The Roman Stage: A Short History of Latin Drama in the Time of the Republic

By W. Beare | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
DANCE AND DRAMA: THE PRE-LITERARY PERIOD IN ITALY

THE GREEKS found the origin of their drama in the dance. For them 'dance' included every kind of significant rhythmical movement. The feeling for rhythm lies deep in our nature. Graceful movement gives pleasure both to the performer and to the beholder, especially if it is accompanied by music or song. In the dance primitive man finds expression for emotion of every kind; in the dance, too, he gratifies his instinct for imitation. Among primitive peoples dancing is a communal activity. The tribe is faced at every turn with the need for preservation from enemies, disease or hunger; from lack of game, of cattle, of crops, of children. Hence the war dance, the dances in celebration of birth and marriage, the magical dances intended to promote hunting and agriculture, to exorcise the demons of sickness and to lay the ghosts of the dead.

For a farming community the most important and the merriest event of the year is the harvest-home. Then, if ever, the farmer can forget his cares and join with his friends in unrestrained revelry, which may easily take a riotous or licentious turn. The chief dance of the Hos of Bengal is in January, when the granaries are full. During the dancing, as in the Roman Saturnalia, masters and servants treat each other as equals. There is much drinking of beer; language and conduct are freed from the customary restraints of decency.1 Similar was the 'Fescennine jesting' of the Roman harvesthome. Rival clowns, their features disguised in cork masks, hurled jest and abuse at each other, to the delight of the company. Such scenes were dear to the Italian heart. Horace tells us how he and Maecenas were entertained by an exchange of abuse between two Campanian clowns, and even Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, heir to the Roman Empire, writes of how, after a day's work with the labourers in the fields, finding

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1
Enc. Brit., s.v. 'Dance'; Frazer, Golden Bough, ix. 136.

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