|The Globe Theatre: Stage and Galleries
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Since classical Athens (6th century BC), vibrant traditions of theatre have flourished in many cultures across the world. Theatre started from myth, ritual, and ceremony. Early societies found connections between certain actions performed by the group or leaders in the group and the desired results of the whole society. These actions moved from habit to tradition, and then on to ceremony and ritual. The formulation of these actions, and the consequent repetition and rehearsal, paved the way for theatre.
Despite theatre’s resemblance to the performance of ritual activities, and the important relationship that theatre shares with them, there is no conclusive evidence available to show that theatre originated from ritual. This similarity of early theatre to ritual is negatively attested by Aristotle, who, in his Poetics, defined theatre in contrast to the performances of sacred mysteries: theatre did not require the spectator to fast, drink the kykeon, or march in a procession; but the theatre did resemble the sacred mysteries in the sense that it brought purification and healing to the spectator through a vision, the theama and so the physical location of such performances was accordingly named theatron.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says: “the theatre has always been a source of marvellous spectacles, ghastly tragedies, gay comedies, and heart-wrenching romances. First used by the Greeks, theatres have grown in popularity as a means of escaping this world and entering into another, mystical world as an escape.”
According to the historians Oscar Brockett and Franklin Hildy, rituals typically include elements that entertain or give pleasure, such as costumes and masks and, of course, skilled performers. As societies grew more complex, these spectacular elements began to be acted out under non-ritualistic conditions. As this occurred, the first tentative steps towards theatre as an autonomous activity were taken.
Design of Theatre buildings
The oldest existing spaces to be classified as “theatrical areas” are in four Minoan palaces on the island of Crete. The oldest of these, at Phaestus, dates to as early as 2000 BC, while the one at Amnisus may have been built as late as 700 BC.
The first buildings used for theatrical performances in Britain were amphitheatres introduced by the Romans, who copied theatres from ancient Greece. The buildings were semi-circular structures, initially made of wood and later stone. They were open to the elements with banked seating around a raised stage. Medieval theatre was presented on elaborate temporary stages inside great halls, barns, or in the open courtyards of galleried inns. From these, Elizabethan timber-framed open-air theatres took their form – the best example is the Globe in London. They were often multi-sided buildings, with a covered platform stage against one side. The audience sat or stood in covered galleries around the other sides or in the open courtyard. All the performances took place in daylight.
Early History of Stage Design
- The western tradition of theatre began in ancient Greece. Ruins of the earliest theatres – great outdoor amphitheatres – still stand in places like Greece, Italy and Turkey. Designers of those buildings understood that maximum communication between the stage and audience was essential. The actual set design was minimal and usually relied on costumes, a few props, and occasional items that stood on the stage.
- Before the Renaissance (roughly, the 14th century to the 17th century AD), set design consisted merely of drawings or paintings on the theatre’s back wall. Some theatres were open-air and relied only on dialogue to give audience members a clue about the setting.
- During the Renaissance, mathematicians helped design sets to give the illusion of space, depth and perspective.Tables, moving pieces, and other gadgets helped with sound effects.
- During the 19th Century, playhouses emerged that were designed specifically for shows that would allow for props, furniture, and design elements to make the performance come alive.
Some early theatres were quite large and could seat over 10,000 people. They had tiered seating built in a semi-circle around the main stage. The bowl shape of the seating allowed the actors’ voices to carry throughout the entire theatre. Actors performed in the open area at the centre of the theatre (called the orchestra). Many plays were accompanied by music. Common instruments were the lyre (a stringed instrument) and the aulos (like a flute). There was also a group of performers near the front of the stage called the chorus that would chant or sing together during the play.
The First Actors
The first plays were performed with just one actor (called a protagonist) and a chorus of people who helped him to tell the story. However, throughout the 5th century BC, playwrights continued to innovate. The playwright Aeschylus added a second speaking role, called the antagonist, and reduced the chorus from 50 to 12. His play ‘The Persians, first performed in 472 BC, is the oldest surviving of all Greek plays.
Aeschylus’ pupil, Sophocles, went on to add a third actor. In contrast, Euripides added a prologue, introducing the play’s subject and the deus ex machina. This divine figure wrapped up any loose ends at the close.
The origin of theatre in Ancient Greece may be traced to a large festival in Athens known as Dionysia. This festival was held honouring Dionysus, the Greek god of the grape harvest, wine and fertility. The first performance of tragedy at the Dionysia is attributed to the playwright and actor Thespis. The best-preserved example of a classical Greek theatre, the Theatre of Epidaurus, has a circular orchêstra and probably gives the best idea of the original shape of the Athenian theatre, although it dates as early as the 4th century BC.
Greek theatre, most developed in Athens, is the root of the Western tradition; theatre is a word of Greek origin. 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. Taking part in the city-state’s many festivals—and attendance at the City Dionysia as an audience member (or even as a participant in the theatrical productions) was an important part of citizenship. Civic participation also involved the evaluation of the rhetoric of orators evidenced in performances in the law-court or political assembly, both of which were understood as analogous to the theatre and increasingly came to absorb its style and dramatic vocabulary. The theatre of ancient Greece consisted of three types of drama, namely:
- satyr play (a form of Attic theatre performance related to both comedy and tragedy)
Roman theatre was the first to divide plays into a number of acts separated by intervals. Acts may be further divided into scenes. 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, although Beacham argued 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 the broadly appealing situation of Plautus‘s comedies, to the high-style and verbally elaborate tragedies of Seneca. Although Rome already had a tradition of performance, the Hellenisation of Roman culture in the 3rd century BC had a profound and energising effect on Roman theatre and encouraged the development of Latin literature of the highest quality for the stage.
After the expansion of the Roman Republic into several Greek territories between 270–240 BC, Rome encountered Greek drama. Theatre spread west across Europe, around the Mediterranean and reached England; Roman theatre was more varied, extensive and sophisticated than that of any culture before it. While Greek drama continued to be performed throughout the Roman period, the year 240 BC marks the beginning of what might be called ‘regular Roman drama’. From the beginning of the empire, however, interest in full-length drama declined in favour of a wider variety of theatrical entertainments.
The first important works of Roman theatre were the tragedies and comedies that Livius Andronicus wrote in and after 240 BC, and in 235 BC, Gnaeus Naevius also began to write drama. No plays from either writer have survived. While both dramatists composed tragedies and comedies, Andronicus was most appreciated for his tragedies and Naevius for his comedies: their successors tended to specialise in one or the other, which led to a separation of the subsequent development of each type of drama. By the beginning of the 2nd century BC, drama was firmly established in Rome, and a guild of writers (collegium poetarum) was formed.
No early Roman tragedy survives, though it was highly regarded in its day; historians know of three early tragedians—Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius and Lucius Accius. From the time of the Roman empire, the work of two tragedians survives—one is an unknown author, while the other is the philosopher Seneca. Nine of Seneca’s tragedies survive, all of which are fabula crepidata (tragedies adapted from Greek originals).
In contrast to Ancient Greek theatre, the theatre in Ancient Rome allowed female performers. While most were employed for dancing and singing, a minority of actresses are known to have performed speaking roles, and some actresses achieved wealth, fame and recognition for their art – such as Eucharis, Dionysia, Galeria Copiola and Fabia Arete. They also formed their own acting guild, the Sociae Mimae, which was said to have been quite wealthy.
Transition and Early Medieval Theatre, 500–1050
As the Western Roman Empire fell into decay through the 4th and 5th centuries, the seat of Roman power shifted to Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire, today called the Byzantine Empire. Whilst surviving evidence about Byzantine theatre is light, existing records show that mime, pantomime, scenes or recitations from tragedies and comedies, dances, and other entertainments were very popular.
Constantinople had two theatres in use as late as the 5th century. However, the true importance of the Byzantines in theatrical history is their preservation of many classical Greek texts, and the compilation of a massive encyclopedia called the Suda, from which is derived a large amount of contemporary information on Greek theatre. From the 5th century, Western Europe was plunged into a period of general disorder that lasted (with a brief period of stability under the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century) until the 10th century. During this time, most organised theatrical activities disappeared in Western Europe. While it seems that small nomadic bands travelled around Europe throughout the period, performing wherever they could find an audience, there is no evidence that they produced anything but crude scenes, and the performers were denounced by the Church during the Dark Ages as they were viewed as dangerous and pagan.
By the Early Middle Ages, churches in Europe began staging dramatised versions of particular biblical events on specific days of the year. These dramatisations were included to vivify annual celebrations. Symbolic objects and actions – such as vestments, altars, censers, and pantomime performed by priests – recalled the events which the Christian ritual celebrates. These were extensive sets of visual signs that could be used to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. These performances developed into liturgical dramas, the earliest of which is the Whom do you Seek (Quem-Quaeritis) Easter trope, dating from circa 925 AD. Liturgical drama was sung responsively by two groups without involving actors impersonating characters. However, sometime between 965 and 975, Æthelwold of Winchester composed the Regularis Concordia (Monastic Agreement), which contains a playlet complete with directions for performance. The composition is of theatrical importance as it contains rules for divine service in English monasteries. It was composed during the reign of Edgar (959–975)and is the oldest extant example in European literature of the theatrical recital of an alternating song in church.
High and Late Medieval Theatre, 1050–1500
With invasions by the Vikings ceasing in the middle of the 11th century, liturgical drama spread from Russia to Scandinavia to Italy. It was only in the Muslim-occupied Iberian Peninsula that liturgical dramas were completely absent. Despite the large number of liturgical dramas that have survived from the period, many churches performed only one or two per year, and many never performed any.
The Feast of Fools was especially important in the development of comedy. The festival inverted the status of the lesser clergy and allowed them to ridicule their superiors and the routine of church life. Sometimes plays were staged as part of the occasion, and a certain amount of burlesque and comedy crept into these performances.
Performance of religious plays outside of the church began sometime in the 12th century through a traditionally accepted process of merging shorter liturgical dramas into longer plays which were then translated into the vernacular and performed by laypeople. The majority of actors in these plays of this period were drawn from the local population.
Morality plays emerged as a distinct dramatic form around 1400 and flourished until 1550. Several secular performances were also staged in the Middle Ages, the earliest of which is The Play of the Greenwood by Adam de la Halle in 1276. It contains satirical scenes and folk material such as faeries and other supernatural occurrences. Farces also rose dramatically in popularity after the 13th century. Most of these plays came from France and Germany and are similar in tone and form, emphasising sex and bodily excretions.
The best-known playwright of farces is Hans Sachs (1494–1576), who wrote 198 dramatic works. In England, The Second Shepherds’ Play of the Wakefield Cycle is the best-known early farce. However, farce did not appear independently in England until the 16th century with the work of John Heywood (1497–1580).
A significant forerunner of the development of Elizabethan drama was the Chambers of Rhetoric in the Low Countries. These theatrical societies were concerned with poetry, music and drama and held contests to see which organisation could compose the best drama in relation to a question posed.
At the end of the Late Middle Ages, professional actors appeared in England and elsewhere in Europe. Kings Richard III and Henry VII both maintained small companies of professional actors. Their plays were performed in the Great Hall of a nobleman’s residence, often with a raised platform at one end for the audience and a “screen” at the other for the actors. Also important were Mummers’ plays, performed during the Christmas season, and court masques, which were especially popular during the reign of King Henry VIII, who had a House of Revels built and an Office of Revels established in 1545.
The end of medieval drama came about due to several factors, including the weakening power of the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation and the banning of religious plays in many countries. Queen Elizabeth I forbade all religious plays in 1558, and the great cycle plays had been silenced by the 1580s. Similarly, religious plays were banned in the Netherlands in 1539, the Papal States in 1547 and Paris in 1548. The abandonment of these plays destroyed the existing international theatre and forced each country to develop its separate form of drama. It also allowed dramatists to turn to secular subjects, and the reviving interest in Greek and Roman theatre gave them the perfect opportunity.
English Elizabethan Theatre
Renaissance theatre derived from several medieval theatre traditions, such as the mystery plays that formed a part of religious festivals in England and other parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. Other sources include the “morality plays” and the “University drama” that attempted to recreate Athenian tragedy. The Italian tradition of Commedia dell’arte, and the elaborate masques frequently presented at court, also contributed to the shaping of public theatre. Before the reign of Elizabeth I, companies of players were attached to households of leading aristocrats and performed seasonally in various locations. These became the foundation for the professional players that performed on the Elizabethan stage. The tours of these players gradually replaced the performances of local players’ mystery and morality plays, and a 1572 law eliminated the remaining companies lacking formal patronage by labelling them as vagabonds.
The City of London authorities were generally hostile to public performances, but its hostility was overmatched by the Queen’s taste for plays and the Privy Council’s support. Theatres sprang up in the suburbs, especially in the liberty of Southwark, accessible across the Thames to city dwellers but beyond the authority’s control. The companies maintained the pretence that their public performances were mere rehearsals for the frequent performances before the Queen, but while the latter did grant prestige, the former was the real source of income for the professional players.
Along with the economics of the profession, the character of the drama changed toward the end of the period. Under Elizabeth I, the drama was a unified expression as far as social class was concerned: the Court watched the same plays the commoners saw in the public playhouses. With the development of private theatres, drama became more oriented toward the tastes and values of an upper-class audience. By the later part of the reign of Charles I, few new plays were being written for the public theatres, which sustained themselves on the accumulated works of the previous decades.
Puritan opposition to the stage (informed by the arguments of the early Church Fathers who had written extensively against the decadent and violent entertainments of the Romans) argued not only that the stage, in general, was pagan but that any play that represented a religious figure was inherently idolatrous.
In 1642, at the outbreak of the English Civil War, the Puritan authorities banned the performance of all plays within the city limits of London. A sweeping assault against the alleged immoralities of the theatre crushed whatever remained in England of the dramatic tradition.
Spanish Golden Age Theatre
During its Golden Age, roughly from 1590 to 1681, Spain saw an enormous increase in live theatre production and in the importance of theatre within Spanish society. It was an accessible art form for all participants in Renaissance Spain, being both highly sponsored by the aristocratic class and highly supported and attended by the lower classes. The volume and variety of Spanish plays during the Golden Age were unprecedented in the history of world theatre, surpassing, for example, the dramatic production of the English Renaissance by a factor of at least four. Although this has been as much a source of criticism as praise for Spanish Golden Age theatre (for emphasising quantity before quality), many of the 10,000 to 30,000 plays of this period are still considered to be masterpieces.
Major artists of the period included Lope de Vega (a contemporary of Shakespeare, often and contemporaneously seen as his parallel for the Spanish stage and Calderon de la Barca, inventor of the zarzuela/ and Lope’s successor as the preeminent Spanish dramatist.
The sources of influence for the emerging national theatre of Spain were as diverse as the theatre that the country ended up producing. Storytelling traditions originating in Italian Commedia dell’arte and the uniquely Spanish expression of Western Europe’s travelling minstrel entertainments contributed a populist influence on the narratives and music of early Spanish theatre. Neo-Aristotelian criticism and liturgical dramas, on the other hand, contributed literary and moralistic perspectives. In turn, Spanish Golden Age theatre has dramatically influenced later generations of theatre in Europe and the world. Spanish drama had an immediate and significant impact on the contemporary developments in English Renaissance theatre. It has also had a lasting impact on theatre throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Additionally, a growing number of works are being translated, increasing the reach of Spanish Golden Age theatre and strengthening its reputation among critics and theatre patrons.
French Classical Theatre
French theatre has a history dating back to the 12th century, when the idea of dramatic performances for entertainment, not just for religious education, was starting to emerge. Most of it was written and performed in Latin. Whilst French theatre was around in the Middle Ages, it came into its own in the Renaissance and, specifically, under the reign of King Louis XIV. 16th-century French theatre followed the same patterns of evolution as the other literary genres of the period. For the first decades of the century, the public theatre remained largely tied to its long medieval heritage of mystery plays, morality plays, farces, and soties, although the miracle play was no longer in vogue. Public performances were tightly controlled by a guild system. The guild “les Confrères de la Passion” had exclusive rights to theatrical productions of mystery plays in Paris; in 1548, fear of violence or blasphemy resulting from the growing religious rift in France forced the Paris Parliament to prohibit performances of the mysteries in the capital, although they continued to be performed in other places. Another guild, the “Enfants Sans-Souci“, was in charge of farces and soties, as too the “Clercs de la Basoche“, who also performed morality plays. Like the “Confrères de la Passion“, “la Basoche” came under political scrutiny (plays had to be authorised by a review board; masks or characters depicting living persons were not permitted), and they were finally suppressed in 1582. By the end of the century, only the “Confrères de la Passion” remained with exclusive control over public theatrical productions in Paris, and they rented out their theatre at the Hôtel de Bourgogne to theatrical troupes for a high price. In 1597, they abandoned this privilege.
Britannica.com describes the Theatre in France:
‘Theatre companies in France in the early 16th century were playing a mixed fare of moralities, miracle plays, farces, and soties*. The most important company was an amateur guild called the Confrérie de la Passion, which held a monopoly on acting in Paris. In 1548, it opened its own theatre, the Hôtel de Bourgogne, a long narrow room with the stage filling one end, a pit for standing spectators, and two galleries around the walls. Both auditorium and stage were lit by candles. Soon after the theatre opened, the Confrérie was forbidden by decree to perform religious plays for fear that they could be used to debase Roman Catholicism. The feeble traditions of indigenous secular drama in its repertoire were soon overpowered by the Renaissance influence, and dramatists began looking to Classical antiquity for inspiration.’
* A sotie (or sottie) is a short satirical play common in 15th and 16th century France.
Notable French playwrights in the 17th century:
English Comedies: Restoration Comedy Theatre
After public stage performances had been banned for 18 years by the Puritan regime, the re-opening of the theatres in 1660 signalled a renaissance of English drama. With the monarch’s restoration in 1660 came the restoration and re-opening of the theatre. English comedies written and performed in the Restoration period from 1660 to 1710 are collectively called “Restoration comedy“.
Restoration comedy was notorious for its sexual explicitness, a quality encouraged by Charles II (1660–1685) personally and by the rakish aristocratic ethos of his court. For the first time, women were allowed to act, putting an end to the practice of the boy-player playing the parts of women. Socially diverse audiences included aristocrats, their servants and hangers-on, and a substantial middle-class segment. Restoration audiences liked to see good triumph in their tragedies and rightful government restored. In comedy, audiences enjoyed seeing the love lives of the young and fashionable, with a central couple bringing their courtship to a successful conclusion (often overcoming the opposition of the elders to do so). Of course, heroines had to be chaste, but they were independent-minded and outspoken too; now that women played them, there was more mileage for the playwright in disguising them in men’s clothes or giving them narrow escape from rape. Audiences were attracted to the comedies by up-to-the-minute topical writing, crowded and bustling plots, the introduction of the first professional actresses, and the rise of the first celebrity actors.
To non-theatre-goers, these comedies were widely seen as licentious and morally suspect, holding up the antics of a small, privileged, and decadent class for admiration. This same class dominated the audiences of the Restoration theatre. This period saw the first professional woman playwright, Aphra Behn.
As a reaction to the decadence of Charles II era productions, sentimental comedy grew in popularity.
The focus of this genre was on the encouragement of virtuous behaviour and was achieved by showing middle-class characters overcoming a series of moral trials. Playwrights like Colley Cibber and Richard Steele believed that humans were inherently good but capable of being led astray. Through plays such as The Conscious Lovers and Love’s Last Shift, they strove to appeal to an audience’s noble sentiments so that viewers could be reformed.
The Restoration spectacular, or elaborately staged “machine play”, hit the London public stage in the late 17th century Restoration period, enthralling audiences with action, music, dance, moveable scenery, baroque illusionistic painting, gorgeous costumes, and special effects such as trapdoor tricks, “flying” actors, and fireworks. These shows had a bad reputation as a vulgar and commercial threat to the witty, “legitimate” Restoration drama; however, they drew Londoners in unprecedented numbers and left them dazzled and delighted.
This home-grown theatre with roots in the early 17th-century court masque, though never ashamed of borrowing ideas and stage technology from French opera, the spectaculars are sometimes called “English opera”. However, their variety is so untidy that most theatre historians despair of defining them as a genre.
Only a handful of works of this period are usually accorded the term “opera”, as the musical dimension of most of them is secondary to the visual. The spectacle and scenery drew in the crowds, as shown by many comments in the diary of the theatre-lover Samuel Pepys. The expense of mounting ever-more elaborate scenic productions drove the two competing theatre companies into either a dangerous spiral of huge expenditure or correspondingly huge losses or profits.
Neoclassicism was the dominant form of theatre in the 18th century. The theatrical arts were defined by the ideas and styles of ancient Greek and Roman societies. It demanded decorum and rigorous adherence to the classical unities and is characterised by its grandiosity: the costumes and scenery were intricate and elaborate. Large gestures and melodrama characterised the acting. Neoclassical theatre encompasses the Restoration, Augustan, and Johnstinian Ages. In one sense, the neo-classical age directly follows the time of the Renaissance. People of the time placed a heavy focus on dignified behaviour and realism and believed that the primary reasons for a play were to provide entertainment and to provide a lesson (didactically).
MusicalExpert.org says of the era:
‘The attitude of the Neoclassicists toward excess and the individual led them to develop a strict set of guidelines for what was appropriate in the theatre. These included five basic rules: purity of form, five acts, verisimilitude or realism, decorum and purpose. Playhouses generally rejected scripts or productions that did not meet these requirements.’
Politically satirical comedies superseded the sexual farces of the Restoration period. In 1737, the British Parliament passed the Stage Licensing Act, which introduced state censorship of public performances and limited the number of theatres in London to two.
19th Century Theatre
Beginning in France, melodrama became the most popular theatrical form. August von Kotzebue‘s Misanthropy and Repentance (1789) is often considered the first melodramatic play. The plays of August von Kotzebue and René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt established melodrama as the dominant dramatic form of the early 19th century.
The Kiralfy Brothers (Imre and Bolossy) were born in the 1840s in Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution. They were highly influential burlesque and spectacle producers in Europe and the United States toward the end of the 19th century. With backgrounds in music and dance, these performers-turned-producers dazzled New York City with their theatrical wonders. The brothers had a long and successful partnership and even continued to have success in their individual careers. From folk dancing in Europe to directing and producing in the United States, the Kiralfys spent their lives astounding audiences with unseen visual phenomenon and were never afraid to push the boundaries earning them a special place in entertainment history.
In Germany, there was a trend toward historical accuracy in costumes and settings, a revolution in theatre architecture, and the introduction of the theatrical form of German Romanticism. Influenced by trends in 19th century philosophy and the visual arts, German writers were increasingly fascinated with their Teutonic past and carried a growing sense of nationalism. The plays of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and other Sturm und Drang playwrights inspired an increasing faith in feeling and instinct as guides to moral behaviour.
In Britain, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron were the most important dramatists of their time, although Shelley’s plays were not performed until later in the century. In the minor theatres, burletta and melodrama were the most popular. Kotzebue’s plays were translated into English, and A Tale of Mystery by Thomas Holcroft was the first of many English melodramas. Pierce Egan, Douglas William Jerrold, Edward Fitzball, and John Baldwin Buckstone initiated a trend towards more contemporary and rural stories in preference to the usual historical or fantastical melodramas. James Sheridan Knowles and Edward Bulwer-Lytton established a “gentlemanly” drama form that began to re-establish the former prestige of the theatre with the aristocracy.
Realism began earlier in the 19th century in Russia than elsewhere in Europe and took a more uncompromising form. Starting with the plays of Ivan Turgenev (who used “domestic detail to reveal inner turmoil”), Aleksandr Ostrovsky (Russia’s first professional playwright), Aleksey Pisemsky (whose A Bitter Fate (1859) anticipated Naturalism), and Leo Tolstoy (whose The Power of Darkness (1886) is “one of the most effective of naturalistic plays“), a tradition of psychological realism in Russia culminated with the establishment of the Moscow Art Theatre by Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.
The most important theatrical force in later 19th century Germany was that of Georg II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen and his Meiningen Ensemble, under the direction of Ludwig Chronegk. The Ensemble’s productions are often considered the most historically accurate of the 19th century, although his primary goal was to serve the playwright’s interests.
In Britain, melodramas, light comedies, operas, Shakespeare and classic English drama, Victorian burlesque, pantomimes, translations of French farces and, from the 1860s, French operettas continued to be popular. So successful were the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, such as H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) and The Mikado (1885), that they greatly expanded the audience for musical theatre in London and New York. Later, the work of Henry Arthur Jones and Arthur Wing Pinero initiated a new direction on the English stage.
While their work paved the way, the development of more significant drama owes much to the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, pictured left. Ibsen wrote twenty-five plays, the most famous of which are A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), The Wild Duck (1884), and Hedda Gabler (1890).
After Ibsen, the theatre in Britain experienced revitalisation with the work of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, John Galsworthy, William Butler Yeats, and Harley Granville Barker. Almost as a breath of fresh air and unlike most of their contemporaries’ gloomy and intensely serious work, Shaw and Wilde wrote primarily in comic form. Edwardian musical comedies were extremely popular, appealing to the tastes of the middle class in the Gay Nineties and catered to the public’s preference for escapist entertainment during World War 1.
20th Century Theatre
While much 20th century theatre continued and extended the projects of realism and Naturalism, there was also a great deal of experimental theatre that rejected those conventions. These experiments formed part of the modernist and postmodernist movements and included forms of political theatre and more aesthetically orientated work. Examples include Epic theatre, the Theatre of Cruelty, and the so-called “Theatre of the Absurd“.
Key figures of 20th century theatre include: Antonin Artaud, August Strindberg, Anton Chekhov, Frank Wedekind, Maurice Maeterlinck, Federico García Lorca, Eugene O’Neill, Luigi Pirandello, George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein, Ernst Toller, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Jean Genet, Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Heiner Müller, and Caryl Churchill.
Several aesthetic movements (i.e. the look and feel) continued or emerged in the 20th century, including:
- Surrealism and the Theatre of Cruelty
- Theatre of the Absurd
After the great popularity of the British Edwardian musical comedies, the American musical theatre came to dominate the musical stage, beginning with the Princess Theatre musicals, followed by the works of the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and later Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Williamsburg, Virginia, USA, was the location for the first performance of a play – William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” was played there in 1752.
Due to a strong Christian society, theatre was banned from 1774 until 1789. During the ban, theatre often hid by presenting itself as a place for moral lectures. Theatre began to spread westward, and often towns had theatres before they had pavements or sewers. There were several leading professional theatre companies early on, but one of the most influential was in Philadelphia (1794–1815).
As the US expanded, so did theatre. Following the war of 1812, theatre headed west. Many of the new theatres were community-run, but in New Orleans, a professional theatre had been started by the French in 1791. Several troupes broke off and established a theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio. There were turbulent times in America with economic crises following wars, and theatre experienced bankruptcy and management changes. Another problem was that most early American theatre had great European influence because many of the actors had been English born and trained.
The emergence of Hollywood presented a threat to American theatre. However, the theatre didn’t decline but was renowned and noticed worldwide. Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller achieved worldwide fame during this period.
Elements of a Theatrical Play
Many people have written about what constitutes drama. One of the first and most influential was Aristotle, who concluded that there were six elements to drama: plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle and song. Since then, many people have had their say. What about symbols and metaphors? Or mood and atmosphere? Are tension and suspense important? Are these key elements of drama?
I found these questions thought-provoking and undertook further research. The elements of drama could (and should) include the above elements, but maybe there are others, such as role, relationships, situation, movement, space and time, language and texts, audience and dramatic tension.
Below, you will find a glossary I have put together from various sources. I apologise for any terms I have omitted.
|Antagonist||The opponent or adversary of the hero or main character of a drama.|
|Atmosphere||The interaction between the audience and the mood of a drama performance.|
|Audience||The assembled spectators at a public event such as a play, film or concert.|
|Catharsis||The emotional release felt by the audience at the end of a tragedy; the audience is set free from the emotional hold of the action after sharing the protagonist’s troubles.|
|Character||A person or individual in the drama that may have defined personal qualities and/or histories. Flat characters (or two-dimensional characters) demonstrate a lack of depth or change during a drama event. Rounded characters (or three-dimensional characters) feature more elaborate and complex traits and histories and are changed by dramatic action in the drama event.|
|Chorus||A group of performers who sing, move or recite in unison/as one.|
|Climax||The point of greatest intensity in a series or progression of events in a play often forming the turning point of the plot and leading to some kind of resolution.|
|Comedy||A play that treats characters and situations in a humorous way. In William Shakespeare’s time, a comedy was any play with a happy ending that typically told the story of a likeable character’s rise to fortune.|
|Conflict(s)||The internal or external struggle between opposing forces, ideas, or interests that creates dramatic tension.|
|Contrast||The dynamic use of opposites, such as movement/stillness, sound/silence, and light/darkness.|
|Dénouement||The moment in a drama when the essential plot point is unravelled or explained.|
|Development||The progression of the plot or conflict in a play.|
|Diction||As a literary device, diction refers to the linguistic choices made by a writer to convey an idea or point of view or tell a story effectively.|
|Dramatic tension||Drives the drama and keeps an audience interested. The tension comes when opposing characters, dramatic action, ideas, attitudes, values, emotions and desires are in conflict, creating a problem that needs to be resolved (or unresolved) through drama.|
|Dynamic(s)||The energetic range of, or variations within, the physical movement or the difference between sound levels.|
|Ensemble||The unified effect achieved by all members of the cast working together, rather than a focus on individual performances – also be used to refer to the cast.|
|Exposition||The part of a play that introduces the theme, main characters, and current circumstances.|
|Farce||An extreme form of comedy depending on quick tempo and flawless timing, based on improbable events and farfetched coincidences.|
|Flashback||In a non-linear plot, a flash forward would move the action into the future to go back in time to a previous event.|
|Form||Refers to the shape of each section or scene, e.g. movement/mime-based ensemble scene, duologue, advert, moments of thought-tracking.|
|Fourth wall||The invisible wall of a set through which the audience sees the play’s action.|
|Genre||The French word meaning ‘category’ or ‘type’, e.g. comedy, tragedy, docudrama, farce, or melodrama.|
|Irony||An implied discrepancy between what is said and what is meant. It happens when the audience perceives something that a character does not.|
|Language and texts||Refers to the use of spoken or written words that observe particular conventions and language registers that communicate ideas, feelings and other associations. Texts refer to the use of published texts, online materials and other compositions, the reference of which adds meaning to the drama.|
|Melodrama||A style of play which originated in the 19th century, relying heavily on sensationalism and sentimentality.|
|Metaphor||Creating an image or idea of one thing by saying it is something else. For example, ‘He is a lion of a man.’ In drama, the use of metaphor can be more subtle such as a metaphor of a mouse created through a character having a squeaky voice and small darting movements. Design and stylistic elements can also be metaphors for characterisation or provide meaning in terms of theme.|
|Monologue||A long speech made by one performer; a monologue may be delivered alone or in the presence of others.|
|Mood||Describes the feelings and attitudes, often combined with the roles or characters involved in dramatic action frequently supported by other elements of drama and design elements. The mood is the emotional impact intended by the playwright, director and/or other members of the creative team.|
|Movement||Movement means: where the actors move on the stage, what this communicates to the audience and the effect this has upon the drama – the physical methods actors use to help with characterisation, e.g. moving quickly, lightly or slowly.|
|Parody||A mocking or satirical imitation of a literary or dramatic work.|
|Plot||The events and sequences of action within a play, sometimes known as narrative or storyline.|
|Protagonist||The main character or hero in a play or other literary work.|
|Relationships||Refers to the qualities of the connection between two or more characters or roles. That relationship may be fixed (largely unchanged by the dramatic action) or variable (challenged or changed by the dramatic action). The relationship may be cooperative (as in a friendship), adversarial (as in enemies), neutral (neither positive nor negative) or non-existent (as in total strangers). Those relationships will be defined by shared interests, common objectives, cultural values and/or human need.|
|Resolution||The way a problem or conflict in a drama is solved or concluded.|
|Role||A performer can present in performance a role that represents an abstract concept, stereotyped figure, or person reduced to a particular dominant trait (occupation, human condition or social vocation) that lacks depth or a backstory normally present in a ‘Character’.|
|Satire||A play in which sarcasm, irony, and ridicule are used to expose or attack folly or pretension in society.|
|Situation||The condition or circumstances in which a character or characters are presented often at the opening of a performance.|
|Space||The place where dramatic action is situated and the qualities of that place, including temperature, features, light levels, population levels and other environmental factors that may be presented to or imagined by the characters/audience.|
|Spectacle||In general, spectacle refers to an event that is memorable for the appearance it creates. The word has also been a term of art in theatre dating from the 17th century in English drama.|
|Song||Song, according to Aristotle, makes up one of the elements of tragedy; some parts of the text of the play are conveyed through the singing of the chorus or of other characters.|
|Structure||The arrangement of and the relationship between the scenes/acts within a play or piece of devised theatre.|
|Suspense||A feeling of uncertainty as to the outcome, used to build interest and excitement on the part of the audience.|
|Stock Character(s)||Characters who represent particular personality types or characteristics of human behaviour.|
|Storyline||The plot or sequence of actions within a play.|
|Symbol||Symbolic parts of the scenography or design represent and add further meaning to themes, narrative, emotion, mood and atmosphere. Different colours are symbolic. Other symbols might be found in a sound effect, music, style or images. Some symbols are literal, while others infer meaning.|
|Tension||The anxiety felt by the audience due to a threat to character(s) in the play.|
|Thought||Thought, according to Aristotle, is one of the objects of tragedy; the representation of the characters’ rational processes and values and ideas articulated in the play.|
|Time||Both the time of day, time of the year and time in history or the future. Time also reflects changes in time within a scene or drama event. Time also refers to the flow of time over the length of a drama event: fragmented time, cyclical time, linear time and so forth.|
|Tragedy||A form of drama based on human suffering that invokes in its audience an accompanying catharsis.|
|Turning point||The climax or high point of a story when events can go either way.|
There are other far-flung places where theatreevolved, some of which are:
- Egypt has known the art of theatre for the last seven thousand years. In the modern era, the art of theatre evolved in the second half of the 19th century through interaction with Europe.
- The earliest form of Indian theatre was the Sanskrit theatre. It emerged sometime between the 15th century BC and the 1st century and flourished between the 1st century and the 10th – a period of relative peace in the history of India during which hundreds of plays were written. Modern Indian theatre developed during colonial rule under the British Empire, from the mid-19th century until the mid-20th. The earliest-surviving fragments of Sanskrit drama date from the 1st century. The wealth of archaeological evidence from earlier periods offers no indication of a tradition of theatre. The Mahābhāṣya by Patañjali contains the earliest reference to what may have been the seeds of Sanskrit drama – this treatise on grammar from 140 BC provides a feasible date for the beginnings of theatre in India.
Sources and Further Reading
- Book: The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre, by John Russell Brown, published by Oxford University Press, 1st September 1995, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Oxford-Illustrated-History-Theatre/dp/019212997X/
- Book: Musical Theatre: A History, by John Kenrick, published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 27th July 2017, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Musical-Theatre-John-Kenrick/dp/1474267009/
- Book: Theatre Histories: An Introduction, by Bruce McConachie, Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, et al., published by Routledge, 26th February 2016, available at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Theatre-Histories-Introduction-Bruce-McConachie/dp/0415837979/
- Book: History of the Theatre (International Edition), by Oscar G. Brockett (Author), Franklin J. Hildy (Author), published by Pearson, 12th August 2002, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Theatre-International-Oscar-Brockett/dp/0205410502/
- YouTube Video: History of Theatre – Ancient Greece to Modern Day, at: https://youtu.be/7NmD2TGKnY8
- YouTube Video History of Theatre 1 – From Ritual to Theatre, at: https://youtu.be/lQOPFxuiaWQ
 Source: Banham (1995), Brockett and Hildy (2003), and Goldhill (1997, 54).
 Text source/acknowledgement: https://excavatingthepast.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/whats-in-a-word-etymology-of-theater/
 Source: Aristotle, Poetics VI, 2.
 Source: Excerpted from – http://www.theatrestrust.org.uk/discover-theatres/theatre-faqs/172-how-has-the-design-of-theatre-buildings-changed-over-time © Copyright, Theatres Trust, Fair Use claimed.
 Explanation: Deus ex machina (English “god out of the machine”)is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and unlikely occurrence. Its function is generally to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or act as a comedic device. Sources: (1) Beckson, Karl E.; Ganz, Arthur F. (1961), A Reader’s Guide to Literary Terms: A Dictionary. Noonday Press, (2) “Deus Ex Machina – Examples and Definition”. Literary Devices, 3rd November 2013, (3) “Deus ex machina”, Merriam-Webster, and (4)“Deus ex machina”, Encyclopaedia Britannica.
 Source: Cartledge (1997, 3, 6), Goldhill (1997, p54) and (1999, p20-xx), and Rehm (1992. p3).
 Source: Pelling, Christopher. 2005. “Tragedy, Rhetoric, and Performance Culture”, p83.
 Source: Goldhill, Simon. “The Audience of Athenian Tragedy” in Easterling (1997, pp54–68)] and Pelling (2005, pp83–84).
 Explanation:Greek tragedy is a form of theatre from Ancient Greece and Greek-inhabited Anatolia. It reached its most significant form in Athens in the 5th century BC, the works of which are sometimes called Attic tragedy.
 Ibid, p3.
 Explanation: Hellenization (other British spelling Hellenisation) or Hellenism is the adoption of Greek culture, religion, language and identity by non-Greeks. In the ancient period, colonization often led to the Hellenization of indigenous peoples; in the Hellenistic period, many of the territories which were conquered by Alexander the Great were Hellenized; under the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, much of its territory was Hellenized; and in modern times, Greek culture has prevailed over minority cultures in Modern Greece. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hellenization
 Ibid, pp36, 37.
 Ibid, pp46, 47.
 Ibid, pp47 and 48.
 Source: Pat Easterling, Edith Hall: Pat Easterling, Edith Hall: Greek and Roman Actors: Aspects of an Ancient Profession
 Ibid, p76.
 Ibid p77.
 Explanation: Liturgical drama refers to medieval forms of dramatic performance that use stories from the Bible or Christian hagiography. A hagiography is a biography of a saint or an ecclesiastical leader, as well as, by extension, an adulatory and idealized biography of a founder, saint, monk, nun or icon in any of the world’s religions. Early Christian hagiographies might consist of a biography (a description of the saint’s deeds or miracles). Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liturgical_drama
 Explanation: The Feast of Fools or Festival of Fools (Latin: festum fatuorum, festum stultorum) was a feast day celebrated by the clergy in Europe during the Middle Ages, initially in Southern France, but later more widely. During the Feast, participants would elect either a false Bishop, false Archbishop or false Pope. Ecclesiastical ritual would also be parodied and higher and lower level clergy would change places. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_Fools
 Explanation: Liturgical drama refers to medieval forms of dramatic performance that use stories from the Bible or Christian hagiography. The term was widely disseminated by well-known theatre historians like Heinrich Alt, E.K. Chambers and Karl Young. Source: Wikipedia
 Ibid, p99.
 See: The History of the Revels Office, at: https://museumstjohn.org.uk/history-revels-office/
 Source: David R. Whitesell (1995). “Fredson Bowers and the Editing of Spanish Golden Age Drama”. Text. Indiana University Press. 8: 67–84.
 Sources: (1) David R. Whitesell (1995). “Fredson Bowers and the Editing of Spanish Golden Age Drama”. Text. Indiana University Press. 8: pp67–84. (2) Jonathan Thacker (1 January 2007). A Companion to Golden Age Theatre. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. ISBN 978-1-85566-140-0. (3) Compleat Catalogue of Plays that Were Ever Printed in the English Language. W. Mears. 1719.
 Source: “Introduction to Theatre – Spanish Renaissance Theatre”. Novaonline.nvcc.edu. 2007-11-16.
 Source: Ernst Honigmann. “Cambridge Collections Online : Shakespeare’s life”. Cco.cambridge.org.
 Explanation: Zarzuela is a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, the latter incorporating operatic and popular songs, as well as dance. The etymology of the name is uncertain, but some propose it may derive from the name of a royal hunting lodge, the Palace of Zarzuela, near Madrid, where that type of entertainment was allegedly first presented to the court. The palace in turn was named after the brambles (zarzas) that grew there. There are two main forms of zarzuela: Baroque zarzuela (c. 1630–1750), the earliest style, and Romantic zarzuela (c. 1850–1950). Romantic zarzuelas can be further divided into two main subgenres, género grande and género chico, although other sub-divisions exist. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zarzuela
 Source: “Background to Spanish Drama – Medieval to Renascence Drama > Spanish Golden Age Drama – Drama Courses”. Courses in Drama. 2007-12-23.
 Sources: (1) “Share Documents and Files Online | Microsoft Office Live”. Westerntheatrehistory.com, and (2) “Hispanic, Portuguese & Latin American Studies – HISP20048 The Theatre of the Spanish Golden Age”. Bristol University
 Source: Sebastian Doggart; Octavio Paz (1996). Latin American Plays: New Drama from Argentina, Cuba, Mexico and Peru. Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1-85459-249-1.
 Source: Kenneth Muir (1992). “Translating Golden Age Plays: A Reconsideration”. Translation and Literature. Edinburgh University Press. 1: pp104–111.
 Sources: Campbell, William. “Sentimental Comedy in England and on the Continent”. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, and (2) Harman, William (2011). A Handbook to Literature (12 ed.). Longman. ISBN 978-0205024018, referenced from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_theatre
 Explanation: The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland took place in 1660 when King Charles II returned from exile in continental Europe. The preceding period of the Protectorate and the civil wars came to be known as the Interregnum (1649–1660). The term Restoration is also used to describe the period of several years after, in which a new political settlement was established. It is very often used to cover the whole reign of King Charles II (1660–1685) and often the brief reign of his younger brother King James II (1685–1688). In certain contexts it may be used to cover the whole period of the later Stuart monarchs as far as the death of Queen Anne and the accession of the Hanoverian King George I in 1714. For example, Restoration comedy typically encompasses works written as late as 1710. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuart_Restoration
 Ibid, pp206–209.
 Paragraph Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kiralfy_Brothers
 Ibid, p370.
 Sources: Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. 2003. History of the Theatre, pp370-372. Ninth edition, International edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-41050-2, (2) Benedetti, Jean, 1999. Stanislavski: His Life and Art. Revised edition, pp14-17. Original edition published in 1988. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-52520-1, and (3) Benedetti, Jean, 2005. The Art of the Actor: The Essential History of Acting, From Classical Times to the Present Day, p100. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-77336-1.
 Source: Wilmeth, Don B.; Bigsby, Christopher (1998). The Cambridge History of American Theatre: Volume One: Beginnings to 1870. Cambridge University Press.
 Source: Brockett, Oscar G.; Hildy, Franklin J. (1999). History of the Theatre. Allyn and Bacon. p692.
 Source:Wilmeth, Don B.; Bigsby, Christopher (1998). The Cambridge History of American Theatre: Volume One: Beginnings to 1870. Cambridge University Press.
 Source: Brockett, Oscar G.; Hildy, Franklin J. (1999). History of the Theatre. Allyn and Bacon. p692.
 Source: Wilmeth, Don B.; Bigsby, Christopher (2000). The Cambridge History of American Theatre: Volume Three: Post-World War II to The 1990s. Cambridge University Press.
 Sources: (1) State Information Service (Egypt), 30th September 2009, (2) Aḥmad, Muḥammad Fattūḥ; 1978, and (3) Gitre, Carmen M. K. (2nd December 2019). Acting Egyptian: Theater, Identity, and Political Culture in Cairo, 1869–1930. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-1-4773-1918-5.
 Source: Richmond, Farley P., Darius L. Swann, and Phillip B. Zarrilli, eds. 1993. Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance. University of Hawaii, p12.
 Ibid, p13.
 Source: Brandon (1981, xvii) and Richmond (1995, pp516-517).
 Source: Richmond (1995, p517).