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The Evolution of Comedy and Drama in Theater, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Introduction

While it is reasonable to assume that the earliest forms of theater addressed concerns of the culture in which they appeared, it seems that any actual reflection of life occurred over a long process of evolution.  Moreover, even the basic elements of drama and comedy themselves called for a kind of mutual development, in changing theater from raw, ritualistic presentation to a complex art form.  The most ancient types of theater were essentially stark and purposeful presentations of ideas and themes, and it would take long centuries, even after the relatively early refinements of Greek theater, before the true opportunities to make artistic statements on stage would be realized.  As will be seen, this was a growth that relied on the interaction and development of comedy and drama, simply because the introduction of one demanded the balance of the other.  The culmination of these two entities, achieved in the work of Shakespeare, would finally prove how mutually dependent comedy and drama are. In terms of a recognizable evolution in theater, then, it is evident that comedy and drama, those twin components of living itself, were and are essential in creating a virtually limitless art form.

Background

Even among scholars, identifying exactly what was “theater” in prehistory is largely a matter of conjecture.  This is, in a sense, inevitable; by strict definition, theater may be any action performed in front of an audience of any size, and for any purpose.  Since so little is known as to how prehistoric tribes or cultures communicated, historians are limited to educated supposition.  What is interesting, however, is that recent appraisals of Stone Age art uncovered in Scandinavia  interpret it as relics of ancient theater.  Carvings, for instance, have multiple images over others, even when there is ample space around them, and this suggests presentations of a timed kind, which may be loosely defined as theater (Berghaus 154).  When civilization begins to develop, there are more literal translations of human behavior as taking on the aspect of theater.  As has long been noted, ritual itself is a kind of show, and in most early cultures was a means of attaining true humanity through imitating the perceived actions of the gods and natural forces.  Some hold that the rituals of the shaman, or healing priest, were the earliest form of true theater, in that an idea or belief was intended to be carried to spectators  (Rozik  70). The shaman was sometimes medicinal and sometimes religiously motivated, but the effect of subduing an audience was the same.

Nonetheless, the actual transition from ritual to theater is widely debated, simply because prehistoric ritual itself remains so open to interpretation.  Scholars claim that ritual was strictly a matter of transference, in which the shaman or “performer” expressed myth with no regard to others, and only as a personal process; others maintain that theater itself is defined as entertainment merged with efficacy, so the invariable presence of some form of audience, which would interpret the meaning, is what renders ritual theater (Rozik  15).  Less controversial is the Greek tradition of first framing what would become modern theater, as ancient Greek culture was taking the ritualistic usage of gods and employing them as metaphors for human experience.  In the 8th century BCE, a Homer could recite his work and give theatrical form to stories; a few centuries later, an explosion of literacy refined the processes and theater was a common event in the annual festivals to Apollo and Dionysus (Zarilli, McConachie, & Williams  58).   By the 6th century BCE, Thespis had stepped out of the chorus as the first, recognized actor, and tragedy was the mainstay of the new theater (Rozik  160).  All that remained was for theater to leave behind its dependence on myth, and create for itself actual forms of drama and comedy.

Evolution of Forms

The history of theater going back to the ancient Greeks reveals a process in which reality is steadily infused into subject matter, if by a long and winding road.  The concepts of drama and comedy were in play even then, as tragedy, and farce or broad satire, their more outrageous forms, were used.  This is important, however, because it still reveals an evolutionary trajectory; as ritual gave way to staged presentations of great tragedy or broad farce, a distilling was nonetheless occurring, and theater was moving toward a better representation of actual life.  It was, in fact, comedy itself that led the way to modernity in the theater, because the 4th century BCE comedies of Aristophanes were more than outrageous farces.  They relied on a great deal of burlesque pantomime, but they also revealed keen satire, and Aristophanes freely caricatured the leading figures of the day, such as Sophocles and Euripides, in his plays (Zarilli, McConachie, & Williams  62).  Even then, comedy was demonstrating levels of sophistication that reflect even the most modern, subtle forms seen today.  There were still distinctions between vulgar comedies meant to appeal to the common people and those created for more refined audiences, but the important reality is that, so early in its evolution, theater was turning to comedy as a rich medium for translating human experience and commenting upon society.

It may be, in fact, that this progress within comedy fueled a similar change in tragedy.  It must first be understood, however, that “drama” and tragedy are essentially the same thing, in that a serious experience is related in the theater.  Tragedy is typically more grandiose, but it retains a dramatic core.  The real difference, or at least as perceived by most, is that drama is more realistically created and more true to common experience.  Nonetheless, and to early audiences, what mattered was the cathartic element.  If an Aristophanes comedy could ridicule leading public figures and create audience empathy in humor, a Sophoclean tragedy could generate a similar response in sadness.  This is critical in revealing that drama and comedy supported each other in the evolutions of each, because the essential component of meeting audience need is what matters.  Then, there is definitely a pattern of sophistication to be seen even in early tragedy.  In Euripides’ Medea, for example, the presence of witches and chariots does not detract from what is essentially a story of a powerless woman taking the only revenge she can (Zarilli, McConachie, & Williams  460).   It is then clear that the broad view of “tragedy” merely masks, in this early era, drama at a level of great, early comedy.

That these striking advances in theater, in which earlier ritual was transformed into refined and powerful comedy and tragedy, came so early belies long centuries to follow of virtually no progress at all.  In the Medieval Era, what essentially occurred was a transition in drama from polytheistic references to Christian ones.  This theater arising sporadically between the 10th and 15th centuries A.D. Came after a long period of virtually no theater at all, so the return to the exaggerations of religiously-based presentation is understandable; in a sense, theater was inventing itself all over again (Vince  23).   If drama was locked into liturgical forms of excessive tragedy, comedy was virtually non-existent in the Middle Ages, and again there is the parallel between how the two forms mirror each other’s place in society.  The repressed conditions of the times, simply, allowed only for certain drama, and comedy was largely ignored as wicked.  Medieval theater, however, did provide one important element: it would, through the examinations of sin and redemption built into its tragic structure, introduce the seeds of modern drama (Vince 24).  Through Christian dramatics, the self is explored because the faith demands it, and this opened the door for later explorations of individual motive, as well as for contrasting approaches in comedy.  It would be a while coming, but the “stage was set” for theater to take on the trait that would define in in modern times: a fusion of comedy and drama in which both expressions of the human condition are treated as equally valid.

It is in this eventual blending of the comic and the tragic, or dramatic, that the inescapable link between the evolutions of drama and comedy is clearly evident, simply because the presence of both in a single work of any period confirms the audience need for both.  Obviously, no greater master at developing this potential than Shakespeare is known, and no discussion of the  evolution of drama and comedy can be conducted without him, chiefly because he created their penultimate forms.  He created, in fact, the fusion establishing each as a necessary component in great theater.  At the time, grandiose tragedy and outrageous comedy were very much in style, as the bloody spectacle of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine competed for Elizabethan audiences with Johnson’s farce, The Alchemist.  Shakespeare was certainly not above giving the crowds savage thrills, as in Titus Andronicus, or bawdy comedy in a The Merry Wives of Windsor.   Nonetheless, he was also creating a completely new kind of play.  In life, even the greatest tragedies are broken up by light moments, and Shakespeare’s understanding of the human psyche brought this truth into the poetry of his work.  In  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, the playwright skirts tragedy, understanding that even ethereal  comedy must have a foundation in real, human fears.  Then, in his tragedies, there are powerful infusions of comedy, most notably in Romeo and Juliet.  Both the Nurse and Mercutio are blatantly comic figures, and their presence, like the foreboding of Midsummer Night’s Dream, gives real substance to the tragedy impending (McAlindon  54).   A Winter’s Tale goes further, separating comedy and drama by acts.  In later centuries, theater would seek to develop this extraordinary degree of reflecting actual life.  It has yet to surpass the achievements in comedy and drama of Shakespeare, however, because it is at this point that the twin evolutions of comedy and drama, strangely reliant upon one another since the first theater, reach perfection.

Conclusion

If debate goes on whether early ritual was in fact theater, it is acknowledged that the Greeks truly invented the basics of what would endure as modern tragedy and comedy.  Both revealed high levels of sophistication, as the quality and popularity of both reinforced the need for each form to be presented.  With the Middle Ages came a long absence of theater, broken only by the invention of the liturgical, Medieval play.  This, however, would open channels to modern drama, which in turn would necessitate an equal addressing of comedy as a reflection of life.  With Shakespeare, the evolutions would become complete, as comedy and drama would coexist on the stage as they do off of it.  No matter how the history of theater is traced, one fact stands throughout: comedy and drama, those twin elements or forces of living itself, were and are vital in creating a virtually limitless art form.

Works Cited

Berghaus, Gunter.  New Perspectives on Prehistoric Art.  Westport: Greenwood Publishing      Group, 2004.  Print.

McAlindon, Thomas.  Shakespeare’s Tragic Cosmos.  New york: Cambridge University Press, 1996.  Print.

Rozik, Eli.  The Roots of Theatre: Rethinking Ritual and Other Theories of Origin.  Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005.  Print.

Vince, Robert W.  Ancient and Medieval Theatre: A Historiographical Introduction.  Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1984.  Print.

Zarilli, Phillip, McConachie, Bruce, & Williams, Gary J.  Theatre Histories: An Introduction. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2010.  Print.

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