Saturday, June 10, 2017

Origins of Women in Drama in Africa, Australia, Ancient Egypt, Greece, India, India, Rome & Turkey

The Role of Females in the Origin of Dramatic Storytelling

In the origins of drama and dramatic storytelling in Africa and throughout other cultures with continuous rituals, ceremonies and culture, the influences and contributions of females probably outweigh those of males. This is simply because as primary caregivers for over 70,000 years, females have been the primary custodians and communicators of knowledge, stories, dances and rituals over the history of humans. Some the oldest stories which have been passed down through oral traditions (sometimes known as orature) and rituals by women are the Ananse tales from the Akan peoples who originate from the West African regions now known as Ghana. The call and response technique is often used in female dramatic storytelling. Dramatic storytellers sometimes are known in Africa as griots. One good source of information is Finnegan’s Oral Literature in Africa (2012).
On other continents, females in Indigenous cultures have been the caretakers of stories, characters, rituals and ways of passing down stories of country, people and ways of being. 

The myths of Iroquois are great Native American creation feminine stories. These stories are still told, danced, sung and acted out in ceremonies.

The Dreamtime stories of Australia have been passed down through song and dances done by women for at least 30,000 years. Some of the oldest include the Gagudji story of the fertility mother Warramurrungundjui. The Awakening section of the Opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics give some sense of the ceremonies and rituals which females have been caretakers of.

Female Performers, Directors and Performance Makers in Ancient Mesopotamia & Ancient Egypt

Enheduanna is probably the earliest poet, playwright and musical lyricist whose name we have recorded. She was born in the Sumerian city state of Ur (an ancient city of Mesopotamia situated in modern day Iraq halfway between Baghdad and the head of the Persian Gulf and today known as Tall al Muqayyar) in the 23rd century BC.

As a royal daughter holding the title of EN, she was appointed to the role of high priestess and it was while in this role that she wrote, performed and had others perform, the ritual devotional hymns, devotions, scenes and poems many of which were written to the Goddess Inanna. In her lifetime, she composed some 42 temple hymns which were sung and acted out in ritual dances and performances. Of her own work, she is quoted as saying: “My king, something has been created that no-one created before.”

No record remains of how her hymns and poems were performed or presented. The performative aspects of her work are evident in the words, images and rhythms of her language. Some of her remaining hymns and verses which are available in translation are:
Nin-me-šara, "The Exaltation of Inanna" (153 lines written in the first person about her exile from Ur and Uruk), In-nin ša-gur-ra (incomplete but 274 lines remain), In-nin me-huš-a, "Inanna and Ebih", The Temple Hymns and Hymn to Nanna.

In Ancient Egypt, in the Old Kingdom (2663BC to 2195BC) around the times when the Pyramids were built, females were organized in groups to perform ritual storytelling and dances. These groups were known as kheners and they performed in the royal courts. The organisers and choreographers of these groups could be argued to be the first female directors and they were known by titles such as ‘Overseer of the Royal Khener’. The female dominance of these rituals and dances declined by the end of the Old Kingdom.
In the temples, females would dance and perform stories to worship deities. Mostly the stories and rituals were danced and sung and the ‘audiences’ were probably exclusively female. Sometimes these rituals were of a more public nature and men and women would sing, dance and perform acrobatics in processions and other parades. At festivals and specific rituals, females would play a uniquely specific role. At the Festival of Osiris, two virgins would have enacted and performed in The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys. Here is translation of the text. Imagine the role of females in enacting out this play:

There is also evidence in tomb friezes and papyrus pictures that women performed at family banquets and funeral events. While most these women seem to be Egyptian, some seem to be of Nubian origin (present day Sudan). The style of performance depicted in the evidence seems to indicate that the performances were highly stylized but this could be due to the Ancient Egyptian artistic perspective of using profile head views with the body facing the front and the absence of the portrayal of depth of field.

The Role of Women in Ancient Greek Theatre and Drama

Although female characters are portrayed in many if not most Ancient Greek plays, these roles would have been performed by men at the time. The place of women in Ancient Greek society and their role in society was strictly controlled. It was considered ‘dangerous’ to have women perform. We are not entirely sure if women were allowed to attend performances of Ancient Greek drama but the common consensus at the moment seems to be that married women of a high status were allowed to attend performances of Tragedies with their husbands. Women were definitely not allowed to attend performances of comedies.
Another interesting prospect for female performances comes from the theory that lyric poetry was often read out aloud and performed in the houses in the gynaikônitis (women's quarters) or in the courtyards of private houses. These texts were read with specific actions and tones and sometimes different people took on different parts. Some theorists suggest that the poetry of the Ancient Greek female poet Sappho (630BC – 570BC), who lived on the island of Lesbos, was performed in this way. Her work was probably accompanied by music from a lyre. Some suggest that she was exiled in around 600BC due to private or ‘chamber’ performances of her erotic poetry. In contemporary times, Sappho is often seen as a symbol of female homosexuality and the term lesbian is often seen as alluding to Sappho and her origins on the island of Lesbos. While much of this is conjecture, it is interesting to consider Sappho as the first feminist performance artist and the mother of ‘queer’ performance.

Women in Early Indian Drama

Many accounts of theatre and women in theatre, leave out the early origins of Indian theatre and drama as past down to us through the Nāṭya Śāstra as well as oral and dance traditions. The Nāṭya Śāstra is a treatise on performing arts compiled somewhere from 500BC to 200BC. The format and practical nature of this treatise suggests that some female writers, compilers and or performers may have been involved in the compilation of this important performance treatise. Since females sung, danced and performed as characters in many of the earlier forms of Ancient Indian drama, we can assume that they had some dramaturgical function in the development of the Nāṭya Śāstra.
Female and male parts are evident in the performances in Ancient India. Separate training for female and male parts is also dealt with in the Nāṭya Śāstra. The text emphasizes the importance of different roles in developing a performance including writing, auditing, directing and performing so we may be able to assume that female directors start to emerge in the performing arts in India during this period. Certainly females would have been involved not just as actors, dancers and singers but also as teacher trainers, scene and dance directors and costume and set designers. Here is a link to some websites with some information, videos and pictures of the Nāṭya Śāstra

Women in Drama in Ancient Rome

There seems to be no evidence to suggest that females performed in early Ancient Roman dramas around 200-100BC. Female roles were normally played by male slaves who wore masks. The structure of the cavea or audience area within this period suggest that a separate area was designated for women to view plays both of a tragic and comic nature. 
The tradition of female ‘chamber theatre’ where female writers would perform their poems or stories to all female audiences in their houses probably persisted in this period and some exponents of this may have been Cornelia Africana (190BC to 100BC approx.). This tradition may have been continued by other female writers such as Julia Balbilla (72CE-130CE approx.).
By 100BC, female actresses (known as mima) start to appear in performances in Ancient Rome for the first time. In the secular performances during the Festival of Floralia (the Goddess of flowers and procreation) women (usually prostitutes) were paid to perform without masks realistic scenes and sometimes sex acts on stage. These scenes were probably mimed and the actresses would not speak. The demeaning nature of this life meant that by the arrival of Christianity to Rome, the only escape for some of these women was to embrace the church and Christianity. Some actresses mentioned in the history of Ancient Rome include Claudia Acte (a Greek slave of the Emperor Nero), St Pelagia of Anitoch and Theodora of Constantinople, who later married Emperor Justinian and became Empress of the Eastern Empire. She banned pimping and brothels, made laws to allow women to perform in public and made laws to allow women to inherit property and have some say in civil life.

Women in Early Chinese Drama and Opera

There are no records of early performances in Ancient China that mention females. The development of more composite performing arts forms by the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) mean that we have some documents which suggest female singers started to perform around 750AD in Canjun Operas. The later development of comic opera forms seems to suggest that men were dressed up as women to mock them, so we may assume that females did not perform in the comic opera forms. The performance training institute of the Emperor Xuanzong during this dynasty, which was called Liyaun (the Pear Garden), seemed to have both male and female performers.

Women in Early Arab and Turkish Drama

There is no evidence to suggest that females did not attend the performances of early Turkish puppet drama and the early Arabic Ta'ziyah passion plays. Indeed, early Ta'ziyah would often have forty or fifty scenes and the staging suggests that a male choir or chorus would chant or sing between scenes and that this would be answered by singing, chanting or wailing of a female chorus on the other side of the stage. So there were female performers in early Ta'ziyah drama. The early Egyptian shadow puppets and the puppet plays of this period also known as the Khayal al-zill which loosely translates as ‘the shadows of the imagination suggest that female puppeteers created and performed some of the characters. The same is probably true of the early Karagoz Turkish puppetry.

In Arabic storytelling form, the Hakawati started to dominate as a storytelling format from around 900AD. The prominence of female characters in this form especially as storytellers as evidenced in the most famous Hakawati stories One Thousand and One Nights make it highly likely that female storytellers or Al Hakawati were performing during these times. 

References & Teaching Resources

African Storytelling
Finnegan, R. (2012). Oral literature in Africa. Open Book Publishers.
Utley, O. (2008, September 1). Keeping the Tradition of African Storytelling Alive. Retrieved from

Australian Indigenous Storytelling and Dances
McKay, H. (2017, February 12). Australian Aboriginal Storytelling. Retrieved from

Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian Rituals, Dance and Storytelling

Binkley, B. (2004). "Reading the Ancient Figure of Enheduanna". Rhetoric before and beyond the Greeks. SUNY Press. p. 47. 
Dalglish, C. (2008). Humming The Blues: Inspired by Nin-Me-Sar-Ra, Enheduanna's Song to Inanna. Oregon: CALYX Books. ISBN 978-0-934971-92-8.
De Shong Meador, B. (2001). Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna. University of Texas. 

Weigle, M. (Autumn 1978). "Women as Verbal Artists: Reclaiming the Sisters of Enheduanna"Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies3 (3): 1–9.
Ritual Dance of Ancient Egypt. (2012, April 23). Retrieved from
Spenser, P. (2005, May 1). Female Dance in Ancient Egypt. Retrieved from

Women in Ancient Greek Theatre
Massimino, K. (2012, October 22). Greek Drama and the Role of Women in Ancient Greece. Retrieved from

Women in Early Indian Drama
Mainkar, T.G. (1978). Sanskrit Theory of Drama and Dramaturgy: The Theory of Samdhis and the Samhyangas in Bharata’s Natyasastra. New Delhi: Ajanta Publications.
Also try:
Natya Shastra. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved May 1, 2017, from

Women in the Theatre of Ancient Rome
The Actresses Who Scandalised Ancient Rome. (2012, March 10). Retrieved from

Women in Early Chinese Opera and Drama
Jin Fu. (2012) Chinese Theatre (3rd Edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Tan Ye. (2008). Historical Dictionary of Chinese Theatre. Hong Kong: Scarecrow Press.
Here is a webpage with a short but useful brief history of Chines Opera:

Women in Early Arab and Turkish Drama
Allan, R. (2000). History of Arab Theatre. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Here is a webpage with a short thumbnail history of theatre if the Arab world:

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