It requires no great stretch of imagination to link this bit of primitive play-acting with the art of the drama as we know it today. The single "scene" described above may be given without any special setting or costumes, without music, footlights, prompter, or scenery. In its whole length no word need by spoken for its complete understanding. It is a story told by imitation. Every play, from this little drama of slighted love to Hamlet or The Emperor Jones, is composed of two elements: story or literary element, and imitation or play-acting. In pantomimes and farces the play-acting element is more important; but sometimes, especially in decadent eras, the literary element is given greater prominence, and we have closet drama and problem plays. It is evident that in the ideal play the good story will be combined with the opportunity for good pantomime. When that end is achieved, we have, for example, an Oedipus or a Cyrano de Bergerac. In its essentials, therefore, the art of drama is simply telling a story by means of imitation.

Dancing, with mimicry, is one of the ancient accomplishments of man, inseparably connected with religion, warfare, the getting of wives and the getting of food. The movements of animals were imitated, costumes and masks were devised, the cries of the young were skillfully repeated. Since death was often associated with the idea of reincarnation in the form of some animal, it was but natural that many primitive rituals intended to ensure protection for the living, should imitate the movement and cries of beasts.

A further incentive to imitation and play-acting was the wide-spread belief in sympathetic magic, which is based on the idea that the imitation of an event will bring that event to pass. When the savage wants rain, he climbs a tree and goes through the motions of pouring water from a bucket upon the ground. A second performer strikes two stones together to represent thunder, while a third waves a firebrand until the sparks fly in imitation of lightning. If a warrior wishes the death of an enemy, he makes a clay image and sticks it full of thorns and nails. If the hunter wishes to enlist the help of the gods he pretends to chase his prey, and when the victim is caught he goes through the motions of killing and skinning him. Thus the image of the deed is made, and the actuality will soon follow.

A play called The Battle of the Corn is an Indian ritual designed to win the favor of the gods in whose hands lies the prosperity of the crop. A slight setting is arranged, the front of which is made to represent roughly a field of maize. On the background are painted the symbols of the tribe. The performance begins by the appearance of angry demons representing Hail, Drought, Storm, and the like. These devils rush in, trampling down and destroying the grain. Presently come the owners of the field, hastening to the rescue of their crops. They attack the demons and wrestle with them, until at last the struggle becomes a pitched battle. A wounded demon falls, yelling in pain, and the defenders spring forward with renewed energy. A mortal falls, and the demons dance for joy. Just as the triumph of the devils seems assured, a new champion comes into the fight on the side of the rescuers, and the tide is turned. The weary men gather their strength for one more onslaught, the evil forces are put to rout and the crop is saved. This play, though more complex than many primitive scenes, can of course be performed entirely without words.

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This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 3-8.


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