History of theatre  

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Ubu Roi (King Ubu) is a play developed by Alfred Jarry premiered on December 10 1896, and is widely acknowledged as a theatrical precursor to the Absurdist, Dada and Surrealist art movements.
Ubu Roi (King Ubu) is a play developed by Alfred Jarry premiered on December 10 1896, and is widely acknowledged as a theatrical precursor to the Absurdist, Dada and Surrealist art movements.

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The history of theatre charts the development of theatre over the past 2,500 years. While performative elements are present in every society, it is customary to acknowledge a distinction between theatre as an art form and entertainment and theatrical or performative elements in other activities. The history of theatre is primarily concerned with the origin and subsequent development of the theatre as an autonomous activity. Since classical Athens in the 6th century BC, vibrant traditions of theatre have flourished in cultures across the world.


Western theatre history

Greek theatre

Theatre of Ancient Greece, Satyr play

The vast majority of Ancient Greek theatrical texts have not survived intact. A small number of works from four Greek playwrights writing during the fifth century B.C. remain fully intact.

The above-mentioned playwrights are regarded as the most influential by critics of subsequent eras including (Aristotle). The tragic and sartyr plays were always performed at the festival (City Dionysia) where they were part of a series of four performances (a "tetralogy"): the first, second and third plays were a dramatic trilogy based on related or unrelated mythological events, and the culminating fourth performance was a satyr play, a play on a lighter note, with enhanced celebratory and dance elements. 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 most of the time which sang songs and sometimes spoke in unison. As far as we know, most dramas were staged 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 Dionysos, 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 did not amplify the actors voice as has been previously thought. The acoustics in the Greek theater were so great that a person in the back row could hear a whisper or a pin drop. 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 amphitheatre.

Roman theatre

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 the Hippolytus of Euripides, and many of the comedies of Plautus and Terence, the most famous Roman comic playwrights, were direct re-elaborations of works by Menander.

When comparing and contrasting ancient Roman theatre to that of Greece 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. 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

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, like the York Mystery Plays or Wakefield Cycle were series of short dramas based on the Old Testament and New Testament 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 later 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). 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 English Renaissance theatre, in an effort to stamp out allegiance to Rome.

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 I 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, at the outbreak of the English Civil War 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

Commedia dell'Arte

Commedia dell'Arte troupes performed lively improvisational playlets across Europe for centuries. It 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 interludes(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 troupe typically consisted of 13 to 14 members. No women were allowed to act in theater at this time. So there were absolutely no female performers. Most actors were paid by taking a share of the play's profits roughly equivalent to the size of their role was in its peak from 1575-1650, but even after that time new scenarios were written and performed. Carlo Goldoni wrote a few 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.

Renaissance theatre

English Renaissance theatre

Spanish Golden Age Laws on Female Actors In Spain theatre thrived during its Golden Age, a period that lasted from c. 1580 to 1680. 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.

Restoration comedy

Restoration comedy

Restoration spectacular

Restoration spectacular

Neoclassical theatre

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

Twentieth century theatre, Timeline of twentieth-century theatre

Late Modern, and especially twentieth century theatre, often continues the project of realism. However, there has also been a great deal of experimental theatre that rejects the conventions of realism and earlier forms. Examples include: Epic theatre, absurdist theatre, and postmodern theatre. Key figures of the century include: Luigi Pirandello, Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, Konstantin Stanislavski, Harold Pinter, Eugene O'Neill, Samuel Beckett, Dario Fo and Tony Kushner.

A number of aesthetic movements emerged in the 20th century, including:

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