History of theatre

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Theatre has existed in many forms since Ancient Greek times. This article attempts to outline the main stages.

Ancient civilisations

Ancient Greece is generally regarded as the founding civilisation of theatre. It began at the festival of Dionysus, the god of wine, when the first actor, a man by the name of Thespis (from whose name we take the word 'thespian' from) left the chorus and assumed a character. The first theatres, two-story buildings with movable sets were soon created, and the first major playwrights followed.

Aeschylus, a man from a noble family, wrote many plays, his magnum opus being Oresteia, and introduced the second actor. Sophocles, another prolific playwright, wrote Oedipus Rex. Euripides wrote Alcestis while Aristophanes wrote The Frogs. The architecture of the theatre was soon improved to a semicircular theatre, made of stone, and it is these that are the earliest to survive.

The Roman civilisation also worked on some plays. For example, Lucius Livius Andronicus, a freed slave, wrote some of the first Roman plays, though these are generally regarded as near translations of Greek works. Plautus wrote comedies base on the later forms of Greek comedy. Before the birth of Christ most Roman theatres were temporary but this changed as many were built in the Hellenic style.

Middle Ages

In the middle ages most plays were Christian in theme, such as The Passion of Christ and various British mystery plays, based on the Bible. Also, many theatres were made to be based on the back of vehicles. Other important kinds of plays from this time are 'miracle plays' and 'morality dramas'. Some representative works from the Middle Ages are The Castle of Perseverance, John Heywood's The Four P's.

The 15-1600s

The first British comedy, the peculiarly named Ralph Roister Doister, was authored by Nicholas Udall in the 1540s. The first British tragedy, Gorboduc, also dates from the mid-1500s, and was written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. Plays were performed not just in theatres but also in pubs, which helped to bring plays to the masses. Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd and the famous William Shakespeare were the key playwrights up to the early 1600s. Ben Jonson then took over. The improvised commedia dell'arte became popular in the 17th century, and theatres became built indoors. The masque was also popular. The Frenchman Molière was also instrumental to this period.

The 18th and 19th centuries

Censorship started affecting plays at this time. American theatre took off. A representative work of the 18th century is The Fatal Marriage. Theatres were put up in many areas. Shakesperean works enjoyed a renaissance. The 19th century brought Edward Bulwer Lytton, an author of the play England and the English; melodramas such as Black-Eyed Susan; pantomimes; scenery; and Stanislavsky, inventor of the epithet 'every action has a purpose'. Abstract theatre was started as a genre, and Henrik Ibsen became known as one of the best Scandinavian playwrights, as did Strindberg. Chekhov and Dostoyevsky represented Russia.

Modern plays

The genre of the musical became very popular at the start of the 20th century. These were written by authors such as Gershwin and Miller. In continental Europe, the works of Pirandello were popular, especially Six Characters in Search of an Author. Max Reinhardt and Noel Coward wrote plays around this time also. Towards the end of the 20th century the works of renaissance artists themselves entered a renaissance. Musicals and pantomimes retained their popularity.[1]


  1. Teach Yourself Theatre