What Is Theater? Crash Course Theater #1


Hey there! I’m Mike Rugnetta and THIS is the first
episode of Crash Course Theater. Welcome! In the episodes to come we’ll have it all:
tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical,
tragical-comical-historical-pastoral-expealidocious. Yup, this series could go on forever. And let me introduce you to Dionysus, Greek
god of the theater. [[[Maybe Dionysus belches from offstage.]]] And wine. They can’t all be charming, genius birdmen,
I guess. In this series we’ll explore the history
of theater and how we can understand and analyze it. We’ll take a look at significant plays and
performances along the way, but in this episode we’re going to define theater and look at
some theories about how it got started. So, Prologue over! Act 1, Scene 1, BEGIN! INTRO
First! Let’s define “theater, the building”:
a theater is a place in which a play is performed. If you trace the word back to its Greek origins
and it literally means “the seeing place.” It can be big or small, indoors or outdoors,
purpose-built or just borrowed. Sometimes plays are performed in spaces that
aren’t really theaters at all—in a park or a parking lot, on a sidewalk, or in a private
home. Theater also refers to the performance of
plays and to the body of literature and other documentation that has accompanied it. Some plays, known as closet dramas, aren’t
even written to be performed. And that’s theater, too. So are improvised plays that don’t have
a script and plays that have a script, but don’t use words, like some of Samuel Beckett’s
shorts. A familiar definition is that theater requires
at least one actor and at least one audience member and that definitely covers a lot of
stuff. But – what’s an actor? What’s an audience member? While most plays use human actors, there are
plays performed by robots and laptops with voice synthesizers. There are plays performed by animals and by
puppets, though usually there’s a human helping out with those. I hope. Sooooo … Is everything theater? If you want a really expansive definition,
the composer John Cage said that “theater takes place all the time, wherever one is;
an art simply facilitates persuading one this is the case.” So…is this theater? Well, not for you. You’re watching a video recorded earlier. But here. In this room. I’m performing, right? And there’s an audience if you include Stan
and Zulaiha watching me. Am I doing theater? Want to hear my “To be or not to be,”
guys? Yorick? Aw. They say no every time! A plague on both your houses. What is and isn’t theater is the kind of
question that can make your head spin. We’ll come back to it a couple of times,
especially when we talk about political theater and protest theater and immersive theater,
but for now we’ll use a more narrow definition: theater is a deliberate performance created
by live actors and intended for a live audience, typically making use of scripted language. We may meet some exceptions along the way—lookin’
at you, robo-actors—but this’ll work for now. And, before we get too far, let’s confront
the perennial controversy: should you spell theatre re or er? And the short answer is, both of them are
fine! RE is more common outside of the US but for
some folks, this spelling acts as a shibboleth. You may have heard someone say “a theater
is a building; but the theatre is an art!” or “theater is a destination, but theatre
is a journey”. Here at Crash Course, we don’t mind either…
but have chosen to stick with er for consistency. There’s no origin story for theater that
everyone agrees on, but there are some theories we can explore. In the West, at least, up until the sixth
or seventh century BCE we didn’t have theater as we know it today, but we did have religious
ritual, which can get pretty theatrical. Rituals are often ways of mediating between
the human and the supernatural. They can serve to enact or re-enact significant
events in the human or supernatural world—births, marriages, deaths, harvests. In ritual, according to the mythology scholar
Mircea Eliade, “The time of the event that the ritual commemorates or reenacts is made
present.” So ritual represents, literally re-presents—old
stories or ideas and makes them happen now, which is a lot like what theater does. This doesn’t mean that ritual is identical
with theater. Ritual is sacred, and theater is usually secular
(though not always, as we’ll see!). Theater and ritual can draw on similar mythological
sources, but ritual typically treats those sources as fact and theater as fiction. In ritual the audience often participates;
in theatre, they usually sit politely. Unless there’s audience participation, which
is universally adored. In the late nineteenth century, a group of
classical scholars decided to search for the origins of theater. They took an anthropological approach and
saw theater as a direct evolution of religious ritual. This theory really got going with James Frazer,
whom we also discuss in the Crash Course Mythology episode on Theories of Myth. In The Golden Bough, written between 1896
and 1915, Frazer and his contemporaries, the Cambridge Ritualists (btw, this is obvs the
name of my new band) tried to take a “scientific approach” to the question of theater’s
origins. He looked around at so-called “primitive”
societies in Africa and Asia, societies he didn’t really “know much about,” and
decided that theater had emerged as a sophisticated refining of ritual. According to Frazer, here’s how it goes:
You start out worshipping some kind of god or practice, and that worship gets distilled
into rituals to attract the attention of that god or guarantee good fortune. Once your primitive society really gets going,
those rituals generate myths and those myths get transmuted … into theater. Eventually you get jazz hands and sequins. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan puts
it, in this view, “Art became a sort of civilized substitute for magical games and
rituals…. Art like game became a mimetic echo of and
a relief from the old magic of total involvement.” For an example of the (sometimes questionable)
evidence that the Cambridge Ritualists drew on to support their idea that ritual evolved
into theater, let’s look at the Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE,
describing a ceremony he witnessed in Egypt. Take the stage, Thoughtbubble:
Thought Bubble This ceremony occurs at sunset in a temple. Some priests attend to a statue of Ares, but
most of the people involved are doing something very different:
“The majority of them hold clubs made of wood and stand at the temple’s entrance while
others make vows, more than a thousand men, all holding clubs… And those few left behind with the statue
pull a four-wheeled wagon carrying the shrine and the statue which is in the shrine, and
the others standing at the front gates do not let them enter.” If things seem tense to you… very perceptive! Probably the clubs that tipped you off, right? Herodotus says “Those who vowed to defend
the god strike those resisting […] As I understand, many even die from their wounds…” The ritual continues all through the night. And, as you might if you were Herodotus, he
asks some locals why the poundings? They tell him: “There lived in this temple
Ares’ mother, and Ares who was raised elsewhere came — after having become a man — wishing
to lay with his mother, and the servants of his mother, for not having seen him before,
did not look the other way when he entered, rather they fended him off, and he fetching
men from another city handled the servants roughly and went inside to his mother. For this reason this fight in behalf of Ares
at the festival has become a tradition, they say.” Thanks Thoughtbubble. So – the Ritualists look to stories like this
to illustrate their idea that worship becomes ritual. Ritual becomes myth. Myth becomes performance. Someone writes a few songs to go along with
the skull-splitting, someone else turns the battle into a dance, let it all simmer for
a millennia or two, and voila “West Side Story”! This ritualism theory is useful in some ways
and as we’ll see in the next episode, it fits very nicely with Greek drama, mostly
because the whole theory was pretty much based on Greek drama. That’s a welcome fix to how previous generations
of scholars viewed Greek drama—as something very pure and stately, not as something that
might have evolved from passion and magic–but this theory causes problems when you try to
apply the history of Greek Drama to OTHER dramatic traditions. Turns out, Frazer and his colleagues didn’t
actually know all that much about the so-called “primitive” societies whose theater they
wanted to study; the rich and sophisticated cultures the Ritualists encountered throughout
Africa and Asia were lost on the Cambridge types … because Euro-centrism. So they did a lot of pretty non-scientific
guessing, working backward from what they knew about classical theater and hypothesizing
about what kind of rituals may have produced it. Frazer also operates with the underlying belief
that all societies basically evolve in the same way and that even though, in his view,
so-called primitive societies are inherently inferior, given enough time and care they’ll
get more and more sophisticated until they too can produce “Cats.” Okay, Frazer didn’t talk a lot about Broadway
musicals, but maybe you’re starting to understand a couple of the major problems with this theory
and the assumption that all societies are on a trajectory toward Western civilization,
which in this view is getting better and better all the time. (This view, by the way, is known as “positivism”). Another theory that gets going after Frazer
is the idea that people create myths out of a desire to explain and rationalize the world
around them. In ritualism, myths and theater emerge as
a response to pre-existing rituals. But in this other theory, known as functionalism,
myths serve an etiological function, a way of explaining how and why things came to be
the way they are. According to one of the leading functionalist
theorists, Bronislaw Malinowski, myth “is a statement of primeval reality which lives
in the institutions and pursuits of a community. It justifies by precedent the existing order.” Unlike the ritualists, the functionalists
didn’t assume that all societies operate and evolve in the same way or will create
the same kinds of myths. Malinowski didn’t really discuss theater,
but some of his followers did, and they locked on to the idea that many early Greek dramas
have their origins in myth and some of those myths are etiological. The “Oresteia,” explains the legal system,
“Prometheus Bound,” explains that liver is tasty. JK. It explains how we get fire… and technology. So, if myths explain the world, and theatre
is based in myth, we can think about theater as a way of explaining the world to ourselves. But such a view has some drawbacks. Take one of the very earliest recorded plays,
Aeschylus’s “The Persians. That was based in contemporaneous historical
events, not in myth. Besides the ritualists and the functionalists,
there are a few other theories, too. One is that theater derives at least in part
from the clown figure – who is sort of the secular equivalent of the shaman in early
societies. Their job was to make fun of the headman and
other establishment figures and practices. We can maybe see this influence in satyr plays,
which we’ll visit in the next episode. And it’s linked, at least a little, to the
idea that theater may originate from games and the playful instincts of humankind, a
phenomenon called the ludic impulse. Another related theory, which really gets
going with Aristotle, is that human beings have a “mimetic impulse”: humans have
an in-built desire to imitate, to act, to pretend–and that’s how we learn. According to Aristotle, this desire eventually
gets refined and codified into theater. To sum up: Ritual, myth, clowning, playing
games, playing pretend. Somehow out of all of this or maybe out of
none of it we get “Hamilton.” And now let’s turn to our last question
for today: Why should we care? In other words, why does theater matter? Well, that’s a question we’ll be coming
back to throughout the series as we see how and why people make theatre, and the impact
it has throughout history. But let me leave you with one idea borrowed
from Percy from Percy Bysshe Shelley: “The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest
species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies,
the knowledge of itself.” Thanks for watching and … curtain!

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