Classical and Hellenistic Greece
A depiction of actors playing the roles of a master (right) and his slave (left) in a Greek phlyax play
, circa 350/340 BCE
The city-state of Athens is where western theatre originated. It was part of a broader culture of theatricality and performance in classical Greece that included festivals, religious rituals, politics, law, athletics and gymnastics, music, poetry, weddings, funerals, and symposia.
Participation in the city-state's many festivals—and mandatory attendance at the City Dionysia as an audience member (or even as a participant in the theatrical productions) in particular—was an important part of citizenship. Civic participation also involved the evaluation of the rhetoric of orators evidenced in performances in the law-court or political assembly, both of which were understood as analogous to the theatre and increasingly came to absorb its dramatic vocabulary. The Greeks also developed the concepts of dramatic criticism and theatre architecture. Actors were either amateur or at best semi-professional. The theatre of ancient Greece consisted of three types of drama: tragedy, comedy, and the satyr play.
The origins of theatre in ancient Greece, according to Aristotle (384–322 BCE), the first theoretician of theatre, are to be found in the festivals that honoured Dionysus. The performances were given in semi-circular auditoria cut into hillsides, capable of seating 10,000–20,000 people. The stage consisted of a dancing floor (orchestra), dressing room and scene-building area (skene). Since the words were the most important part, good acoustics and clear delivery were paramount. The actors (always men) wore masks appropriate to the characters they represented, and each might play several parts.
Athenian tragedy—the oldest surviving form of tragedy—is a type of dance-drama that formed an important part of the theatrical culture of the city-state. Having emerged sometime during the 6th century BCE, it flowered during the 5th century BCE (from the end of which it began to spread throughout the Greek world), and continued to be popular until the beginning of the Hellenistic period.
No tragedies from the 6th century BCE and only 32 of the more than a thousand that were performed in during the 5th century BCE have survived. We have complete texts extant by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The origins of tragedy remain obscure, though by the 5th century BCE it was institutionalised in competitions (agon) held as part of festivities celebrating Dionysus (the god of wine and fertility). As contestants in the City Dionysia's competition (the most prestigious of the festivals to stage drama) playwrights were required to present a tetralogy of plays (though the individual works were not necessarily connected by story or theme), which usually consisted of three tragedies and one satyr play. The performance of tragedies at the City Dionysia may have begun as early as 534 BCE; official records (didaskaliai) begin from 501 BCE, when the satyr play was introduced.
Most Athenian tragedies dramatise events from Greek mythology, though The Persians—which stages the Persian response to news of their military defeat at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE—is the notable exception in the surviving drama. When Aeschylus won first prize for it at the City Dionysia in 472 BCE, he had been writing tragedies for more than 25 years, yet its tragic treatment of recent history is the earliest example of drama to survive. More than 130 years later, the philosopher Aristotle analysed 5th-century Athenian tragedy in the oldest surviving work of dramatic theory—his Poetics (c. 335 BCE).
Athenian comedy is conventionally divided into three periods, "Old Comedy", "Middle Comedy", and "New Comedy". Old Comedy survives today largely in the form of the eleven surviving plays of Aristophanes, while Middle Comedy is largely lost (preserved only in relatively short fragments in authors such as Athenaeus of Naucratis). New Comedy is known primarily from the substantial papyrus fragments of Menander. Aristotle defined comedy as a representation of laughable people that involves some kind of blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster.
In addition to the categories of comedy and tragedy at the City Dionysia, the festival also included the Satyr Play. Finding its origins in rural, agricultural rituals dedicated to Dionysus, the satyr play eventually found its way to Athens in its most well-known form. Satyr's themselves were tied to the god Dionysus as his loyal woodland companions, often engaging in drunken revelry and mischief at his side. The satyr play itself was classified as tragicomedy, erring on the side of the more modern burlesque traditions of the early twentieth century. The plotlines of the plays were typically concerned with the dealings of the pantheon of Gods and their involvement in human affairs, backed by the chorus of Satyrs. However, according to Webster, satyr actors did not always perform typical satyr actions and would break from the acting traditions assigned to the character type of a mythical forest creature.
Mosaic depicting masked actors in a play: two women consult a "witch"
Western theatre developed and expanded considerably under the Romans. The Roman historian Livy wrote that the Romans first experienced theatre in the 4th century BCE, with a performance by Etruscan actors. Beacham argues that they had been familiar with "pre-theatrical practices" for some time before that recorded contact. The theatre of ancient Rome was a thriving and diverse art form, ranging from festival performances of street theatre, nude dancing, and acrobatics, to the staging of Plautus's broadly appealing situation comedies, to the high-style, verbally elaborate tragedies of Seneca. Although Rome had a native tradition of performance, the Hellenization of Roman culture in the 3rd century BCE had a profound and energizing effect on Roman theatre and encouraged the development of Latin literature of the highest quality for the stage. The only surviving Roman tragedies, indeed the only plays of any kind from the Roman Empire, are ten dramas- nine of them pallilara- attributed to Lucuis Annaeus Seneca (4 b.c.-65 a.d.), the Corduba-born Stoic philosopher and tutor of Nero.
is an ancient form of performing art that originated in early Tamilakam
The earliest-surviving fragments of Sanskrit drama date from the 1st century AD. The wealth of archeological evidence from earlier periods offers no indication of the existence of a tradition of theatre. The ancient Vedas (hymns from between 1500 and 1000 BC that are among the earliest examples of literature in the world) contain no hint of it (although a small number are composed in a form of dialogue) and the rituals of the Vedic period do not appear to have developed into theatre. The Mahābhāṣya by Patañjali contains the earliest reference to what may have been the seeds of Sanskrit drama. This treatise on grammar from 140 BC provides a feasible date for the beginnings of theatre in India.
The major source of evidence for Sanskrit theatre is A Treatise on Theatre (Nātyaśāstra), a compendium whose date of composition is uncertain (estimates range from 200 BC to 200 AD) and whose authorship is attributed to Bharata Muni. The Treatise is the most complete work of dramaturgy in the ancient world. It addresses acting, dance, music, dramatic construction,
architecture, costuming, make-up, props, the organisation of companies, the audience, competitions, and offers a mythological account of the origin of theatre. In doing so, it provides indications about the nature of actual theatrical practices. Sanskrit theatre was performed on sacred ground by priests who had been trained in the necessary skills (dance, music, and recitation) in a [hereditary process]. Its aim was both to educate and to entertain.
Under the patronage of royal courts, performers belonged to professional companies that were directed by a stage manager (sutradhara), who may also have acted. This task was thought of as being analogous to that of a puppeteer—the literal meaning of "sutradhara" is "holder of the strings or threads". The performers were trained rigorously in vocal and physical technique. There were no prohibitions against female performers; companies were all-male, all-female, and of mixed gender. Certain sentiments were considered inappropriate for men to enact, however, and were thought better suited to women. Some performers played characters their own age, while others played ages different from their own (whether younger or older). Of all the elements of theatre, the Treatise gives most attention to acting (abhinaya), which consists of two styles: realistic (lokadharmi) and conventional (natyadharmi), though the major focus is on the latter.
Its drama is regarded as the highest achievement of Sanskrit literature. It utilised stock characters, such as the hero (nayaka), heroine (nayika), or clown (vidusaka). Actors may have specialised in a particular type. Kālidāsa in the 1st century BCE, is arguably considered to be ancient India's greatest Sanskrit dramatist. Three famous romantic plays written by Kālidāsa are the Mālavikāgnimitram (Mālavikā and Agnimitra), Vikramuurvashiiya (Pertaining to Vikrama and Urvashi), and Abhijñānaśākuntala (The Recognition of Shakuntala). The last was inspired by a story in the Mahabharata and is the most famous. It was the first to be translated into English and German. Śakuntalā (in English translation) influenced Goethe's Faust (1808–1832).
The next great Indian dramatist was Bhavabhuti (c. 7th century AD). He is said to have written the following three plays: Malati-Madhava, Mahaviracharita and Uttar Ramacharita. Among these three, the last two cover between them the entire epic of Ramayana. The powerful Indian emperor Harsha (606–648) is credited with having written three plays: the comedy Ratnavali, Priyadarsika, and the Buddhist drama Nagananda.
Public performance in Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Open Air Theatre.
There are references to theatrical entertainments in China as early as the Shang Dynasty; they often involved happiness, mimes, and acrobatic displays.The Tang Dynasty is sometimes known as "The Age of 1000 Entertainments". During this era, Ming Huang formed an acting school known as The Pear Garden to produce a form of drama that was primarily musical. That is why actors are commonly called "Children of the Pear Garden." During the Dynasty of Empress Ling, shadow puppetry first emerged as a recognized form of theatre in China. There were two distinct forms of shadow puppetry, Pekingese (northern) and Cantonese (southern). The two styles were differentiated by the method of making the puppets and the positioning of the rods on the puppets, as opposed to the type of play performed by the puppets. Both styles generally performed plays depicting great adventure and fantasy, rarely was this very stylized form of theatre used for political propaganda.
Cantonese shadow puppets were the larger of the two. They were built using thick leather which created more substantial shadows. Symbolic color was also very prevalent; a black face represented honesty, a red one bravery. The rods used to control Cantonese puppets were attached perpendicular to the puppets’ heads. Thus, they were not seen by the audience when the shadow was created. Pekingese puppets were more delicate and smaller. They were created out of thin, translucent leather (usually taken from the belly of a donkey).They were painted with vibrant paints, thus they cast a very colorful shadow. The thin rods which controlled their movements were attached to a leather collar at the neck of the puppet. The rods ran parallel to the bodies of the puppet then turned at a ninety degree angle to connect to the neck. While these rods were visible when the shadow was cast, they laid outside the shadow of the puppet; thus they did not interfere with the appearance of the figure. The rods attached at the necks to facilitate the use of multiple heads with one body. When the heads were not being used, they were stored in a muslin book or fabric lined box. The heads were always removed at night. This was in keeping with the old superstition that if left intact, the puppets would come to life at night. Some puppeteers went so far as to store the heads in one book and the bodies in another, to further reduce the possibility of reanimating puppets. Shadow puppetry is said to have reached its highest point of artistic development in the eleventh century before becoming a tool of the government.
In the Song Dynasty, there were many popular plays involving acrobatics and music. These developed in the Yuan Dynasty into a more sophisticated form known as zaju, with a four- or five-act structure. Yuan drama spread across China and diversified into numerous regional forms, one of the best known of which is Beijing Opera, which is still popular today.
Xiangsheng is a certain traditional Chinese comedic performance in the forms of monologue or dialogue.
Post-classical theatre in the West
Theatre took on many alternate forms in the West between the 15th and 19th centuries, including commedia dell'arte and melodrama. The general trend was away from the poetic drama of the Greeks and the Renaissance and toward a more naturalistic prose style of dialogue, especially following the Industrial Revolution.
Theatre took a big pause during 1642 and 1660 in England because of the Puritan Interregnum. Theatre was seen as something sinful and the Puritans tried very hard to drive it out of their society. This stagnant period ended once Charles II came back to the throne in 1660 in the Restoration. Theatre (among other arts) exploded, with influence from French culture, since Charles had been exiled in France in the years previous to his reign.
One of the big changes was the new theatre house. Instead of the type of the Elizabethan era, such as the Globe Theatre, round with no place for the actors to really prep for the next act and with no "theatre manners,” the theatre house became transformed into a place of refinement, with a stage in front and stadium seating facing it. Since seating was no longer all the way around the stage, it became prioritized – some seats were obviously better than others. The king would have the best seat in the house: the very middle of the theatre, which got the widest view of the stage as well as the best way to see the point of view and vanishing point that the stage was constructed around. Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg was one of the most influential set designers of the time because of his use of floor space and scenery.
Because of the turmoil before this time, there was still some controversy about what should and should not be put on the stage. Jeremy Collier, a preacher, was one of the heads in this movement through his piece A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. The beliefs in this paper were mainly held by non-theatre goers and the remainder of the Puritans and very religious of the time. The main question was if seeing something immoral on stage affects behavior in the lives of those who watch it, a controversy that is still playing out today.
Billing for a British theatre in 1829
The seventeenth century had also introduced women to the stage, which was considered inappropriate earlier. These women were regarded as celebrities (also a newer concept, thanks to ideas on individualism that arose in the wake of Renaissance Humanism), but on the other hand, it was still very new and revolutionary that they were on the stage, and some said they were unladylike, and looked down on them. Charles II did not like young men playing the parts of young women, so he asked that women play their own parts. Because women were allowed on the stage, playwrights had more leeway with plot twists, like women dressing as men, and having narrow escapes from morally sticky situations as forms of comedy.
Comedies were full of the young and very much in vogue, with the storyline following their love lives: commonly a young roguish hero professing his love to the chaste and free minded heroine near the end of the play, much like Sheridan's The School for Scandal. Many of the comedies were fashioned after the French tradition, mainly Molière, again hailing back to the French influence brought back by the King and the Royals after their exile. Molière was one of the top comedic playwrights of the time, revolutionizing the way comedy was written and performed by combining Italian commedia dell'arte and neoclassical French comedy to create some of the longest lasting and most influential satiric comedies. Tragedies were similarly victorious in their sense of righting political power, especially poignant because of the recent Restoration of the Crown. They were also imitations of French tragedy, although the French had a larger distinction between comedy and tragedy, whereas the English fudged the lines occasionally and put some comedic parts in their tragedies. Common forms of non-comedic plays were sentimental comedies as well as something that would later be called tragédie bourgeoise, or domestic tragedy – that is, the tragedy of common life – were more popular in England because they appealed more to English sensibilities.
While theatre troupes were formerly often travelling, the idea of the national theatre gained support in the 18th century, inspired by Ludvig Holberg. The major promoter of the idea of the national theatre in Germany, and also of the Sturm und Drang poets, was Abel Seyler, the owner of the Hamburgische Entreprise and the Seyler Theatre Company.
Through the 19th century, the popular theatrical forms of Romanticism, melodrama, Victorian burlesque and the well-made plays of Scribe and Sardou gave way to the problem plays of Naturalism and Realism; the farces of Feydeau; Wagner's operatic Gesamtkunstwerk; musical theatre (including Gilbert and Sullivan's operas); F. C. Burnand's, W. S. Gilbert's and Oscar Wilde's drawing-room comedies; Symbolism; proto-Expressionism in the late works of August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen; and Edwardian musical comedy.
These trends continued through the 20th century in the realism of Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg, the political theatre of Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht, the so-called Theatre of the Absurd of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, American and British musicals, the collective creations of companies of actors and directors such as Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, experimental and postmodern theatre of Robert Wilson and Robert Lepage, the postcolonial theatre of August Wilson or Tomson Highway, and Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed.
Eastern theatrical traditions
The first form of Indian theatre was the Sanskrit theatre. It began after the development of Greek and Roman theatre and before the development of theatre in other parts of Asia. It emerged sometime between the 2nd century BCE and the 1st century CE and flourished between the 1st century CE and the 10th, which was a period of relative peace in the history of India during which hundreds of plays were written. Japanese forms of Kabuki, Nō, and Kyōgen developed in the 17th century CE. Theatre in the medieval Islamic world included puppet theatre (which included hand puppets, shadow plays and marionette productions) and live passion plays known as ta'ziya, where actors re-enact episodes from Muslim history. In particular, Shia Islamic plays revolved around the shaheed (martyrdom) of Ali's sons Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali. Secular plays were known as akhraja, recorded in medieval adab literature, though they were less common than puppetry and ta'ziya theatre.