Use in theatre
Its more specific use in theatre dates from the Ancient Greek theatre, and developed various uses in the middle ages, Elizabethan period and later, when it refers to an introductory speech, often in verse, calling attention to the theme of a play or the circumstances of its creation, and in many cases lauding the company's patron. (The term can also refer to the performer who delivers such a preliminary oration.)
In 19th century performances it often contained remarks on the work and social commentary by the author, expressed through a character in a play, and spoken or sung as opening scene. This usage is often today referred to as an "Foreword" in a literary work.
In South Africa
The convention whereby a performer (or writer involved with the production) writes or adapts an ad hoc prologue or epilogue and reads it (or has it read) at the start or end of an evening's entertainment was apparently brought to South Africa by the amateur players attached to the British Garrison (see Garrison Players). In their case some of the prologues. and epilogues contained social commentary and light mockery, as well as praise for patrons and audiences. It soon became common practice, and in terms of theatre history, these texts are quite possibly some of the earliest examples of local (written) drama in South Africa, leading on to similar practices in local Dutch and Afrikaans theatre. Not many of such texts have been preserved of course, since they were in essence occasional pieces, though some programmes and reviews from the 19th century do contain excerpts from or examples of such Prologues and Epilogues.
On the 20th of June, 1807, the Garrison Players performed She Stoops to Conquer (Goldsmith) and Taste (Foote) in the Garrison Theatre, and for the occasion Mr Morgan, the manager of the production, read a prologue written for the occasion by Captain Frazer, who in turn sang a song he had written (in character as Lady "Pentweazle" in Taste ), while Captain Collins read an epilogue he had written. F.C.L. Bosman (1928: pp. 70-73) cites portions of these texts, and suggests that these pieces are perhaps the oldest extant remnants of local theatrical writing we have (though not, he emphasizes, the earliest piece of written text or performance text that we know of, since there are records mentioning earlier indigenous performances, prologues and even texts - e.g. Mrs Somers's prologue to a performance of Foote's Taste in 1800).
Bosman also cites an original Prologue written and performed by Captain Straton and an Epilogue sung by Dr M'Donnell on 14th and 16th August,1822, as accompaniment to the plays John Bull, or an Englishman's Fireside (Colman Jr) and High Life Below Stairs (Townley).
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