1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Drama/5

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5. Persian and other Asiatic, Polynesian and Peruvian Drama


Such dramatic examples of the drama as may be discoverable in Siam will probably have to be regarded as belonging to a branch of the Indian drama. The drama of the Malay Siam. populations of Java and the neighbouring island of Sumatra also resembles the Indian, to which it may have owed what development it has reached. The Javanese, as we learn, distinguish among the lyrics sung on occasions of Java, Sumatra, &c. popular significance the panton, a short simile or fable, and the tcharita, a more advanced species, taking the form of dialogue and sung or recited by actors proper. From the tcharita the Javanese drama, which in its higher forms treats the stories of gods and kings, appears to have been derived. As in the Indian drama, the functions of the director or manager are of great importance; as in the Greek, the performers wear masks, here made of wood. The comic drama is often represented in both Java and Sumatra by parties of strollers consisting of two men and a woman—a troop sufficient for a wide variety of plot.

Among other more highly civilized Asiatic peoples, the traces of the dramatic art are either few or late. The originally Aryan Persians exhibit no trace of the drama in their ample Persian. earlier literature. But in its later national development the two species, widely different from one another, of the religious drama or mystery and of the popular comedy or farce have made their appearance—the former in a growth of singular interest.

Of the Persian téaziés (lamentations or complaints) the subjects are invariably derived from religious history, and more or less directly connected with the “martyrdoms” of the house of Ali. The performance of these episodes or The téaziés. scenes takes place during the first ten days of the month of Muharram, when the adherents of the great Shi’ite sect all over Persia and Mahommedan India commemorate the deaths of the Prophet and his daughter Fatima, the mother of Ali, the martyrdoms of Ali himself, shamefully murdered in the sanctuary, and of his unoffending son Hasan, done to death by his miserable guilty Deianira of a wife, and lastly the never-to-be-forgotten sacrifice of Hasan’s brother, the heroic Hosain, on the bloody field of Kerbela (A.D. 680). With the establishment in Persia, early in the 16th century, of the Safawid (Sufi) dynasty by the Shi’ites, the cult of the martyrs Hasan and Hosain secured the official sanction which it has since retained. Thus the performance of these téaziés, and the defraying of the equipment of them, are regarded as religious, and in a theological sense meritorious, acts; and the plays are frequently provided by the court or by other wealthy persons, by way of pleasing the people or securing divine favour. The plays are performed, usually by natives of Isfahan, in courtyards of mosques, palaces, inns, &c., and in the country in temporary structures erected for the purpose.

It would seem that, no farther back than the beginning of the 19th century, the téaziés were still only songs or elegies in honour of the martyrs, occasionally chanted by persons actually representing them. Just, however, as Greek tragedy was formed by a gradual detachment of the dialogue from the choric song of which it was originally only a secondary outgrowth, and by its gradually becoming the substance of the drama, so the Miracle Play of Hasan and Hosain, as we may call it, has now come to be a continuous succession of dramatic scenes. Of these fifty-two have, thanks to the labours of Alexander Chodzko and Sir Lewis Pelly, been actually taken down in writing, and thirty-seven published in translations; and it is clear that there is no limit to the extension of the treatment, as is shown by such a téazié as the Marriage of Kassem, dealing with the unfortunate Hosain’s unfortunate son.[1] The performance is usually opened by a prologue delivered by the rouzékhán, a personage of semi-priestly character claiming descent from the Prophet, who edifies and excites the audience by a pathetic recitation of legends and vehement admonitions in prose or verse concerning the subject of the action. But the custom seems to have arisen of specially prefacing the drama proper by a kind of induction which illustrates the cause or effect of the sacred story—as for instance that of Amir Timur (Tamerlane), who appears as lamenting and avenging the death of Hosain; or the episode of Joseph’s betrayal by his brethren, as prefiguring the cruelty shown to Ali and his sons. At the climax of the action proper Hosain prays to be granted at the day of judgment the key of the treasure of intercession; and the final scene shows the fulfilment of his prayer, which opens paradise to those who have helped the holy martyr, or who have so much as shed a single tear for him. It will thus be seen that not only is this complex and elaborate production unapproached in its length and in its patient development of a long sequence of momentous events by any chronicle history or religious drama, but that it embodies together with the passionately cherished traditions of a great religious community the expression of a long-lived resentment of foreign invasion—and is thus a kind of Oberammergau play and complaint of the Nibelungs in one.

The other kind of Persian drama is the témacha (= spectacle), a kind of comedy or farce, sometimes called teglid (disguising), performed by wandering minstrels or joculatores called loutys, who travel about accompanied by their bayadères, The témachas. and amuse such spectators as they find by their improvised entertainments, which seem to be on much the same level as English “interludes.” A favourite and ancient variety of the species is the karaguez or puppet-play, of which the protagonist is called kétchel péhlévan (the bald hero).

The modern Persian drama seems to have admitted Western influences, as in the case of such comedies as The Pleaders of the Court, and, avowedly, Monsieur Jourdan and Musla’li Shah, of whom the former steals away the wits of young Persia by his pictures of the delights of Paris.

There is no necessity for any reference here to the civilization or to the literature of the Hebrews, or to those of other Semitic peoples, with whom the drama is either entirely Hebrew literature. wanting, or only appears as a quite occasional and exotic growth. Dramatic elements are apparent in two of the books of the Hebrew scripture—the Book of Ruth and the Book of Job, of which latter the author of Everyman, and Goethe in his Faust, made so impressive a use.

From Polynesia and aboriginal America we also have isolated traces of drama. Among these are the performances, accompanied by dancing and intermixed with recitation and singing, of the South Sea Islanders, first described by South Seas; Peru. Captain Cook, and reintroduced to the notice of students of comparative mythology by W. Wyatt Gill. Of the so-called Inca drama of the Peruvians, the unique relic, Apu Ollantay, said to have been written down in the Quichua tongue from native dictation by Spanish priests shortly after the conquest of Peru, has been partly translated by Sir Clements Markham, and has been rendered into German verse. It appears to be an historic play of the heroic type, combining stirring incidents with a pathos finding expression in at least one lyric of some sweetness—the lament of the lost Collyar. With it may be contrasted the ferocious Aztek dramatic ballet, Rabinal-Achi (translated by Brasseur de Bourbourg), of which the text seems rather a succession of warlike harangues than an attempt at dramatic treatment of character. But these are mere isolated curiosities.


  1. Translated by Comte de Gobineau, in his Religions et philosophies dans l’Asie centrale (Paris, 1865).