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This collection of texts began as teaching material: something was needed to demonstrate the way dialogue and drama had been handled in other times and other countries; as well, I began writing "playlets" to illustrate the usefulness of these old/new techniques, and to encourage students to find their own ways of exploring these possibilities for themselves. Behind all this lay the feeling that the modern play, with its defined, remote stage, idealistic-realistic dialogue and passive audience, has become far too restrictive a form. It is a type that emerged only after the re-creation in the Renaissance of theatres on the Roman models of Palladio and others, spreading to England notably in the 17th century. In sundering the performers from the audience with a proscenium arch and a light-barrier, the architecture has actually encouraged a drama that has less of the real, less general participation than might be the case with a more modest setting. The stage has shrunk to a TV-like box which reflects and flatters the preoccupations (possibly valid) of grant-awarders; such entertainment is seen as meaningful, professional and guiltless.

Even a passing knowledge of mediaeval or Greek drama shows that different traditions are available with less damaging parameters. Changing the location from formal, enclosed theatre to private or public room, or better, to the open air, in garden or park, takes much of the needless pressure off the performance. And if we replace 2 or 3 hour performances (with all their demands on cerebral activity but physical immobility - for the audience) with shorter time-spans, and perhaps some alternative activity as break, then a whole new concept of the drama develops. If further, we replace the elite apartness of commercial entertainment with local or community performance, the gains in spontaneity and relevance become considerable. If a chorus is involved, virtually everyone can participate; to do something for yourself, I would argue, is innately preferable to having it done for you. The style is different: there is tension, but not of the passive/voyeuristic order: something positive, active, and arguably creative, takes its place.

So why have I provided texts at all? Because we need to start somewhere, and a knowledge of the classical or historic techniques can always be an inspiration towards new adventures. So participation in the provided texts is intended to work by opening up the concept of drama, and to show you a variety of styles in which you might begin to seek out or invent texts or themes for yourself. All the texts in this volume are therefore suitable for instant performance. (To this end, some have been abridged, modernised, or translated/arranged with a freedom I would not always recommend.) The simplest way to proceed is to photocopy such extra pages as you will need for performance, and call on your friends to assist. None of you, I hope, will be disappointed; and if you are critical, why then, there could be no more delightful solution than for you to do better. By all means, re-write, invent, start something new. If I have prompted you to that starting point, I have done well.




In its very beginnings drama is indistinguishable from poetry, as from formal religious enactment. All operate in an area of self-wonder and self-definition, all dependent on a special, technical, powerful, even magical use of language. Now we can make a working definition of poetry as 'patterned speech' - that is something that exhibits a structure containing elements of repetition and variation (which I take to be the constituents of pattern), but which is based in current speech - or uses a vocabulary that can be seen to differ from current speech as an indicator of special status.

It would be excellent, such being the case, to be able to start with examples of pure repetition as minimal structure, but though there are certainly elements of repetition in music, dance and spoken charm, variation is also present in the historically earliest, or socially least altered examples. Here, for example, is a section of a charm from Old English (The Nine Herbs Charm):

Now these nine herbs avail against nine super-spirits
against nine poisons and against nine infections:
against the red poison, against the purple poison,
against the white poison, against the blue poison,
against the yellow poison, against the green poison,
against the dark poison, against the blue poison,
against the brown poison, against the scarlet poison;
against the snake-radiance, against water-radiance,
against thorn-radiance, against thistle-radiance,
against ice-radiance, against poison-radiance,
whether any poison come airborn from the east or any from the north come
or any from the west upon mankind.

And here is a version of the oath taken by members of the Mao-Mao society, that challenged British rule in Kenya in the 1950s:

I speak the oath and vow before our God
And by this Betuni oath of our movement
Which is called the movement of fighting
That if I am called on to kill for our soil
If I am called on to shed my blood for it
I shall obey and shall never surrender
And if I fail to go
May this oath kill me,
May this he-goat kill me,
May this seven kill me,
May this meat kill me.
(from The Making of Africa by Colin Nicolson (1973) p.111)

The structure in each case uses repetition, but not the hypnotic repetition of a mantra; already there is variation in place, and the style is emphatic and assertive (magical) but very far from the meaningless intonations of some religious formulae, where membership and mood take precedence over semantic content.

Historically, the earliest material to survive uses a poetic pattern we call 'the balanced line': this is common to the Near East (Summerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Israelite cultures, typically in the two millennia up to Christ). The unit of pattern contains two halves (rarely three 'halves'), linked or parallel in sense content: the second half either paraphrasing, developing, or contrasting to the first half of the line. This is a formula we are familiar with from the Biblical Psalms, but occurs also in the Book of Job, and in quite a number of unexpected passages hidden in prose e.g. Exodus 15:1-19 ('The Song of Moses'), Numbers 24:3-9, 15-24 ('Balaam's Vision'), Deut 32: 1-43, 33:1-29 ('Moses' final songs'), Judges 5:1-31 ('The Song of Deborah'), 1 Sam 2:1-10 ('Hannah's Song'), 2 Sam 1: 19-27 ('Lament of David'), 1 Chron 16:8-36 ('David's Thanksgiving'), Isaiah 38:9-20 ('Hezekiah's Thanksgiving'), Habakkuk 3:2-19 ('Habakkuk's Prayer') - and in the New Testament, the famous 'Sermon on the Mount' in Matthew and Luke. Is this unique as providing a poem allegedly written by Jesus himself?

But the practice is not Hebrew alone. It is in use throughtout the near East as the many texts in James Pritchard's anthology show (J.B.Pritchard Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, N.J., 1950).

For example, the whole story of Osiris, Horus and Seth can be reconstructed from the Pyramid Texts, but we cannot be certain that it was a story or a text 'acted out' in dramatic form, however magnificent a setting for such ritual enactments the temples of Egypt provide. Whether in magical texts as powerful illustration or quotation, or extent as a whole literary cycle, the story of Osiris is an important part of the great myth of divine government, and was placed in the appropriate patterned language.

The literary aspect of the religious 'drama' is more apparent in the epic poems of Sumeria and Babylon, where gods still dominate the material, but there is room for serious human moral conclusions, and for elements of entertainment and craftsmanship too. For the sake of a simple concept we might define The Epic Poem as the adventures of a semi-divine hero, conveyed largely through direct speech. This is a form certainly capable of quasi-dramatic performance, if solo voices read the appropriate speech portions; but such speech also provides life and immediacy if the text is read by one voice. Usually, it has to be admitted, the action is too tremendous for literal performance.

Tracing this technique of verse or drama composition forward, we find it soon overshadowed by the metrical lines of Greek and Latin, though it survives in a few cases in liturgical latin texts in a Christian context. The key to the technique of balanced verse was rediscovered in the C18th by the critical studies of Robert Lowth. Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno is an impressive re-evocation of the style. How was this intended to work? You can experiment for yourselves, but the difficulty of pronouncing so many Biblical names in unison suggests to me that the "Let" verses were intended for solo voice, while the alternating "For" verses, being simpler, could well be the role of a chorus. The situation would thus be that of cantor and choir, or clergyman and congregation, familiar in a Church of England setting.

The next irruption of this technique was uninfluenced by Smart's work, but could have owed something to the Egyptian Museum in New York. Walt Whitman, in breaking the mould of European rhythmic, rhyming verse, also returned to the balanced line. Doubtless his immediate inspiration, and the effect on his audience, would be that of an Old Testament dignity and expansiveness, often overtly dramatic, but Whitman was a frequenter of Dr Henry Abbott's Egyptian Museum and was aware of Egyptian literature, to the extent that one modern biographer considers his 'epic' Leaves of Grass as 'a modern Book of the Dead' (Justin Kaplan Walt Whitman: A life, Toronto/New York, 1980).

Thus one of the oldest of techniques, with a fine dramatic irony, becomes the key to unlock the cage of restrictive rhyme with which Western verse had become obsessed. Often, in this way, something ancient or something different can be used to modify existing culture (the opposite of apartheid). In general, though, the 20th century has tended to look for non-patterns, and to associate rigid line-formats with ideologies and negative-based societies that do not answer our sense of the complete or open human. Repetition remains a part of modern life: with teaching and learning, reciting jokes, filling forms, in formal argument and government superstition, as well as in the beat of much popular music. But the more interesting experimental verse has been wary of regularity: perhaps this is not so much an avoidance of pattern as a situation in which the variation component is seen as more important than the repetition one.


Greek drama is thought to have arisen from choral hymns chanted in unison at religious festivals (though it has much in common, too, with epic verse). The transformation from poetry to drama is attributed to Thespis, who, it is said, had the idea of apportioning passages of direct speech to solo voices. Most of the plays now surviving come from C5th BC Athens, where, in a matter of decades, a sophisticated dramatic form developed, especially under the influence of Aeschylus; and, as a group, managed to leave to history a small repertoire of plays, quite startling in their impact, with a mastery of technique, and unequalled subtlety of ideas.

The basis of the Greek play remained the Chorus, and structurally the play is best viewed as a number of lyrical choruses with intervening episodes. Often the central episode was a sort of debate or moral dilemma, whose resolution determined the following action. Violent action, however, which can conclude the play, conventionally takes place off-stage, to be reported by a witness. Besides fulfilling a poetic role, the Chorus can act as a foil in exchanges with leading characters, and further has a role as moral consensus, guiding the audience through the play.

Greek drama used only legendary themes, but the characters are treated as "contemporary" or "modern". Two examples, one by Sophocles, one by Euripides, are given here. Originally performed before open-air part-circle banks of seating, we might for ease of performance today use a seated circle, with solo speakers standing and taking centre-circle for their part. The Electra can be devastatingly moving; but the version presented here is deliberately plain, even stark, in its language, and prominence is given to the rather smart-style repartee that sharpens the original. The Women of Troy should be read, I think, as a decided attack on Greek imperialism, a cutting examination of the actions of the "beautiful" Greeks, and a study of the dangers of propaganda and the coercive use of language.

The Roman 'fabula togata', Octavia, is based on Greek tragic types, but treats of a contemporary subject, here the Emperor Nero's reign (with some interesting political debate, not irrelevant to arrogant rulers of any time). An attempt is made in the translation to preserve the contrasting 4 and 6 "stress" metres of the original Latin. It was probably the work of Roman authors like Seneca, as much as Greek models, that inspired renewed interest in tragedy in England and France in the 16-17th Centuries; and a brutal parody of the blunt and decidedly sensational style is included in the film, Fellini's Satyricon.

Despite attempts to revive the use of a Chorus by T.S.Eliot, it has not proved a device suitable to the modern stage, where 'reality' is unimaginatively defined and empathy is the responsibility of star performers. Only in opera has the chorus been retained, and here it is worth noting that the first modern opera, at the opening of the 17th century, Monteverdi's Coronazione di Poppea, was based on the Octavia play, and set out intentionally to revive a lost classical form. As a last example, a translation of the first half of the text of Bach's Christmas Oratorio is given, in aa alarmingly unidiomatic style, but one perhaps not unsuited to the naivety of the original German verse, prior to its musical transformation.


The Medieval Mystery Play is thought to have started as a short acting-out or illustration of attractive themes at important Church festivals e.g. Easter, Xmas, as intervals during the Church service. From the 12-13th Centuries several Latin dramas of this sort survive with their original music e.g. The Play of the Magi, The Play of Daniel. Plays in the vernacular were then organised for performance outside the Church, and became grouped into series, telling the whole Biblical story. These became associated with the festival of Corpus Christi, inaugurated in 1311, and developed into long carnival processions, each float or wagon telling one story from the Biblical cycle, and making a continuous performance at several arranged stopping points along the route. A certain amount of scenery, incidental music, and costume is presumed to have been involved, and the wagon probably had at least two levels, representing Heaven/Earth/Hell, as necessary. Two full examples are given here (with language slightly modernised) - an alliterative Fall of Lucifer from the York Cycle, and a highly entertaining, imaginative rhyming version of the Murder of Abel from Wakefield.

At the end of the medieval period, more emphasis was placed on serious, allegorical plays e.g. Everyman. In turn, these pageants were suppressed, as was much folk culture, by disapproving Puritans in the 16th Century. Yet the official Tudor culture seems to have encouraged a sense of insular English tradition, in keeping with its growing national identity and independence, and this may account for the popularity of traditional sports and plays from the Cl5th on. That given here is a Robin Hood story reconstructed from a brief resumé surviving in manuscript from 1475 (see D.Wiles The Early Plays of Robin Hood (Cambridge, 1981) Appendix 4). George and the Dragon plays could go back to very ancient custom, but we may suspect surviving examples to reflect Tudor popular culture, at the earliest. It is hard to be certain, for with the texts always being updated, the plays noted down in the 19th-20th Centuries inevitably show no great sign of age, and are often rather carelessly worded, to literary taste. The example, that from Icomb in Gloucestershire, has a fine vein of "surrealist" humour. For further plays, see E.K.Chambers The English Folk Play (Oxford, 1933). To end this section, a translation of a modern German puppet-play is given, featuring Kasperle, a traditional puppet character looking somewhat like the English Noddy. Puppet theatres are depicted in medieval manuscripts and certainly should not be judged by the ubiquitous 19th Century Punch-and-Judy type.


The Japanese Noh Play is an outstanding example of non-European drama, though plays were written in Sanskrit and Chinese, and shadow-puppet plays on stories of Rama, with gamelan accompaniment, survive in Indonesia - alongside much else. The Japanese Noh Play was developed in the late C14th, after Chinese models, chiefly through the agency of Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1444), who wrote both examples printed here. In performance, elaborate costumes are used, and the majority of the text is sung with passionate slowness to the accompaniment of 2 or 3 musicians, who, with the Chorus, sit at one side of the platform stage. At points of special intensity the Chorus takes over the speech of the principal character, who is thus left free to mime or dance this passage. Noh plays fall into several categories - God-Plays, Hero-Plays, Women-Plays, Pathos-Plays, Demon-Plays. Conventionally the secondary actor (or 'wa-ke') begins the action, sometimes with a companion. He is often on a quest or journey, and encounters a third person, the principal actor (or 'shi-te'), at this point disguised or incognito. In the second half, this principal actor returns in true character to reveal his/her full story. The plays are therefore revelatory, and in the sense that they often underscore the uncertainty of the human condition in contrast to some eternal beauty, their prime inspiration can be seen as Zen Buddhism.

By contrast, nothing seems so typical of the West as the implacable use of logic. Thus the debate has a venerable place in the history of Western dialogue, not only in literature, but in Greek philosophy and Germanic law, not to mention everyday family life. The first three examples illustrate this: the central argument from Sophocles The Clouds has been drastically modernised here, and not necessarily in the best of taste; in The Word Contest from the Icelandic Eddas, Thor protects his sister from the consequences of an undesirable marriage contract; in the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poem Christ, there is a touching exploration of the dilemma of Joseph. To these I add some other examples of multi-voice writing: a story by Lord Dunsaney, arranged in Question and Answer form (once popular in educational and even philosophical works); and a poem illustrating the use of many voices at once rather a single thread. Sean O Huigin's Doctor Poem is performed by providing a largish audience with one sentence each from the page, with the instruction that they mill about, making their allotted comment to anyone in hearing in a frenzy of helpful frustration, until the Doctor declares himself. Voices talking over each other are seldom admitted to performance drama, yet they are very typical, surely, of everyday experience - a sort of realism that the stage cannot easily parallel.


The texts in this section are designed to build upon the techniques and traditions illustrated in the earlier plays. Thus a chorus is employed in the Robin Hood Play and multi-voice techniques are employed in parts of King Tarquin. The themes of the plays are borrowed or traditional rather than invented. On the whole, a folk play, like a children's story (or a sophisticated Greek drama) depends on the tension or humour that can be evolved out of a recognised narrative. This too may be the best way to start this sort of writing: to take a favourite theme or issue and develop it into a performance. Several versions of the George and Dragon plot are included, to show the sort of variety that can be obtained from even the most unpromising story-line. Content and technique should ideally be inseparable: a particular type of play would suggest a particular setting, a special style, a line pattern, a structure - everything in concord.

As to folk performances, these can be related to specific times of year: Robin Hood was the subject on May Day, George and the Dragon usually appeared in January, and ghost stories marked Xmas Eve. But tradition is only ever a starting point. Midsummer, Halloween, Guy Fawkes Day, your own birthday - why should these be left out/ And shouldn't one feel free to invent one's own calendar, even 'new' legends and festivals...?




  • The Expedition Against Humbaba - from the Epic of Gilgamesh (Ancient Near East)
  • The Sermon on the Mount
  • The Te Deum
  • Christopher Smart - from 'Jubilate Agno' (C18th - balanced lines)
  • Walt Whitman - 'Song of the Banner at Daybreak' (C19th USA - balanced lines)


  • Sophocles' Electra
  • Euripides' The Women of Troy
  • The Octavia (a Roman fabula togata)
  • from The Christmas Oratorio (libretto as used by Bach)


  • The York 'Fall of Lucifer' (alliterative lines)
  • The Wakefield 'Mactatio Abel ' (rhyme)
  • A Robin Hood Play after The Paston Letters
  • Mummers' Play from Icomb, Glos.
  • Kasperle and the Bear (modern German puppet text)


  • Zeami's Hagaromo
  • Zeami's Sekidera Komachi
  • Aristophanes' dispute between True and False Logic
  • The Word Contest (Thor & Alvis)
  • Mary & Joseph from the Old English Christ poem
  • Lord Dunsaney's 'The Men of Yarnith' (arranged for 2 voices)
  • 'A Capital Poem for Doctors' (Sean O'Huigin - multi-voice)


  • The Case of the Mysterious Onion Man and the Yachtsman
  • A Tale of Robin Hood
  • A Xmas Mumming
  • A Mummers Play (after the West Drayton version)
  • A George & Dragon
  • King Tarquin or, The Ship of Rome
  • Before the Family
  • The Observer and the Foxes
  • The seal-hunt
  • The Three Strange Kings
  • The Grey Squirrels' Parliament (a puppet drama)