In the remaining units of the course, we will be exploring the historical roots of 21st century theatre. We will cover this history over the course of several units, each broken down into two or more historical periods. The supplements for these periods are meant to highlight certain information from the reading and viewing assignments that will be particularly useful in meeting the course outcomes. These supplements will present the appropriate material in these categories:
New and/or significant styles of plays and theatre developments
Developments in the nature of theatre criticism (i.e. what the people of that time thought made a play good)
Developments in theatre production, including stage spaces and technical theatre developments
Now, we will begin our historical exploration with Ancient Greece and the beginnings of theatre as we know it.
In ancient Greece, religion played a major role in society. Since everything was influenced by the gods, it was very important to celebrate, worship, and make appropriate offerings to the gods to keep them happy. One of these annual ceremonial festivities was a celebration of the god Dionysus (god of wine, fertility, and revelry). Since his revels were quite energetic and exciting (often involving wine and fertility rites) they were quite popular. They also included the rite of a sacrifice of a goat. Initially, this sacrifice was conducted by bringing the goat into the celebration space. While leading it in, the priests of the god would form a Chorus and sing a song (the tragedos) of celebration and praise before the sacrifice. This song is what eventually developed into the act of theatre that we know today. At the beginning, all of the story being recited was sung by the chorus. However, tradition tells us that at some point a priest of Dionysus, named Thespis (c. 6th c. BC), stepped out of the chorus and began to carry on a dialogue with the chorus. This was the beginning of dialogue in plays.
We know that these religious festivals were sponsored by and often a served as function of the city government. This made the celebrations essentially universal. That is, nearly everyone in the town and the areas that surrounded that town would come to the celebrations and watch the plays. This made the plays quite popular and the playwrights would often compete to be voted the best play of a given year. In fact, many of the playwrights we know of and the plays that we have from this time exist because they were preserved as having won a contest or having been very successful writers.
The plays of the time started off being mostly tragedies based on the tales of Greek heroes and gods and the myths of their day, but eventually, they developed a form of comedy that was quite often satirical, but most often based on the revelry of Dionysus and had some distinct sexual and quite risqué content. These comedies are often referred to as Satyr plays. Their content was meant to reflect the dual nature of humans – our intellectual side and our baser side with the physical nature of being a human. That’s why the satyr – a half-man/half-goat – became the symbol of these plays.
We discussed traditional Greek tragedy in the Genres unit earlier in the course, so that won’t be covered in detail again here. You may want to go back and review that section to refresh your memory.
Instead, this unit will focus on some of the important people associated with Greek tragedy and what they added to or took away from the production of a play, as it developed into its final form.
At the beginning, plays were essentially sung stories performed by a very large chorus of fifty men. Then, as noted above, Thespis was the first to step outside the chorus and to portray an individual character. That occurred sometime in the 6th century BC. Shortly thereafter, a playwright came along by the name of Aeschylus (525 – 456 BC). He is remembered as the first playwright to add a second solo speaker to play another individual and to create actual dialogue between characters in a play. He also reduced the number of performers in the chorus from 50 to 12.
Shortly after Aeschylus, another major playwright came along, Sophocles (~496 – 406 BC). He is very prominent because several of his plays have survived until today and are some of the main examples of classic Greek drama of his day. He made some additional adjustments to the performance of the plays. He raised the number of chorus members from 12 to 15 (and that remained the standard for the rest of the ancient Greek period). He also added a third solo actor, so that up to three individuals could be portrayed simultaneously along with the chorus.
The plays of Sophocles were tragedies that told the stories of noble, high-ranking families, with very lofty themes. They revolved around the very human trait of the tragic flaw. The structure that he used for his most famous play, Oedipus the King, is the structure that Aristotle chose as being the best example of theatre of his day. Oedipus the King was one of three plays, often referred to as the Theban plays, because Sophocles set all three in Thebes, dealing with the ruling family of that city state: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.
In performance, the actors wore masks, even the chorus, to suggest the characters being portrayed. These masks were larger than life and held on poles in front of the actor’s face. In addition to being oversized to make them more visible to the audience, they included basic amplification tools (essentially a megaphone) to assist in the audibility of the actors in the large amphitheaters.
Later Greek tragedy playwrights would vary the number of individual actors (up to 5) but
the chorus remained at 15.
Tragedy – Pattern and Plot
The structure that Sophocles used for his tragedies consisted of an opening scene, which would be an introduction, usually sung by the chorus, but occasionally it was sung by a character. Then that would be followed by the Chorus singing the beginning information of the scenes to follow. Then there would be alternating scenes between characters and the chorus until the climax of the story, and then after the results of the tragedy were clear, then the chorus summed up the action for the audience.
This reliance on the Chorus is very important. They were not merely narrators; they played a significant role in the telling of the story of the tragedy. These are the roles of the chorus in classic Greek tragedy:
Represented ordinary citizens - surrogates for the audience
Provided background info
Moderated and balanced the opposing forces
Provided observations and drew conclusions
Another key piece of information about theatre in Ancient Greece is that all of the performers were male. This grew out of the original function of the chorus – the priests performing the ceremony of the sacrifice. As a result, the roles of all the characters would have been performed by men, including the female roles. There is some evidence that the men playing female roles might have changed their robes in some way to reflect the female role, but they did definitely use masks that depicted female characters.
Not all performance in ancient Greece was tragedy, but it did start out that way. There were several playwrights who wrote comedy. We know that because records of the contests would name several playwrights. However, all the remaining ancient Greek comedies that have lasted until today are by one playwright, Aristophanes (~448 - ~380 BC). His plays are of the type that is called Old comedy. His comedy was based in the satyr play tradition. This type of play was tied to the physical nature of our humanity, and as a result it tended to have pretty strong sexual overtones and themes – particularly by our standards today. Most of the men performed in what we might call body suits but with very large phalluses attached. These would connect the play to the sexual revelry that was associated with Dionysus. The satyr tradition of comedy was also the mode that gave rise to satire. Aristophanes’ plays are all satirical – pointing out social, political, and cultural issues by using comedy and humor. Some of the humor in his plays is very pointed. He did not hesitate to make fun of prominent citizens in the city, but he would also take jabs at his competing playwrights! In many ways, the satire of Aristophanes was very much like our modern comics who poke fun at social problems and politics.
In the later period of ancient Greece, after Rome had come to its cultural height, comedy in Greece was influenced by the new developments of comedy in Rome. This new type of comedy is called New comedy. Unlike the satire of high-ranking citizens and political figures and issues, the new comedy focused on domestic issues and the struggles of romance among the young of the city.
In terms of what made a play good or not, all we can draw on are the awards handed out to various plays during the contests at each annual festival. We don’t have all of the winners, but we can figure out a few of the apparent criteria from those that we do have – particularly when it comes to the comedies of Aristophanes. Critical response to the tragedies of the time is much easier to understand. Aristotle, the classic Greek philosopher wrote a book called The Poetics. In that book, he wrote about a lot of topics, but one of them was theatre – though he mostly addressed the nature of tragedy. He noted that theatre, in general, should have six primary elements:
Plot – the events/action of the story and its sequence
Character – the people who take part in the action
Theme – the meaning and purpose of the story
Dialogue – the words spoken by the characters
Music – musical accompaniment and interludes
Spectacle – dance, masks, visual elements
In addition to the above 6 elements, Aristotle determined that Tragedy should focus on important people, as role models for the common man, and it should deal with the reversal of fortune and eventual downfall of central character (the one with the tragic flaw).
Greek theatre production
Most of what we recognize as being essential in modern theatres in the 21st century derive from the structures and practices of theatre in the furthest past of ancient Greece. There, the theatres themselves, as briefly mentioned in the “Theatre Spaces” supplement, were large amphitheaters cut into the hillside to use the natural slope of the hillside to create a rake for the audience to improve both sight lines and to create a naturally effective auditory experience – so everyone in the audience could hear the actors.
Many of the elements of our modern theatres come to us from the ancient Greeks, but so too did many of our theatre-related terms. The Theatron is the area where the audience sat and has come to be the modern English word for the space as well as the concept of theatre. The ancient Greek Orchestra is actually the space where the performers would perform the song – around where the goat would have originally would have been sacrificed in the earliest use of the spaces. The actors and chorus would have made their entrances and exits using the Parados on either side of the orchestra, another Greek word that survives in modern English as “parade.” Behind the actors and the chorus was a building, the Skene, that would have formed a background behind the actors, and thus the modern English word “scene” survives to describe the visual part of the set behind the actors on a modern stage. The area at the front of the skene, the Proskenium (“pro” means “in front of”) has survived in our modern English word of “proscenium” which refers to the frame in front of many proscenium stages.
Masks to show character
As mentioned previously, the actors would all wear masks to denote a character. We have several examples (mostly Roman) of such masks from surviving works of arts in wall paintings and relief sculptures and floor mosaics. That gives a pretty good idea what these masks looked like and how they worked. They would apparently use a group of similar masks to represent the chorus, but the characters would have more detail to indicate gender and age and sometimes specific characters. However, they likely tended to be relatively generic and interchangeable – much like stock character masks that developed for the Commedia del’Arte in later periods.
Machinery for “special effects”
The Greeks are even noteworthy in that they used special effects in their theatres. Two items that we are aware of from documented and pictorial records are the stage crane, the Mechane, which would have been used to lift characters (the gods) off the ground or to lower them into a scene. The other common special effect would have been to roll a god or other character into view on a scenery wagon, the Ekkyklema.
This look at Roman theatre will generally look at the major ways that Roman Theatre changed the Greek theatre practices and genres to fit the Roman cultural tastes. Since the genres of theatre developed and refined by the Greeks and Romans have been reviewed fairly thoroughly in the Genre Supplement, you might want to review those sections prior to reading the following material.
Roman theatre was heavily influenced by Greek drama because the Romans essentially embraced the theatrical styles and techniques already in use in Greece. However, like so many things that the Romans adopted from their neighbors, they DID put a uniquely Roman spin on many of those ideas. In one way they differed, the Romans focused more on comedy than did the Greeks. In addition, they adapted the Old Comedy of the Greeks to meet Roman tastes, which resulted in a New Comedy that was based in romantic and domestic situations, much like our modern sitcoms. This is the form of comedy that had a significant reverse influence on Greek New Comedy.
Other Entertainment Developments
The Romans went further than theatre as a dramatic entertainment. They developed, perfected, and/or Romanized several additional entertainment forms, such as the following:
The popular entertainments of the Romans, including theatre, were government
sponsored. However, unlike the Greek sponsorship, it was not done to support the population’s religious celebrations. Instead, it was largely used as a way to distract the people of Rome from the other issues of the day that involved government, such as scandals, corruption, wars, and political chicanery.
The Romans also came up with a couple of new forms of dramatic entertainment more directly connected to theatre than those mentioned earlier. These are known as Mime and Pantomime. However, unlike modern mime work, which is all movement with no dialogue, Roman mime was essentially a variety show that could include gymnastics, juggling, songs, dances, skits, etc. Pantomime in ancient Rome was similar to mime, but it used only a single performer who might be accompanied by a musician or two and possibly a small chorus.
When we look closely at Roman comedy, we can see that there are two phases of that comedy. The first phase – the part heavily influenced by the Greek drama before it and a later comedy that is more thoroughly Romanized. As an example of the first type, we can consider the playwright, Plautus (~254 – 184 BC). He is often considered the father of Roman New Comedy. His plays shifted away from the satire of his Greek model and instead began to look at the domestic comedy of common people. However, there were some elements of his comedy that resembled the Greek comedy. His dialogue was meant to be sung, as was all of Greek dramatic literature. In place of satire, Plautus relied more on the elements of farce: exaggeration, physical comedy, and light violent action. He also used stock characters instead of trying to create three-dimensional characters.
Another Roman comedic playwright is Terence (~185 – 159 BC). He represents the later style of Roman comedy – a comedy that much more closely resembles our modern domestic comedy sitcoms than Plautus’ plays did. His works did use slightly more-realistic characters with some individuality, but more importantly, his plays shifted toward a more literary, language-based humor, instead of the physical humor of Plautus. Terence’s plays were not built around exaggeration and farce, though there is some of that in his plays. One of the key differences between Plautus and Terence is that Terence’s dialogue is meant to be spoken and not sung.
The Romans did not reject Tragedy, they just did not embrace it like the Greeks had before them. They also did not make major changes to it. The single major Roman tragic playwright that we will look at as a model of Roman Tragedy is Seneca (~4 BC – 65 AD). His works were very similar to Greek tragedy, but they differed in a few significant ways, as follows:
The Chorus is less connected to the story – more of a narrative function
Violence is emphasized – sometimes meant to be performed on stage and not offstage as in the Greek tragedies
Uses supernatural beings in addition to the gods, such as witches, ghosts, demons, etc.
A very important thing to note about the Roman playwrights mentioned here is that for many generations that followed the fall of Rome, their works (particularly those of Terence and Seneca) had a significant influence on later writers (in later periods of Theatre history). Surviving copies of their plays were often used as parts of Latin grammar lessons for young students throughout Europe well into the Renaissance. Students would read these plays, in their original Latin, as models of Latin literature, and as a result they had an influence on many later playwrights’ development in dramatic writing. We will explore that influence on some of those later writers as we move forward through the history portions of this course.
Roman Theatre criticism
Just as the Romans adopted and adapted theatre genres and production practices for the most part, they too adopted the Greek ideas of theatre criticism. Those ideas, built on Aristotelian ideas, served Rome fairly well, but like so many things, the Roman culture had an influence on those basic principles. They added to, or emphasized, some ideas that were not as prominent in the Greek interpretation of theatre criticism. These distinctly Roman qualities include the following:
Tragedy and Comedy had to be distinct (i.e. no blending of forms)
Tragedy deals with royalty
Comedy deals with common people
Drama should teach in addition to entertain
Roman theatre production
The first thing we will look at in terms of Roman theatre production is the Roman theatre space. They are very similar to Greek theatres, except that since the Romans built with concrete, they did not need to build their theatres into hillsides. Instead, they built freestanding buildings for their theatres. Many still stand today, as a testament to the construction ability and quality of materials used by the Romans all across Europe. These freestanding theatres contained most of the stylistic components of the Greek theatres. They are open to the sky to use the sun as lighting for their plays. They had an orchestra, a scene house, and a semicircular seating area. However, they lacked the parados on either side of the orchestra since the buildings needed walls all the way around, there wasn’t any room to include the paradoi.
There are some other differences in their buildings in terms of how they were used. For example, the Orchestra is semicircular, and it is not used for acting. Instead, it is used to seat dignitaries. Since there is no parados to use as an entrance, the actors would enter directly from the scene house through three doors in its front side. The performance area was changed as well.
There was a stage built on the front of the scene house called the pulpitum. This was a wooden platform stage where the action would take place. The Romans also used the first sort of a curtain, the Aulaeum. This was used essentially like an Act curtain to conceal the stage before the play and after the play. Also, many of the other structures of the Greek stage that we saw before were given Romanized names.
Decline of Roman Theatre
Roman theatre did not last. In fact, it collapsed when Rome collapsed after having been overrun by the barbarian tribes from the east and the west of the empire. When we look at theatre directly, there are two primary contributing factors in the decline of Roman theatre.
The first, of course, is the decline of the empire itself due to external forces (i.e. Vandals and other Germanic and Slavic tribal invaders). This is normally officially dated to 476 A.D. when the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus, was overthrown by a barbarian, Odoacer, and the city of Rome itself was sacked and burned.
The second reason that Roman Theatre declined, and virtually disappeared, is the rise in Christianity. In its earliest years, Christianity was not legal in the Roman Empire. In fact, most Christians were persecuted, and many were put to death in the Colosseum. However, after Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 A.D. and it was made the Roman official State Religion in 380 A.D. by Emperor Theodosius, Christianity’s influence over many aspects of Roman life really came to be felt acutely. One of the objects of Christian scorn near the end of the Empire was Theatre. Christians objected to the following:
Theatre’s connection to pagan ritual through its origins in Dionysian revels and religious ceremony
The main characters, especially in tragedies, that showed powerful men who are evil and flawed as role models for society – and essentially taught bad behavior
The emphasis, mainly in comedy, on physical and sexual content was offensive, as was the violence in the Roman tragedies
As a result of these objections. in 398 A.D. the Roman Christian church issued an edict excommunicating anyone who went to the theatre instead of church on holy days. Since Roman Christian holy days essentially filled the entire annual calendar, the audience for theatre was cut to almost nothing. In the remaining years of the Roman Empire, theatre persisted but it was withering quickly by the time the Empire itself was destroyed by the invaders.