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Will Forster



Essay on Theatre

Theatre’s Development as an Art Form

The theatre is an institution as old as any civilization. A global tradition that has spanned

thousands of years throughout the history of mankind. Spanning from Asia to South America

theatre has been used as an artistic form of cultural expression. This form of cultural expression

that has provided commentary on the human condition, politics, and religion. By providing

critical analysis and entertainment to millions of people theatre is one of mankind’s oldest

traditions. A tradition that has helped societies grow and develop. One of the earliest known

forms of theatre is in the ancient Greek civilization where the drama was first developed and

perfected. It is also where the word ‘theatre’ was first defined. In Greece theatre evolved from an

entertainment form of art to a part of society that gave an introspective view on the philosophy

into their own society. Later in history, Shakespeare wrote some of the greatest plays ever in

early modern England. Plays such as Julius Ceasar, King Lear, and Hamlet are still being

performed over several hundred years after they were first created. Shakespeare changed the face

of theatre forever. Revolutionizing the way we see theatre today. Today most of the world’s best

plays can be seen in America. Broadway has established itself as the epicenter for theatre. Over

the past hundred years, it has become a billion-dollar industry. Over the years the theatre has

evolved to become unrecognizable to the first performances through creativity and has become a
staple in human society. The theatre has changed the lives of millions. Its development over the

years has gone on to exemplify the human spirit to express and innovate not only through the

performances given but through its technical evolution as well.

Theatre began in ancient Greece around five hundred BC as a part of the festival for

Dionysus, the Greek god of theatre and wine. The two types of plays that were most popular

were the comedy and tragedy. In a comedy up to twenty-four actors, called a chorus, would

perform. The types of comedy performed were a mix of slapstick, prop comedy and satire. A

tragedy was much more philosophical. Usually basing itself upon the morality of right and

wrong, sometimes ending in a tragic no-win situation for the protagonist. Aristotle summarized it

best when he said: Aristotle summed it up like this: “Tragedy, then, is the representation of an

action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude . . . it represents men in action . . .

and through pity and fear, it affects relief to these and similar emotions”. Tragedies gave the

audience something to sympathize with while a comedy was more focused on entertainment.

Plays such as Oedipus written by Sophocles are still regarded as fantastic tragedies and still

performed. In the play, King Laius is told by the oracles that he is doomed to perish by the hands

of his own son. Shocked, he banishes his son out into the country. But eventually, he becomes

paranoid and roams the street only to meet Oedipus, only they do not know each other’s

identities. After a fight, Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother. The play ends when

Oedipus learns what he did, ultimately being presented with a no-win situation. Plays like these

revolutionized the way a play was written by opening up new genres of plays to be based on.

Playwrights such as Sophocles and Aristophanes were celebrities in their time and built the

foundation for future playwrights to innovate. They popularized plays as introspective and
commentaries on society. Not only did they develop the way plays are written but performed as

well. Thespis, a tragedy writer himself, was the one of the first to use masks in his plays. Not

only did they allow the audience to clearly seen the emotions of the actor in a given scene, but

they also gave resonance to their voice so that it could be heard throughout the amphitheater.

Props like these revolutionized how playwrights could convey their scripts to the audience. Like

masks, the amphitheater itself was another innovation by Greek theatre. The stage in an

amphitheater is somewhat thrust beneath the audience in a half circle usually set at the bottom of

a hill. Sometimes a raked stage was used in order to give a forced perspective to the audience.

But the main feature of the amphitheater was its acoustic ability. Its architecture allows sound to

travel around a half circle that the stage is set beneath. This way someone in the nosebleeds

could still see and hear what was happening in the play. Through innovation, the Greek’s opened

up plays to the mass public and overall improved their society by exposing its population to

some of the best theater in the world.

Shakespeare’s plays propelled theatre into what we now recognize as modern theater. He was

a poet, playwright, actor, and producer who created seventeen comedies and twelve tragedies. He

pioneered the genre of tragicomedies, which combined tragedies and comedies. By combining

these two he opened the audience to a new range of emotions, where the audience could both

laugh and cry in the same play. For instance, in the play, Othello demonstrates these qualities. In

it, the main character Iago tries to win the love Desdemona a woman married to his superior

Othello. He manipulates Othello into fighting his friend Cassio by convincing him that Cassio is

having an affair. Enraged Othello fights Cassio and kills Desdemona. Killing both Cassio’s wife

and Cassi Iago is sentenced to death when his plan is figured out. In one of the final scenes,
Othello kills himself in shame. Although this is a grim story Shakespeare uses wordplay and

occasional quirky moments to add in comedy and lighten the mood. Furthermore, he even built

his own playhouse for his plays in London called the Globe Theatre. Much like his

tragicomedies, the Globe Theatre was one of the first in its kind. Playhouses although not

entirely new to English society, was one of the first ever built in London. It creatively

revolutionized the way plays were performed and a new experience was created for audience

members. Merchandise and concessions were sold in the front of the house making a play

profitable. Paving the way for future playwrights and actors to pursue feasible careers and further

enhance the art form itself. Another way the Globe Theatre innovated theatre was through its

architecture. It was the first playhouse to have a rectangular stage often called an apron stage,

thrust into an almost three hundred and sixty-degree environment where audience members

could view the play from ground level to the third story seating. This tiered seating gave

commoners space to enjoy the play as well. Breaking up a socioeconomic event usually meant

for the wealthy. By allowing everyone to see his plays Shakespeare only further popularized the

art form. Now everyone had a common interest in theatre bringing society closer through

polarizing performances. Also, since the Globe’s sole purpose was to host plays many

innovations were added to create a more seamless performance. Trap doors were added and the

pillars in front of the stage holding the roof over it could be redecorated to give it an almost a

windowed feel like a proscenium stage. Shakespeare and the Globe theatre set the standard for

the modern theatre as we know it. To categorize Shakespeare just as a playwright or actor would

be overlooking his huge contribution to the art form of theatre as a whole.

Since Shakespeare, the modern theater has gone on to become almost unrecognizable to what

it was during his time. Although they are similar, many aspects of the performance are much

different. By commercializing the popularity of theatre many more resources opened up as

technology developed. The hub of all this innovation is on Broadway in New York. Innovators

such as Norman Bel Geddes helped create what we now consider the modern stage. Norman was

the first to implement and successfully use overhead lights. He positioned them in such a way so

that the actor was being lit from a forty-five-degree angle by two lights so that the actor,

“produced modeling in facial features, and life to the eyes, which neither border nor footlights

could achieve. They were equally favorable for the figures and clothing of the players and,

owing to the concentrated beam, did not strike the scenery” (Norman). Although this is referred

to as the McCandless Theory of Lighting Norman was the first to use it. He successfully used top

lights, backlights, and sidelights to further enhance the sets for the plays, further enhancing the

audience’s experience. Innovations like these are still used today, even in the Magnuson Theatre.

Broadway not only innovated the stage for the theatre but the setting it could be placed in. Today

there are officially forty theatres on Broadway but there are much more off-Broadway that still

produces great plays. Sometimes resembling found spaces these theatres can be in a warehouse,

office, or in a factory. These off-Broadway productions allow plays give playwrights freedom to

create plays on issues that the more established theatres won’t. Most notably Rent the musical

written by Jonathan Larson was performed off-Broadway and focused on the issues of the harsh

reality for young artists and HIV/Aids in the nineties. During its off-Broadway performances, it

sold out every show with a hundred- and fifty-people capacity. Eventually, it worked its way to

Broadway and won a Tony for Best Musical along with many others. This type of creativity and
innovation is only possible on Broadway. It gave the audience an honest perspective on poverty

and disease during a time when these issues were not being talked about. This freedom allows

the theatre to again develop as an art form to better portray humanity in life. It has even brought

it to Central Park where The Public Theatre puts on a free production of Shakespeare’s Romeo

and Juliet. This only further exposes the theatre and increases its popularity. Today many young

actors can hone their craft at almost any level. The modern theatre has brought musicals and

plays to elementary, middle and high schools. Giving almost anyone the opportunity to be an

actor. Through this, the definition of an actor has broadened, and overall theatre has benefited.

Throughout history, civilizations have come and gone but the art form of theatre has stayed

present. That alone should stand as a testament to the fact that theatre is not just an art form but a

way of life. It has meant so much to so many. The term theatre can be defined as someone acting

to an audience. Although this may seem like a very broad definition it has come to be truer as

time progresses. Over time the theatre has helped benefit the audience or even society by

innovating and projecting its messages to the public. In a way, the theatre has demonstrated its

direct effect on society by entertaining millions. By focusing on issues such as seating and

projection the theatre has had an even more pronounced effect on the audience. Plays and

musicals such as Rent or Julius Ceasar wouldn’t invoke the same emotions from audiences if

they were quiet, dimly lit, or poorly acted. The themes of these productions would not stick with

audience members in their daily lives. A theatre can be on main Broadway or in your house. It

can be whatever you want it to be. These innovations by Shakespeare, Thespis, and Norman have

not only enhanced the theatre experience. In the same way that these innovations enhanced

theatre, it has popularized it even more. By creating such a large population of people who enjoy
theatre and giving them guidelines to succeed it has created room for even more creativity and

expression. Plays like Rent and new actors will now always have a place to work and develop

themselves ultimately making the theatre better by fully allowing human expression and

creativity flourish.