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Volume 34 of Theatre History Studies revisits the foundations of theatre, explores the boundaries and definitions of theatre, and illuminates how writing about the history of theatre is itself a form of historiography.
The five essays are arranged chronologically, starting with Alan Sikes’s discussion of the Abydos Passion Play. Sikes challenges the long-held interpretation of that ritualized annual reenactment of the death, dismemberment, and return to life of Egyptian god-king Osiris as the world’s first recorded dramatic production. In analyzing the “Passion Play”—Sikes argues the term is not apt—he applies semiotic theory using "sign and referent" to revise general concepts of mimesis, and in so doing clarifies the fundamental answer to the question, “What is theatre?”
In a pair of essays, Andrew Gibb and Nicole Berkin both explore theatre during America’s antebellum period. Gibb examines minstrelsy in antebellum California, exploding narrow definitions of minstrelsy as a primarily Eastern phenomenon and one reflecting a stark interaction of two races. Following the story of Jewish African Caribbean immigrant William Alexander Leidesdorff, Gibb demonstrates that national forms are always affected by their local productions and audiences. Berkin’s essay focuses on the struggles over cultural power that took place between popular entertainers and theatre managers. She examines how both parties used touring strategically to engage with antebellum notions of deception and fraud.
The last two essays, by Megan Geigner and Heide Nees, present findings from performance studies which, by examining a wide array of dramatic and performative texts, expands the interdisciplinary foundations of theatre history studies. This fascinating collection is rounded out by an expanded selection of insightful reviews of recent literature in the area.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817371098
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 12/31/2015
Series: Theatre History Studies Series , #34
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix is the dean of the College of Creative Arts and a professor of theatre at Miami University in Ohio. She is the author of Wearing the Breeches: Gender on the Antebellum Stage and the forthcoming Upon a Conspicuous Stage: Performance and the Politics of Slavery, 1850–1861, in addition to articles and book reviews in the Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Theatre History Studies, Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, and the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism.

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Theatre History Studies

2015 Volume 34

By Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8948-2


Theatre History, Theatrical Mimesis, and the Myth of the Abydos Passion Play


The impetus for this essay came from my recent charge to write comprehensive exam questions for one of our Ph.D. candidates here at Louisiana State University. I wanted to write a question on the origins of theatrical practice, but I thought about veering — both culturally and historically — from ancient Athens, the usual locus for speculation on theatre origin theories. After a quick review of suitable source materials, I devised the following question: "What was the Abydos Passion Play? Discuss its content and principal characteristics in context of its production history." It is, admittedly, a challenging question for a Ph.D. candidate, and probably for many credentialed theatre scholars. Still, after composing the question, I decided to try composing a response, one suitable for our "short-answer" exam format: "The Abydos Passion Play is the name given to an event staged during the annual Khoiak festival in the ancient Egyptian city of Abydos. Evidence for this event is found on a stela, or inscribed stone memorial slab, erected by the courtier Ikhernofret during the Middle Kingdom, circa the nineteenth century BCE; but the event was likely staged for many centuries both before and after the dedication of the stela itself. The event commemorated the mythical death and resurrection of Osiris, god of the afterlife, and scholars of the source material claim that it exhibited many elements that we recognize today as theatrical."

I realize that my sample response is quite short, even for a "short-answer" exam, but its brevity is due to the fact that I have supplied nearly all there is to say with certainty about the event called the Abydos Passion Play. I set aside my sample question for the upcoming exam, but I continued to query myself about my drive to develop such a question in the first place, and to query the field of theatre studies about the position of the Passion Play within the discipline. And indeed, after some reflection on the so-named Ikhernofret Stela, the event recorded there, and the specific cultural contexts for them both, I have come to question the designation of the event as a "play" and the stela as a document of "theatrical" practice. Still, I have also come to believe that the Passion Play has an important role in theatre studies: It prompts us to revisit the use of terms most basic to our discipline, as well as the borders that delimit the practices falling within its purview. In other words, rather than undermining our disciplinary claim to archive and investigate the Passion Play, I seek instead to rethink the sort of claim that we might make of it.

Certainly the event described by the Ikhernofret Stela already holds a prominent, if ambiguous, place in narratives on the origin and history of the theatre. Consider these accounts of the event from three popular theatre history textbooks. The tenth edition of Brockett and Hildy's History of the Theatre remarks that calling the event a Passion Play "deliberately links it to a European religious drama of the Middle Ages" but notes that scholars are divided as to whether it more closely resembled a public spectacle or a royal funeral. In conclusion, the textbook reports that "information sufficient to resolve the dispute is not presently available, although all apparently agree that some sort of performative event took place." The sixth edition of Wilson and Goldfarb's Living Theatre calls this event the Abydos Ritual, in deference to the religious aspects of the Ikhernofret Stela, but states that "it is clear from this account that the ceremony had unmistakable theatrical elements: people played the roles of characters in the story and acted out episodes from the life of Osiris." Finally, the first edition of Zarrilli, McConachie, Williams, and Sorgenfrei's Theatre Histories concedes scarce knowledge of this event, noting that "the little that is known to us of this quasi-dramatic commemorative ritual is the information inscribed on a single stele," but offers Ikhernofret performance credit by calling him "both overseer of the ceremonies and a participant/actor playing the role of the Beloved Son of Osiris."

In sum, Brockett and Hildy claim that "Passion Play" may or may not be the right term for the event but argue that it was performative in spirit; Wilson and Goldfarb label the event a ritual but argue that it exhibited theatrical elements; and Zarrilli, McConachie, Williams, and Sorgenfrei claim the event was a commemorative ritual of a quasi-dramatic nature. All the texts, in other words, hesitate to give the Abydos event a definitive description at all, and given the dearth of concrete surviving evidence the authors probably err admirably on the side of caution. Yet more or less implicit in the narratives offered by all three texts is the assumption that the Abydos event prefigures "theatre" in the Western tradition as we understand the term today. Certainly all three textbooks place their discussions of the Abydos event before their introductions to ancient Athenian theatre — a term derived, as we know, from the Greek theatron — and given the fact that the Ikhernofret Stela predates Athenian theatre by at least twelve centuries, the placement of their discussions seems justified. Still, the textbooks tell us that the event displayed theatrical elements, or at least performative elements, or at any rate was quasi-dramatic in nature. Perhaps the Abydos event possessed theatrical qualities that somehow predated the advent of Athenian theatre itself; this seems to be the conclusion to derive from the textbooks. Here, however, I offer an alternate possibility. Perhaps our act of placing the Abydos event alongside the term "theatre" embeds in our inquiries a set of guiding assumptions, assumptions with a certain mythmaking power of their own.

To be sure, the Abydos event and Athenian theatre share much in common: both were conducted at specific dates on festival calendars; at specific sites designated for the purpose; and by specific individuals gathered to take part in the unfolding action. Yet one expectation of Athenian theatre is particularly problematic when applied to the Abydos event, namely, the expectation that the acts in question are imitative. Our earliest extant commentaries on the theatre are explicit on the mimetic nature of the drama, its marked difference from an original, discrete reality. In the Republic, Plato takes great care to distinguish imitation from reality, famously claiming that the former is so apt to be confused with the latter that he would banish imitation from his ideal state. "As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulged the irrational nature. ... He is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth." Conversely, in the Poetics Aristotle places great stock in imitation and defines tragedy as first and foremost the imitation of an action. Still, he is careful to maintain the distinction between imitation and reality; indeed, tragedy, as the highest form of imitation, is carefully structured and embellished in ways that insist upon its difference from everyday, original reality. "Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete, and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable; each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear purification of such emotions."

I realize that my reliance on the likes of Plato and Aristotle is decidedly "old school" for contemporary theatre studies, but many theatre historians continue to rely upon Platonic and Aristotelian notions of mimesis as central to the nature of theatre itself. Such reliance may be either implicit or explicit on the part of theatre scholars, but it remains pervasive in current critical thought on theatrical practice. Consider the conceptual parallels between ancient theories of mimesis and the insights derived from modern semiotics: specifically, the homology between "imitation and reality," on the one hand, and "sign and referent," on the other. In his famous 1913 Course in General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure demands careful scrutiny of the relation between sign and referent; he remarks that "some people regard language, when reduced to its elements, as a naming process only — a list of words, each corresponding to the thing that it names," and then maintains that this view of language "lets us assume that the linking of a name and a thing is a very simple operation — an assumption that is anything but true." Saussure proposes that the sign operates as a conjunction between a communicable "signifier" and a conceptual "signified" that the signifier itself can call to mind. If all goes well with this conjunction, then the sign can successfully designate a referent. Yet Saussure gives almost no consideration to the referent; his concern is with the dynamics of the sign, and this singular attention to the sign dramatically attenuates its relation to the referent it ostensibly designates. In fact, it seems that the very gulf between sign and referent secures their respective identities: sign and referent are what they are by virtue of their difference, their mutual singularity and specificity.

Here the modern semiotic relation of sign to referent bears a striking affinity with ancient Athenian relation of imitation to reality; indeed, their correlation marks a conceptual inheritance passed from early Western thought to the critical thinking of the present day. Just as the sign maintains its integrity only through its difference from its referent, so the signs employed in the theatre, called "imitations" by Plato and Aristotle, maintain their integrity only in distinction to the reality they endeavor to represent. The one cannot be confused with the other, lest the entire theatrical enterprise be thrown into disarray. Of course, confusions of this nature were ever present in ancient Athens and self-evident to the Athenian philosophers: the false words of the poet elicited real tears from the audience, and the characters of legend were conflated with the personae of performers. Still, the properly ideological insistence on a distinction between imitation and reality remains a hallmark of Western theatrical traditions. And recognition of this insistence in turn prompts me to revisit my approach to my original exam question; perhaps instead of inquiring about the place of the Passion Play in theatre history, we might instead examine its relation to Western concepts of sign and referent, imitation and reality.

Even this new approach to my question poses difficulties, however, as we have no text of the Passion Play itself to peruse for evidence of mimetic practices. We do have the testimony of Ikhernofret, the self-described "sole companion" of Pharaoh Senusret II, who commanded him to visit Abydos and oversee its annual Khoiak festival. We also have the story of the death and resurrection of Osiris, a foundational myth of ancient Egyptian culture. Variations on the story abound; the most complete account is a Hellenized version by Plutarch from the first century CE, though the myth itself is many millennia older. In brief, Osiris was an early divine king of Egypt, a direct descendent of the sun god Re. One day his brother Set, in a fit of jealous pique, locked Osiris in a chest and cast it into the Nile. Isis, the wife of Osiris, found the chest on the shores of Byblos and returned it to Egypt, but Set discovered the chest, hacked the body inside into pieces, and scattered the parts across the land. Isis searched for the missing pieces and reconstituted the body by wrapping it in linen, thereby creating the first mummy; she then buried the body of Osiris at Abydos, which thereafter became the principal site for the Osiris cult. Thanks to the efforts of Isis, Osiris was resurrected as the ruler of the afterlife; with him, she conceived their son Horus, who avenged the murder of his father by defeating Set. Thereafter Horus succeeded his father as king of the living realm, while Osiris reigned in eternity in the land of the dead.

The pivotal Osiris myth laid the ground for the Egyptian preoccupation with death and resurrection. Every pharaoh, and eventually everyone able to afford the basic burial rites, might be resurrected as "an Osiris" and reborn as "a Horus" of the succeeding generation. The issue at hand, however, is whether or not this myth spurred the development of theatre as understood in Western traditions. Certainly some historians have argued that it fulfilled just that function; the most significant among them may be H. W. Fairman, who in 1974 published his edited transcription of the so- called Triumph of Horus. It consists of a series of wall carvings, each with accompanying hieroglyphic texts that decorate the Temple of Horus at Edfu in Upper Egypt. The bulk of the images depicts the adult Horus avenging his father, Osiris, by repeatedly harpooning his enemy, Set, who is depicted as a hippopotamus of miniscule proportions; subsequent images celebrate the defeat of Set and recognize Horus as the legitimate pharaoh of the Egyptian lands. As for the Edfu temple itself, construction began in the third century BCE under the reign of the Ptolemies, a Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt between the fourth and first centuries BCE. Fairman calls the Triumph a theatrical play, and given its Hellenistic provenance he may have reason to find in it theatrical elements familiar from Aristotle: Fairman claims that as a play it falls on its own accord into distinct acts and scenes; that it develops a central theme, the legitimation of royal authority; and that it displays at least rudimentary attempts at individual characterization and the creation of dramatic tension.

That said, the Triumph also displays several features that trouble its designation as a theatrical play. Fairman seeks to minimize the significance of such features, but at times his own efforts throw them into sharper relief. First, Fairman notes that some lines of text appear alongside carved images of deities, and he can with fairness read them as utterances ascribed to the accompanying deities. In itself, however, this hardly offers sufficient reason to call the Triumph a play; to risk a contemporary reference, this link between text and image seems more suggestive of a modern graphic novel than of an ancient play. Second, Fairman readily admits assigning many other lines of text to a "Reader" and a "Chorus" who are neither mentioned in the text nor overtly designated in the carvings. The transcription of the Triumph produced by Fairman resembles a modern playscript, with each line assigned to specific characters, but often these assignments are interpolations by Fairman himself into the original text. Finally, Fairman notes that the text is written in a hybrid form that inserts characters from the Ptolemaic period into an archaic hieroglyphic system predating the actual carvings by at least a millennium. While it seems clear that the text is partly a transcription of a much more ancient writing, it is equally clear that its antique language would render any performance largely incoherent to a Ptolemaic audience. This also undermines the designation of the Triumph as theatre, at least according to the model of Aristotle, wherein theatre offers pleasure and instruction based upon its intelligibility for its audience.

So while Fairman supplies valuable information on The Triumph of Horus and useful insights into its possible ritual functions, I cannot help but think that his designation of the text as a theatrical play suggests a desire on his part to find theatre of a Western stamp in a tradition far flung from its Athenian birthplace. More recently, Egyptologist Ronald J. Leprohon has cast further doubt on the existence of an Egyptian theatre — or at any rate one conceived along Western lines — by examining other ritual texts from the Ptolemaic period. The temple of Hathor at Dendera, another Ptolemaic edifice, displays wall carvings reminiscent of theatrical practices, most notably processions of marchers wearing masks of the jackal god Anubis. And several papyri from the Ptolemaic era include lamentations by Isis and her sister Nepthys for the slain Osiris, some of which suggest a dialogue among priestesses during temple ceremonies. Still, Leprohon concludes that none of these sources indicate the practice of theatre in its current Western sense; the rituals were likely performed in closed sanctuaries by a coterie priestly class, for the propitiation of the temple gods, and with no clear reference to mimesis — the conscious imitation of a discrete reality outside the confines of the temple walls.


Excerpted from Theatre History Studies by Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix. Copyright © 2015 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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