Theatre History 101

An internet textbook by Scott R. Robinson and Kay Parisot with adaptations by Daren Blanck

Based on History of the Theatre by Oscar Brockett

Masai Tribal Ritual, Africa

A Masai tribal ritual

Chapter 1: Origins of Theatre

Little information about the origin of theatre has survived. The information we do have comes from wall paintings, decorations, artifacts, and hieroglyphics that show the importance of successful hunts, seasonal changes, life cycles, and stories of the gods. From these we see the necessity of passing along the experiences of the old to the young through art, storytelling, and dramatizing events. This practice gave the youth of a culture a guide and a plan for their own lives.  Most historians of theatre suggest that theatre emerged from this storytelling and ritual. 

Rituals may be informal - the simple repeated actions of individual or family life, or formal - repeated actions imbued with meaning prescribed by religion or civil authority.  

Early societies perceived connections between certain actions performed by the group or leaders in the group and the desired results.  For example, the actions of the rain dance result in rain.  The formulation of these rituals, and the consequent repetition and rehearsal, broke the ground for theatre.

Influencing and controlling events was often the intention of rituals such as ceremonies to guarantee a successful crop or to please the gods. Usually societies had rituals that glorified supernatural powers, victories, and heroes. Often supernatural forms would be represented using costumes and masks. Rituals that were practiced as duty to the gods, also brought entertainment and pleasure.  Through these rituals, leaders, or actors of sorts, emerged. These acting/leadership roles were often filled by elders and priests.

In addition, these rituals were often accompanied by myths. The myths enter the storytelling tradition, gaining a life beyond the original rites as they are performed for their own sake.

Finally, the beginnings of acting spaces or auditoriums developed as a result of more elaborate rituals and the need to hold and separate spectators and actor/leaders.

The earliest example of ceremony and ritual evolving towards theatre comes from ancient Egypt. "Pyramid texts" dating from 2800 to 2400 B.C., contain dramas sending the dead pharaoh off to the underworld. These dramas also the continuity of life and the pharaoh's power. There is also the Memphite Drama, recounting the story of the death and resurection of the god Osiris, and the coronation of his son Horus. The most important Egyptian ritual drama, though, was the Abydos passion play. Like the Memphite drama, the Abydos passion play concerns the story of Osiris. The paramont egyptian myth, this drama was enacted at the most sacred place in Egypt, Abydos- the burial site of Osiris. Performed annualy from 2500 to 550 B.C. and full of spectacle, this passion play is the first of its kind ever recorded and is the first example of "theatre".

Questions for Review:

1. How did ancient people pass along the experiences of the old to the young?

2. From what two sources does theatre emerge?

3. According to the reading, what is a ritual?

4. Who filled the acting/leadership roles that emerged through the practice of ritual?

5. What was the most important Egyptian ritual drama?  What god does it tell the story of?

Egyptian mural featuring Osiris with green face seated beneath a canopy.

Osiris Weighing the Feather


Theatre of Delphi, Greece

Chapter 2: Theatre and Drama in Ancient Greece

The Greeks' theatre history began around 700 B.C. with festivals honoring their many gods. One god, Dionysus, was honored with an unusual festival called the Dionysia. The revelry-filled festival was led by drunken men dressed up in rough goat skins (because goats were thought sexually potent) who would sing and play in choruses to welcome Dionysus. at the "Great" or "City" Dionysia in Athens, tribes competed against one another in performances, and the best show would have the honor of winning the contest.  Of the four festivals in Athens (each reflecting seasonal changes), plays were only presented at one festival--the City Dionysia. Historians believe that the Greeks patterned their celebrations after the traditional Egyptian pageants honoring Osiris.

At the early Greek festivals, the actors, directors, and dramatists were all the same person. The cast consisted of one or more actors and a chorus of many.  Later, only three individual actors were allowed in each play. Because of the limited number of actors allowed on-stage, the chorus evolved into a very active part of Greek theatre. Though the number of people in the chorus is not clear, the chorus was given as many as one-half the total lines of the play. Music was often played during the chorus' delivery of its lines.

Although few tragedies written from this time actually remain, the themes and accomplishments of Greek tragedy still resonate to contemporary audiences. The term tragedy (tragos and ode) literally means "goat song," after the festival participants' goat-like dancing around sacrificial goats for prizes. Most Greek tragedies are based on mythology or history and deal with characters' search for the meaning of life and the nature of the gods. 

Most tragedies that have survived from this period begin with a prologue, an exposition given by the principle actor setting the stage for the audience. Next, during the parados, the chorus introduces the characters, exposition is given, and a mood is established.  Episodes convey the action of the play through dialogue between the actors or between the actors and the chorus. The final scene is called the exodus when all the characters as well as the chorus depart.  In addition to the plot choreographed movement was also important to the performance.

Plays were performed in large, open-air structures consisting of a semi circular terraced theatron or "seeing place”, and a round orchestra, the “dancing place” of the chorus and the chief performance space.  An altar of Dionysus was usually located in the center of the orchestra.  A temporary structure called a skene on the far side of the orchestra served as a backdrop for the action and was where the actors stored their masks and costumes and performed quick changes out of the sight of the audience.  On either side of the skene were parodoi, that led into or away from the orchestra. These were used for the entrances and exits of the chorus.

The three best-known Greek tragedy playwrights of the fifth century are Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes. 

Aeschylus, who was a competitor at the City Dionysia around 499 B.C., wrote some of the oldest tragedies in the world. Only a few of Aeschylus' plays have survived but they include The Persians and the Oresteia trilogy. Aeschylus is attributed with the introducing the second actor to the stage and inventing the trilogy. 

Only seven of Sophocles tragedies--including the still-popular Antigone, Electra, and Oedipus Rex--have survived. Sophocles won twenty-four contests for his plays, never placing lower than second place. His contributions to theatre history are many: He introduced the third actor to the stage, fixed the number of chorus members to fifteen, and was the first to use scene painting. Sophocles' plays explore the boundaries between fate and the free will.

Euripedes was prolific playwright who is believed to have written 90 plays, 18 of which have survived, including Medea, Hercules and The Trojan Women. He was often criticized for the way he questioned traditional views of the role of women and obedience to authority. Euripedes also explored the psychological motivations of his characters actions which had not been explored by other authors. His plays were used as pattern for other authors for many years after his death.

Comedy was also an important part of ancient Greek theatre. No one is quite sure of the origins of comedy, but it is said that they derived from imitation. All comedies of note during this time are by Aristophanes . Aristophanes, who competed in the major Athenian festivals, wrote 40 plays, 11 of which survived--including the most controversial piece of literature to come from ancient Greece, Lysistrata, a humorous tale about a strong woman who leads a female coalition to end war in Greece. 

Although only 33 tragedies and 11 comedies remain from such a creative period, the Greeks were responsible for the birth of drama in the Western world.

Questions for Review:

1. How doe the text describe the festival of Dionysia?  Which god did it honor?

2. Why was the Great or City Dionysia important in theatre history?

3. What does the term "tragedy" literally mean?  Where does this come from?

4. Describe some parts of a typical Greek tragedy from this time period.

5. In a Greek theatre what was the “dancing place” of the chorus called?

6. Who were the three well-known Greek tragedy playwrights of the fifth century? Give one significant contribution they made or the title of a play that each wrote.

7. Who was the most important writer of comedy from that time period?

Play Scripts:
Antigone by Sophocles (Adapted by Sanderson Beck)
Birds by Aristophanes (Adapted by Graham Kirby)

Busts of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides


The Flavian Amphitheater aka. the Colosseum

Chapter 3: Roman Theatre and Drama

Originally Roman theatre had been derived from religious festivals. The Romans' carnival-like festivals included acting, flute playing, dancing, and prizefighting. Almost all festivals used music, dance, and masks in their ceremonies. The first performance that could be called theatre probably occurred in Rome around 364 B.C. 

By the first century B.C., the Roman empire had displaced the Greek city states as the dominant power in the Mediterranean world.  The Romans have been known for copying other cultures and practices and improving upon them, and the same can be said of their approach to the theatre. Romans borrowed Greek and Etruscan methods in their own theatre, but made them distinctly Roman through modification.

In contrast to ancient Greece, comedy was more popular in Rome than tragedy. Titus Plautus was an extremely popular Roman comedy writer. He is attributed with 130 plays including The Braggart Warrior, The Casket and Pot of Gold. Publius Terence was another Roman comedy writer who wrote six plays, all of which have survived including Mother-in-Law, Self-Tormentor and The Brother. Terence wasn't as popular as Plautus but his critics consider his writing deeper and more developed.

Few playwrights of tragedy are known from Rome's early, republican period. In the later imperial period Lucius Seneca enjoyed some popularity as a tragedian.  He wrote his own versions of The Trojan Women, Medea, Oedipus, Phaedra and Hercules on Oeta.  Seneca was also the Emperor Nero's tutor and principle advisor.  He was a noted stoic philosopher and generally regarded as an accomplished statesman.  Nero ordered Seneca's death in 65 AD after he suggested the emperor was unwell.  History has proven him correct.

The theatre was certainly not the only form of entertainment in Rome. Roman spectacles included the popular chariot racing, horse racing, foot races, wrestling, fights to the death between wild animals or between gladiators. Chariot races were held in the Circus Maximus which could accommodate 60,000 people. It also housed wrestling, fighting, and wild animals like lions. The Romans also staged extravagant recreations of sea battles for which lakes were dug or amphitheaters like the Colosseum were flooded for the occasion. Christians were often the victims of the Romans' thirst for blood, and many were sentenced to battle to the death in the Colosseum.

The first purpose built theater structures in Rome were dedicated to the god Venus. Roman theaters or auditoriums were similar to the Greek design but unlike Greek theaters, which took advantage of natural topography, Roman auditoriums were built up from flat ground. They also had an elaborate permanent stage house, or scaenae frons which provided rooms for dressing, balconies to set scenes upon, and tunnels for access to the orchestra area or auditorium The pulpitum or stage in front of the scaenae frons became wider and more important than the orchestra as a performing space and was raised nearly two metres.

Questions for Review:

1. From whom did the Romans borrow and adapt their theatrical tradition from?

2. Identify two Roman comedy writers and a play that they each wrote.  Which was more popular?

3. What genre of theatre did Seneca write in, comedy or tragedy?  What else is Seneca famous for?

4. Give three examples of Roman spectacle.

5. Describe two differences between Greek theaters and Roman auditoriums.

A Roman auditorium in Ephesus


Medieval mummers

Chapter 4: European Theatre and Drama in the Middle Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire, small nomadic bands of entertainers traveled around performing wherever there was an audience. Traveling with their portable stage or Pageant Wagons, they consisted of storytellers, jesters, jugglers and mummers, or folk actors.  Later, festivals cropped up where entertainers would show their talents. However, the powerful Catholic Church made headway during the Middle Ages to stamp out such performances and convert the entertainers who were thought by some to be possessed by evil spirits.

Despite its insistence that acting and traveling performances were sinful, the Church was actually instrumental in reviving theatre in the Middle Ages by introducing liturgical drama, or drama used to illustrate the teachings of the Church.  In its earliest form, mystery plays dramatized Bible stories.  Music would often be incorporated into the dramatizations.

One of the most popular of the Bible stories that were dramatized was the story of Mary visiting Christ's tomb to discover his resurrection. Jesus' crucifixion, however, was rarely dramatized. Other stories that were often dramatized were Daniel in the lion's den, Lazarus raised from the dead, and the conversion of St. Paul.

Small scenic structures called mansions were used to illustrate the surroundings of a play. Small plays had only one mansion, longer plays had two or more. Costumes for liturgical drama were clerical clothing to which real or symbolic accessories were added. Most of the lines of the drama were chanted in Latin rather than spoken.

Liturgical drama was performed exclusively in churches until around 1200 when they were performed outside during the spring and summer months. 

One form of liturgical drama, the cycle plays, became popular with the common people around this time. The cycle plays were composed of many short plays or episodes. Cycle plays could take a few hours or 25 or more days to perform. Like other liturgical dramas, the cycle plays varied but usually all dealt with religious figures, biblical writings and sermons of the church, though some episodes were on hardly religious themes. The plays had little sense of chronology and most of their authors were anonymous.

The popular cycle plays opened the door for many other more significant changes in medieval drama. With the formation of guilds, the growth of towns, and a decline in feudalism, theatre had great opportunities to flower. Between the years 1200 to 1350 vernacular- non-religious plays in the common languages of the people- gained popularity over liturgical plays.

Around the end of the 14th century the church was controlling less and less of the production of plays, but it always kept an eye on the contents of plays and their presentation. Sometimes towns would put on shows, but often individuals would arrange a production. The church always reserved the right to approve or disapprove a script before it became a production.

Directors emerged to handle the sometimes large numbers of actors, special effects, and money that would be put into productions. Sometimes a committee of overseers was put together to stage productions. These overseers would have duties such as directing the erection of the stage, constructing seating for the audience, casting and rehearsing the actors, working with actors on refining roles, assigning people to take up money at the door, and addressing the audience at the beginning and end of the play.

Actors and the number needed changed for each play. For instance, the cycle plays needed as many as 300 actors. Most actors were found in the local area where directors would hold auditions. Most of the time the actors were boys or men, but in France women were occasionally allowed to act. Often an actor would have multiple roles in a show.

Morality plays emerged late in the middle ages.  Unlike earlier mystery plays, morality plays were not based on Bible stories.  Instead morality plays centered around man's continuous struggle between good and evil.  One of the most influential morality plays was Romance of the Rose. This play had characters that represented abstract ideas such as Slander, Danger, and Fair Welcome. Another interesting morality play which was written in 1425 was the Castle of Perserverance which depicted mankind's progress from birth to death and showed the final judgment.

Questions for Review:

1. What were the portable stages of performers in the middle ages called? 

2. What was another term for folk actors?

3. What was the name given to drama used to illustrate the teachings of the Church?

4. Describe some of the stories of most popular mystery plays?

5. What were mansions used for?  Describe them.

6. What were cycle plays?  How long might they last?  How many actors were needed in some of the largest?

7. When did vernacular plays first gain popularity?

8. Why did the role of director first emerge in the medieval period?

9. Where were women occasionally allowed to act?

10. How did morality plays differ from miracle or mystery plays?

Play Script:
Everyman Anonymous 15th C. (Adapted by Leslie Noelani Laurio)

Performance of a morality play


Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) "Love in the Italian Theatre" 

Chapter 5: Italian Theatre and Drama

Between the 14th and 16th centuries Renaissance drama developed in Italy, marking an end to medieval practices.  Italian rulers began to finance productions of Roman plays and imitations of them. This prompted interest in rewriting Roman plays into Italian as well as the writing of new plays. One of first important vernacular tragedy was Sofonisha by Giangiorgio Trissino. A chorus of 15 was used, in keeping with the number in the Roman choruses. 

The "neoclassical ideal" formed and spread throughout Europe. Drawing on the work of Horace and Aristotle, the "neoclassical ideal" demanded the strong appearance of truth. Fantasy and supernatural elements were avoided in neoclassical plays. The chorus and soliloquies were discouraged while reality was stressed in plays that taught moral lessons.

Italians began using perspective architecture and painting on stage, giving audience members the illusion of distance and depth. Scenery and stages were raked or angled to increase the illusion and create a perspective setting.  Along with perspective staging, the proscenium arch, rapid shifting of scenery and special effects were all part of Italy's contributions in the area of design, contributions which had spread throughout Europe by the 17th century.

Meanwhile, one form of theatre was developing in the italian countryside that deserves special mention.  "Commedia dell'arte" was comedy of professional players who travelled throughout the peninsula. Two aspects of "Commedia dell'arte" were improvisation and stock characters. Actors would play the same characters their whole lives, improvising new stories from the most scant scenarios. Famous "Commedia dell 'arte" troupes could command huge audiences.

Questions for Review:

1. In what ways could Italian drama be seen as a continuity with the ancient past?

2. What did the "neoclassical ideal" demand?  Contrast this with plays of the medieval period. 

3. What did the scene painting of the Italian theatre give audiences for the first time?

4. What term is used that also means "angled" in reference to the stage?

5. What other contributions of the Italian theatre spread throughout Europe by the 17th century?

6. What Italian form of theatre developed in the countryside?

7. What were the two aspects of this native rural theatrical form?

Jacques Callot (1592-1635) "Una scena dellaCommedia dell'Arte L'Amore Medico"

Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901) "Faust et Mephistopheles"

Chapter 6: English Theatre From the Middle Ages to 1642

During the 1580's some students at Oxford University formed a group called "The University Wits." These were men who were not as interested in writing for the public stage as for their own amusement. The "wits" included Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe among others.

Kyd, known for his well-planned plotlines, wrote The Spanish Tragedy, the most popular play of the 16th century.  Cambridge-educated Marlowe was important in the development of "chronicle" or history plays such as Edward II. He also wrote the well-known play Doctor Faustus, the tale of a man who makes a bargain with the devil in exchange for worldly wealth. 

The man known as the greatest English dramatist of all time is William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was involved in all aspects of theatre, more than any other writer of his day. Shakespeare is said to have written 38 plays--histories, tragedies, and comedies-- including Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. No writer has been more effective and powerful with the use of the language as Shakespeare. Emotions, pride, attitudes are all incorporated into Shakespeare's dramatic situation. He was effective and at the same time sensitive to needs of his audiences and actors. Although well-known during his life, Shakespeare's popularity didn't flower until after his death.

Ben Jonson was also a popular playwright in England, who some scholars consider the finest Elizabethan playwright (after Shakespeare, of course). In an effort to combat the dramatic excesses of his contemporaries, Jonson attempted to apply classical principles and sought to bring back the practices of the ancients in his own plays. Two of Jonson's 28 plays are The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair. He was awarded the title of England's poet laureate in 1616.

After 1610, changes started to occur in English drama . There was an increase in technical skill, playwrights handled exposition better, they began to compress action to fewer episodes, and they built startling climaxes to surprise audiences. With these changes came a new breed of playwrights who created a drama more focused on thrilling and exciting subject matter than complex characterization or tragic emotion.

John Fletcher was one of these new playwrights.  He became very successful writing jointly with Francis Beaumont. Together they wrote about 50 plays including The Maid's Tragedy, Philasta, and A King and No King. Fletcher also wrote plays on his own after Beaumont retired. A Wife for a Month and The Scornful Lady are two of his most famous solo works. Interestingly enough, during the "Restoration", Fletcher's plays were performed more frequently than Shakespeare's or Jonson's.

Watch "The Devil and Daniel Webster",  a 1940's American adaptation of the Faustus theme by Stephen Vincent Benet.

Gerard Soest (1600–1681) "William Shakespeare"

Charles-Antoine Coypel [1694-1752] "Moliere"

Chapter 7: French Theatre and the Restoration

Much of early French drama had little impact on the world of theatre. Dramatists too often catered to the aristocracy and never produce any plays of lasting interest. Conditions did change around 1597, however, when more skilled companies and playwrights began to appear in Paris. France's first professional dramatist was Alexandre Hardy who appeared around 1597. He wrote a large number of plays, 34 of which have survived. He used the five-act form, poetic dialogue, as well as the chorus from early Greek and Roman times. While Hardy's contributions were important to the French theatre, he never achieved lasting greatness.

One of the most famous French playwrights of the 17th century was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, also known by his stage name Molière, famous for "Tartuffe" and other satires on the corruption of French clergy and nobility. Initially banned from performing his plays on stage, Moliere was called a "demon in human flesh" by the Church, and the State closed his theatre and tore down his posters. Finally, in 1669, permission was granted by King Louis XIV for Moliere to perform his plays in public. 

Across the English Channel the years between 1642 and 1660 saw very little theatrical activity.  King Charles I, a patron of the arts, had been beheaded by Parliament.  Now the Puritans worked to drive out "sinful" vices like the theatre. Oliver Cromwell's government passed laws suspending theatrical performances and declaring that all actors were to be considered rogues.  Theaters were dismantled and playwrights went into hiding.

In 1660 Charles II, the son of Charles I, returned to England from his exile in France, restoring the monarchy. This period was known as the "Restoration". The flamboyant Charles II reintroduced drama to England along the French model. 

Moliere's plays were translated into English and other satires were penned in his style. Oliver Goldsmith wrote "She Stoops to Conquer". John Gay authored the popular "The Beggar's Opera", updated in the twentieth-century playwright by Bertolt Brecht in The "Threepenny Opera".

In the Restoration theatre, playwrights got the proceeds from the third night's performance and also the sixth night's performance, but only for the original run of the show. Usually the playwright was also the director of a play.  Rehearsals were from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.  Actors were paid by how popular they were, and they usually played the same type of roles; for instance, tragic actors always played tragic roles. Actresses appeared on the British stage legally for the first time.  

New theatre architecture in Britain resembled the French and Italian models as well.  A theatre of note between 1642 and 1800 was the Drury Lane or Haymarket Theatre, operated by Samuel Foote.  As these new structures were completely enclosed, new lighting methods became increasingly important. 

Questions for Review:

1. Who was France's first professional dramatist?  Describe his work.

2. What was Moliere called by the church?  What were his plays satires on?

3. Who's government passed laws suspending theatrical performances?  Why?

4. Who reintroduced drama to England?  Along what model was it reintroduced?

5. Give an example of a British playwright who wrote plays in the style of Moliere.

6. How were playwrights paid for their work during the restoration time period?

7. In what way was this period ground breaking for women in Britain?

8. What stage technology became increasingly important in the new enclosed theaters such as Drury Lane?

Play Script: "A Doctor in Spite of Himself" by Moliere adapted by Joellen Bland

Abraham Pether (1756-1812)"The Burning of Old Drury Lane Theatre"

Tal'Chum, Korean mask dance drama

Chapter 8: The Theatre of the Orient

Various theatrical forms developed throughout Asia. Most Asian cultures had traditional or village theatrical forms such as the Korean Tal' Chum- or mask dance drama- in addition to formalized court theatre such as the Ayutthaya period Thai dramas.  

Highly developed forms in India and Japan are especially noteworthy.

Indian drama was spoken in Sanskrit which was the most commonly spoken language in India. Sanskrit performances were usually given on special occasions such as religious festivals, marriages, coronations, or victory celebrations. No scenery was used but the stage had painting or carvings that would have symbolic value. Sanskrit drama emerged sometime between 1500 to 1000 B.C. and could not be classified as comedy, tragedy or melodrama, but was based on the concept of Rasa. All the Rasa relate to human emotions. The eight Rasa are erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrible, odious, and marvelous. Two famous Indian plays which deal with the Rasa were The Little Clay Cart by Bhasa and Sakuntala written by Kalidasa.

In Japan, three classical forms of theatre exist: Noh theatre, Bunraku theatre and the most classical form, Kabuki theatre. Kabuki is a highly stylized form of theatre that employed lots of scenery and elaborate sets and costumes. Kabuki, like most oriental theatre, did not use women in its theatre performances. Another classical form, Bunraku, is puppet theatre. Each puppet had three operators, but only the master puppeteer's face could be seen. The classic form of Noh, however, started as religious ritual. It had a shite, who was the lead actor, and waki, who was the sidekick or confidante of the shite. Noh theatre utilized an orchestra which had a special position on-stage, but Noh, like Kabuki, did not use women in its performances. Besides the enduring influences of its stylized classical theatre, the Japanese also introduced to the world the revolving stage, a design which is used worldwide.

Kabuki Theatre, Japan

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