September 5, 2009


One often hears ancient Greece spoken of as if it's the birthplace of theatre. It is true that much of the structure we find imposed on us in theatre today (like, say, the tedious plays of Neil Simon) comes from the formalism of the codified Greek concepts of tragedy and comedy. It's because of them that we're saddled with that unbearably cliched pair of masks one sees in every community theatre. I consider this a rather dubious gift from the Greeks, if you ask me (and I know you didn't).

In point of fact, however, the earliest theatrical events recorded by history were performances of the sacred plays of Osiris and Isis, in Egypt, circa 2500 BC. The "passion play" story of the god Osiris was performed annually throughout ancient Egypt at the Mystery Festivals. The festivals began November 13 (our calendar) and in a gory Grand Guignol style, depicted the gruesome murder and dismemberment of Osiris, the search for his body by Isis, his triumphant return as a resurrected god, and the battle in which Horus defeated Set. (Many modern scholars have pointed out the similarity between the Osiris story and that of Jesus Christ: both suffered unfair persecution, torture and death; both rose from the dead more powerful than ever; both promised that their resurrection would help to conquer death and usher in a new spiritual afterlife; and both conquered the evil arch-enemy (Set/Satan).)

The Osiris story was staged by skilled actors and presented not as fiction, but rather as a literal historical dramatization. The actors onstage (as well as some ecstatic audience members) often actually sliced and flayed their own flesh and bled for the realism of their art. Heck, you don't see people in Neil Simon plays doing that! (And today, we also have "Easter Plays" and "Good Friday Plays" staged by many Christian churches, in which an actor playing Christ drags an enormous cross around while being realistically whipped by actors playing Roman soldiers. Some of these productions actually go so far as to re-enact the Crucifixion, with varying degrees of painful realism.)

The "story arc" of the Osiris myth goes like this, in a nutshell:

  • Act 1: A huge battle, in which Osiris is mostly triumphant, yet is killed and dismembered at the end by enemies.

  • Act 2: The body of Osiris is taken from his temple to his tomb, in a great procession of pageantry.

  • Act 3: Mourning for Osiris, revenge sought on his enemies.

  • Act 4: Occult funeral rites are performed in hopes of bringing about Osiris' resurrection.

  • Act 5: Osiris is reborn at dawn, and crowned with the sacred crown of Ma'at, granting him powers over the afterlife and the underworld forevermore.

    It wasn't until a couple thousand years after the Osiris Mystery Plays that the Greeks developed their own cultish "Satyr Plays", which blurred reality and fantasy with actual onstage acts of sexuality and violence, wrapped up in religious fervor and Dionysian frenzy. And yet, the Satyr Plays were delivered lightheartedly, with clowning and humor. Some say these plays were the true birth of Burlesque, but I don't buy that. I think Satyr Plays and Burlesque are just two among many momentary blips on a vast unbroken line of expression of the human (and even pre-human) condition.

    Storytelling has been around since caveman days. I like to imagine the Lascaux cave paintings being used by their creators as illustrations to help convey fanciful tales, much in the same style of a kindergarten felt-board story. And whereever there are storytellers, there are those who just can't help but to "act it out" to some degree as they talk.

    Encarta Encyclopedia says that by about 35,000 years ago, Cro-Magnons "played music on bone flutes of surprisingly complex sound capability, and they unquestionably sang and danced", and goes on to note that even before that, the most ancient indications of complex symbolic behaviors come from African sites close to 100,000 years old. Go back there and you'll find theatre. Go back even further and you'll still find theatre.

    Depending on how out-there you want to get, and how loosely you want to define terms like theatre, dance, and performance art, one could find relevance in the acted-out tutorials older ants give younger ants, the Waggle Dance of bees, and the species mimicry found in nature, in which one life form pretends to be another, just like an actor playing a role in a costume.

    So what is the upshot of all this deconstruction?

    Perhaps it's that when we engage in theatre, we are never fully cognizant of what we are really doing, or why we are doing it. Call it nature, call it the occult, call it spirituality or science, we are doing something big, something ancient, something more powerful than we understand, when we put on a play and/or when we watch a play. And that this innate function of theatre is far more important than our small societal concerns over whether Play A is better than Play B, whether Movie C "totally sucked" or Movie D "totally ruled". All plays may be, holistically speaking, of intrinsic value in ways that our primate brains cannot yet fully comprehend the greater meaning of.

    I still don't like Neil Simon, though.



    Contact the author at jshpaint@gmail.com.


    Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at jshla.com .