Dionysia to TV Serial, The Journey of Drama-Aurangzeb Wattoo

Ancient Greek Theater Model

Jacques is, obviously, not one of the most popular Shakespearean characters though his melancholic speech in As You Like It gives us a profound philosophy about human roles in this great world in these famous verses “All the world is a stage, and men and women merely players”. You must have heard and seen how do folks act and dramatize the simple things in their lives, how do they wear masks and adorn their faces to look different people, how do they act, how do they pretend to be someone else and show their mastery and skills on pretending, and we the folks take it as a real act. Drama is, like poetry, one of the most primitive forms of arts and literature as well. As innovation and creativity are integral to human existence and as a consequence of this creativity and innovation, the very first form of drama was practised and experimented in some old primitive tribes and forests. A systematic, modern and established tradition of drama appeared about three thousand years ago in Greece when Thespis(6th Century BC) first appeared on stage to entertain, teach and amuse the audience. In classical Greek age, the traditional festival of Dionysia was a centre of dramatic activity where contemporary dramatist presented their plays for performance and the best drama and dramatist was given a prize. Classical dramatists created such great plays, both in thought and technique, that they are still considered ideals and touchstones to determine the quality of a play. Fundamental philosophical and epistemological questions of life and death, free will and destiny, existence and nonexistence, consciousness and unconsciousness, ethical and moral, religious and secular, divine and worldly, political and social, myth and reality were explored in classical Greek drama. Among those great masters of drama, Aeschylus(525/24-456/55BC), Sophocles(496-406BC) and Euripides(484-406BC) used the medium of tragedy and showed mythological characters, in different phases of space and time, dealing with questions related to human civilization. There is a constant struggle between God and man, and the complexities arising from their relationship is a major concern of Greek drama. Aristophanes(450BC-388BC) and Menander(342BC-291BC) tried to unveil the human follies through the medium of comedy. As the drama was the most popular genre at that time, classical Greek philosopher and critic Aristotle(384-322BC) discussed different forms, structure and components of drama in his Poetics(384-322BC).

1st CE AD portrait of Thespis in form of a mask. Thespis of Icaria (6th CE BC) is regarded as the first individual to perform a role as another person and is credited with being the world’s first actor..

This classical dramatic tradition was transferred to Roman writers who very efficiently carried the legacy of Greek masters and also brought some innovations like dividing a play into five acts that later became a tradition, and even Shakespeare and all other great playwrights of Renaissance adopted it. With the decline of Roman civilization, the western world fell into despair and centuries of ignorance, the era which is traditionally called dark ages, and consequently that great tradition of drama was also lost in that dark abyss. It was Renaissance or we may call it the revival of these classical learnings in 15th century that once again revived interest in classical theatre and with the emancipation of western world from catholic tyranny, drama became the dominant force of the time. In the early period of Renaissance, there was a great dramatic activity and dramatist created masterpieces by following the classical traditions of classical writers. William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Christopher Marlowe(1564-1593), Ben Johnson(1572-1637) and Thomas Kyd(1558-1594) made Elizabethan age(1558-1603) a golden era of drama and theatre became the most popular entertainment for Elizabethan audience.

A Portrait of Richard Burbage. He was a friend of Shakespeare and most famous actor of Elizabethan age(15508-1603).

In that glorious period of English drama, Shakespeare perfected his art by experimenting with different genres of drama including tragedy, comedy, history and romances. Shakespeare’s plays explored human nature and his mastery over probing into the minds of his characters gave him universal acclaim and immortal fame. His tragedies became the touchstone for coming centuries and one of the most complex but equally popular character of world literature ‘’Hamlet’’ was also created in that period.

A 21st century Pakistani actor plays ”Hamlet” in a drama staged in Canada.

Henrik Ibsen(1828-1906), a Norwegian dramatist, has the distinction of introducing realism and modernism in western drama. His plays A Doll’s House (1879), Hedda Gabler(1891) and The Wild Duck(1884) introduced new ideas in drama and gave it a social purpose. Among modern dramatists, George Bernard Shaw(1856-1950) achieved great fame and his works questioned the social, political and moral ideals of his times. Indian dramatic tradition is also centuries old and equally strong. Indigenous traditions, in form of Ram Leela, found its expression in hundreds of years of primitive history.

A Ram Leela performance in Delhi, Modern India.

According to historian probably it was Alexander’s invasion of India in 1st century BC that contributed in the development of local theatre(Natak) by mixing both indigenous and foreign traditions, where foreign influence, obviously was stronger and richer. Greek soldiers staged plays during their stay in plains of India and their interaction with locals left a long-lasting influence on local culture and art and obviously on local theatre. The greatest among Indian playwrights, Kaali Dasa(300-400CE?), created his masterpiece Shakuntla somewhere between first and fourth century. The original idea of this play was taken from a story told in Mahabharata which dealt with a romantic tale of a prince and a shepherdess. This play is also written in verse, very similar to Greek tradition. In Indian dramatic history, Bharat Mani((200BC-200CE?) enjoys the similar status as Aristotle in western tradition and he analyses the components of drama and music in his principal work Natya Shastra(200BC-200CE?). Urdu dramatic tradition in Subcontinent is not as strong as it is in other genres of literature including poetry, short story and novel. Imtiaz Ali Taj(1900-1970) and Agha Hashr Kashmiri(1879-1935) are important contributors in Urdu theatre. After a brief survey of western and Indian drama, we move forward to Pakistani drama which is episodic in its form and presented through television and radio. Theatre lost its popularity in the 20th century with the arrival of cinema and television and television brought all entertainment to audience home that resulted in the great popularity of episodic drama. Though Aristotle severely criticises episodic drama in his poetics and advises the dramatist to complete his action in a single revolution of the sun. According to Aristotle, episodic drama lacks unity and it fails to create a strong impact on the audience. However, today’s episodic drama, especially Pakistani drama, has completed rubbished Aristotle’s views about episodic drama. The supreme artistry of Pakistani dramatist lies in the fact that despite episodes, they keep the action intact and create curiosity in the audience that brings them back to drama. Television drama has been trendy among the audience since its beginning years in the 1960s, and now it has become the most powerful medium with an audience of millions in number. The dramatic adaptation of Urdu novelist Shaukat Siddiqui’s novel Khuda Ki Basti(God’s Own Land,1969) stormed the country and drama became a part and parcel of public life. In the 1970s and 80s, Pakistani drama achieved international acclaim and popularity due to diverse subjects and ideas, a firm grip on characterisation, great acting performances and didactic purpose. These masterpieces include Uncle Urfi(Uncle Urfi,1972), Waris (Heir,1979), Tanhayian (The Loneliness,1986), Dhoop Kinaare (At the Edge of Sunshine,1987) and Andhera Ujala(Darkness Brightness,1984-5) and these classical plays continue to inspire the audience after decades of their first productions. Modern Pakistani drama also won great acclaim from the global audience and plays like Hum Safar (, Shehr-e-Zaat(The City of Self,2012), Meri Zaat Zara-e-Be-Nishan(My Existence Is Nothing,2010), Khuda Zameen Se Gaya Nahi(God Hasn’t Left the World,2009) Mann Mayal (Heart Inclined,2016) tried to probe into moral, social, political and civilizational questions. Today when we have lived a quarter of the 21st century, television drama has access to millions of people and governments throughout the world are using this powerful medium to achieve political and cultural goals. Turkey has used this medium very effectively to create an interest in the glorious past of the Ottoman empire and its far-reaching impacts are clearly visible in today’s political and cultural conflict among the Western world and Turkey.

Turkish actor plays the role of Ertugrul in Turkish drama series Dirilius Ertugrul

Recently Turkish play Dirilius Ertugrul(2014) has broken all records of popularity while a Pakistani play Mere Pas Tum Ho(I Have You,2020) created storms on social media. Similarly, veteran Pakistani director Farooq Rind’s serial Ishq Zahe Naseeb (Heart Inclined,2019-20), with unique thought, complex plot, perfect characterization, brilliant acting performances and best use of background music proved a wonderful production.

A still from Pakistani drama serial Ishq Zah-e-Naseeb(Heart Inclined,2019-20)

Owing to such great importance of drama it is very crucial to save it from monotony and useless imitation. Drama should be used as a source of addressing political, social, cultural, moral and psychological challenges. This overwhelming success story of drama also emphasizes the fact that man is essentially an art-loving creature whose aesthetic sense is always alive.

Aurangzeb Wattoo is Editor-in-chief of The Prelude.
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