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It cannot be pretended that the doom which thus slowly and gradually overtook the Roman theatre was undeserved.

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May 8, 2017 – Online MCAT CARS Practice

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

The ignoble end of the Roman–and with it of the ancient classical–drama has been already foreshadowed. The elements of dance and song, never integrally united with the dialogue in Roman tragedy, were now altogether separated from it. While it became customary simply to recite tragedies to the small audiences who continued (or, as a matter of courtesy, affected) to appreciate them, the pantomimus commended itself to the heterogeneous multitudes of the Roman theatre and to an effete upper class by confining the performance of the actor to gesticulation and dancing, a chorus singing the accompanying text. The species was developed with extraordinary success already under Augustus by Pylades and Bathyllus; and so popular were these entertainments that even eminent poets, such as Lucan (d. A.D. 65), wrote the librettos for these fabulae salticae (ballets), of which the subjects were generally mythological, only now and then historical, and chiefly of an amorous kind. A single masked performer was able to enchant admiring crowds by the art of gesticulation and movement only. In what direction this art tended, when suiting itself to the most abnormal demands of a recklessly sensual age, may be gathered from the remark of one of the last pagan historians of the empire, that the introduction of pantomimes was a sign of the general moral decay of the world which began with the beginning of the monarchy. Comedy more easily lost itself in the cognate form of the mimus, which survived all other kinds of comic entertainments because of its more audacious immorality and open obscenity. Women took part in these performances, by means of which, as late as the 6th century, a mima acquired a celebrity which ultimately raised her to the imperial throne, and perhaps occasioned the removal of a disability which would have rendered her marriage with Justinian impossible.

Meanwhile, the regular drama had lingered on, enjoying in all its forms imperial patronage in the days of the literary revival under Hadrian (117-138); but the perennial taste for the spectacles of the amphitheatre, which was as strong at Byzantium as it was at Rome, and which reached its climax in the days of Constantine the Great (306-377), under whom the reaction set in, determined the downfall of the dramatic art. It was not absolutely extinguished even by the irruptions of the northern barbarians; but a bitter adversary had by this time risen to power. The whole authority of the Christian Church had, without usually caring to distinguish between the nobler and the looser elements in the drama, involved all its manifestations in a consistent condemnation (as in Tertullian’s De spectaculis, 200 c.), comprehended them all in an uncompromising anathema. When the faith of that Church was acknowledged as the religion of the Roman empire, the doom of the theatre was sealed. It died hard, however, both in the capitals and in many of the provincial centres of the East and West alike. At Rome the last mention of spectacula as still in existence seems to date from the sway of the East-Goths under Theodoric and his successor, in the earlier half of the 6th century. In the capital and the provinces of the Eastern empire the decline and fall of the stage cannot be similarly traced; but its end is authoritatively assigned to the period of Saracen invasions which began with the Omayyad dynasty in the 7th century.

It cannot be pretended that the doom which thus slowly and gradually overtook the Roman theatre was undeserved. The remnants of the literary drama had long been overshadowed by entertainments such as both earlier and later Roman emperors–Domitian and Trajan as well as Galerius and Constantine–had found themselves constrained to prohibit in the interests of public morality and order, by the bloody spectacles of the amphitheatre and by the maddening excitement of the circus. The art of acting had sunk into pandering to the lewd or frivolous itch of eye and ear; its professors had, in the words of a most judicious modern historian, become “a danger to the peace of house-holders, as well as to the peace of the streets”; and the theatre had contributed its utmost to the demoralization of a world. The attitude taken up by the Christian Church towards the stage was in general as unavoidable as its particular expressions were at times heated by fanaticism or distorted by ignorance. Had she not visited with her condemnation a wilderness of decay, she could not herself have become–what she little dreamt of becoming–the nursing mother of the new birth of an art which seemed incapable of regeneration.

Though already in the 4th century scenici had been excluded from the benefit of Christian sacraments, and excommunication had been extended to those who visited the theatres instead of churches on Sundays and holidays, while the clergy were absolutely prohibited from entering a theatre, and though similar enactments had followed at later dates–yet the entertainments of the condemned profession had never been entirely suppressed, and had even occasionally received imperial patronage. The legislation on the subject in the Codex Theodosianus (accepted by both empires in the earlier part of the 5th century) shows a measure of tolerance indicating a conviction that the theatrical profession could not be suppressed. Gradually, however, as they lost all footing in the centres of civic life, the mimes and their fellows became a wandering fraternity, who doubtless appeared at festivals when their services were required, and vanished again into the depths of obscurity which has ever covered that mysterious existence–the stroller’s life. It was thus that these strange intermediaries of civilization carried down such traditions as survived of the acting drama of pagan antiquity into the succeeding ages.

Adapted from theatredatabase.

Review

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This was an article on Theater.

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Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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24 Comments


  1. tough passage. shifts from the point of view of the theater being decayed and if it wasnt for the decay it wouldnt be where it was. also talks about the views of the theaters from different perspectives.

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    1. I am sure this kind of mental gymnastics needed for some of these passages will train us well for the harder passages on test day.

      Reply

  2. theater decreased, Church against theater

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  3. Discuss decline of Roman drama and theater b/c moral decline and Church

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  4. End of Roman drama b/c decreased morality + order

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  5. Does any one have advice on how to read through difficult passages such as these? I typically have problems getting through all the new/tough words and comprehending what I am reading.

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    1. Same! I felt as if the first couple of paragraphs didn’t dwelve upon a lot of important detail and that the ending paragraphs finally made the whole article make sense.

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  6. This passage was hard to understand, because it talked about how Roman art has decrease throughout time and how theater visits were seen bad. However the main point is that it provides how the perspectives of the Roman art point of view.

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  7. Decay of Roman theatre, Church against theatre.

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  8. Roman drama decline = changing tastes + Christian Church

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  9. MI: the end of roman drama = foreshadowed
    MI2: the decline of roman drama = deserved

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  10. MIP: fall of theater was foreshadowed/unavoidable + largely due to church; tone = – towards theater

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  11. MIP: 1) Roman drama is not underserved or suppressed; 2) Church is responsible for apparent decline
    Tone: neutral

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  12. MIP : Roman drama : killed by church + immorality + other forms of entertainment

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  13. Classical drama came to a deserved end in Rome but still survived scarcely through the future generations

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  14. church did not approve of theatre but performances still lingered until another time

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  15. Despite having undergone many oppression(mainly from churches and other external forces) due to its perceived nature of “moral decay and depravity” by churches and some Emperors, Roman threatre did not completely banish,
    but rather survived as acting drama as its trend can still be seen from pagan antiquities.

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  16. MIP: Theater = moral decay , Church oppose theater, Tone = neutral

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  17. MIP: Theater decline = Foreshadowed , Church suppressed theater but not completely , Tone = Neutral

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  18. Christian church =/ support theater, some success then declined

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  19. MIP
    Theater (dramatic art) decline + Christian church against it

    Tone
    Neutral

    Reply

  20. Death of theatre due to increase in church significance

    Reply

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