, A Raisin in the Sun seemed to signal the nation's willingness to live up to its credo of equality. It constituted a number of landmarks: the first time that an African-American woman's work had been produced at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway; the directorial debut of African-American Lloyd Richards in such a prestigious venue; widespread recognition for actors Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, and Diana Sands; and encouragement for other artists to articulate their visions of black America. In addition, it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, beating out such mainstream competitors as Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth, Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet, and Archibald Mac-Leish's J.B. Thus, the play's ending was interpreted, for the most part, as a ringing endorsement of integration. But at the time of its twenty-fifth-anniversary production in 1984, optimism had waned; the reinsertion of the character of the chatty neighbor, who brings news of a racial bombing, along with the final action of the play, namely Mama's retrieving her sickly plant for the family's move into a white neighborhood, clarified Hansberry's call for continued struggle for dignity.
In both its content and structure, Raisin speaks to the white mainstream and to black audiences. In fact, critics have compared this drama to the Depression-era Awake and Sing (1935), written by the white author Clifford Odets, because not only do both feature families dominated by women, but they also deploy ethnic slang and the metaphors of a cramped physical environment as a sign of moral constriction and of money from an insurance check as the vehicle for exercising personal integrity. Ephemeral, performance-based yet nonetheless significant elements, along with the written text, serve, however, to simultaneously locate this drama within an African matrix. Rather than arguing, as did critics influenced by the federally sponsored Moynihan Report on black families, that Mama is an emasculating matriarch because the Youngsters do not conform to the 1950s norm of the nuclear family, one can more profitably understand them as fitting the pattern of an extended African family in which great respect is due elders. At moments of extreme crisis, Mama and Walter Lee each evoke the dead patriarch's memory in halting, yet repetitive linguistic rhythms (that are merely suggested in the written script) seemingly to gain access to his moral support in their decision making. Their actions in these instances are akin to African customs of conjuring the spiritual energies of departed relatives in order to solve current, material problems. Similarly, Beneatha and Walter Lee's fanciful creation of a dance welcoming African warriors home from battle constitutes a writing of culture on the body that provides them a dignity denied them by the American environment; as such, it conforms to African assertions that knowledge is kinesthetic and subjective as well as cerebral.
If Hansberry's hero could be aligned with the southern Civil Rights Movement in his attempt to find a place within the American mainstream, then LeRoi Jones's (a.k.a. Amiri Baraka) protagonists in Dutchman and The Slave were related to the Nation of Islam and its fiery spokesman Malcolm X, for at the time of the plays' premieres in 1964, spectators saw these characters as determined to destroy the social system. In the former drama, a twentyish African-American man and older, white woman engage in a bizarre dating game on a subway car that never reaches its final destination. Claiming to know both everything and nothing concerning Clay's life history, this stranger named Lula alternately describes a tantalizing sexual liaison that they will enjoy and hurls racial taunts at the would-be poet until he sheds his polite, middle-class demeanor and acknowledges a deep hatred of white America. But Clay fails to act upon his murderous knowledge, preferring instead to use art as a safety valve that tempers rebellious impulses. Once Lula has exposed this rage, she kills Clay and enlists the aid of the hitherto passive onlookers in throwing his body off the train. Like the mythic captain of the Flying Dutchman, who was fated to sail the world looking for absolution for his crimes, Lula begins to seek out another young black male as the play closes. Seemingly, the play functioned as a cautionary tale demonstrating to blacks that death was the price for inaction upon their justifiable anger and warning whites of the rage they could expect if they continued to deny full citizenship to African Americans. Largely unnoted at the time was the text's gender politics, which accuses the white woman rather than fingering the actual holders of oppressive power in the United States.
In contrast, the black man is no longer the victim and the white man is visible in The Slave. Walker has invaded the home of his white former wife in order to take his daughters to safety behind the lines of his revolutionary army advancing on the city—or, so he alleges, because it seems as though Walker's real purpose is to exorcise those feelings that bind him to Grace and Easley, Grace's present (white) husband and Walker's former professor. In the ensuing literal and figurative battle, Walker kills Easley, a beam fatally hits Grace, and Walker departs, apparently leaving the children upstairs crying.
But social psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, whose writings on anticolonial struggles in Algeria provided intellectuals in the 1960s with an important framework for conceptualizing Black Power movements, has argued that it is easier to proclaim rejection than to reject. Fanon's analysis is pertinent to the Baraka text, for despite his aggressive stance, Walker agonizes that he has no language with which to construct a new world, his sole epistemology or frame of reference is a Western system that enforces hatred of black people.
The ambiguity of his position has, in fact, been signaled at the outset by a prologue in which an actor, dressed as a stereotypical old field slave, addresses viewers directly, arguing that whatever he and they understand as reality may be a lie told for survival purposes. What is needed, he suggests, is a superstructure that will enable communication among blacks and whites by ensuring that their common language has the same undeniable referents; otherwise, a black man's legitimate quest for control over his destiny may be understood by a white man as senseless terrorism. The rest of the play then argues that this enabling structure is violence, undertaken by the exploited black masses in defense, as Fanon argued, against the violence waged upon them by the state. But as a playwright, Baraka is caught in a problematic position, for his primary tool of communication with audiences is language itself, suspect because of its inherent capacity to simultaneously convey multiple references and values. Yet, given the extra-theatrical, social backdrop of armed confrontations waged by groups like the Black Panther Party, most spectators and readers at the time of the drama's initial productions focused their attention on the text's revolutionary rhetoric rather than its ambivalence.
At the heart of both these plays is an examination of hegemony or the power of a ruling class to enforce throughout the entire society perspectives that maintain its privileged status through noncoercive means like education, the arts, or certain everyday practices. In Dutchman the dominance of the elite, as embodied in Lula, is maintained in part because art functions as a passive mode of resistance that deflects direct confrontation. In The Slave and subsequent dramatic works like Four Black Revolutionary Plays, Arm Yrself or Harm Yrself (1967), or The Motion of History (1977), art is defined as counterhege-monic; it is seen as a weapon that can be utilized to attack sociopolitical hierarchies. In rejecting, as Du Bois had done previously, the opposition of art to propaganda, Amiri Baraka became a major proponent of the Black Arts Movement (1964–1974), functioning as a role model for a younger generation eager to assert a positive sense of their black identity.
In an atmosphere of civil rights demonstrations and urban rebellions, entitlement programs designed to bring about what President Lyndon Johnson termed "the Great Society," Vietnam war protest, and the beginnings of a renewed feminism, African-American drama, with its implicit critique of the dominant social structure, briefly flourished. Playwrights like Ed Bullins, Richard Wesley, Clay Goss, Ron Milner, Ben Caldwell, Sonia Sanchez, and Marvin X followed Baraka's example. Artists like Robert Macbeth, Barbara Ann Teer, and Woodie King, Jr. established companies that advocated a black nationalist position (New York's the New Lafayette, National Black Theatre, and Concept East in Detroit respectively), while more moderate practitioners like Douglas Turner Ward, Hazel Bryant, C. Bernard Jackson, John Doyle, and Nora Vaughn, and such companies as the Negro Ensemble, the Richard Allen Cultural Center in New York, the Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and the Grassroots Experience and Black Repertory Group Theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area also found governmental funding and receptive audiences for their efforts.
Another of the most prolific playwrights of this period was Ed Bullins, who has written in a variety of styles, including comedy (The Electronic Nigger, 1968), theater of the Absurd (How Do You Do? 1965), fictionalized autobiography (A Son Come Home, 1968), and a realism whose seemingly photographic accuracy does not reveal the playwright's evaluation of his source material (Clara's Ole Man, 1965). Unlike virtually any other black dramatist before him, Ed Bullins placed onstage—and thereby validated—in plays like Goin' a Buffalo (1966), In the Wine Time (1968), and The Taking of Miss Janie (1975) lower-class hustlers, prostitutes, pimps, and unemployed teens as well as lower-middle-class community college students, veterans, musicians, and would-be artists and intellectuals, virtually all of whom aggressively pursue an individually-oriented materialism shorn of any rhetoric of concern for a shared, common good.
In disavowing the espoused social values of the American mainstream, Bullins's playwriting style in his full-length dramas also demanded a mode of criticism that was outside the Aristotelian-derived, mainstream preference for tightly organized, linear dramatic structures. Thus, these dramas may be more productively analyzed in terms of jazz, a musical idiom that originated among African Americans and was until relatively recently held in low regard by the American public. Like a jazz composition in which individual musicians improvise a solo or "riff" off a shared melodic line, a play such as The Fabulous Miss Marie (1971) has a basic narrative concerning a group of black Los Angelenos who party unconcernedly while a civil rights demonstration is being broadcast on television. The seemingly endless rounds of drinking, meandering conversations, verbal sparring, and sexual repartee function as a base line from which action is periodically stopped in order for individual characters to step from the shadows into a spotlight and address the audience directly with their own solos on the theme of trying to "make it" in the United States.
Adrienne Kennedy is another playwright whose work demanded different critical tools. Like Baraka, Kennedy confronts, in plays like The Owl Answers (1965) and Rat's Mass (1963), questions of representation and identity formation, offering a black woman's account of the cultural schizophrenia induced by American racial constructions. Thus, protagonists like Sarah in Funnyhouse of a Negro (1963) are paralyzed by devotion to European culture, symbolized in this text by Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of Hapsburg, and by psychosexual confusion centered on a father figure, associated here with blackness, encroaching jungles, civilizing missions in Africa, and contradictorily, the anticolonialist Congolese hero Patrice Lumumba. Adding to the ambiguity is Kennedy's consistent decision to distribute the female protagonist's story amongst a number of different characters, thereby producing an identity or voice that does not come together in a single, coherent whole. Though her earliest plays were produced during the same time period as Baraka's, the ideological demand for positive valorization of "the black experience" in the sixties' Black Arts and Black Power movements meant that her frighteningly powerful dramatizations of the anguished sensibility Du Bois had termed "double consciousness" won a few supporters among African-American theatergoers. Notwithstanding, her highly abstract style found positive response within the limited circles of the white avant-garde in New York. Given subsequent critiques of identity and relationships of domination and marginality launched from theorists of feminism, literary deconstruction, postcoloniality, and postmodernism, a space has been cleared, and Kennedy's work is presently garnering from white and black critics alike the attention it deserves.
Exploding on the theatrical scene in 1976 with for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange builds upon examples set by Hughes, Baraka, and Kennedy in black theater as well as those offered by Europe's Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht. Coining the term "choreo-poem," Shange creates a total theater in which unscripted elements like music and dance become equal partners with the written word—i.e., poetry. Thus, in for colored girls … not only do the women talk about their encounters with men, but they also utilize 1960s Motown tunes, Afro-Cuban rhythms, nonsensical chants, and gospel cadences in order to break out of a social world in which they have been devalued as "a colored girl an evil woman a bitch or a nag." With this first text, Shange placed African-American women's experiences of rape, abortion, domestic abuse, sexual desire, and self-affirmation center stage, and she helped fuel an intense debate within black communities concerning the relevance of feminism—understood at that time as the preoccupation of white, middle-class women—to the lives of African Americans. Seeking in Spell #7 (1979) to confront the power of the minstrel mask that has determined representations of blacks in American popular imagination she crafts a provocative theater whose implications refuse to remain within the illusionary space created by drama. Shange has continued in texts like Boogie Woogie Landscapes (1979), From Okra to Greens/A Different Kinda Love Story (1978), and The Love Space Demands: A Continuing Saga (1992) to utilize poetry, music, and dance in a non-linear fashion to explore ways in which a sense of personal integrity and nobility can be harmonized with the realities of racist and sexist social constructions of black (female) identity. Playwrights like Alexis Deveaux, Aishah Rahman, and George C. Wolfe have followed Shange's lead in experimenting with dramatic form, while the last has parodied the feminist content of Shange's dramas in The Colored Museum (1986).
Closer to the American mainstream's penchant for realism is August Wilson, who has benefited from a virtually unique, creative collaboration with Lloyd Richards, the same director who brought Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun to Broadway some thirty-five years earlier. Each of his plays has been "workshopped" (read aloud by professional actors and a director, critiqued, and re-written) at the National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O'Neill Theater, run by Richards, before receiving productions (and further revisions) and national media attention at various, mainstream regional theaters and on Broadway.
A skilled storyteller, Wilson has taken on the challenge of writing a play for each decade of the twentieth century. Thus, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984) focuses on the renowned 1920s blues singer and her band, who, through their casual reminiscences, reveal a collective history of discrimination. Fences (1985) centers on an over-bearing man's relationship to his son and other family members at the point in the 1950s when African Americans were being allowed entry into white, professional sports organizations; and Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986) dramatizes the search by various boardinghouse occupants for a sense of wholeness and sustaining purpose in the first decade of the twentieth century, when thousands of rural black people moved north seeking employment in an industrializing economy. In The Piano Lesson (1987), set in the 1930s, a brother and sister fight for possession of the family's piano, which seems to symbolize conflicting ideas concerning uses of the past in charting present courses of action; while set against the backdrop of Malcolm X's militancy of the 1960s, Two Trains Running (1990) features the regular patrons of a modest diner who pursue their own dreams of advancement by playing the numbers (i.e., illegally betting on the outcome of horse races) or consulting Aunt Esther, a local fortune teller whose alleged, advanced age happens to correspond to the numbers of years African-Americans have lived in the United States.
Like the novelist Toni Morrison, August Wilson crafts a world in which the pedestrian often assumes grand, mythic proportions, nearly bursting in the process the neat, explanatory rationales implicit in the genre of dramatic realism. Characters regularly fight with ghosts, make pacts with the Devil, or talk to Death; seemingly, they quest for a spiritual center or standpoint from which to confront a material world hostile to their presence. Arguing the importance of blues music in shaping the identity of African Americans, Wilson seems to create characters whose very lives are a blues song: improvisatory, ironic, yet simultaneously affirmative, grounded in a bedrock of belief in the possibility of human integrity.
Seemingly with the post-sixties integration of some public school systems, (sub)urban neighborhoods, job sites, and mass media, the hybrid character of African-American—and indeed, American—culture has accelerated. Those comfortable with a postmodernism that often finds its inspirations in a global eclecticism of "high" and "low" cultures, can enjoy such African-American performance artists as Robbie McCauley (My Father and the Wars, 1985; Sally's Rape, 1991), and Laurie Carlos who, in the tradition of Ntozake Shange, work individually and collaboratively to fuse personal narratives with larger feminist issues. Also termed a performance artist, Anna Deavere Smith offers in her On the Road: A Search for American Change series solo performances of edited interviews with people, both famous and obscure, on topics like gender and racial tensions in professional organizations, urban neighborhoods, and on university campuses. She has also focused on the increasingly multicultural, fractious character of American cities, for her Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994), in which she performs the words of more than thirty women and men within an hour and a half, challenges audiences to grapple with notions of community in the context of competing demands for racial and economic justice. They can also sample dramas by Suzan-Lori Parks (The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, 1990; Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, 1989), who cites the white, American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein and "The Wild Kingdom" television program among her influences; or work by Eric Gupton, Brian Freeman, and Bernard Branner (Fierce Love: Stories from Black Gay Life, 1991), collectively known as AfroPomoHomo, a shortening of the identificatory tags, African-American, postmodernist, and homosexual. Or, spectators can attend a concert by Urban Bush Women, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, or David Rousseve, whose mixture of modern dance choreography, pedestrian gestures, athleticism, and narrative communicated through both movement and spoken text blur conventional Western distinctions between drama and dance. What all these artists share is a sensibility that does not reach for some grand, master truth. Rather, juxtaposing elements as diverse as European high art, Georgia Sea Island chants, television programs, West African religions, and popular music, they recognize that African-American identity is varied, and no one can claim to represent black authenticity without doing violence to other perspectives found in these communities.
Indeed, for those theatergoers in the 1990s who find the choreopoem form of an Ntozake Shange, the mythic reach of an August Wilson, or the puzzling symbolism of a Suzan-Lori Parks not to their liking, other options are available. They can attend a performance of Beauty Shop, Living Room, or Beauty Shop, Part 2, all of which have been written, produced, and directed by Shelly Garrett. Starting in 1987 with the intention of simply creating dramatic pieces that would leave audiences exhausted with laughter, Garrett is said to have targeted his attentions primarily toward an underserved population of black women, ages 25 to 54 who watch soap operas and rarely frequent theater. Thus, his scripts are closer to TV sitcoms in their representations of everyday life; stereotypes abound, with the women portrayed as materialist, classist, sexually repressed or rapacious. Men are represented as self-centered sex objects, financially secure but dull, or flamboyant homosexuals outgossiping the most catty (yet hilarious) women. Seemingly, considerable advertising on black-oriented radio stations, the dramas' verbal play, the performers' zestful aura, a mixture of some recognizable truths, and cheerful confirmation of spectators' misogynist and homophobic attitudes have attracted thousands of spectators, enabling Garrett to tour at least fifty cities nationwide for more than two years with one show. But those disturbed by what they may perceive as rampant sexuality in these shows also have an option in the commercial arena, for producers have created a religious version, like Michael Mathews's I Need a Man (1993), wherein some of these lively stereotypes undergo spiritual conversion aided by the performance of gospel music. As with much black art, the form is elastic, so that local, gospel radio personalities occasionally make guest appearances onstage during the performance; the predictability of plot and character types is offset by the dynamics of the performer-viewer interactions. Whether participants undergo a religious experience in this highly commercialized venue depends, as it does in church, upon their own belief systems and sensibilities.
In the 1990s, approximately 200 companies were dedicated to the production of African-American theater and drama. As the foregoing account suggests, audiences can experience a wealth of themes, perspectives, and styles, all of which seek to articulate aspects of African-American culture. This diversity is indeed a cause for celebration. Yet, given the nation's difficult economic conditions that promise no easy solution, the arts in general and black and other so-called minority expressive cultures in particular will be under intense pressure to obtain the financial resources that enable artistic production. Perhaps artists from earlier generations would have spoken of the economic constraints upon their work, too, and advised their descendants that the challenge remains constant: To create a tasty "soul" food of dramatic fare, one must utilize the diverse materials at hand, seasoning them with attention to technique, intelligence, passion, an occasional bit of humor, openness to inspiration, and most important, grace under pressure.
See also Aldridge, Ira; Black Arts Movement; Bullins, Ed; DuBois, W. E. B.; Jones, LeRoi (Amiri Baraka); Joplin, Scott; Kennedy, Adrienne; Literature of the United States; Minstrels/Minstrelsy; Parks, Suzan-Lori; Shange, Ntozake; Walker, George; Wilson, August
Abramson, Doris E. Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925–1959. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
Boskin, Joseph. Sambo: the Rise and Demise of an American Jester. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth, ed. Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth, ed. Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Carter, Steven R. Hansberry's Drama. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Craig, E. Quita. Black Drama of the Federal Theatre Era: Beyond the Formal Horizons. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
Fabre, Genevieve. Drumbeats, Masks, and Metaphor. Translated by Melvin Dixon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
Fletcher, Winona L. "Witnessing a 'Miracle': Sixty Years of 'Heaven Bound' at Big Bethel in Atlanta." Black American Literature Forum 25, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 83–92.
Harrison, Paul Carter. "Introduction: Black Theater in Search of a Source." In Kuntu Drama: Plays of the African Continuum. New York: Grove Press, 1974, pp. 5–29.
Harrison, Paul Carter. Totem Voices: Plays from the Black World Repertory. New York: Grove Press, 1989.
Hatch, James V., ed. Black Theater, U.S.A.: Forty-Five Plays by Black Americans, 1847–1974. New York: Free Press, 1974.
Hill, Errol, ed. The Theatre of Black Americans : New York: Applause, 1990.
Mitchell, Angela. "Cheap Laughs: Bad Taste, Big Bucks." Emerge 4, no. 5 (March 1993): 49–51.
Mollette, Carlton, and Barbara Mollette. Black Theatre: Premise and Presentation. 1986. Reprint. Briston, Ind.: Wyndham Hall Press, 1992.
Neal, Larry. Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1989.
Perkins, Kathy A. Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays Before 1950. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume 1, 1902–1941: I, Too, Sing America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Sanders, Leslie Catherine. The Development of Black Theater in America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
Scott, Freda L. "The Star of Ethiopia: A Contribution Toward the Development of Black Drama and Theater in the Harlem Renaissance." In Amritijit Singh, William S. Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin, eds. The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations. New York: Garland, 1989.
Turner, Darwin T., ed. Black Drama in America: An Anthology. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1994.
Wiggins, William H., Jr. "Pilgrims, Crosses, and Faith: The Folk Dimensions of 'Heaven Bound'." Black American Literature Forum 25, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 93–100.
Wilkerson, Margaret B. 9 Plays by Black Women. New York: New American Library, 1986.
Wilkerson, Margaret B. "Redefining Black Theatre." The Black Scholar 10, no. 10 (July/August 1979): 322–342.
Williams, Mance. Black Theatre in the 1960s and 1970s. West-port, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.
Woll, Allen. Black Musical Theatre: From "Coontown" to "Dreamgirls." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
sandra l. richards (1996)
During the Renaissance, drama came into its own as an art form. Although early types of plays had appeared as early as the 1200s, they were usually performed as part of a festival, not as events by themselves. Scholars of the Middle Ages had studied the drama of the ancient world, but they treated it as literature, suitable for reading rather than performing. Playwrights of the Renaissance revived classical* comedy and tragedy and brought them from the bookshelf to the stage.
Religious theater arose during the late Middle Ages. By around 1350, most of western and southern Europe had adopted three basic forms of religious drama: the passion play, the miracle play, and the morality play. These forms remained popular until the early 1600s.
Passion plays, also known as mystery plays, were elaborate outdoor presentations of scenes from the Bible, often featuring events from the life of Christ. Performances ran for days or even weeks, involving hundreds of people at various locations throughout a city or town. A play in progress dominated the social, economic, and cultural life of the city. This form of drama reached its height around 1400 in England and 1500 in France and the Holy Roman Empire*.
Miracle plays recounted the lives of saints and the miracles they performed. In Italy, especially in Florence and Rome, passion and miracle plays often formed part of great religious pageants in honor of Holy Week (the week before Easter) or of a city's patron saint. The actors set up carts and moved their performance throughout the city. The productions often featured music and elaborate costumes. Confraternities—groups of laypeople* who joined together for religious and social activities—often wrote and performed passion and miracle plays. Nuns in convents occasionally produced these types of plays as well.
Another form of religious drama, the morality play, became particularly popular in northern France and the Netherlands. These plays were allegories* in which each character represented some human quality. One of the most famous morality plays, Everyman (ca. 1495), retold the story of a human being's spiritual journey from birth to death. During the play Everyman encounters such characters as Strength and Good Deeds.
In the early 1500s church officials began to view passion and miracle plays as sacrilegious*. Authorities tried to ban them in France, England, Italy, and the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire. However, many actors continued to perform them.
Although scholars of the Middle Ages studied tragic drama, they tended to see it as poetry rather than theater. Humanists* began writing new tragedies, based on ancient Roman models, as early as the 1300s, but they did not produce these works on the stage. However, in the mid-1500s playwrights and critics began to see the spectator, rather than the reader, as the proper audience for tragedy. At the same time, the discovery of ancient Greek tragedies by Sophocles, Euripides, and other authors helped fuel interest in the genre*.
As dramatists set out to revive this ancient form, they turned to classical sources for guidance. Their main references were Poetics, by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and Ars Poetica, by the Roman poet Horace. Authors engaged in lively debates about whether it was better to imitate the Greeks or the Romans and about whether plots should be based on fictional or historical events.
Slowly, tragedy came out of the scholarly study and onto the stage. In 1541 the Italian playwright Giambattista Cinzio Giraldi became the first to present a tragedy on stage. The performance of his play Orbecche revived the tragic tradition, which became an immediate success. Patrons* commissioned new plays and financed stage productions. Because Italy had no public theaters at the time, these plays appeared in private homes or at court.
Tragic Themes. Renaissance playwrights believed that their art should educate audiences as well as entertain them. They often began their tragedies with a prologue* that explained how the forces of good and evil would appear in the dramatic action. The prologue advised the audience to learn from the tragic events they were about to see on stage.
However, the playwrights' ideas of right and wrong reflected the changing views of their societies. The many tragedies written about kings show how these ideals changed over time. Early humanists considered honor and glory the chief virtues of a ruler. However, a later generation of dramatists followed the model of author Niccolò Machiavelli, who argued that a monarch should be ruthless. Therefore, the theater encouraged the audience to think about, and perhaps to question, their society's changing values and beliefs.
Tragedies also presented society's conflicting views about the role of women. Female victims in tragedy often appeared as weak, overemotional characters of limited intelligence. However, in other cases women were strong, intelligent individuals seeking the respect they deserved. Their courage in the face of death inspired admiration from audiences, both at court and in the general public.
Tragic Effects. The power of theater as a cultural force depended largely on its ability to draw the audience into the story. Playwrights struggled to make the world on stage seem more real through their use of language and stage effects.
Dramatists drew their audiences in by writing in the local language, rather than in Latin. They also updated the settings, costumes, and actions of their plays to reflect the society of their time. However, writers continued to rely on the classical tradition in their use of language. They tended to include many verbal flourishes and to show off their knowledge of ancient literature.
This emphasis on language has earned Renaissance tragedies the reputation of being too "talky," better for reading than for performing. However, this complaint overlooks the other devices playwrights used to add interest to their tragedies, such as costumes, movement, sound, and blocking (the placement of characters on stage). Dramatists developed a clever trick for presenting events such as murders and crowd scenes, which they could not easily show on the stage. They had characters onstage watch events occurring offstage and describing what they saw. This technique expanded the world of the play beyond the borders of the stage, enabling the audience to witness the action without seeing it directly. Playwrights also used sound and lighting to signal events taking place offstage. A blare of trumpets could hint at a procession, while thunderbolts and flashes of lightning suggested a violent storm.
Popular as tragedy became, it never achieved the same appeal as comedy. During the Renaissance, playwrights developed a new style of comedy based on the works of ancient Roman dramatists, such as Plautus and Terence. They referred to this form as erudite (learned) comedy. The name suggests that they viewed it as a serious art form, suitable for noble or scholarly audiences.
Erudite comedy began in Italy in the 1400s. Its basic features were copied from classical comedy. Playwrights divided their works into five acts, all occurring on the same day and in the same place—usually an Italian city street or courtyard. They populated the stage with characters who fit the setting, such as servants, soldiers, innkeepers, and peddlers. Most dramatists reinforced the familiar feeling of the setting by writing in prose rather than verse. They also used the language the audience knew, although some characters might speak in foreign languages or regional dialects.
Erudite comedies often had complicated plots with two or more story lines entwined together. They tended to rely on devices such as tricks, disguises, mistaken identities, and practical jokes. The heroes of the piece were often young lovers who, with the help of their clever servants, outwitted the old men who tried to keep them apart. Broad physical humor, known as slapstick, played a major role in the action. However, within these silly and twisted plots, playwrights found room to slip in comments about politics, local events, and issues ranging from education and marriage to the use of cosmetics.
Certain plot devices became standard features in erudite comedy. Eavesdropping, cross-dressing, misunderstood letters, and switching bedmates in the dark all appeared repeatedly in different plays. Comedies also relied heavily on specific types of action, such as commenting on the action in asides*, exchanging insults, and talking from windows. As late as the 1600s, playwrights such as William Shakespeare and the French dramatist Molière continued to use these elements in their works.
- * classical
in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome
- * Holy Roman Empire
political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806
- * laypeople
those who are not members of the clergy
- * allegory
literary or artistic device in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities and in which the author intends a different meaning to be read beneath the surface
- * sacrilegious
disrespectful of sacred things
- * humanist
Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)
- * genre
- * patron
supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer
- * prologue
introduction to a literary work
A Typical Comedy
The play Calandria (The Follies of Calandro), by Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena, provides a typical example of the plot of an erudite comedy. It involves a pair of abandoned twins, one male and one female, searching for each other throughout Rome. The male twin falls in love with the unsatisfied wife of an old man named Calandro. Through a series of tricks, disguises, and mistakes, managed by a clever servant, the female twin eventually becomes engaged to Calandro's son, while the male twin becomes the lover of Calandro's wife.
- * aside
remark made by a character onstage to the audience or to another character, not heard by other characters in the same scene
There is a curious contradiction within theater arts: nothing of man originates from deeper or more hidden sources, and nothing surfaces to a more flamboyantly exposed and lasting arena for observation. Refracted as art may be through the prisms of a nation’s culture, customs, habits, and manners, still and all a vital pulse of universality beats. This is theater’s potential for evoking emotional response. Dance and drama depict moods and ideas, instincts even, of so private and yet so public a nature that no other aspect of civilized life seems as revelatory or explanatory. Artifacts and art works, of course, visually record the details of an ancient civilization. For example, the poses of the dance figurines excavated from the site of the Indus civilization of three thousand years ago demonstrate graphically the stylistic continuities between the pre-Vedic and present-day Indian dance, but the life of the past returns only when theater preserves it, no matter how faintly. Recorded history tells of vanished events, but in the drama, history becomes a living representation. The workings of the inner mind that created the past and breathed in its very atmosphere emerge clear and true. Poetic truth, rather than logic, determines men’s actions. Our attention is held by considering how man feels in the midst of events without requiring the dry dispassion of a scholar’s interest. Indeed, for all its license, theater gives us true value, as well as face value, because it deals with impelling forces, not surfaces. It is not without reason that science to a greater or lesser extent has always followed, rather than preceded, the artist’s intuitive dictate or that, so often, the scientist is the artist.
The dramas of ancient Greece are now in desuetude: the language dead, the choral declamation unknown, the music lost, and the dance gestures forgotten. Still, when remaining texts are staged they tell the story of the Greek past that transcends time. They give thoughts to cold marble statues; they inhabit the ruins with meaning and motive, with living yet dead people. The validity of theater lies in its power to span distances of time and space and to bridge the gaps in understanding between peoples who may be either strangers or neighbors. Theater is and is not life. It embraces man’s fantasy. If man cannot live without fantasy, and yet if he must remain loyal to reality, then theater satisfies a human need.
Freud, oddly enough, was the first interpretative critic to pinpoint the secret eternity of the Greek drama. By disclosing Oedipus’ double realization of father destruction and mother possession, Freud exposed more to drama than psychiatric content. He defined the potent wellspring within the human psyche without which art must appear as false. Before psychology, it was the artist who intuitively tapped these sources.
When dealing with the theater arts of antiquity one touches even deeper ur memories of man. One mystery is the permanent hold mudra, or gesture language, has kept over India’s dances and formerly over Sanskrit drama. To the outsider seeing and hearing an Indian performance laden with song-words performed by the musicians and the dancer-actor, the language seems sufficiently expressive of meaning. However, the performer simultaneously acts with his or her hands. Sometimes the hands illustrate the words of the song. At other times, in a linguistic counterpoint, the hands enlarge its sense or tell a different story. At still other times, the hands in a visual paronomasia will pun and countermand the musical words. Mudras are not limited to India. They spread from there throughout Asia, where they may still be seen, attenuated sometimes to little more than heightened gesture but never altogether absent. It is a general principle of Asian theater arts that hands speak while the body dances the mood of what the music suggests. Socrates, it is claimed, said to his pupils, “Speak so that I may see you.” An Asian artist might say, “Dance so that I may hear you.” Such is the linguistic interdependence between hand-formed words and sung words.
Why have mudras figured so prominently in Indian art and, by extension, in Asian art? What is their hold, at once so redundant and duplicative? Of course, the gesture of hands forming patterns in the air and spinning meanings in space is a highly delectable aspect of aesthetics. Certainly, it arouses pleasing responses. But it is the specific precision of the mudras that is so startling and so enduring. Mudras can be used by a deafmute. The mudras, in their very nature as symbolic communication, perform the functions of art.
Theater arts have more tangible and instantly comprehensible importance as well. At the risk of sounding pretentious, one may say with fairness that theater houses its nation’s soul. Think, for a moment, of Chekhov and late nineteenth-century Russia, or of Shakespeare’s England, or further afield from our experience, perhaps, of Japan’s kabuki, where the noblest and most vicious attitudes of the past are enshrined. Chushingura, the tale of the 47 lordless knights, is a case in point. Not only is it a national theater piece in the sense of actual history embodying ideals through its dramatizations (its eleven acts take two days to perform), but it combines the realism and fantasy of grand theater. The drama is based on a sensational event that happened in 1701: 47 loyal retainers bided one year before avenging the unjust self-immolation of their lord and then committed mass hara-kiri. Versions of the story appeared on the kabuki and puppet stages within weeks. The dramatic masterpiece, which endures to this day, appeared a few decades later, after the astonishment and the dust of controversy had settled. The annual revival of the drama, with its magnificent recital of patience, hardships endured, difficulties surmounted, and loyalty and duty opposed to heart and affection, perpetuates many of the values and attitudes of Japanese culture.
The modern Japanese are not warriors, nor are they full of vengeance. They do not believe in eighteenth-century morality, and present society could not conceivably permit the events immortalized in the play of Chushingura. Stomachs are tenderer. But just as Americans in New York City weep as Chushingura unfolds its story, so do Japanese at their kabuki and puppet theaters. Why? Because a common chord of understanding is struck by such themes as human suffering and the righting of flagrant wrong. Thus, if one wishes to learn about another country, the theater serves to characterize cultural patterns.
One historical axiom of drama seems to be that early theater portrayed the gods; then, in a later period, the theater portrayed kings and persons of high rank. Finally and lastly, it touched on the life of the common man. The theory behind this is clear. If theater enlarges life so as to appeal to large numbers rather than to few individuals, then surely it must deal with the most exalted themes —the gods. As time sometimes proves gods less than omnipotent, and the strong power of temporal rulers is keenly felt, it follows that relationships between rulers and men have greater consequence. For instance, the fall of a king or a kingdom is more significant than the collapse of the blacksmith in the next village. It is a real mark of theatrical evolution, however, when audiences perceive that depth of feeling does not and should not depend on the importance of the character or his station in life. Drama which treated the sorrows and sufferings of common ordinary men with the same dignity as that of gods and kings and portrayed plights other than lost thrones, abandoned queens, or vengeful gods, replaced earlier drama.
In Asia, the progression from gods to kings to men is still present in its near-original state. India reflects in its theater the burden that religion presently imposes on other aspects of its culture. Many Indians have never seen a theatrical representation of anything other than the holy books Ramayana or Mahabharata. Granted that these are also epics and adventure stories, their intent as theater is spiritual elevation. An even greater number of Indians have never heard a piece of music that was not a devotional song to God, even though they have seen modern Indian movies with their songs and dances. In China, that most irreligious of countries, the classical theater is caught in its history of kings and generals of the past. In the Peking operas, they vie and contend, intrigue and counterplot, all in dark tragedy and high bright humor and to the accompaniment of raucously beautiful orchestration.
In the theatrically happier countries of China and Japan, it is possible to see the life of gods, kings, and the common man of the past as well as the present, depending on which theater is selected. One of the marvels of Asia’s theatrical world is Japan. There a wise spectator can see dances 1,500 years old. He can attend elaborately staged performances (the Japanese invented the revolving stage and the trap door) by actors whose lineage and names go back 350 years. The play in which they appear may be an adaptation of a novel a thousand years old. Age, in itself and despite the cult of antiquity so fashionable in the West, proves nothing. But in the theater it does reveal the infinitely lasting values of morality and humanity glowing in the fires of aesthetic transmutation. A foreigner can weep with sincerity at a no play in which the pivotal point of conflict is the murder of a bird. He responds to the truth, in this instance, of pity.
In Japan, where modern theater was inspired and trained by Soviet Russia, one may see reactionary plays extolling the past even at the expense of modern progress. Theatrical politics is, of course, like a football kicked toward a variety of goals.
For example, a good amount of the communist-encouraged modern theater in China deals with the abuses of the past, such as those of widowhood or landlord cruelty. But there are also plays that express the turmoils and difficulties within the minds and hearts of present-day Chinese, as they come into conflict or agreement with communist ideals.
One surprising fact appears. Society’s immediate problems are not always to be found on the contemporary stage. For example, the postwar difficulties between the Japanese and the American occupation forces were never revealed in the theater. At the same time, the Japanese theater has reached to the core of the social problems posed by Westernization without getting lost in transient details. A somewhat similar problem was dealt with in a different way in India before its independence. There, for lack of a genuinely thriving modern theater, dramatists turned to ancient history to find the reflections or resonances that could convey the urgent message of anticolonialism.
Barnouw, Erik; and Krishnaswamy, S. 1963 Indian Film. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Bowers, Faubion 1952 Japanese Theatre. New York: Hermitage.
Bowers, Faubion 1953 Dance in India. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Bowers, Faubion 1956 Theatre in the East. New York: Nelson.
Bowers, Faubion 1959 Broadway: USSR. New York: Nelson.
Chikamatsu, MonzaemonFour Major Plays of Chikamatsu. Translated by Donald Keene. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1961.
Ernst, Earle 1956 The Kabuki Theatre. New York: Grove; Oxford Univ. Press.
Gargi, Balwant 1962 Theatre in India. New York: Theatre Arts Books.
Kawatake, Shigetoshi 1960 History of Japanese Theatre. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.
Raghavan, V. 1963 Bhoja’s Srńgāra Prakāśa. Madras (India): Punarvasu.
Early Beginnings. The wellspring of Western drama, of course, was ancient Greece. From the start, Roman writers were fascinated by Greek tragedy and comedy, and they not only zealously translated these into Latin, but eventually began writing original plays of their own, based on these models. We know, for example, that Livius Andronicus (circa 284-204 B.C.E.) wrote both tragedies and comedies, and Titus Livius (known as Livy) tells us that he was the first Roman playwright to use actual plots for his onstage presentations. Gnaeus Naevius (circa 265-190 B.C.E.) not only based some of his Latin-language comedies on Greek originals (the so-called fabulae palliatae), but also was the first Roman to write serious plays on topics drawn from Roman history (fabulae praetextae). It appears that he may also have written fabulae togatae, low comedies on Roman life. Another genre of low comedy in early Rome, relying on the use of stock characters, was known as the fatfabula atellana or Atellan farce, so named after a town in Campania.
Roman drama was, from the first, based on Greek models. Plautus, one of the earliest authors writing in Latin whose work has substantially survived the wreck of time, was a master of the stage, creating stories and characters that can still make an audience laugh out loud in the theater. One of characteristic traits of Plautine comedy is his use of “stock characters,” or recognizable character-types who recur from play to play: the handsome youth, the nubile maiden, the courtesan, the dour old man, the clever slave. Among these is the parasitus or “parasite,” the irritating type who lives by sponging off the generosity of others. In this passage we meet one such:
PENICULUS : The boys all call me Peniculus, which may sound ridiculous
But just means Table Duster and shows How Able an Adjuster
I am to dinner and meticulous in clearing off the table:
You can call me Soft Hairbrush: It seems to be my fate
To be famous as a famished eater and wear such a tail plate.
You know, some men chain down their captives, and they shackle
The legs of runaway slaves. I think that’s ridiculous,
To load still worse weight on a badly enough burdened crate.
If you put pressure on him, the underdog wants to get up
And take off, and never do another stroke of work.
Somehow, they’ll always wriggle loose, file off the link
Or knock the lock to bits with a rock. Are chains worth the pains?
If you’d like to rope someone in, so he doesn’t feel
Like escaping, snare him with wine and a meal!
You’re putting a ring through his nose when you take him to dinner.
And as long as you keep him well stocked with food and liquor,
Regularly and the way he likes it, he’ll stick with you,
Even though he’s under heavy sentence. He’ll want to serve you;
As long as you’re bound to give him food, he’s bound to eat it.
The nets and meshes of food are remarkably strong
And elastic, and squeeze even tighter when they get long.
I’m off to Menaechmus’s at the moment, where I’ve signed on
To appear for dinner. I volunteer gaily for a jail
Like his, especially at meals. He doesn’t feed; he deals
With his guests, increasing their status; like a good restauranteur
He doesn’t diagnose, he offers a cure. This sharp epicure
Puts out a very fine spread; he doesn’t spare the courses;
He builds up skyscrapers of dishes—you see something delicious
And have to stand up on the couch and stretch out to reach it
Over all the other things that look nearly as luscious.
I’ve been out of commission for quite a long intermission,
Not in the preferred position at Menaechmus’s house, but at home,
Domiciled and dominated by my own little sweetmeats. Those treats
I provide for myself and my near ones have proved dear [costly] ones,
Thanks to my expensive tastes—and they all go to waist.
So I’m drumming myself out of those ranks, not burning up money
Trooping in with food for the group. Instead, I’m turning tummy
To Menaechmus’s place. He may just embrace my company. Here he comes now
Flouncing out of the house—looks like they’ve had a row.
Source: Phutus, Menaecbmi, from David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, eds., Plautus: The Comedies IV (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
Roman Comedy. One of the most successful and visible literary forms in the early Roman Republic was drama, with its main practitioner being Plautus. He based his comedies loosely on Greek “New Comedies,” with their limited scope of plots about impediments to true love or mistaken identity. A papyrus fragment of one of his Greek models still exists, which confirms that Plautus adapts the Greek plays freely: he cuts out the tedious moralizing, turns monologues into dialogues, expands the humorous passages, and adds music. In fact, his comedies are more like contemporary musicals than spoken theater. Entertainment was his primary aim, and laughter was his weapon of choice. For the sake of making people laugh he often sacrificed the consistency of the plot and patched scenes from one model play into another, even welding two Greek comedies into one Plautine production, a process commonly referred to as “contamination” (contaminatio). In spite of using Greek plays as his blueprint, and of keeping the Greek setting with Greek characters who, for his audience’s benefit, spoke Latin and lived largely in Roman circumstances, he had a keen eye for what his Roman audience would like. His favorite type of joke is one that still flourishes today; it follows the pattern of a puzzling question, a pause expressing bewilderment, and finally the punch line. Plautus’s favorite stock character was the trickster slave who comes to dominate his aristocratic Roman masters. This, of course, inverts the social roles to which the audience was accustomed. By keeping the Greek setting and names, Plautus creates an illusion of strangeness; this situation allowed the audience to laugh at a comic inversion of their own world, thereby questioning the lives they knew. While Plautine comedy is appealing at first for its sheer fun, one cannot deny that there is also a tendency to refuse to reestablish order at the end of a play. Pseudolus burps in his master’s face; Menaechmus sells his own wife! Plautus refuses to reaffirm the hierarchy of Roman society or its marital values, and thereby challenges the audience.
“Contamination” and Sophistication. Plautus’s younger contemporary Publius Terentius Afer (Terence) was much more refined than Plautus. As a member of a philhellenic circle centered around Scipio the Younger, Terence followed his Greek models more closely but still reserved the right to adapt freely rather than merely to translate. In his comedies we find much less slapstick and less music than in Plautus. However, Terence also felt the need at times to add some spice to his play by “contaminating,” for which he was fiercely criticized in his own day. While his plays feel much more civilized and “Greek” than Plautus’s, they are still thoroughly Roman. In one of his best pieces, Adelphi or The Brothers, two brothers’ education methods are pitted against each other: the liberal “Greek” Micio and the tough old “Roman” Demea. Micio has our sympathies throughout most of the play when Demea admits he has been far too restrictive with his son. On the other hand, Demea gets the last word and asserts that Micio has been far too liberal with his boy: “Let me tell you that I may show you the fact that those boys consider you easygoing and jovial does not come from real life nor so much from what’s right and just but from humoring them, indulging them and giving them presents, Micio” (Adelphi 985-8). Thus Terence preserves at least some Roman ideas about child-rearing by means of advocating a “Greek” middle road. Terence challenges traditional Roman values under the influence of Greek thought. However, he does not replace Roman ideals by Greek ones: rather he aims at merging the two value systems.
Imperial Tragedy. Born almost three hundred years after Plautus was Lucius Annaeus Seneca (commonly referred to by scholars as Seneca the Younger), tutor to the emperor Nero. Seneca wrote a number of tragedies based on Greek originals. The characters in these plays serve as negative examples of the emotions: Medea, Thyestes, and Hercules are deranged by anger, Andromache by fear, Phaedra by desire. These plays are the only complete Roman tragedies we have, and for a long time after the end of antiquity were the only ancient drama available in the West. They have therefore exerted a great deal of influence on people such as Shakespeare, but fell out of favor with the rediscovery of Greek tragedy. They are felt by many to be static and stilted, written for recitation rather than for the stage. While it is certainly true that Seneca was no man of the theater, his plays can be (and have been) successfully put on stage. That does not mean that Seneca ever had any hope of seeing them performed.
W. G. Arnott, Menander, Plautus, Terence: Greece and Rome New Surveys in the Classics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).
Gian Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).
E. J. Kenney and W. V. Clausen, eds., Latin Literature, volume 2, The Cambridge History of Classical Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
See also 249. LITERATURE ; 310. PERFORMING .
- Classical Drama, recognition or discovery, as of a disguised character, one thought to be lost, or a critical fact.
- (in ancient Greek choral odes) 1. the response made to a preceding strophe, while the chorus is moving from left to right.
- 2 . the movement of the chorus. Cf. strophe . See also 409. VERSE . —antistrophic, antistrophal , adj.
- the climax of a play or other dramatic representation; that part preceding the catastrophe, where the action is at its height.
- (in the Aristotelian concept of art, especially with reference to tragic drama) the purging of the emotions, traditionally said to be those of pity and fear. See also 334. PSYCHOLOGY .
- a drama expressed in dance or with dance as an integral part of its content and form.
- the theories, attitudes, and techniques of a group of Soviet writers of the 1920s who attempted to reconcile ideological beliefs with technical achievement, especially in stage design, where effects produced were geometrical and nonrepresentational. —constructivist , n., adj.
- the final resolution of the plot, following the climax.
- deus ex machina
- the device of resolving dramatic action by the introduction of an unexpected, improbable, or forced character or incident.
- Greek Drama, the role that is second in importance to that of the protagonist, or main character.
- a dramatic monologue.
- the art of writing or producing plays. —dramaturge, dramaturgist , n.
- a play or drama for two characters or actors.
- a dialogue for two people, especially as a complete dramatic performance or as part of one.
- 1 . the final section of a literary work, often added by way of explanation, comment, etc.
- 2 . a closing speech in a play, often delivered after the completion of the main action. —epilogistic , adj.
- the main action of a drama, leading up to the catastrophe. Cf. protasis .
- 1 . Greek Drama, the catastrophe or conclusion of a play.
- 2 . Roman Drama, a comical or satirical piece added at the end of a play.
- histrionics, histrionism
- the occupation of actors; playacting.
- 1 . a sensational drama with events and emotions extravagantly expressed.
- 2 . an opera or a stage play with songs and music, often of a romantic nature. —melodramatic , adj.
- a drama written for one actor or character. —monodramatic , adj.
- peripeteia, peripetia, peripety
- Literature. a sudden change in the course of events, especially in dramatic works.
- a photoplay or dramatic narrative illustrated with or related through photographs.
- the principal character in the drama.
- Classical Drama, the first part of a play, when the characters are introduced. Cf. epitasis . See also 186. GRAMMAR ; 422. WISDOM . —protatic, adj.
- a speech in which a character reveals his thoughts to the audience but not to other characters in the play. —soliloquist, n.
- the art or skill of producing or staging plays.
- dialogue in single alternating lines, as found in ancient Greek drama. —stichomythic , adj.
- that part of the ancient Greek choral odes sung by the chorus while moving from right to left. Cf. antistrophe . —strophic , adj.
- Greek Drama, a series of four dramas, three of them tragedies and one a satyr-play; hence, any series of four related works, literary, dramatic, operatic, etc.
- the art of the theater or of acting. —theatrical , n., adj.
- a mania for the theater.
DRAMA , city in Macedonia, Greece. *Benjamin of Tudela found 140 Jews in Drama in c. 1165. Documentation points to the settlement of a small Jewish community of merchants in Drama from the beginning of the 17th century who brought their legal problems to the Salonikan bet din. During the years 1671–68, the Hebron emissary Rabbi Moses ha-Levi *Nazir visited the community. After the fall of Ottoman Hungary in 1689, Jews from Buda settled in Drama. Jewish merchants carried goods in caravans from Drama to other towns. In 1900 the Jewish community numbered 45 families, or 150 people. Many Jews from Serres settled in Drama in 1913 after a large fire erupted under Bulgarian occupation. Before World War ii the Jews were engaged in commerce (especially in tobacco); some were craftsmen or in the liberal professions. In 1934, the Zionist Geula organization was founded. In 1940 there were 1,200 Jews in the town. In 1941 Drama was occupied by the Bulgarians, who requisitioned all the Jewish enterprises. Jewish-owned capital in the banks was also confiscated. On March 4, 1943, the Jews of the community were arrested by the Bulgarian police and army, held in tobacco warehouses in the Agia Barbara quarter for three days, and then sent to the Gorna Djumaya camp in Bulgaria, where they were kept in extremely harsh conditions. From there, young men in their teens and early twenties were sent to forced labor in Bulgaria and 113 families (589 people) were dispatched by train to Lom and from there put on a boat to Vienna, where they were reloaded on trains to Treblinka and gassed upon their arrival. In 1948 there were 39 Jews in Drama and in 1958, 17. A Holocaust memorial plaque was inaugurated in 1999.
Rosanes, Togarmah, 3 (1938), 77; H. Pardo, in: Fun Letstn Khurbn, 7 (1948), 88–90. add. bibliography: B. Rivlin, "Drama," in: Pinkas Kehillot Yavan (1999), 93–97.
[Simon Marcus /
Yitzchak Kerem (2nd ed.)]
This entry consists of the following articles:drama and religion
ancient near eastern ritual drama [first edition]
ancient near eastern ritual drama [further considerations]
middle eastern narrative traditions
indian dance and dance drama
balinese dance and dance drama
east asian dance and theater
african religious drama
north american indian dance and drama
mesoamerican dance and drama
european religious drama [first edition]
european religious drama [further considerations]
modern western theater
dra·ma / ˈdrämə/ • n. 1. a play for theater, radio, or television: a gritty urban drama about growing up in Harlem. ∎ such works as a genre or style of literature: Renaissance drama. 2. an exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events or set of circumstances: a hostage drama | an afternoon of high drama at Fenway Park.