by: Martha Fletcher Bellinger

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

These few examples illustrate perhaps fully enough the extent and character of the great body of "unconscious drama," a large portion of which must have come into existence long before the art of writing was commonly known. The plays were often more or less improvised; though the tendency was, of course, for them to settle into form as they were handed down from one generation to the next. As they were witnessed in the beginning of history, so they may be seen today among Indians and other tribal peoples. Unlike most of the plays produced on what we call the civilized stages of the world, the unconscious dramas were always given for some purpose other than entertainment. Usually they were a part of a religious ritual in which the tribe more or less participated. There was little distinction between spectators and performers. Lessons in conduct were inculcated, the history of the tribe was taught, the principles of courage and honor were exemplified. Most of the religious ideas familiar today,--such as the belief in a Spirit, in the power of intercession, in immortality, and in the appearance of a Saviour for the tribe,--these were all portrayed. Furthermore, the subjects used were the same subjects which are in use today: the fight of man against fate or against great odds; the warfare of sex; the tragedy of mistaken vengeance; the symbolic presentation of the changes from night to day, or from winter to spring.

The art of the stage is rooted in these practices of primitive peoples, from whom the play-actor learned the making and use of disguises, the manner of painting the body or draping it with skins, the way to use animal faces and heads, the making of headdresses and masks, and the imitation of the sounds of animals and of nature. The early ceremonies were the school for historic drama, and the stories told by tribesmen are the very stories which have been told and retold on the stages of the world. Moreover, while civilized drama has had long periods of quiescence, seeming to have disappeared, unconscious drama has persisted.

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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