Classical Theories of Drama – A Comparative Critique

Rajina Banuand & S. Subbiah

Spring Magazine on English Literature, (E-ISSN: 2455-4715), Vol. II, No. 2, 2016.

Comparative criticism of texts irrespective of their socio-cultural, linguistic, idealistic, stylistic and artistic divergence has become a productive form of literature as it allows national literatures to gain worldwide recognition. The researcher in Comparative Literature could be restrained solely by the texts in translation. Because, claiming originality to the texts in translation is impossible as they bear the dominance of the translator and the limitations of both the Source Language (SL) and Translated Language (TL) to some extent. But the translation done in accordance with translatology assures that the adopted script bears all the key concepts of original text. Moreover, the classics of all literatures have come down to the readers only through translation. Hence, depending on the translated texts becomes a prudent choice. In this article, the researcher comparatively discusses the Indian and Western views or theories on Dramatics – Bharata’s Natyasastra (Sanskrit) and Aristotle’s Poetics (Greek) – in English translation; and proposes the comparative scrutiny of the plays of some notable dramatists to justify their unique way of propagating humane values and how they are reformative in nature.

The medieval critics presume from the revaluation of the ancient literature that both classics share common elements – visual, aural and spatial, and features: techniques – multi-channeled discourses, dance and music. Their sole aim had been the transformation of reality not the depiction of it, arousal of deep emotional impact and consequently giving psychological relief to the spectators. They propose teaching of humanistic philosophy and values. Thus, they together have been the inspiration for the modern theatrics and dramatics. Hence, the researcher evaluates and suggests the importance of these two manuscripts and select plays that are composed in accordance with these two treatises in humanizing mankind from a modern critical perspective; and emphasizes on the need to look upon ancient theories for the composition of drama script at present in the modern world where the humaneness is missing.

These classical manuals of India and West are semiotic in structure, heiropraxis (religious or ritual) in practice, and uphold a few metaphysical and epistemological concepts in common. The overall examination of classical Indian and Greek drama reveals that the personas, costumes, masks, settings, music, dance, chorus, monologue, dialogue, soliloquy and action etc are of primary significance.  It may also be noted that in their magnitude and content Peri Poietikes and Natyasastra are different structurally, thematically and aesthetically. To be precise, Indians popularised comedy and the Greeks, tragedy. The difference between these two traditions has been so great that the two artistic expressions could not but be different. In the west ‘evil’ has been a positive force whereas in India ‘evil’ is evil itself or just absence of good. As Sri Aurobindo argues, “In Hindu drama, it would have seemed a savage and inhuman spirit that could take any aesthetic pleasure in the sufferings of an Oedipus or a Duchess of Malfi in the tragedy of Macbeth or Othello” (Qtd. in Prasad and Yadhav 4).

And, another significant difference is that Aristotle’s Poetics deals with dramatics and theatrics as a part among other arts but Bharata Muni’s Natyasastra regards theatrics as a major subject and treats other arts as a part of it. The Natysasatra has been the foundation of dramatic tradition of Indian Literature whereas the Poetics was written much after the best had been achieved in classical Greek literature. The presumptions of the ancient criticism claim that “the invasion of Gandhara by Cyrus and its Persian occupation till Alexander’s invasion facilitated many exchanges. But there is no evidence to suggest that Indian ideas on drama had travelled to Greece, as it happened undoubtedly in the area of Medicine” (Gupt 16). Historically speaking, the origin of Natyasastra is still under speculation. Bharata Muni, the name ascribed to the compilation of Natyasastra refers not to a person but to a community. And out of its dasarupakas (ten types of drama), the modern playwrights are able to practice less than four. This theory is a mixture of rasas, bhavas, abhinayas, dharmis, vrttis, pravrttis, siddhi, svaras, instruments, song and theatre-house (Gupta 86). The Poetics must have been penned by Aristotle between 335 BC and 324 BC. The dramatic theory of Greece consists of four aspects namely mimesis (imitation), catharsis (purification), treatment of various genres, the division of tragedy into six elements: Muthos (myth), ethos (feelings), dianoia (technical thinking) , lexis (diction), melopoiia  (fear) and opsis (spectacle)… (Gupta 86).

But the in-depth study of these classics reveals their resemblance on both the thematic structure and stylistic features. Predominantly, the Greek concept of muthoi is not different form Indian Vedas. The conception of bhavavyanjana (spiritual lesson) or dharmis (cosmic law), lokadharmi (life oriented), natyadharmi (theatre oriented)  vibhavas (cause) and anubhavas (experience) in Natyasastra and psuchagogia (beguilement), philanthropia (love for mankind), nemesis (moral indignation), in poetics; and some other common concepts such as pity (eleos and oiktos), pain (lupe), fear (phobos), hatred (misos), anxiety (merima, tarbos, and prontis), and loathing (stugos) are formulated exclusively for the purpose of transformation and purgation. Critics of Greek dramatics declare that the intention of Greek theatre is psychological transformation. And, the division of drama into tragedy and comedy is itself a Western thought.

From this disposition of the public to express the most universal sentiments of human nature, of joy and sorrow, by laughter and by tears, arises the great division of the drama into plays that are cheerful and plays that are sad; into comedy with all its subspecies, and into tragedy and drama with all their varieties (Qtd. in Kushwaha 10).

Emotional arousal is emphasized through the concepts of ekplexis (paralysis) in Greek and stambha or sadvika bhava (temperament) in Sanskrit which refers to the realization of great harm done to a dear one out of ignorance and the shock caused by it. The other dominant emotions found in Greek theatre are aischune (ashamed), feeling shame before or after a dishonourable deed; others are, aidos, reverence for the virtuous;  eros, sexual desire; storge, filial affection; charis, gratitude; philia, friendship; and philopatria, patriotism.

And Indian system of emotional arousal was done by bhavas (mood) and rasas (aesthetic emotion). In Natyasastra permanent emotions are classified into three groups: sthayi (dominant), vyabhicari (transient) and sattvika (psychosomatic). Sthayi is eight in number: rati or pleasure, hasa or humour, soka or grief, krotha or anger, utsaha or confidence, bhaya or fear, jugupsa or revulsion, and vismaya or wonder. Vyabhicari states are thirty six: nirveda (dejection), glani (guilt), sanka (doubt), asuya (envy), mada (intoxication), srama (fatigue), alasya (indolence), dainya (obsequity), cinta (worry), moha (fondness), etc. Sattvika are manifestation of psuche (mind) and soma (body); they are eight in all and also known as bhavasvibhavas and anubhavas. To add Bharata’s views:

The drama as I have devised will give courage, amusement and happiness as well as counsel to them all [….] the drama will thus be instructive to all… It will give relief to unlucky persons who are afflicted with sorrow and grief or [over] work, and will be conducive to observance of duty (dharma) as well as to fame, long life, intellect and general good, and will educate people (Qtd. in Kushwaha 11).

But the tragedies like Urubhanga, romances like Abhijnanassakuntalam and historical plays like Mudrarakshas which form an imperishable part of our literary heritage attest the glory of Indian Drama. Hence, comparative study of Indian and western plays in the backdrop of classical theories would demonstrate that they are preoccupied with the spiritual concepts of purity and vitality. The writings of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides in Greek, and Seneca, Plautus and Terence in Roman and Vyasa, Bhasa and Kalidasa in Sanskrit can be cited as the primary instances.

To cite some, the tragedy of Orestes or Antigone does not arise from individual error (koros, hamartia, or hubris) but of fate (moira). For Arjuna of Mahabharata or Homer’s Achilles the demands of timee (fate) are supreme. Public esteem again forces Rama to desert Sita in a slander; Pandava to mortgage Panjali in a dice game; Oedipus to desert his kingdom; and Andromaque to agonise after Hector’s death. But, the modern ideas on individual choice, responsibility and interpretation of dharma or moira came to be formulated only towards the end of Hellenic period in Greece and Smrti (renaissance) period in India. Both theories gave, irrefutably, importance to the concepts of miasma (despair) or the Satva (reality), power of oath, oracles, curses, the concept of good and evil, heaven and hell; and other beliefs such as bahudevatva or theokrasis (Universal Egg), perception of five senses as the extension of five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether; cycle of four ages, and metapsychosis. Thus they have had common aspects beyond their linguistic, cultural, epochal differences. Because these theories were written for the same task, that is to portray the nuances of sacred drama and to keep the humanity intact.

Both models demand unification of speech, gesture and dance in hieropraxis (religious or ritual) phase. During the medieval period, when the Indian dramatics underwent rapid change and decline due to the advent of colonisers, the Greeks developed their content and popularised them throughout the world. Deviation from the religious representation of theatre took place with the impact of Renaissance or Humanistic Philosophy. The medieval dramatists committed themselves the task of propagating humane ideals. They wrote with the conviction to promote upcoming theories of social change and transformation. Consequently death in battlefields, plight of women, evils of war, social and ethical problems became the themes. But, unlike their successors who questioned inhumane tendencies among humans in the name of race, caste and gender, they were content to reflect the turmoil that they saw.

The comparative treatment of the plays after the renaissance in England (1485 – 1660) such as Shakespearean comedies and tragedies, tragedies of Seneca, Thomas Kyd, Marlowe, Ben Johnson, Webster, Dekker, Dryden etc and the drama of Sanskrit literature before the advent of British such as Kalidasa, Harichandra in Tamil, Buddhist plays, Plays of Bhavabhti, Sudraka, Vishakhadutta, Harsha, Bhanbhatta, Bhattanarayana and Ashvagosha attest the dramatic glory of the duo. Indian drama was at stake when Western Drama drama (1820 –1947) underwent a sea-change in stylistic and thematic convergence. These plays had both the impact of antiquity and modernity. Studying these plays in the backdrop of the rasa theory and the concept of hamartia would demonstrate the religious, spiritual, psychological and philosophical overtones that permeate their plays, postulate the dramatists’ concern for humanity.

For instance, one can feel the presence of earnest humanism in the plays of Goldsmith, Sheridan, Ibsen, G. B. Shaw, J. M. Synge, Sean O’ Casey, D. H. Lawrence, Bertolt Brecht, Egene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, in Indian plays by Rabindranath Tagore, Harindranath Chattopathyaya, Sri Aurobindo, T. P. Kailasam, Asif Currimbhoy, Pradap Sharma, etc. The notable women playwrights of this phase are Aphra Behn and Bharathi Sarabhai. They opposed the socio-cultural system that oppressed women as weaker sex. The philosophical thoughts that permeated their plays had a considerable impact on their fellow dramatists. Despite the absence of values, the transgression of the boundaries of decorum, the greed for power, lack of integrity, cruelty, scepticism, hatred, self motivation, terror, the lack of a centre and being in the midst of a dark horror, the search for hope for human destiny takes their plays a step ahead of today’s modernity.

Resultantly, the panorama of dramatic literature became the unified genre of both the revived indigenous dramaturgy; and the modern theatrical techniques. The dramatists experimented plays with modern theories of literature. To give examples, Beckett, Herold Pinder, Osborne, Caryl Churchill, and others in Western Drama; and Habib Tanvir, Gurucharan Das, Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar, Nissim Ezekiel, Grish Karnad, Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Dattani and so on in India are the representative playwrights of new humanist movement. Their plays bespeak the authors’ ardent concern for the society and humanity. They revitalized drama by taking theatrics to new extremes and push their characters to the limits of emotional solitude, non-communication and personal hopelessness. They wrote with the conviction to re-humanize the mankind. Their aim perhaps is to depict the inhumane tendencies that encapsulate the society and to warn the modern man against the awaiting wilderness if the same persists.  On the whole, the realm of drama proves that the purpose of both the classical theorists and the dramatists of then and now have been voicing against loss of humanity, mechanical and materialistic nature of modern life and the impersonal and virulent social environment.

Thus, the comprehensive reading of Bharata’s Natyasastra and Aristotle’s Poetics; and remarkable playwrights of Indian and Western traditions from the comparative stand point, suggest how the theories served as the driving force behind the dramatists. Apparently, the concepts of catharsis (purgation of impurities) and Rasas (cleansing of the soul) as laid down in the classics of dramaturgy remain the predominant aspect of dramatic literature even today. Though the dramatists of this century have evolved new theories to suit their modernist theatre, they are keen on retaining the ideals of Catharsis and Rasa; which together make the dramatic literature vibrant one. Thus, Natyasastra and Poetics which insist on the propagation of humanistic philosophy remain guidelines for the drama and theatre of all cultures and ages.

Works Cited                                                                    

Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans. by Butcher, S. H. London: Macmillan, 1902. PDF. 11 Oct. 2014.

Bharata Muni. The Natyasastra. Trans. by Manomohan Ghosh. Culcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1951. PDF.11 Oct. 2014.

Gupt, Bharat. Dramatic Concepts: Greek and Indian – A Study of the Poetics and the Natyasastra. New Delhi: D. K. Print World, 1946. Print.

Kushwaha, M. S., ed. Dramatic Theory and Practice: Indian and Western. New Delhi: Creative Books, 2000. Print.

Prasad, Amar Nath., and Saryug Yadav, eds. Studies in Indian Drama in English. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 2003. Print.

Prof S. Subbiah is currently working at Alagappa University, Karaikudi. He can be contacted at

Ms Rajina Banu is a research scholar at Alagappa University, Karaikudi.