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History of Drama: Dramatic Movements and Time Periods

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  • 0:30 Primitive Theatre
  • 1:14 Greek Theatre
  • 2:50 The Middle Ages
  • 4:54 The Renaissance
  • 6:33 Romanticism and Realism
  • 8:15 Modern Theatre
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

Today's theatre is a mix of many styles that have been popular for hundreds of years. In this lesson, learn how each time period contributed to what we now see during a live, dramatic performance.

Introduction to Theatre

When you're analyzing or interpreting a piece of literature, it's useful to know something about the time period during which the work was written. This information can help you identify patterns, anticipate forms and predict themes. Looking at drama is no different. If you know a little bit about the history of the theatre, you will have a better chance of understanding the context of a play before you even begin reading it.

Primitive Theatre

Since this is a brief history of drama, you're probably subconsciously asking yourself, 'When did people begin acting out plays?' Well, I hate to tell you, but I don't know. Actually, no one knows for sure. What we do know is that all drama is simply an imitation of actions or ideas, so many theories suggest that the first dramatic stories were probably told by primitive tribes who would return from the hunt and reenact the events for the rest of the tribe.

Over time, it may have become a ritual, and the performance might have taken place before the hunt. Like most rituals, the shaman, the religious leader of the tribe, would have eventually overseen it, and it would have become a sort of religious or spiritual celebration. This could have set the stage for theatre for the next several hundred years.

Greek Theatre

And while we aren't quite sure where or how it all began, we do know that the Greeks embraced theatre as a means to worship their mythical gods. In doing this, they transformed drama from a ritual into sort of a ritual-drama and held festivals in honor of the Greek god of wine and fertility, Dionysus. Think of this sort of like spring break in Miami - everyone gets together in the spring, drinks a lot, dresses up, celebrates fertility and then has a three-day contest in which three playwrights would compete. Okay, that last part doesn't quite fit, but you do have excessive amounts of drunk, over-sexed people spending three days watching plays - it's bound to get a little bit rowdy.

These early plays were performed by a group of men and boys called a chorus. The chorus worked as a group to provide commentary on the action of the story. But even with the introduction of individual actors, the chorus still remained in the background, acting as narrators providing insight to the action on stage and the characters' thoughts.

In fact, there were very few people on stage in general, which meant that everyone had to play multiple parts. The drama masks that so many of us associate with theatre were used for exactly this purpose. The smiling comedy mask and the frowning tragedy mask were visual representations of Greek muses and were used to enhance the songs and actions on stage.

With this development of drama, it's no surprise that many famous plays came from this time period. Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides are all well-known playwrights from this time, though it is believed that many of their works were never recovered.

The Middle Ages

Theatre continued to be popular through the fall of the Roman Empire. With the onset of the Middle Ages from 500-1500 A.D., however, the Church had different views of the mythological gods and saw theatre as evil. Most theatre was outlawed, and drama was only performed by traveling groups of actors.

Eventually, though, the Church saw the value of the ritualistic nature of drama, and began to reenact short Bible stories during mass. Mystery plays were stories from the Bible. Miracle plays focused on saints. Over time, these plays transformed into something known as morality plays. These plays promoted a godly life, but they did not teach the Bible stories exclusively. Instead, the morality plays worked as an allegory, which is a literary device where the characters or events represent or symbolize other ideas and concepts.

Morality plays, which featured a hero who must overcome evil, were allegorical in nature. In the case of the morality plays, the hero represented mankind. The other characters served as personifications of many things, including the Seven Deadly Sins, death, virtues and even angels and demons - anything that wanted to take over mankind's soul. In the end, the hero would choose the godly route.

An example of a 15th century English morality play is Everyman. In the play, God sends Death to strike down the sinners who have forgotten him. Death finds the main character, Everyman, and tells him he is to begin his journey from life to death. Everyman asks if he can bring someone with him, and Death agrees. Unfortunately, Everyman cannot persuade any of his friends, who include Fellowship, Beauty, Kindred, Worldly Goods, to go with him on his journey. Finally, Good Deeds says that she will go with him. Together they go into the grave and ascend into heaven. The moral of this story is that good deeds will help every man get into heaven. It is a subtle turn from the straight biblical stories, but it allowed for more secular forms of drama during the Renaissance.

The Renaissance

You might already know the word Renaissance means 'rebirth'. In the case of drama, the Renaissance, which lasted from approximately 1400-1700, was the rebirth of interest in theatre across Europe. In fact, the Renaissance introduced many of the elements we still think of when we imagine a theatre: indoor theatres, an arched stage, a curtain dropped between scenes, more elaborate set design. All of these changes were implemented during the Renaissance. More importantly, however, the purpose of drama transitioned from stories told by the Church to stories made primarily for entertainment for both royalty and commoners.

Usually when we hear the word Renaissance, especially in conjunction with drama, we think of Shakespeare's England. What most people don't know is the Renaissance actually began in Italy, where music, song and dance were implemented into the plays produced in the new indoor theatres. From there, the rebirth of the arts moved to other countries in Europe. The French imitated Italian theatre and boasted the talent of playwright Molière, whose plays poked fun at the people in important positions.

In Spain, they kept some of the religious dramas, but also began performing action-based plays. It wasn't until later that the Renaissance was embraced in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and continued through the reign of King James I and King Charles I. Theatre flourished during this time, producing several great playwrights. These included Christopher Marlowe, who was known for writing tragedies, and Ben Jonson, who was known for writing comedies. Of course, most well known of all was William Shakespeare, who wrote both and is still popular today.

Romanticism and Realism

Theatre remained popular with a few minor changes after the Renaissance and during the Reformation, when women began acting on stage. By the 1800s, however, Romanticism, which began in Germany, began to influence the content of scripts written for the stage. The typical romantic play focused on a hero who was fighting against an unjust society to maintain his rights as a human being. These plays embraced nature and the supernatural.

The most popular of these was the melodrama, a play where the hero always succeeds. There was usually a battle of good and evil, complete with special effects, like train crashes, horse races and earthquakes. It was during the Romantic period that German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote Faust, and French playwright Alexandre Dumas, produced scripts for the novels The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

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