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Western Theatre History

Greek Theatre
Main article: Theatre of Ancient Greece
The earliest days of western theatre remain obscure, but the oldest surviving plays
come from ancient Greece. Most philologists agree that Greek theatre evolved from
staged religious choral performances, durring celebrations to Dyonysus the Greek
God of wine and exctacy. The first shows in these celabrations involved two men
having a conversation that told the myth of Dyonysus. There are, however, findings
suggesting the possible existence of theatre-like performances much earlier, such as
the famous "Blind Steps" of the Minoan Palace at Knossos: a broad stone stairway
descending to a flat stone courtyard that leads nowhere - an arrangement strongly
suggesting that the courtyard was used for a staged spectacle and the stairway was
in fact used as seating.
Roughly one tenth of Ancient Greek theatrical texts have survived intact.
• Aeschylus
• Sophocles
• Euripides
• Aristophanes
The above-mentioned playwrights made some of the most renowned Greek plays, but
their staging had little or nothing to do with twentieth-century theatre. Their dramas
were always part of a series of four performances (a "tetralogy"): the first, second
and third plays were a dramatic trilogy of related events staged in temporal order,
and the culminating fourth performance was a satyr play, a play on a lighter note,
with enhanced celebratory and dance elements. Obviously, performances lasted
several hours and were held during daytime.
The dramas rarely had more than three actors (all male), who played the different
roles using masks. There was a chorus on the stage all the time which sang songs
and sometimes spoke in unison. As far as we know, each drama was played just a
single time, at the traditional drama contest. Such contests were always held in the
context of major religious festivals, most notably those in honor of the god Dionysus,
and competed for an honorific prize (such as a tripod and a sum of money) awarded
by a panel of judges - usually these were the sacerdotal and civil officers presiding
over the particular religious festival. The prize was awarded jointly to the producer,
who had financed the staging, and the poet, who was at the same time the author,
composer, choreographer and director of the plays.
The actors wore large masks, which were very colourful. These masks depicted two
things: the age of the character, and their mood. They also amplified sound in the
same way that cupping your hands over your mouth does. Actors also wore thick,
padded clothing, and shoes with thick soles. This made them seem larger, so the
audience could see them better when seated in the uppermost rows of the
The importance of ancient Greek theatre came largely in retrospect, as major
playwrights like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe tried to recreate classical theatre
unsuccessfully. Another school attempting to revive classical theatre argued that
Greek actors did not speak, but sang. From this school came the opera.
Roman Theatre
Main Article: Theatre of ancient Rome
The theatre of ancient Rome was heavily influenced by the Greek tradition, and as
with many other literary genres Roman dramatists tended to adapt and translate
from the Greek. For example, Seneca's Phaedra was based on that of Euripides, and
many of the comedies of Plautus were direct translations of works by Menander.
When comparing and contrasting ancient Roman theatre to that of Greek theatre it
can easily be said that Roman theatre was less influenced by religion. Also, Roman
theatre was more for aesthetic appeal. In Roman theatre war was a more common
thing to appear on stage as opposed to the Greek theatre where wars were more
commonly spoken about in Greek plays. This was no doubt a reflection of Roman
culture and habits.
The audience was often loud and rude, rarely applauding the actors, but always
shouting insults and booing. Because the audience was so loud, much of the plays
were mimed and repetitive. The actors developed a kind of code that would tell the
audience about the characters just by looking at them.
• A black wig meant the character was a young man.
• A gray wig meant the character was an old man.
• A red wig meant the character was a slave.
• A white robe meant the character was an old man.
• A purple robe meant the character was a young man.
• A yellow robe meant the character was a woman. (Needed in early Roman
theatre, as originally female characters were played by men, however as the
Roman theatre progressed, women slaves took the roles of women in plays.)
• A yellow tassel meant the character was a god.
Plays lasted for two hours, and were usually comedies. Most comedies involved
mistaken identity (such as gods disguised as humans).
Medieval European Theatre
Main article: Medieval theatre
In the Middle Ages, after the fall of Roman civilization, cities were abandoned,
southern and western Europe became increasingly more agricultural. After several
hundred years, towns re-emerged. The Roman Catholic church dominated religion,
education and often politics. What remained of the theatre was based on the Greek
and Roman performing arts: mimes, minstrels and traveling jugglers.
Theatre was reborn as liturgical dramas, written in Latin and dealing with Bible
stories and performed by priests or church members. Then came vernacular drama
spoken in the vulgate (i.e the language of the people as opposed to Church Latin);
this was a more elaborate series of one-act dramas enacted in town squares or other
parts of the city. There were three types of vernacular dramas. Mystery or cycle plays
were short dramas based on the Old and New Testaments organized into historical
cycles. Miracle plays dealt with the lives of saints. Morality plays taught a lesson
through allegorical characters representing virtues or faults. Secular plays in this
period existed, but medieval religious drama is most remembered today.
Plays were set up in individual scenic units called mansions or in wagon stages which
were platforms mounted on wheels used to move scenery. Often providing their own
costumes, amateur performers in England were only men, but other countries had
female performers. The platform stage allowed for abrupt changes in location which
was an unidentified space and not a specific locale.
Among the more notable religious plays were "The Summoning of Everyman" (an
allegory designed to teach the faithful that acts of Christian charity are necessary for
entry into heaven), passion plays (such as the Oberammergau Passion Play, which is
still performed every ten years), and the great cycle plays (massive, festive wagon-
mounted processions involving hundreds of actors, and drawing pilgrims, tourists,
and entrepreneurs) York Corpus Christi Play Simulator. The morality play and mystery
play (as they are known in English) were two distinct genres.
Since many of the more theatrically successful medieval religious plays were
designed to teach Catholic doctrine, the Protestant Reformation targeted the theatre,
especially in England, in an effort to stamp out allegiance to Rome. [1]
Whereas most churches carefully watched over the scripts of their dogmatic plays, in
order to ensure that the faithful were being taught the accepted doctrine, by the end
of the 1500s Queen Elizabeth was controlling the stage just as effectively through a
system of patronage, licensing, and censorship. Hamlet's reference to a frenetic
performance that "out-Herods Herod" refers to the tradition of presenting King Herod
as a bombastic figure, suggesting that Shakespeare expected his audience to be
familiar with this particular medieval tradition, long after the religious landscape in
England had changed.
Puritan opposition to the stage -- informed by the arguments of the early Church
Fathers who had written screeds against the decadent and violent entertainments of
the Romans -- argued not only that the stage in general was pagan, but that any play
that represented a religious figure was inherently idolatrous. In 1642, the Protestant
authorities banned the performance of all plays within the city limits of London. A
sweeping assault against the alleged immoralities of the theatre crushed whatever
remained in England of the Medieval dramatic tradition.
Commedia dell'Arte
Main article: Commedia dell'Arte
Commedia dell'Arte troupes performed lively improvisational playlets across Europe
for centuries. It originated in Italy in the 1560s, and differed from conventional
theatre in that it was neither professional nor open to the public. Commedia dell'Arte
required only actors at its heart, no scene and very few props were considered
absolutely essential. Plays did not originate from scripts but scenarios, which were
loose frameworks of productions providing only the situations, complications, and
outcome of the work. The actors improvised most dialogue and comedic
muffins(called lazzi). The plays were based around a few stock characters, which
could be divided into three groups: the lovers, masters, and servants. The lovers had
different names and characteristics in most plays and often were the children of the
master's character. The role of master was normally based on one of three
stereotypes: Pantalone, an eldery Venetian merchant who wore his pajamas most
often; Dottore, Pantalone's friend or rival, a doctor or lawyer who acted far more
intelligent than he really was; and Capitano, who was once a lover's character, but
evolved into a man who bragged about his exploits in love and war, but was often
terrifically unskilled in both. He normally carried a sword and wore a cape and
feathered headdress. The servant character type (called zanni) had only one
recurring role: Arlecchino (also called Harlequin). He was both cunning and ignorant,
but an accomplished dancer. He typically carried a wooden stick with a split in the
middle so it made a loud noise when striking something. This "weapon" gave us the
term "slapstick." A Commedia troupe typically consisted of 13 to 14 members, a few
of which were women. Most actors were paid by taking a share of the play's profits
roughly equivalent to the size of their role. Commedia was in its peak from 1575-
1650, but even after that time new scenarios were written and performed. Carlo
Goldoni wrote a few commedia scenarios starting in 1734, but since he considered
the genre too vulgar, he refined the topics of his own to be more sophisticated. He
also wrote several true plays starring Commedia characters. By 1775, however, the
genre of Commedia dell'Arte had lost public interest and died out. Improvisation
today is very close to the Commedia.

Spanish Golden Age Laws on Female Actors In Spain theatre thrived during its
Golden Age, a period from about 1550 to 1700. Three types of drama were popular:
the religious one acts called autos sacramentales, the secular full- length comedias
nuevas, and also the musical zarzuelas (Wilson 211-21). The writers of the comedias
nuevas frequently called for female characters to cross-dress as men. In Spain
women were first allowed to act in religious plays and later became present in
secular performances (Wilson 221). Prior to this men and boys played women
onstage. The Catholic Church at the time was against theatre and especially the
presence of female performers (Wilson 221). They believed female actors were
prostitutes (Shergold 523). The Spanish government passed many laws concerning
gender and theatrical performance. In 1587 a law was enacted that made it legal for
women to act while simultaneously making it illegal for boys to play women, many
attempts to legislate the stage followed this (Heise 385). In 1596 female actors were
banned again and shortly after in 1598 the theatres were shut down only to be
brought back in 1599, along with women being allowed back onstage (Heise 358). In
1600 the Council of Castile created a document of recommendations to the King that
stated women could be onstage, but again boys could not play women, nor could
they wear make-up. It was also stipulated that all female actors must be married and
have their husband or father with them at the theatre (Heise 359). In the years
following 1600 ordinances were put forth which regulated the types of dancing
women were allowed to do onstage as well as how they were to dress (Shergold 519).
In 1653 a law said that when the script required women to cross-dress, they could
only do it on the upper half of their body (Shergold 520).
References: Heise K, Ursula. “Transvestism and the Stage Controversy in Spain and
England, 1580- 1680.” Theatre Journal 44.3 (1992): 357-74. Shergold, N.D. A History
of the Spanish Stage: From Medieval Times Until the End of the Seventeenth Century.
Oxford: Oxford UP, 1967. Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre: A History.
Boston: McGraw Hill, 2000.
Neoclassical Theatre
Further information: Neoclassicism
Neoclassicism was the dominant form of theatre in the eighteenth century. It
demanded decorum and rigorous adherence to the classical unities. Neoclassical
theatre as well as the time period is characterized by its grandiosity. The costumes
and scenery were intricate and elaborate. The acting is characterized by large
gestures and melodrama. Theatres of the early 18th century – sexual farces of the
Restoration were superseded by politically satirical comedies, 1737 Parliament
passed the Stage Licensing Act which introduced state censorship of public
performances and limited the number of theatres in London to just two.
Late Modern Theatre
Main article: Twentieth century theatre
Late Modern, especially twentieth century theatre often continues the project of
realism but there has also been a great deal of experimental theatre that rejects the
conventions of realism and earlier forms. Epic theatre, absurdist theatre and
postmodern theatre are examples. Key figures from the century include Bertolt
Brecht, Antonin Artaud, Konstantin Stanislavski, Harold Pinter, Steven Berkoff,
Eugene O'Neill, Samuel Beckett, and Tony Kushner.

Category:Performing arts
The performing arts classically include theatre/drama, music, and dance. Less
classically, stand-up comedy, oratory, debate, etc., are also performing arts; and the
term also includes all of the various forms, subforms, elements, and variations of the
foregoing, such as opera, oral intepretation, marching band, and so on.
Film/cinema, television and radio, as media of performance communication, may also
be classified as performing arts, though film and television are obviously also visual
arts. Dance is also a visual art as well as a performing art, and there is a visual
aspect to most theatre performance (i.e., scenery, costumes, etc.).
An artist who practices one or more performing arts is called a "performer". Common
occupational titles include actor, comedian, singer, dancer, musician, orator, and so
on. Oration may be considered a lost art, at least for the present, with such great
speakers as Winston Churchill ("We shall fight them on the beaches; we shall fight
them on the landing ground ... we shall never surrender!") effectively relegated to
increasingly distant history, the art of oratory having been replaced by the sting of
the soundbite.
5.1 Dramatic literature
The term dramatic literature implies a contradiction in that "literature" originally
meant something written and "drama" meant something performed. Most of the
problems, and much of the interest, in the study of dramatic literature stem from this
contradiction. Even though a play may be appreciated solely for its qualities as
writing, greater rewards probably accrue to those who remain alert to the volatility of
the play as a whole. (see also theatrical production)
dra·ma (dräm, drm) KEY NOUN: A prose or verse composition, especially one
telling a serious story, that is intended for representation by actors impersonating the
characters and performing the dialogue and action.
A serious narrative work or program for television, radio, or the cinema.
Theatrical plays of a particular kind or period: Elizabethan drama.
The art or practice of writing or producing dramatic works.
A situation or succession of events in real life having the dramatic progression or
emotional effect characteristic of a play: the drama of the prisoner's escape and
The quality or condition of being dramatic: a summit meeting full of drama.

Late Latin drma , drmat-, from Greek, from drn, to do, perform

the·a·ter or the·a·tre (th-tr) KEY


A building, room, or outdoor structure for the presentation of plays, films, or other
dramatic performances.
A room with tiers of seats used for lectures or demonstrations: an operating theater
at a medical school.

Dramatic literature or its performance; drama: the theater of Shakespeare and

The milieu of actors and playwrights.

The quality or effectiveness of a theatrical production: good theater; awful theater.

Dramatic material or the use of such material: "His summation was a great piece of
courtroom theater" (Ron Rosenbaum).
The audience assembled for a dramatic performance.
A place that is the setting for dramatic events.
A large geographic area in which military operations are coordinated: the European
theater during World War II.

Middle English theatre, from Old French, from Latin thetrum, from Greek thetron, from
thesthai, to watch, from the, a viewing

Theories about the development of the theater in the West generally begin with
Greek drama; this is etymologically appropriate as well as historically correct, since
the words theory and theater are related through their Greek sources. The Greek
ancestor of theater is thetron, "a place for seeing, especially for dramatic
representation, theater." Thetron is derived from the verb thesthai, "to gaze at,
contemplate, view as spectators, especially in the theater," from the, "a viewing."
The Greek ancestor of theory is theri, which meant among other things "the sending
of theroi (state ambassadors sent to consult oracles or attend games)," "the act of
being a spectator at the theater or games," "viewing," "contemplation by the mind,"
and "theory or speculation." The source of theri is theros, "an envoy sent to consult
an oracle, spectator," a compound of the, "viewing," and -oros, "seeing." It is thus
fitting to elaborate theories about culture while seeing a play in a theater.