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.
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.
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.
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.
With new scientific and psychological discoveries, people began to want more realistic stories that reflected the world around them. This transition into realism was a reaction against the Romantic idealism. In fact, most literature can be characterized as either romantic or realistic. Unlike the melodrama, realistic plays usually did not have a happy ending. Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House tells the story of a woman who leaves her husband and children in an effort to find herself. Ibsen argues that a woman could not find herself in modern society, a controversial idea at the time of its production. At first, audiences preferred the melodrama to the more serious nature of realism, but over time, these plays did become popular and have remained popular even today.
Eugene O'Neill, who wrote in the first half of the 20th century, was a Nobel laureate and the first American playwright to find success abroad. His realistic play, Long Day's Journey into Night, is somewhat autobiographical, as it explores his family's struggle with addiction and loss.
After World War II, several American playwrights became popular. Arthur Miller, who was once married to Marilyn Monroe, wrote the play, The Crucible, in response to the McCarthy trials of the 1950s. His play, Death of a Salesman, won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize. Tennessee Williams is another famous American playwright, whose works have a more poetic quality. Williams' The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire are still widely read and performed.
Realistic theatre is extremely popular in spite of some of the attempts to move away from the style. Among these attempts is absurdism. The primarily European Theatre of the Absurd of the 1950s sprung from the belief that our existence has no purpose and, as a result, there is little in the world that is logical or rational. In absurdism, the dialogue is illogical and the actions irrational. These plays usually end in silence. Absurdist plays, while still written and produced today, are not part of mainstream theatre.
Minority theatre, a term for plays focused on minority groups and their struggles, began finding success in the 1960s. Lorraine Hansberry was both the first African-American and the first African-American woman to find success in American theatre. Her play, A Raisin in the Sun, shows the struggles of a multi-generational African-American family as they attempt to achieve the American dream.
Minority plays continue to be written. In 1983, August Wilson wrote a series of plays called the Pittsburgh Cycle, 10 plays that explore the African-American experience. The most famous of these is Fences, which looks at race relations in the 1950s. Today, modern theatre has become a mix of styles and has expanded with the use of multimedia.
As we've seen, theatre has changed quite a bit over time. It started with the ritualistic nature of primitive theatre and continued through the ritual worship of the Greek gods. This ritualistic tendency changed during the Middle Ages, when the Christian Church insisted on morality plays that showed godly heroes overcoming evil. During the Renaissance, there was a rebirth of the arts, including drama, which resulted in more modernized theatres, sets and scripts.
It also gave us the most famous of playwrights, William Shakespeare. After the Renaissance, the Romantic period introduced the melodrama, where the hero always wins. This was followed by the Realism period. Today's modern theatre uses a mix of these styles to entertain live audiences across the world.
After finishing this video lesson, students should be able to recognize the changes in drama/theatre starting with telling tales around a primitive fire to the Golden Age of Greece to the Renaissance work of the Bard to the realism of Chekhov and Ibsen to the post-modernist like Williams, Miller and Inge. Throughout these eras, things like modernization, religion, war and the growth of society's maturity in all ages influenced the stage around the world.