A prologue or prolog from Greek prologos, from pro, "before" and logos, "word" is an opening to a story that establishes the context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one, and other miscellaneous information. The Ancient Greek prólogos included the modern meaning of prologue, but was of wider significance, more like the meaning of preface. The importance, therefore, of the prologue in Greek drama was very great; it sometimes almost took the place of a romance, to which, or to an episode in which, the play itself succeeded.
It is believed that the prologue in this form was practically the invention of Euripides, and with him, as has been said, it takes the place of an explanatory first act. This may help to modify the objection which criticism has often brought against the Greek prologue, as an impertinence, a useless growth prefixed to the play, and standing as a barrier between us and our enjoyment of it. The point precisely is that, to an Athenian audience, it was useful and pertinent, as supplying just what they needed to make the succeeding scenes intelligible. But it is difficult to accept the view that Euripides invented the plan of producing a god out of a machine to justify the action of deity upon man, because it is plain that he himself disliked this interference of the supernatural and did not believe in it. He seems, in such a typical prologue as that to the Hippolytus, to be accepting a conventional formula, and employing it, almost perversely, as a medium for his ironic rationalism.
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Many of the existing Greek prologues may be later in date than the plays they illustrate, or may contain large interpolations. On the Latin stage the prologue was often more elaborate than it was in Athens, and in the careful composition of the poems which Plautus prefixes to his plays we see what importance he gave to this portion of the entertainment; sometimes, as in the preface to the Rudens, Plautus rises to the height of his genius in his adroit and romantic prologues, usually placed in the mouths of persons who make no appearance in the play itself.
The tradition of the ancients vividly affected our own early dramatists. Not only were the mystery plays and miracles of the Middle Ages begun by a homily, but when the drama in its modern sense was inaugurated in the reign of Elizabeth, the prologue came with it, directly adapted from the practice of Euripides and Terence. Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, prepared a sort of prologue in dumb show for his Gorboduc of 1562; and he also wrote a famous Induction, which is, practically, a prologue, to a miscellany of short romantic epics by diverse hands.
Prologues of Renaissance drama often served a specific function of transition and clarification for the audience. A direct address made by one actor, the prologue acted as an appeal to the audience's attention and sympathy, providing historical context, a guide to themes of the play, and occasionally, a disclaimer . In this mode, a prologue, like any scripted performance, would exist as the text, the actor who speaks that text, and the presentation of the language as it is spoken. In ushering the audience from the reality into the world of the play, the prologue straddles boundaries between audience, actors, characters, playwrights--basically, it creates a distinction between the imaginary space within the play and the outside world.Ben Jonson has often been noted as using the prologue to remind the audience of the complexities between themselves and all aspects of the performance.
The actor reciting the prologue would appear dressed in black, a stark contrast to the elaborate costumes used during the play. The prologue removed his hat and wore no makeup. He may have carried a book, scroll, or a placard displaying the title of the play. He was introduced by three short trumpet calls, on the third of which he entered and took a position downstage. He made three bows in the current fashion of the court, and then addressed the audience. The Elizabethan prologue was unique in incorporating aspects of both classical and medieval traditions. In the classical tradition, the prologue conformed to one of four subgenres: the sustatikos, which recommends either the play or the poet; the epitimetikos, in which a curse is given against a rival, or thanks given to the audience; dramatikos, in which the plot of the play is explained; and mixtos, which contains all of these things. In the medieval tradition, expressions of morality and modesty are seen, as well as a meta-theatrical self-consciousness, and an unabashed awareness of the financial contract engaged upon by paid actors and playwrights, and a paying audience.
Prologues have long been used in non-dramatic fiction, since at least the time of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, although Chaucer had prologues to many of the tales, rather than one at the front of the book.
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