Theatre or theater is a collaborative form of performing art that uses live performers, usually actors or actresses, to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place, often a stage. The performers may communicate this experience to the audience through combinations of gesture, speech, song, music, and dance.
The history of theatre charts the development of theatre over the past 2,500 years.
There are references to theatrical entertainments in China as early as 1500 BC during the Shang Dynasty – they often involved music, clowning and acrobatic displays.
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.
The origins of theatre in ancient Greece, according to Aristotle (384–322 BC), the first theoretician of theatre, are to be found in the festivals that honored Dionysus. The performances were given in semi-circular auditoria cut into hillsides, capable of seating 10,000–20,000 people.
Western theatre developed and expanded considerably under the Romans. The Roman historian Livy wrote that the Romans first experienced theatre in the 4th century BC, with a performance by Etruscan actors. Beacham argues that Romans 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.
The first form of Indian theatre was the Sanskrit theatre, earliest-surviving fragments of which date from the 1st century AD. It began after the development of Greek and Roman theatre and before the development of theatre in other parts of Asia.
While very few Roman theatrical works survive today, many more Greek texts do. The credit for this goes to the Byzantine Empire.
While the Byzantines enjoyed theatrical performances, their most significant legacy is widely seen to be their preservation of Greek texts. In contrast, many Roman works were destroyed during the early centuries of the Christian Era, as anything not “the work of God” was seen as the devil’s work.
From around 500 AD, many theatrical activities disappeared across Europe. Small bands of traveling performers toured Europe but were often denounced by various churches as spreading a dangerous message.
Theater buildings were not permitted throughout Europe during medieval times, but traveling players, known as minstrels, kept the theater alive along with acrobats, puppeteers, jugglers and storytellers. They created a stage by raising a simple platform wherever they performed in halls, market places and at festivals. Christians thought this kind of entertainment was a sin, so they started their own kind of theater. During an Easter Sunday service, priests acted out the meaning of the holy day to help teach people who could not read. These “miracle” plays became so popular that there was not enough room to perform in the church and they moved outside. They were still considered religious events and not entertainment.
As the Viking invasions ceased in the middle of the 11th century, liturgical drama had spread from Russia to Scandinavia to Italy. Only in Muslim-occupied Iberian Peninsula were liturgical dramas not presented at all. Despite the large number of liturgical dramas that have survived from the period, many churches would have only performed one or two per year and a larger number never performed any at all.
Most early theatre in England evolved out of church services of the 10th and 11th centuries. It became a truly popular form around 1350 when religious leaders encouraged the staging of mystery cycles (stories from the Bible) and miracle plays (stories of the lives of saints). These were written and performed in the language of ordinary people rather than latin in order to teach the mainly illiterate masses about Christianity and the bible.
William Shakespeare, born 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, is England’s most famous playwright. He wrote 38 plays and numerous sonnets. It is not just the breadth of his work that makes Shakespeare the greatest British dramatist but the beauty and inventiveness of his language and the universal nature of his writing.
The first plays performed in the United States are believed to be those of Shakespeare, brought to the country in the mid-1700s by English acting companies.
The American Civil War proved to be a turning point for theater in the United States. In the years afterward, audiences would look for “American made” stories. Typically, these would be realistic interpretations of modern life and put American citizens as the heroes at the heart of the stories.
In the Renaissance period, from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, an interest in classical Greek and Roman art, culture and theater returned. Two major theater design traditions were developed at this time in Italy: the proscenium arch that frames and divides the stage from the audience and the art of painting cloths as backdrops for scenery.
Theatre took on many alternative 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.
By the 19th century, European theater had moved through the neoclassical period, which saw grandiose and melodramatic performances come to the fore. Sexual farces and political satire had also emerged across Europe. However, in the mid-18th century, theater in England was highly regulated and censored by the state.
During the 19th century, national identities within theater were clear, despite the continued presence of shared influences. These trends predominantly laid the pathway for modern theater in Europe, which would continue to evolve into the significant cultural entity it is today.
The word “theatre” is from the Greek theatron, meaning “a place of seeing.”