Theatre Over the Centuries
by John Wise
Theatre can be traced back as early as 3000 BCE, and it has developed into a number of forms. From ritualistic ceremonies to high-budgeted dramas involving complex human emotion, theatre has embraced a number of schools of thought and philosophies (Brockett et al). This study will explore the evolution of theatre from ritual to entertainment by examining the most prominent and widely accepted philosophies. It will begin with the Neolithic period, continuing with the discussion of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, modern Europe and the United States, and will culminate with the popular, cutting-edge theatre of the London West End and New York’s Broadway.
It is during the Neolithic period, that scholars believe the birth of the performing arts took place, emerging in the form of various rituals that were centered on powerful human motivations related to duty, power, and pleasure. It is believed rituals involving dance were performed to convey myths or stories. Ritualistic performances were typically performed to honor supernatural powers, celebrate a success or victory, or empower a leader (Robinson). The increasing popularity of these ritualistic performances must have required a large, common meeting place centered around a viable piece of flat earth, elements that will later be called a theatre and stage. Also, it seems likely that people of this period revered the performers of these rituals, regarding performers as persons worthy of prestige. Furthermore, it seems that origins of costume can be traced to these primitive theatrical productions. It is believed that costumes were used to depict any character, idea, or structure that was intangible to Neolithic men and women (Bratton).
Although scholars recognize the rituals of Neolithic man as the dawn of the performing arts, they consider the performances of the Egyptians as marking the emergence of true theatre. Scholars make this distinction because the Egyptians recorded performances in textual documents that provided continuity (ancient scripts). Some of these scripts are included in the Pyramid Texts, which date back to nearly 3000 BCE. Most of the Egyptian theatre seems to be comprised of dramatic accounts of the death of a particular pharaoh or god as well as accounts of a pharaoh’s powerful rule in the afterlife, but some scripts record remnants of ceremonies of adoration and celebration. The most famous and thoroughly studied Egyptian dramas are the Memphite Drama and the Abydos. Both of these works are thought to be passion plays, recreating the notable events, death, and afterlife of the Egyptian god Osiris and his son Horus. Scholars believe that this passion play was performed on an annual basis for over two thousand years (Brockett et al).
Like the Egyptians before them, Greek theatre traces its origins back to annual celebrations and events that honor the deities. The Greek theatre is believed to have originated at the annual festival known as City Dionysia, honoring the Greek god Dionysus. Greek theatre evolved into the two distinct genres of tragedy and comedy, which, to this day, are still recognized as the most essential and basic theatrical forms. Tragedy would typically include a central character that, by means of exploring nature and learning of the gods, searched for a deeper meaning of life. Most of the earliest tragedies are thought to have stemmed from adaptations of ancient Greek mythology, but some are believed to be completely original compositions, exploring human thought and emotion (Easterling). In modern theater, some of the most notable writers of Greek tragedy are still studied. These famous names include: Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. Some of their most notable works are those of Oedipus Rex, Medea, and Hercules (Robinson).
The origin of the genre of comedy is not known, but it is speculated that the form stems from the human desire to represent humorous or ironic events. Aristophanes is the most notable writer of this genre, writing some forty comedies.
In addition to defining two main genres of theatre, the Greeks also incorporated music. Greek theatre would often feature musicians playing musical instruments and a chorus in stage productions (Bratton). During this period there was the movement away from plays featuring an event or supernatural being to plays that focused on an individual character and portrayed his or her thoughts and emotions.
Roman theatre was, more or less, a continuation of the Greek theatre. They adapted the stage and auditorium structure (Beacham).
While theatre did not change much throughout the Roman empire and later Byzantine period, scholars do note the increased preference for comedy over tragedy. There were other popular forms of Roman entertainment such as chariot races and the gladiatorial games. These forms of entertainment often over shadowed that of the performing arts.
During the Medieval period the Catholic Church became a huge advocate for the dissolution of theatrical performance in Europe, designating theatre as sinful. Ironically, the church would contribute to the rebirth of the theatrical arts during the later Middle Ages. The Church would create the genre known as the liturgical drama, or plays which dramatized stories from the Bible. Some of the more famous liturgical dramas included Daniel in the Lion Den, Lazarus Raised from the Dead, and the Conversion of St. Paul, but, ironically, no record exists of a performance of the death of Jesus Christ although Passion Plays were popular during the Renaissance (Tydeman). The religious performances were, most often, given in front of a church audience or within a monastery, and nearly all performances were sung or chanted in Latin with little spoken dialogue. As the popularity of the liturgical drama increased, the church allowed performances to be held in public, a huge step in the development of vernacular theatre. Soon thereafter, the church began to loosen its grip on theatrical performances, but it still cast a wary eye on certain themes and performing groups (Brockett et al).
With the growth of towns, theatre became a lucrative business and some actors banned together in companies, charging for public performances of plays. Unfortunately, poor records were kept and most of the scripts that were selected and the names of the actors involved in the productions are not documented. One aspect of theatre that is well documented is the emergence of the role of director in the theatre business. During the Renaissance, plays began to involve a large crew of workers. The task of managing a large group as well as dealing with finances became the full time job of the director.
Many of the public plays that were staged fell into the genre of morality plays, featuring characters such as Morality, Prudence, and Fair Warning. They addressed moral issues and depicted the struggle between good and evil. Most of these plays took place in a series of episodes or cycles, and were endorsed by the church. These plays dominated theatre and became the most popular form of live entertainment (Beacham).
The greatest playwrights in history worked during the sixteenth century. This era also gave rise to a new and popular genre, the historical drama. Scholars believe that this is due to the fact that, for the first time, many educated men were seeking a career writing plays for the public stage. One of the most notable of these men was the Cambridge graduate, Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe would go on to write Edward II and Doctor Faustus, two of the most famous plays of this era until they were surpassed by the work of one of the most famous playwrights and poets of all history, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is regarded as one of the most powerful playwrights and influential linguists of all time. In a manner unique and perhaps superior to anyone of his day, he used language to convey human emotions. With over forty plays attributed to him, Shakespeare effectively engaged actors and audiences. Following the age of Shakespeare playwrights began to favor more convoluted plot changes and elements of surprise. The focus shifted from human drama and emotion to plot structure and more elaborate sets (Robinson).
Over the next few centuries, the Puritan influence on England stamped out nearly every single form of performing art (Brockett). However, with Romanticism, English theatre was greatly influenced by a number of German playwrights, including Christian Grabbe (Don Juan). English writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats would dominate the stage, using the trials and tribulations of love and relationships to create a form that is familiar with popular audiences today (Bratton).
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, large cities became the center of the commercial theatre world, and they began to run shows for long periods of time. Since the scripts and musical compositions became more and more complex, the notion of an actor serving more than one role within a production become impractical and nearly impossible. For the first time in theatre history, an actor would be a full time employee, paid to study and perform one particular character. During this time period, sets became quite elaborate, and gas lighting was used to create a mood appropriate to the production. Electricity was incorporated into sets allowing for artificial lighting and the use of elevators and revolving set elements. It was during this time period that many of the most famous theatres of the West End were built (Robinson).
One rather significant change that occurred during the modern period was the structure of theatrical seating. In Germany Richard Wagner designed the festival theatre seating structure, giving nearly all seats the same line of sight, and thus, the same price. This was done because of the poor economy of the time period, however, the concept of general seating remained popular in times of prosperity and continues to be used in theatres.
Some of the best-known scripts from the late nineteenth century were written to address social issues such as inequality among the social classes. George Bernard Shaw was thought to have his finger on the socio-economic pulse of England and addressed many social issues in his plays Pygmalion and Arms and the Man (Bratton).
During the period following the First World War, those involved in the theatre faced many obstacles. Many of the plays at the end of the First World War were innovative and experimented with surrealism. With the Second World War, surrealism gave way to realism, and, although the popularity of the theatre took a big hit because of television, theatre entered its “Golden Age.” The American playwright, Tennessee Williams would write some of the best known plays of the era including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, and A Streetcar Named Desire.
The commercial theatre in Britain would flourish in the twentieth century, fueled by its proximity to numerous prestigious arts schools and the availability of notable playwrights (Robinson). As theatre became a lucrative business and a popular tourist attraction in the West End, many large corporations began financially backing theatrical productions, giving production teams more liberty in set design and larger budgets for performers. In addition, fringe (outside of the West End) theatre became popular. Fringe theatre can refer to play companies that travel or perform a number of different plays at one location. While fringe exists on a smaller scale than West End theatre, it is very popular. The West End has emerged, along with America’s Broadway theatre, as a thriving part of performing arts in the world, drawing in the largest crowds and grossing the most income of comparable theatre productions (Brockett et al).
Theatre has captured the attention and engaged audiences making it a mainstay of popular culture for over five thousand years. Despite the changes in form as it developed from a type of ritual activity to a form of entertainment, theatre still depends upon the strength of the audiences’ emotional involvement and their interest in theatre as a viable form of expression. As with nearly all art forms, the possibilities for theatre are endless. Theatre will continue to evolve into new and more innovative forms and will affect new audiences for ages to come.
Beacham, Richard. The Roman Theatre and its Audience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Bratton, Jacqueline S. New Readings in Theatre History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Brockett, Oscar G. et al. History of Theatre. Eighth Edition. New York: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.
Easterling, P. E. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. London: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Robinson, Scott R. “Theatre After 1968.” Origins of Theatre. 31 July 2008.
Tydeman, William. The Theatre in the Middle Ages. London: Cambridge University Press, 1978.