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The people in Star Trek: The Next Generation can spend their leisure time interacting with a holodeck, or with another of the many advanced entertainment devices that appear during the series, but for some reason in the sixth season episode "Frame of Mind," the crew of the Enterprise takes time out to stage a play. Then on the seventh season episode "Firstborn," Worf takes his son to the planet Maranga IV for a Klingon festival, where they watch street performers enact a Klingon opera. Why do they bother?

The play in "Frame of Mind" has a physical set. We know this because the episode ends with Commander Riker striking it after the performance. The set could've been constructed and destroyed more easily on the holodeck, but for some reason the crew chose a set that had to be physically assembled and torn down. Likewise, the Klingons could've more easily enacted the opera in a holodeck, and with much better special effects. When the holodeck offers so much more in terms of convenience and verisimilitude, why would these characters bother with live theater? Of course we could say that they do it because producers Berman and Braga thought it fit with the plot of the episode. In fact, the episode, ". . .originated from the barest of premises. . ." after another planned episode didn't come together, and the replacement story had to be written in a hurry[1]. The conceit of the play being performed by the Enterprise crew provided a convenient way to frame the Kafka-esque plot, given the limited time available to the writing team.

Therefore, a better question might be, why do the viewers stand for it? In a genre that is stereotyped for having fans that nitpick every detail and insist that every aspect of a show have internal consistency, why would viewers of Star Trek: The Next Generation be willing to accept live theater as part of an otherwise high tech setting? Maybe they can accept it because theater, and humanity's relationship to the theater, has long been part of science fiction literature. From the actor Pikes in Bradbury's classic story "Usher II" to the actor in John Alfred Taylor's recent story "Bare, Forked Animal," the high tech realm of virtual reality and space travel coexists with the relatively low tech realm of live theater. Movies, TV, and the internet have all had a role in displacing the entertainment technology that has come before them, but none have been able to wholly eradicate the live theater. People still go to see Broadway shows like The Lion King, community theaters still stage productions of Our Town, and new works are produced every year in professional and amateur theaters all over the world.

Live theater's resilience stems from the fact that theater is an essential part of shaping human culture. Theater can be used to remember a home culture from which an immigrant is severed. It can be used to establish a culture in a new home—sometimes by subsuming or overwhelming an indigenous culture—and it can be used to establish a new cultural identity when one region or group seeks to separate itself from another. This article will look at examples of theater in colonial North America and the Philippines after Spanish occupation to demonstrate the role theater can play in immigrant communities. It will then discuss how theater might develop in immigrant communities of the future as people settle other planets.

The first play written and performed in North America was Marc Lescarbot's The Theater of Neptune in 1606[2]. The play was performed in the outpost of Port Royal, on what is now called the Annapolis River in the province of Nova Scotia, to welcome the provincial founders Samuel de Champlain and Baron Jean de Biencourt Poutrincourt. The men of Port Royal were afraid that Champlain and Biencourt might not return before the winter and were not confident that they could survive the winter in the outpost alone. Lescarbot's play was a "morale-building distraction" for these men, who "might have turned mutinous" otherwise. The play kept the men occupied by focusing their minds on Champlain's return, leaving them with less time to contemplate the possibility that Champlain might never be seen again[3].

It is difficult to visualize the isolation these men must have felt, alone in a foreign wilderness with their leaders and their ship gone. The effort of memorizing Lescarbot's verses, and learning the accompanying music, must have provided not only a useful distraction but a cheerful reminder of the civilization the men had left behind in the Old World. Many writers believe that Lescarbot used the melody of the popular French folk song "La Petite Galiotte de France" for the four part song "Vray Neptune" used in the play[4]. This adaptation would make sense as a morale-boosting effort, because familiar music can serve to buoy a person's spirit in times of crisis. It's easy to find a parallel between these men of New France and Worf who, in the seventh season Deep Space Nine episode "Penumbra," sings Klingon opera while drifting alone in an escape pod.

When Champlain and Biencourt did finally return, they were greeted on the water by a man playing the role of Neptune, " . . . costumed in a blue cloak with trident in hand, seated on his 'chariot,' a barge pulled by six Tritons." Neptune and the Tritons heaped praise on King Henry IV and on his vision for New France before a second group of actors costumed as Micmac Indians approached the ship and offered their own words of praise for New France and the king. The first faux Indian to speak offered his hunting skills ". . .in service to the civil way of life exemplified by the French." Other faux Indians brought gifts of beaver pelts and porcupine quills[5].

It is worth noting that the play appropriates a number of words from the Micmac language. For instance, Neptune addresses the captain of the ship as "Sagamos," which is Micmac for "leader." The Micmac words for bread (caraconas) and friend (adesquidés) also appear in the text of the play. It's also worth noting that real Micmac Indians watched this performance, and were invited by Biencourt to join in the festivities after[6].

It is impossible to know what the Micmacs thought of the show, of the Europeans dressed to look like them, or of the European's pronunciation of Micmac words, but the convention of costuming Europeans—or people of European ancestry—as Native American characters continued well into the 20th century—as demonstrated by the cowboy movies of the 1940s and 1950s. Thus, at least one feature of the first play staged in North American is seen to persist on the continent for at least 400 years: unconscious, or perhaps semi-conscious, racism. Another, less discomfiting contribution to the culture of modern North America was the song "La Petite Galiotte de France," which continued to be sung in Canada in the 20th century[7].

Further south, one of the first plays performed in what would become the United States was The Bear and the Cub. It was performed in Virginia on August 27, 1665 and is remarkable because the performers were hauled into court on charges of indecency. The play itself has not survived, so we can't know what offended the person who brought the charges. But we do know that the actors, who were almost certainly amateurs, were ordered to appear before the judge in the costumes they had worn for the performance. After seeing the actors perform, the judge found them not guilty and ordered their accuser to pay their court costs[8].

This treatment of The Bear and the Cub shows an ambivalence toward the theater that was inherited from the Puritan English. Charles II had been restored to the throne of England only a few years before the incident. Prior to this, from 1642 through 1660, England was a Commonwealth, ruled by conservative Protestants lead by Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell's England did everything it could to ban and to eradicate theater, but he was not entirely successful as actors performed illegally wherever they could, including in private residences and tennis courts[9].

Oliver Cromwell

Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

Theater in the English colonies continued to develop until the 1730s when it entered a relatively fallow period, probably again because of the inherited Puritan aversion: this fallow period coincides with the arrival of the great Methodist preachers George Whitefield and John Wesley in the colonies[10]. By 1774, the rift between England and her colonies was growing and the First Continental Congress called for people to stop performing plays[11]. In most of the U.S. the official prohibition against theater remained in place until at least 1789—it lingered in Boston until 1793[12]. We can presume that the 1774 ban came about because the Congress judged that the people had more important things to do than watch idle entertainment. Both British and U.S. soldiers staged amateur performances during the Revolutionary War, but for the most part during this period professional theater officially vanished from the U.S.[13].

From the example of the English colonies we learn several things about the probable character of live theater in space. First, attitudes toward the theater will accompany settlers from their homeland. Just as Puritan opinions of the theater followed the English colonists to the New World, the founding culture's attitudes will follow colonists into space. Second, performers will find a way to keep performing, even in the face of poverty and legal sanction.

If we turn to science fiction for examples of performers who are willing to keep acting at any cost we find them in Harlan Ellison's classic story "Big Sam Was My Friend," collected in I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream. In the story, a group of people with psychic powers have joined together in a sort of traveling interplanetary circus. The performers are rootless, and thus powerless in the societies they visit. They are also hardworking, and dedicated to making the show go on—by the end of the story they are willing to sacrifice a person's life rather than lose a contract. While the actors in The Bear and the Cub did not face a decision nearly so dire, Ellison's story is illustrative of the nearly religious commitment with which some performers approach their work[14]. Performers in pre-Restoration England and in the colonies risked jail or fines, even when not performing for money. In any era and in any location, from the continent of Europe to the moon Europa, the show must go on.


"Big Sam Was My Friend" imagines a futuristic circus of performers.

Ray Bradbury provides us with an example of the founding culture's attitude toward theater spreading into space in his classic short story "Usher II," which is collected as part of The Martian Chronicles. Here, the U.S. has been dominated by a culture of censorship which demands that every person face abject reality. Stories of the supernatural get in the way of humanity's confrontation of that reality and are banned. The works of Frank L. Baum, Edgar Allen Poe, and many others are burned in the name of the public good. This attitude then spreads to the Martian colonies, where the Investigator of Moral Climates tells Stendahl, the protagonist, that he will soon have Mars " . . . as neat and tidy as Earth"[15].

In the story we meet Pikes, a film actor who specialized in horror, who is described as " . . . the greatest of them all! . . . Better than Lon Cheney . . . "[16]. He can't perform anymore because of the laws against unrealistic entertainment, and all of his films have been burned. Pikes not only refuses to obey the performance ban, he uses his skill in stagecraft to strike back at its enforcers. Working together, he and Stendahl create a murderous piece of interactive theater: a replica of the House of Usher. The house is intended to be seen as a piece of theater—at one point, Stendahl even tells one of his victims, "Let's make it a good show!" as he walls the man into a room in a reenactment of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"[17]. The story ends with a triumphant Pikes reciting Poe over the crumbling house in which the censors will be buried forever[18].

The actors of Cromwell's England could only have dreamt of such complete revenge.

We have seen how performance can provide comforting memories of home, and how the founding culture's attitude toward performance will influence life in that culture's colonies. But theater can also be used as a tool of colonial oppression, as a way to subsume an indigenous culture, or as a tool of revolution, to establish a new culture that is separate from the oppression of a colonial master. The story of theater in the Philippines since the arrival of the Spanish provides an example of both.

The Spanish first settled the Philippines in 1565[19] and the first play to be performed there was written thirty-three years later by Vincente Puche, a priest in the city of Cebu[20]. Before Puche's play, the Philippines had a variety of indigenous performance traditions, some of them related to rituals of curing or exorcism. Early plays sponsored by the Spanish colonists were meant to dominate and replace these demonstrations of pagan faith. The Spanish introduced a number of religious spectacles including the pasyon, which is " . . . a chanted narrative of the Passion sung during Lent . . . " as well as the panunuluyan, or Christmas pageant[21]. Spanish plays were used as recruitment tools for the Catholic Church, as in 1609 when a play about St. Barbara " . . . reportedly prompted many religious conversions in Bohol"[22].

Possibly the most famous of all religious drama introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish is the senakulo. The word senakulo is derived from the Spanish cenaculo, or "upper room" where Christ and his Apostles held the Last Supper[23]. The traditional senakulo features self-flagellation and crucifixion[24]. Because of this expression of extreme human behavior, the senakulo has gained notoriety outside of the Philippines. It appears on television in the West from time to time, usually in the context of a show featuring behavior that would be deemed bizarre by the viewer. These shows only touch the surface, however, as a traditional senakulo is performed over the course of eight nights[25] and consists of much more than just the reenactment of the Crucifixion. For instance in the province of Marinduque, actors in ornate wooden masks reenact the beheading of St. Longinus for his loyalty to Christ. The masks worn by the performers are works of art in themselves, and one mask can cost about 3000 Philippine pesos, or about $250 USD[26].

The fact that senakulo, pasyon, and panunuluyan can still be seen in the Philippines today is evidence of the success of Spanish cultural imperialism, but it can also be seen as evidence of the Filipino culture's ability to integrate elements of other cultures without being subsumed.


A senakulo.

The Spanish also introduced the zarzuela and komedya. The komedya is a form of musical theater that was originally popular between the 17th and 19th centuries. It is derived from the Spanish comedia and, in its traditional form, centers on Muslim-Christian conflict. A traditional komedya almost always ends with a princess and a prince getting married, and usually features clowns[27]. The zarzuela is a more recent introduction, which traces its roots to the Spanish actor Alejandro Cubero. Cubero popularized the zarzuela as an alternative to the komedya, and it found popularity with the educated classes as the zarzuela was generally seen as being more "realistic" and "modern" than komedya. Zarzuelas were performed in Spanish, not in one of the indigenous languages of the Philippines such as Tagalog, until the Spanish ceded the Philippines to the U.S. in 1898. Shortly thereafter, nationalistic playwrights began to adapt the introduced theater to their own ends and lashed out against their colonial overlords, as in the 1902 play Walang Sugat[28].

The U.S. also introduced a kind of theater to the Philippines, but with much less success than the Spanish enjoyed. American vaudeville, or bodabil as it is called in the Philippines, appeared around U.S. military bases in 1916 and flourished for a time. Eventually, it degenerated into a kind of "girlie show"[29].

From 1902 through 1906, the Philippines experienced an explosion of nationalistic plays, written in Tagalog. These plays were generally allegorical narratives meant to solidify resistance to American rule and establish a distinct national identity. It's worth mentioning that these Filipino plays were also ". . .[t]he first scripted spoken dramas in all of South East Asia"[30]. In essence, the Filipinos had adopted the tools that Spanish and American colonists had used to subsume their culture and were now using them in an attempt to break free of colonial occupation. While the Filipino Revolution of the early 20th century was not successful in expelling the Americans, it was successful in laying the foundation for eventual Filipino independence. The revolution was also an important step in breaking with the theatrical traditions of Spain and the U.S., to form an indigenous and distinct kind of performance. Modern Filipino theater is based on, but separate from, Spanish and American theater in much the same way that the theater of modern Canada or America is separate from English theater.

Even religious performance, which had been used in the 16th century as a tool for promoting Spanish religion, reappeared in the 1970s as a means of revolting against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who held the country in a perpetual state of martial law, as well as promoting Filipino nationalism. The Baybalan Theatre's version of a senakulo, for instance, features a Christ who " . . . takes up arms against his imperialist persecutors." At around the same time, Bonifacio Ilagan wrote a Mass entitled Pagsambang Bayan, which was performed as street theater and aimed to draw people not to the Catholic Church but to the people's struggle for freedom from dictatorship and violence[31]. In short, the Spanish, in their attempt to completely destroy Filipino culture, gave the Filipinos a tool to organize and foment revolt.

Parallels to the Spanish-Filipino conflict may be found as humanity expands out into space. In today's political climate, it may be difficult—or at least unpopular—to imagine that a culture from modern Earth would perpetuate an act of cultural genocide on par with the Spanish in the 16th century, but this is far from inconceivable. While we might like to believe that we as a species have moved beyond the sometimes brutal and heavy-handed tactics of the conquerors, one need look no further than the daily news reports of ethnic cleansing to understand that humankind is still capable of committing atrocities.

Given what we've seen so far in this limited overview of theater history, several other possible scenarios present themselves as we consider how theater will develop and evolve among early space colonists on worlds with no indigenous population.

It is certain that the first colonists will have some free time, and limited resources to devote to entertainment. Like the first European settlers of New France, they will probably suffer from feelings of isolation and from an understandable fear of dying in what will certainly be an inhospitable environment. Also, like the men of New France, the first space colonists will probably suffer from bouts of boredom. Cosmonauts and astronauts on the International Space Station combat boredom by playing games, telling jokes, and watching movies[32]. While we can expect that our early space colonists will resort to similar tactics they will have to be innovative as jokes run out, games get old, and movies get watched too many times. It's tempting to speculate that these early colonists will be able to download movies from a distant Earth, but barring some major innovation in data compression, a motion picture is going to be too large to comfortably fit on a slow data link to Mars. The colonists, therefore, will have to invent new pursuits to occupy their free time. The new pursuits will be influenced by the colonist's home cultures.

For instance, a colony established by a liberal society like the U.S. or Europe might try their hand at intersex Jell-O wrestling, as the isolated researchers at McMurdo Station in Antarctica did[33]. One could argue that the researchers at McMurdo are a sort of living laboratory for what will happen to humanity in the even more hostile environment of a new planet—in other words, it may be that the first performance art undertaken on another world will have much in common with a frat party.

A colony established by a more conservative or religious culture, on the other hand, might resort to religious pageants similar to those put on by the Spanish in the Philippines, or to simple skits like those performed by amateurs in the early British colonies. A colony with small children may develop educational skits or may resort to live reenactments of Star Wars before bedtime to keep the kids entertained, as the survivors do in the apocalyptic movie Reign of Fire.

Over time, if these colonial outposts continue to develop, these initial innovations will eventually become cultural icons for the developing colonial identity. We can expect that after the stress of settlement is past and the colony is established, the colonists will at first want to reconnect with their home culture. This will likely mean that their theater will closely mirror that of the culture from which they came, in the same was that early theater in the British colonies, where it was allowed, was similar to English theater of the time. This similarity will allow these colonists to feel, for a time, as though they remain a part of the culture or country from which they set out. Their original choices for entertainment, whether Star Wars or Jell-O wrestling, will fade into nostalgia. We can also expect that these plays will have to make use of whatever material is available in the colony.

Plays requiring a minimum of costumes, props and sets, such as Wilder's Our Town, will probably be popular in space for these reasons, just as they are now popular with high school drama teachers.

Over time and generations, this connection to the mother country will grow thin as the pressures of distance and environment cause the colonial culture to assert its own identity. At some point, the colonists will reach into their past for an art form that they can call their own. When they do, they'll probably latch onto some version of whatever it was that they did in the early days. For example, it is possible to imagine a live performance of Star Wars going on for days on Mars, much like a senakulo performance. It is also possible to imagine that the colonists could develop a kind of ritualized play based on Jell-O wrestling, if that was the kind of entertainment the original colonists first adopted to pass the time. This might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. After all, Greek theater probably originated with the bloody, orgiastic rites of Dionysus[34].

Having looked at a very small sampling of Earth's theater history we have seen how theater and performance evolve in a colonial setting and how theater persists even in hostile places where the physical environment or the law would discourage actors from performing. We can expect that the same basic pattern will be repeated as people start settling on other worlds. The culture that started with the simple skit The Bear And The Cub eventually produced American musical theater and David Mamet. In time, the colonists of Mars may one day produce a spectacle that would seem to us as foreign as the senakulo, or as elaborate as Oklahoma! The only certain thing is that wherever people go, their theater will come with them.


[1] Memory Alpha. Frame of Mind. 12 June 2009. 16 June 2009.

[2] Oscar G. Brocket History of the Theatre. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1991. Pg. 308.

[3] Felicia Londré and Daniel J. Watermeier The History of North American Theater: The United States, Canada, and Mexico: From Pre-Columbian Times to the Present . New York: Continuum, 2000. Pg. 76.

[4] "The Theatre of Neptune/Le Thé'tre de Neptune" Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, 2009. 16 June 2009.

[5] Londré, pg. 76.

[6] Ibid., pp. 76-77.

[7] The Committee on Historical Research. Church Music And Musical Life In Pennsylvania In The Eighteenth Century. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing LLC. Pg. 86.

[8]Gerald Bordman and Thomas S. Hischak. "Bear and the Cub, The."Oxford Companion to American Theatre. Also available online here.

[9] Brockett, pp. 279-280.

[10] Ibid., pg. 309.

[11] Ibid., pg. 310.

[12] Ibid., pp. 411-412.

[13] Ibid., pg. 310.

[14] Harlan Ellison. I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream New York: Pyramid, 1967. Pp. 43-61

[15] Ray Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles. New York: Bantam, 1988. Pg. 107.

[16] Ibid., pg. 110.

[17] Ibid., pg. 117.

[18] Ibid., pg. 118.

[19] Wikipedia. History of the Philippines. 23 June 2009. 23 June 2009.

[20] James R. Brandon. The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theater. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Pg. 215.

[21] Ibid., pp. 214-215.

[22] Ibid., pg. 216.

[23] Wikipedia. "Cenacle." 20 June 2009. 20 June 2009.

[24] Brandon, pg. 215.

[25] Wikipilipinas. "Senakulo" 23 June 2009. 23 June 2009.

[26] Twopenneth. "Pains and Colours of Holy Week". 19 April 2009. 16 June 2009.

[27] Brandon, pg. 218.

[28] Ibid., pp. 216-217.

[29] Ibid., pg. 217.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., pg. 219.

[32] Gina Sunseri. "Space Boredom Buster: Movies, Music, Jokes.". 26 October 2007. 23 June 2009.

[33] "Jell-O wrestling is a firing offense at the South Pole". 11 February 2009. 23 June 2009.

[34] Brocket, pg. 16.

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