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History of Theatre

Western Theater

Theater in the West, like theater elsewhere in the world, is believed to have evolved from prehistoric rites and religious practices. For the most part, the theater of Europe and North America has been more text-centered than African or Asian theater. Although ritual played a prominent role in ancient Egypt, scholars generally regard ancient Greece as the birthplace of Western theater.

Theater in Ancient Times

Ancient Egyptian theater emerged from ritual practices. For example, a passion play performed annually at Abydos from about 2500 BC to about 550 BC dealt with the death and resurrection of the god Osiris. Although no part of the text remains, references to it suggest it was one of the most elaborate spectacles ever staged and included mock battles, processions, and burial ceremonies. Despite the advanced civilization that developed in ancient Egypt, theatrical activity never progressed beyond ritual, pageantry, burial ceremonies, and commemorations of dead pharaohs. Therefore, historians look to Greece as the source for Western theater and drama.

When theater began in ancient Greece is not known, but the Greek philosopher Aristotle, writing in the 4th century BC, claimed that it began with hymns to the god Dionysus presented at an annual festival. According to tradition, Dionysus died each winter and was reborn each spring, a cycle that signified the seasonal return of fertility to the land and also the rebirth of human beings after death. Greece's earliest theater architecture took its form from the threshing circle-a round, flat circle at the base of a hillside that was used for separating wheat from the chaff. By the 5th century BC, when the classical period began, two performance areas were cradled within the curve of a hillside: one where a chorus performed, usually portraying ordinary citizens; and the other where the main actors performed. One speaking actor (later three) portrayed mythical and historical characters, at first in an empty space and later in front of a rectangular building that formed a neutral background. This scene building could represent different places as needed-a palace, temple, house, or cave, for example. Initially audiences stood or were seated on the ground; later, wooden or stone benches on the hillside formed an auditorium. The open-air theaters of ancient Greece, which held some 20,000 people, became the prototypes for amphitheaters, Roman coliseums, and modern sports arenas.

The most celebrated theater of classical Athens, the theater of Dionysus, was located on the slope of a hill below the Acropolis. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, the four Greek playwrights whose work has survived, wrote for annual dramatic festivals held there. Their plays expanded and interpreted the characters and stories of legend and history. During the 5th century BC, the features of Athens's annual dramatic festival became fixed: three groups of players-each consisting of a chorus, musicians, and two (later three) actors-competed in acting four sets of plays. Each set contained three tragedies and a satyr play, a burlesque of Greek myth that served as comic relief. Costumes were richly decorated, masks elaborate, and physical action restrained; violent scenes occurred offstage. In the 4th century BC, theaters throughout the Greek world grew more elaborate.

Theater in ancient Rome had its origins in musical and dancing performances and in chariot racing, boxing, and gladiatorial contests. The first drama was performed outdoors at annual games dedicated to the gods, and Roman theater maintained a circus-like atmosphere. The popularity of theater so increased that by AD 354 dramatic entertainment consumed more than 100 festival days per year. Works by only three Roman writers- Plautus, Terence, and Seneca-survive today.

Early Roman stages were temporary narrow platforms of wood approximately 30 m (100 ft) long. A stage house with three openings for entrances framed the back and ends. In time, the stage house was decorated with columns, statues, niches, and porticoes, and covered by a roof. The platform served as a street, where the dramatic action occurred, and openings in the back wall served as doorways into fictional houses that bordered the street. The first stone theater in Rome, in imitation of Greek theaters, was built in the 1st century BC. In the permanent stone theaters, the stage house and the auditorium formed a single architectural unit, and the orchestra was a half circle between the stage and auditorium. A distinguishing feature of Roman theater was a curtain at the front of the stage that dropped into a slot at the beginning of a performance and was raised at the end. Roman actors wore thin sandals, garments of the time, and masks that were useful for playing multiple roles. Music accompanied the dialogue in most comedies. Tragedies included choral interludes and long speeches.

Roman theater declined as the Roman Empire expanded. Dramatic festivals gave way to gladiatorial contests, water ballets, and sea battles held in the orchestras of theaters. By the 1st century AD, these spectacles had become increasingly bloodthirsty. The last recorded performance in Rome occurred in 533 AD. The ruins of many Roman theaters erected in Europe, Asia, and Africa may still be seen today. Theater reemerged in the religious festivals of medieval Europe.

Medieval Theater

Like the theater of ancient times, the theater of medieval Europe took place at outdoor festivals, though not until about 1200. Medieval theater had its origins in short plays performed in Latin by priests in churches. Some scholars argue that the church introduced dramatic ceremonies to counter pagan rites that remained popular throughout Europe. However, dramatized episodes from the Bible also made biblical stories more immediate and understandable for the public. Gradually, performances moved out of churches and into marketplaces. Lay performers replaced priests, and scripts became more complex, mixing serious religious subjects with boisterous and farcical material.

Medieval theater used two types of stages: fixed and movable. The fixed stage was a platform set up in a public square for the days or weeks of the performance. Audiences stood around the platform. One of the best-known fixed stages was constructed in 1547 for a passion play performed in Valenciennes, in northern France. One part of the stage contained so-called mansions or huts that depicted such locales as Paradise, Jerusalem, a palace, the sea, or the entrance to hell. The other part of the stage served as the open playing space. Heaven and hell were usually at each end of the stage, with earthly scenes of toil and humor occurring between them. The fixed stage made it possible to present numerous scenes along with special effects without interrupting the performance. Actors simply went from hut to hut to indicate a change in locale. Costumes distinguished the spiritual and earthly realms. God, angels, and saints wore borrowed church garments; earthly characters wore garments appropriate to their status in life; and devils were fancifully conceived with tails, horns, beaks, claws, and wings.

The fixed stages used elaborate stage machinery for special effects. The devices included pulleys and ropes for moving clouds, trapdoors through which actors could disappear, and fire and smoke for the mouth of hell. As productions became more complex, the skills of machinists and stage managers became increasingly important.

While fixed stages were common throughout Europe, movable stages were also used in England and Spain. A platform on wheels, similar to a modern parade float, was called a pageant wagon in England and a carros in Spain. A hut on top of the wagon provided a scenic background, an acting space, or a place for costume changes. The wagons moved through narrow streets and stopped for performances at designated places. Audiences assembled around the wagons to watch such plays as The Wakefield Cycle, which traced the Christian view of world history, from Creation to Judgment Day, in 32 short plays.

Three types of plays were written for performance on medieval stages. Cycles (or mystery plays) dramatized biblical material in a series of short scenes. Miracle plays depicted episodes from the lives of saints and martyrs. Morality plays dramatized spiritual lessons. The morality plays, or moralities, aimed to teach through entertainment by dramatizing the conflict between Vice and Virtue (which were represented by actors) for an individual's soul. They were performed by small professional companies in banquet halls and elsewhere. The best-known morality play in English is Everyman (1495?). Morality plays flourished in the mid-15th century and formed a bridge between earlier religious drama and the secular drama of the Renaissance.

Renaissance Theater

By the late 16th century in Europe, permanent buildings were being constructed to house a new kind of commercial theater. In 1576 actor James Burbage built London's first public theater, known simply as The Theatre, which was an open-air structure that combined features of pageant wagons, fixed stages, and banquet halls. The most famous Renaissance theater was the Globe Theatre (completed 1599), which was also in London. The Globe became a showcase for the talents of playwright William Shakespeare and Burbage's acting company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, later renamed The King's Men.

The Globe was an open-air building with a platform stage and standing room for spectators on three sides of the stage. Bordering this space was a large enclosed balcony topped by one or two smaller roofed balconies. A multilevel facade, which was part of the theater building, backed the platform stage. A roof, supported by two columns, jutted out above the stage platform. The underside of the roof, nicknamed the heavens, was painted with moons, stars, and planets. On the stage level were places for hiding and discovering people and objects-probably influenced by the huts of medieval stages. Productions used little scenery and few props. Costumes-largely clothing of the time-defined the rank of kings and queens, lords and ladies, soldiers and servants. A modern reconstruction of the Globe, completed in 1996, stands on the south bank of the Thames River in London, very near the site of the original theater, and holds performances from May to September.

Because open-air theaters could not be used year-round, professional companies sought out other buildings in London. The first of these private theaters was opened in 1576 in a residential district called Blackfriars in a former monastery. By 1610 a rebuilt Blackfriars Theatre had become the winter home of Shakespeare's company, and by 1642 six other private theaters had opened.

The private theaters shared many of the features of the public stages. A raised platform stage at one end of a long, rectangular hall served as the stage, and spectators sat in the pit, galleries, or private boxes around it. The theaters were roofed and restricted in size, with a far smaller seating capacity than the outdoor theaters. Staging conventions remained largely unchanged, with the exception of candles used to illuminate indoor theaters.

In Italy conventions of theater architecture and stage spectacle introduced in Florence, Venice, Parma, Bologna, Rome, and Milan during the Renaissance were to dominate European theater into the 20th century. These conventions included the picture-frame (proscenium) stage; perspective scenery, which gave an illusion of depth; elaborate machinery for scene shifting and producing special effects; and artificial lighting. Also popular in Italy was commedia dell'arte, an actor-centered improvisational theater. Troupes of professional commedia actors toured Italy, and later the rest of Europe, performing their shows.

Theater of the 17th and 18th Centuries

Theater practices in Europe, especially in Italy, France, and England, underwent great changes in the 17th and 18th centuries. Proscenium theaters were developed and imported into France and England; painted perspective scenery with wings, borders, and shutters came into wide use; machinery above and below the stage helped shift scenery quickly; and auditoriums were divided into pit, boxes, and galleries to reflect class distinctions. Professional acting companies led by star actors, such as David Garrick in England, selected the plays to be performed throughout the season. A typical evening at the theater lasted at least three hours. It began with orchestral music, followed by a prologue and then a full-length play. An afterpiece, usually a pantomime, farce, or comic opera, concluded the show. Intervals between acts were filled with variety acts, such as singing, dancing, magic tricks, acrobatics, and trained animals.

European playwriting at this time ranged from French plays by Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, and Moli�re, which generally followed strict rules based on ancient Greek and Roman models, to sketched-out scenarios of Italian commedia dell'arte troupes. In England, most new plays were either tragedies, featuring great heroes, or comedies that satirized the manners of the upper classes. England's outstanding playwrights of this time included John Dryden, William Wycherley, William Congreve, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Italian theater artists continued to develop ideas introduced during the Renaissance. The great innovators in the Italian theater of the 17th century were Nicola Sabbattini, Giacomo Torelli, and the Bibiena family of designers. Their innovations prepared the way for the great operas of the 19th century. The majority of professional Italian dramatists were engaged in the lucrative business of writing libretti (texts) for opera, a new form of theater in which dialogue was sung. The greatest influence on playwrights Carlo Goldoni and Carlo Gozzi were the commedia dell'arte troupes. At the height of its popularity in 1600, commedia touring companies, made up of men and women, performed in marketplaces and palaces throughout Europe.

Theater of the 19th Century

Commercial theater in the 19th century continued in large proscenium playhouses in London and Paris, where such popular types of theater as melodrama, farce, and comedy served as the favorite entertainment. Despite the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), which involved all of Europe, demand for entertainment increased, partly as a result of growing urban populations. The most noteworthy theatrical changes of the 19th century were the rise of touring companies, the exploitation of stars to promote plays, and the increase of long-running productions in place of rotating repertory. As the railway system expanded in the United States, so did the number of traveling productions. Touring companies eventually undermined resident theaters in outlying towns and cities. By 1900 the single-play, long-run policy had become the norm among commercial producers.

The principal departures from established conventions of staging in 19th-century European theaters were attempts to achieve historical accuracy and the illusion of real life. These experiments from the 1850s through the 1880s, known as realism and naturalism, brought about changes in scenic and costume design, acting styles, and staging. The leading exponents of these international movements for writing and staging truthful depictions of life included playwrights �mile Zola in France, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg in Scandinavia, Anton Chekhov in Russia, Gerhart Hauptmann in Germany, and John Galsworthy and George Bernard Shaw in England. Emerging directors who advocated realism included Andr� Antoine at the Th��tre Libre in Paris, France; Otto Brahm at the Freie B�hne in Berlin, Germany; and Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater. By 1900 realism had become the dominant mode in playwriting and in theatrical production in the West.

Theater of the 20th Century

Theater became international in the 20th century. Rapid modes of communication and travel fostered worldwide touring companies; cultural exchanges of artists, theories, and productions; and international publication of dramatic texts. Numerous experimental movements of varying duration included symbolism, expressionism, theater of the absurd, epic theater, documentary drama, and environmental production. However, realism remained the most popular mode of writing and staging in the West, and the picture-frame playhouse-enhanced by lighting, sound, and other technologies-remained the most common style of theater architecture.

The American theater in the 20th century fostered playwrights of extraordinary influence, including Eugene O'Neill, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Neil Simon. (See American Literature: Drama). The United States also pioneered musical theater as the most popular form of commercial, nonprofit, and amateur entertainment. Broadway, the heart of New York City's theater district, became synonymous with the production of musicals-both revivals and new works-and with multimillion-dollar production costs. The American theater also became ethnically and ideologically diverse, beginning in the 1960s with the rise of African American, Latino, Asian American, feminist, and homosexual theater groups, to name a few. The emergence of professional regional companies or resident theaters (now called the regional theater movement) formed a parallel trend in the 1960s.

For several decades, government subsidy of the arts in the United States-begun in 1965 when federal legislation established the National Endowment for the Arts-assisted nonprofit theaters, orchestras, museums, and opera and dance companies. In the 1990s, federal funding for the arts came under attack from Congress. Nonprofit professional theaters responded by engaging in coproductions with other theaters, sharing artists and costs, and providing a source for serious dramatic plays that eventually moved to Broadway. Despite rising costs and criticism that Broadway theater has become homogeneous and predictable, audiences are larger than at almost any time in the history of theater in the United States, and playwrights, actors, and directors have become household names.

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Western Theatre
Theatre In Ancient Times
Medevial Theatre
Renaissance Theatre
Theatre In The 17th and 18th Centuries
Theatre Of The 19th Century
Theatre Of The 20th Century

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