Ancient Theatre

If theatre is to be defined as involving the art of acting a part on stage, that is the dramatic impersonation of another character than yourself, we begin with Thespis. A figure of whom we know very little, he won the play competition in honor of the greek god Dionysus, in 534 B.C.

While it is uncertain whether Thespis was a playwright, an actor or a priest, it is his name with which the dramatic arts are associated in our word “Thespian”.

Greek theatre took place in large (the largest ultimately held twenty thousand people) hillside ampitheatres. The players included a chorus and their leader, and the “lines” were more chanted than spoken. The chorus performed in the “orchestra”, not on a raised stage. The use of masks to represent characters and high-soled boots worn to add height to the players limited the movement of the actors. Indeed, the concept of “actors” themselves was not originally a part of Greek theatre, but was developed as a consequence of certain playwrights of particular genius. Greek drama was dominated by the works and innovations of five playwrights over the 200 years following Thespis. The first three of these were tragedians. Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.), who is most famous for his tragic trilogy the Oresteia, introduced the concept of a second actor, expanding the possibilities for plot and histrionics through the interaction of two characters in his dramas. While Aeschylus ultimately used a third actor, it was Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) who actually initiated this innovation. Sophocles is most famous for his trilogy Oedipus Rex, and in his works the role of the chorus in Greek drama diminishes in favor of the interplay between characters and the development of character itself. It was Euripides (480-406 B.C.), however, while winning less competitions than Aeschylus or Sophocles, who foreshadowed the ultimate form of drama as we know it—employing a far more naturalistic or human approach in his works, in contrast to the remote scale and formalized conventions used by his contemporaries.

The last two Greek playwrights were the authors of comedies: Aristophanes (448-380 B.C.) and Menander (342-292 B.C.). There was a separate competition for comedy which, while also dedicated to Dionysus, took place at the smaller winter festival, rather than the major spring festival at which the tragedies were presented. As has been true throughout the history of theatre, the comedies, dependent on topical humor and satire for much of their content, have not survived the ages as well as tragedy—which deals with more universal themes. However, the universal popularity accorded these playwrights during their lifetimes attests to the significance which this dramatic form can have. The popularity of their work, and the diminishing appeal of tragedy to the audiences of the time, can also be interpreted as a comment on the role which theatre plays in society at large. Tragedy was at its height in Greek society when that society was at its height, while comedy—an outlet for the frustrations of society as well as a diversion for the masses—was most popular during the decline of Greek government.

With the decline of the Greek government, and the rise of the Roman empire, it was only natural that the Roman’s would adopt the Greek way of doing things. And, those Italians always have a way of spicing up whatever they do. I should know. I’m married to one.

The Romans weren’t content to simply stand around on stage and recite poetry. They were a blood thirsty, murderous, pillaging bunch, squeezing their toothpaste from the middle of the tube. And they portrayed their lifestyle in their dramas.

The Roman theatre was shaped with a half circle or orchestra space in front of the stage. Most often the audience sat here in comfortable chairs. Occasionally, however, the actors would perform in this space.

The audience was usually more interested in their favorite actors than the play itself. The actors would try to win over the audience’s praise with decorative masks, costumes, dancing and mime.
If the play scripted a character’s death, a condemned man would take the place of the actor at the last moment and actually be killed on stage. Where is the Actor’s Guild when you need it?
At the decline of the Roman empire the Christian church was well established, and frowned upon the depiction of such pagan philosophy. It was at this time that theatre was banned. In fact, it is said drama would have died altogether if it weren’t for the common folk. Bands of actors, jugglers and acrobats kept the art alive performing about the land.

Ironically, drama was revived by the church. During the middle ages when very few were literate - the Priests acted out scenes from the Bible as a teaching tool. This was so popular that the town guilds soon joined in. In fact this became so popular, the performances had to be moved to the front steps of the church. Everyone wanted to get in on the act, and soon the towns people were participating. Eventually, the subject matter moved from a spiritual nature to something more earthy. God bless Shakespeare.

By the Renaissance period, theatre was not accepted by polite society. During the plagues, traveling actors were banned from entering castle walls and city gates for fear of spreading putrid, nasty, disgusting, green-pussed Black Death.

Theatre was also associated with heavy drinking, which led to brawling. And you know what happens after that. Your mama ends up in prison, and a hound dog with tics has no place to call home. Of course a bottle of whiskey comes into play, all because of some woman named Dixie down at the Blue Moon Bar and Grill. Gotta be the lonely sound a train whistle in the background.
On top of that, women of ill-repute were known to ply their trade outside of the theatre walls. At this point the government decided to step in and regulate the theatre.

Nothing changes over the course of 500 years.

In 1642 theatre was banned in England. Up until this time the emphasis was on oration. In fact, there was so little blocking, the privileged upper class audience actually sat on the stage.
During the ban, English actors fled to Italy and France, where costumes, staging and props were the emphasis. Thus in 1660, when theatre was once again established in England, the performers brought back the Italian and French style of acting and changing the face of English drama.
And royalty was forced off the stage. Ha!

The industrial revolution of the 19th century brought revolution to the stage as well. Lighting was added; first gas then electric. Up until this time, there was no need for a backstage. The actors simply hung out in the dark corners until their cue. But with the addition of lighting, actors were now required to actually enter and exit the stage.

For a time, vaudeville became the mainstay of live theatre. In 1919, there were reported to be more than 900 theatres in the country playing vaudeville.

Vaudeville began as burlesque, using spectacular scenery, beautiful and scantily clad women, music and comedy to attract large, predominantly male, audiences. Burlesque was little more than a collection of musical acts and parody, with heavily sexual overtones.
Early in the century, burlesque transformed into modern vaudeville, which would appeal more to the family audience.

Like burlesque, Vaudeville was a collection of variety acts, sketches and short plays, often featuring leading actors. Vaudeville was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the U.S. from the turn of the century until around 1930.

Burlesque, on the other hand, eventually evolved into the “strip tease” shows which operated on the fringes of legality. But both burlesque, with its limited audience, and vaudeville with its liveliness and energy, could not compete with the movies.