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- "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."
- –William Shakespeare
- "The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."
- –G. K. Chesterton
Historical Context Edit
It is unlikely that any human civilization (at any rate until the coming of those dour Puritans) has denied itself the excitement of drama or the pleasure of poetry. Drama – of a kind – is present in the rituals of most primitive cultures. While such ceremonies are certainly dramatic, they don’t evoke theater as such. Theatrical drama requires a sung or spoken text – poetry – a development which occurred in ancient Greece. Poetry itself predates literacy, back to at least the age of Homer and the oral epics of Mesopotamia.
It is in Athens, around the 6th Century BC, that drama became an “art” form. During the Dionysian festivals, a chorus would sing the stories of Greek myth. At some point, a priest of Dionysus by the name of Thespis began to engage in a dialogue with the chorus. According to legend, Thespis was also the first winner of a theatrical competition, held in Athens in 534 BC. Such competitions became a regular feature of festivals throughout Greece, and innovations – now conventions – in both tragedy and comedy were the result. Aeschylus added a second actor; Sophocles a third, further extending the dramatic possibilities. Euripides introduced plots more complex, characterizations more central, and the interactions between characters became the stuff of drama.
Meanwhile, poetry evolved as a way of remembering – orally – history, myth, law, genealogy, moral codes, and a host of other things important to civilization. (Only with the coming of writing was this burden lifted from mankind.) Most of the ancient works later set down, from the Vedas (c. 1700 BC) to the Odyssey (c. 800 BC), were composed in poetic form to aid memorization and transmission by word of mouth. The oldest surviving “poem” is the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, written in Hieratic and ascribed to a date around 4500 BC … although some argue for the oldest being the Epic of Gilgamesh written in cuneiform.
Since those early years, both drama and poetry have undergone many evolutions, in both Western and Eastern civilizations. But they remain essential cultural markers in all.