by: Martha Fletcher Bellinger

Drama Defined
War Dances
Primitive Plays a School for Youth
The Dionysiac Procession
Significance of Unconscious Drama

Play-acting and dancing occupy an important place in the social system of many tribes. There exist mystic societies, in possession of tribal secrets, initiation into which is a solemn ritual. The selected candidates, generally boys of suitable birth and skill, having arrived at the proper age, are cleansed by ceremonial and brought into the presence of the elders. With dancing, music, and pantomime, the instructors then enact the legends concerning their famous warriors and huntsmen. In some cases these exercises extend over a period of years and include a whole system of education for youth. In each dance or pantomime there is a sermon, or a lesson in geography, history, or craftsmanship.

One of the strange dramatic relics from the remote past is a kind of nocturnal Egyptian Passion Play. It is the portrayal of the struggle between Osiris, god of light, and Set, god of darkness, and was enacted at night on the shore of a lake near the great temple at Saïs. It was given with pomp and splendor, Osiris being robed in white, and the whole performance carried on to the accompaniment of music. Set, the enemy, hunts down the carrier of light and buries him beneath the waters of the lake; but Horus, son of Osiris, avenges the death of his father in a bloody battle. After the combat, Osiris again appears as the ruler of the shadow land of death. The symbolism of the conquest of Day by Night is obvious; and perhaps the still deeper symbolism of the conquest of Good by Evil, with the final rescue of the Good.

Certain ceremonies are of the nature of elaborate prayers for favorable weather and protection from disaster. One of the most noted of these ceremonies is the Rain Dance of the Hopi Indians. It is in reality a complex and highly symbolic play, lasting at least nine days and requiring for its performance some twenty warriors, all of whom must belong to certain tribes. There is the representation of a long series of events, the essential feature of which is the journey of a "stainless youth" to the underworld, in order to learn the secret of the rain.

One of the first adjuncts to the early dancing ceremonies was the drum, or some other simple percussion instrument, with which to mark the rhythm. Sometimes the audience sang or clapped, while the braves went through the movements of the dance. The next step was the use of chanting, the singing of appropriate songs, and the elaboration of the instrumental music.

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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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