Theatre Through the Ages

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By jwblackwell



9 Questions

What is the root of the Western theatrical tradition?

Which country saw a monumental increase in the production of live theatre during the Spanish Golden Age?

What was the dominant form of theatre in the 18th century?

What is the name of the most complete work of dramaturgy in the ancient world?

What is the name of the early form of professional theatre originating from Italy and popular throughout Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries?

What was the first African-American theater established in 1821?

What was the form of medieval theater in which amateur performers were exclusively male and plays were staged on pageant wagon stages?

Which notable playwright wrote six plays modeled on Terence's comedies but using religious subjects?

What is the name of the Latin musical drama written by Hildegard of Bingen in 1155?


History of Theatre: From Ritual to Performance

  • Theatre as an autonomous activity is distinct from theatrical or performative elements in other activities.

  • Theatre has flourished in cultures across the world since classical Athens in the 5th century BC.

  • The origins of theatre are unclear, but the first steps towards theatre as an autonomous activity were taken as societies grew more complex.

  • Greek theatre, most developed in Athens, is the root of the Western tradition and consisted of three types of drama: tragedy, comedy, and the satyr play.

  • Roman theatre was more varied, extensive, and sophisticated than that of any culture before it, and it encouraged the development of Latin literature of the highest quality for the stage.

  • Western Europe was plunged into a period of general disorder that lasted until the 10th century, but churches in Europe began staging dramatized versions of particular biblical events on specific days of the year by the Early Middle Ages.

  • Liturgical drama was sung responsively by two groups and did not involve actors impersonating characters.

  • Hrosvitha, a canoness in northern Germany, wrote six plays modeled on Terence's comedies but using religious subjects, and Hildegard of Bingen wrote a Latin musical drama called Ordo Virtutum in 1155.

  • The Feast of Fools was especially important in the development of comedy, allowing lesser clergy to ridicule their superiors and the routine of church life.

  • Performance of religious plays outside of the church began sometime in the 12th century through a process of merging shorter liturgical dramas into longer plays translated into vernacular and performed by laymen.

  • The importance of the High Middle Ages in the development of theatre was the economic and political changes that led to the formation of guilds and the growth of towns.

  • In the British Isles, plays were produced in some 127 different towns during the Middle Ages, and many of these plays contained comedy, devils, villains, and clowns.Overview of the Development of Theatre in Europe

  • In medieval Europe, plays were staged on pageant wagon stages, and amateur performers were exclusively male. Morality plays, such as The Castle of Perseverance and Everyman, and secular performances, such as The Play of the Greenwood and farces, were popular.

  • Professional actors began to appear in England and Europe at the end of the Late Middle Ages, and court masques were especially popular during the reign of Henry VIII. However, the banning of religious plays in many countries led to the end of medieval drama.

  • Commedia dell'arte was an early form of professional theatre originating from Italy and popular throughout Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries. It was characterized by masked "types" and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios.

  • English Renaissance theatre derived from several medieval theatre traditions, such as mystery plays, morality plays, and the Italian tradition of Commedia dell'arte. Companies of players were attached to households of leading aristocrats and performed secular pieces seasonally in various locations.

  • Spanish Golden Age theatre, roughly from 1590 to 1681, saw a monumental increase in the production of live theatre and was an accessible art form for all participants in Renaissance Spain. Major artists of the period included Lope de Vega and Calderon de la Barca.

  • French Classical theatre was characterized by neoclassicism, with notable playwrights including Molière, Racine, and Corneille.

  • During the Cretan Renaissance, two notable Greek playwrights, Georgios Chortatzis and Vitsentzos Kornaros, were present in the latter part of the 16th century.

  • Restoration comedy, written and performed in the Restoration period from 1660 to 1710, is notorious for its sexual explicitness and was encouraged by Charles II. Sentimental comedy grew in popularity as a reaction to the decadence of the era.

  • 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.Theatre History Summary:

  • English theatre of the 17th century was dominated by Restoration comedy and French-influenced spectacles, with spectacle and scenery drawing in the crowds.

  • Neoclassicism was the dominant form of theatre in the 18th century, characterized by grandiosity and adherence to classical unities.

  • The 19th century saw the rise of melodrama and Romanticism, with historical accuracy in costumes and settings in Germany, and the popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas in Britain.

  • Realism and non-realism, such as Symbolism and precursors of Expressionism, emerged in the later period of the 19th century.

  • Henrik Ibsen's plays paved the way for the development of more significant drama, followed by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and others.

  • The 20th century saw the rise of experimental theatre, including political theatre and aesthetically orientated work, with key figures such as Antonin Artaud and Harold Pinter.

  • American theatre began in 1752 with Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice", but was banned from 1774 to 1789 due to societal standards.

  • The 19th century saw theatre spread westward, with many new community-run theatres and a professional theatre in New Orleans.

  • Neoclassical philosophy gave way to Romanticism between 1800 and 1850, which eventually gave birth to realism between 1870 and 1895.

  • Hollywood emerged in the mid-20th century and threatened American theatre, but Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller achieved worldwide fame.

  • Ancient Egyptian quasi-theatrical events date back to 2000 BC, and modern Egyptian theatre evolved in the second half of the nineteenth century through interaction with Europe.Overview of African, Indian, and West African Theatre

African Theatre:

  • Egyptian theater has a long and rich history, with notable playwrights such as Tawfiq Al-Hakim and successful theater troupes like the Ramses Troupe and National Theater Troupe.
  • Women played a significant role in Egyptian theater, with Mounira El Mahdeya being a prominent actress and singer who founded her own theater group and discovered musician Mohammed Abdel Wahab.
  • West African theater has a rich history, with Ghanaian theater emerging in the early 20th century as a form of literary comment on European colonization.
  • Notable Ghanaian plays include The Blinkards by Kobina Sekyi, Anowa by Ama Ata Aidoo, and The Marriage of Anansewa by Efua Sutherland.
  • Yoruba theater in Nigeria originated from masquerade performances and the Aláàrìnjó theatrical tradition, and influenced contemporary Nigerian theater.
  • African-American theater has a dual origin, with early performances rooted in African culture and the African Grove Theatre being the first African-American theater established in 1821.

Indian Theatre:

  • The earliest form of Indian theater was Sanskrit theater, which emerged sometime between the 15th century BC and the 1st century.
  • Vedic texts provide evidence of drama plays being enacted during Yajna ceremonies, and the Mahābhāṣya by Patañjali contains the earliest reference to what may have been the seeds of Sanskrit drama.
  • The major source of evidence for Sanskrit theater is A Treatise on Theatre (Nātyaśāstra), which is the most complete work of dramaturgy in the ancient world.
  • Sanskrit theater was performed on sacred ground by priests who had been trained in the necessary skills, and its aim was both to educate and entertain.
  • Modern Indian theater developed during the period of colonial rule under the British Empire, from the mid-19th century until the mid-20th.

West African Theatre:

  • Yoruba theater in Nigeria originated from masquerade performances and the Aláàrìnjó theatrical tradition, and influenced contemporary Nigerian theater.
  • The popular traveling theater was the most prevalent and highly developed form of theater in Nigeria from the 1950s to the 1980s, and later moved into television and film.
  • "Total theater" also developed in Nigeria in the 1950s, utilizing non-naturalistic techniques and surrealistic physical imagery.
  • Traditional performance modes have strongly influenced the major figures in contemporary Nigerian theater, such as Hubert Ogunde and Wole Soyinka.


Discover the rich and diverse history of theatre with this quiz! From the origins of theatre as a ritualistic activity to its development across cultures and continents, test your knowledge on the key moments and figures in theatre history. Explore the evolution of theatrical forms and styles, from the classical Greek and Roman traditions to the emergence of modern and experimental theatre. Delve into the unique characteristics of African, Indian, and West African theatre and learn about the important contributions made by playwrights and performers from around the world.

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