In the introduction to his book Rethinking Folk Drama, Steve Tillis writes, “given the nearly universal impulse toward drama, it might well be that folk drama can teach us something not only about particular cultures, but about humanity at large.” Tillis’s provocative comment certainly suggests the potential for studies of folk drama to mount a challenge to the humanities, but while the impulse towards drama may well be universal, scholarly ideas about and approaches to folk drama are not.
The term “folk drama” is used by scholars in various disciplines to encompass different ideas, applied to a broad range of performance traditions. As a term, it easily imposes frameworks of interpretation that are not necessarily grounded in local understandings. When used in non-western contexts, for example, the term imposes western understandings of drama on traditions that may be more profitably understood as something else, such as worship, sacred retellings, or a visitation by deity, thus drawing disparate performance traditions into the same interpretive sphere.
Additionally, definitions and understandings of what actually constitutes folk drama have changed over time and this understanding is contingent upon a variety of factors that, themselves, have evolved. Folk drama therefore has been applied to a wide range of traditions that may or may not be related, making it difficult to define; thus, universal conclusions are unlikely.
Even the notion of folk drama itself is contested by some, with its detractors arguing that there really is no such thing as “folk drama” but only dramatic actions, techniques, and devices that are used by different people in different contexts for different purposes. Such a position would argue that having liberated itself from solely examining the texts of plays with Old World antecedents, the study of folk drama is now free to examine a variety of enactments and dimensions of analysis previously excluded from its purview. Those arguing against the use of the “folk drama” title believe its use limits the breadth of the field of study.
And yet, few deny the value that folk drama provides as a window into particular cultures and subcultures. As vernacular cultural performance intrinsically tied to immediate social, political, and cultural contexts, folk drama offers insights into and transformations of society unavailable in other expressive forms. Folk drama temporarily invokes an alternate world in order to speak about and comment on the real one in aesthetically heightened ways, providing participants with alternate means of viewing and understanding both society and themselves. In doing so folk drama does not merely comment on the world but rather, in its own small way, transforms it.
While the United States does not have a large repertoire of “traditional” folk dramas with Old World antecedents, there is a plethora of contemporary dramatic productions that remain relatively unexamined that are ripe for analysis. Many of these can be found in the digital sphere. YouTube alone is full of plays, parodies, sketches, and burlesques. Although such content would not traditionally be considered folk drama, a deeper analysis calls these traditional notions into question.
In researching medical humor, for example, I have found extensive video productions made by physicians singing about, dancing to, and acting out parodies of their work environments that speak directly to important issues of bureaucratization and power imbalances that characterize the modern, technological workplace. While such videos would not meet the traditional requirements of what constitutes folk drama, they clearly offer the student of folklore a great deal to study in terms of their sociological, political, and economic significance. These contemporary productions provide a cogent example as to why folk scholars must re-imagine what constitutes folk drama.
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