1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Prologue
PROLOGUE (from Gr. πρό, before, and λόγος, a word), a prefatory piece of writing, usually composed to introduce a drama. The Greeks use a word πρόλογος, which included the modern meaning of the prologue, but was of wider significance, embracing any kind of preface, like the Latin praefatio. In Attic Greek drama, a character in the play, very often a deity, stood forward or appeared from a machine before the action of the play began, and made from the empty stage such statements as it was necessary that the audience should hear, in order that they might appreciate the ensuing drama. It was the early Greek custom to dilate in great detail on everything that had led up to the play, the latter being itself, as a rule, merely the catastrophe which had inevitably to ensue on the facts related in the prologue. The importance, therefore, of the prologue in Greek drama was very great; it sometimes almcmt took the place of a romance, to which, or to an episode in which, the play itself succeeded. It is believed that the prologue in this form was practically the invention of Euripides, and with him, as has been said, it takes the place of “ an explanatory first act.” This may help to modify the objection which criticism has often brought against the Greek prologue, as an impertinence, a useless growth prefixed to the play, and standing as a barrier between us and our enjoyment of it. The point precisely is that, to an Athenian audience, it was useful and pertinent, as supplying just what they needed to make the succeeding scenes intelligible. But it is difficult to accept the view that Euripides invented the plan of producing a god out of a machine to justify the action of deity upon man, because it is plain that he himself disliked this interference of the supernatural and did not believe in it. He seems, in such a typical prologue as that to the Hippolytus, to be accepting a conventional formula, and employing it, almost perversely, as a medium for his ironic rationalism. Many of the existing Greek prologues may be later in date than the plays they illustrate, or may contain large interpolations. On the Latin stage the prologue was often more elaborate than it was in Athens, and in the careful composition of the poems which Plautus prefixes to his plays we see what importance he gave to this portion of the entertainment; sometimes, as in the preface to the Rudens, Plautus rises to the height of his genius in his adroit and romantic prologues, usually placed in the mouths of persons who make no appearance in the play itself. Molière revived the Plautian prologue in the introduction to his Amphitryon. Racine introduced Piety as the speaker of a prologue which opened his choral tragedy of Esther. The tradition of the ancients vividly affected our own early dramatists. Not only were the mystery plays and miracles of the middle ages begun by a homily, but when the drama in its modern sense was inaugurated in the reign of Elizabeth, the prologue came with it, directly adapted from the practice of Euripides and Terence. Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, prepared a sort of prologue in dumb show for his Gorbuduc of 1562; and he also wrote a famous Induction, which is, practically, a prologue, to a miscellany of short romantic epics by diverse hands. In the Elizabethan drama the prologue was very far from being universally employed. In the plays of Shakespeare, for instance, it is an artitice which the poet very rarely introduced, although we find it in Henry V. and Romeo and Juliet. Sometimes the Elizabethan prologue was a highly elaborated poem; in 1603 a harbinger recited a sonnet on the stage, to prepare the audience for Heywood's A Woman Kill'd with Kindness. Often the prologue was a piece of blank verse, so obscure and complicated that it is difficult to know how its hearers contrived to follow it; such are the prologues of Chapman. Among Elizabethan prologues the most ingenious and interesting are those of Ben Jonson, who varied the form on every occasion. For instance, in The Poetaster (1602), Envy comes in “ as Prologue,” and speaks a long copy of heroics, only to be turned off the stage by an armed figure, who states that he is the real prologue, and proceeds to spout more verses. ]onson's introductions were often recited by the “ stage-keeper,” or manager. Beaumont and Fletcher seem to have almost wholly dispensed with prologues, and the form was far from being universal, until the Restoration, when it became de rigueur. The prologues of the last thirty years of the 17th century were always written in rhymed verse, and were generally spoken by a principal actor or actress in the ensuing piece. They were often, in the hands of competent poets, highly finished essays on social or literary topics. For instance, the famous prologue to Dryden's Aurengzebe (1675) is really a brief treatise on fashions in versification. Throughout the 18th century the prologue continued to flourish, but went out of vogue in the early part of the 19th.
See also Epilogue.