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History of Theatre

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History of Theatre 1: From Ritual to Theatre

 

On the origins of Western theater, ancient Greek theatre. More on this subject – Mark Damen: http://www.usu.edu/markdamen/ClasDram.  Personae: Dionysus, Zeus, Arion, Thespis, hypokrites – the answerer, Peisistratus, Phrynichus, Xerxes, Phoenician women, Aeschylus, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Cassandra, Aegisthus.  Terms: thymele – altar, tragos – goat, dithyramb – hymn in honor of Dionysus, chorus, extase, enthoustase, The City of Dionysia Festival in Athens, tragedy, Trojan war, skene, prologue, parados, exodus.

   

Theatre

(also theater in American English) is a collaborative form of fine art that uses live performers to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place. The performers may communicate this experience to the audience through combinations of gesture, speech, song, music or dance. Elements of design and stagecraft are used to enhance the physicality, presence and immediacy of the experience. The specific place of the performance is also named by the word “theatre” as derived from the Ancient Greek θέατρον (théatron, “a place for viewing”), itself from θεάομαι (theáomai, “to see”, “to watch”, “to observe”).

Modern Western theatre derives in large measure from ancient Greek drama, from which it borrows technical terminology, classification into genres, and many of its themes, stock characters, and plot elements. Theatre scholar Patrice Pavis defines theatricality, theatrical language, stage writing, and the specificity of theatre as synonymous expressions that differentiate theatre from the other performing artsliterature, and the arts in general.

Theatre today includes performances of plays and musicals. Although it can be defined broadly to include opera and ballet, those art forms are outside the scope of this article.

History: History of theatre – Classical and Hellenistic Greece

A master (right) and his slave (left) in aphlyax play, circa 350/340 BCE.

The city-state of Athens is where western theatre originated.   It was part of a broader culture of theatricality and performance in classical Greece that included festivalsreligious ritualspoliticslaw, athletics and gymnastics, musicpoetry, weddings, funerals, and symposia.   Participation 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) in particular—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 dramatic vocabulary.   The Greeks also developed the concepts of dramatic criticism, acting as a career, and theatre architecture.

The theatre of ancient Greece consisted of three types of dramatragedycomedy, and the satyr play.   The origins of theatre in ancient Greece, according to Aristotle (384–322BC), the first theoretician of theatre, are to be found in the festivals that honoured Dionysus.The performances were given in semi-circular auditoria cut into hillsides, capable of seating 10,000–20,000 people. The stage consisted of a dancing floor (orchestra), dressing room and scene-building area (skene). Since the words were the most important part, good acoustics and clear delivery were paramount. The actors (always men) wore masks appropriate to the characters they represented, and each might play several parts.   Athenian tragedy—the oldest surviving form of tragedy—is a type of dance-drama that formed an important part of the theatrical culture of the city-state.   Having emerged sometime during the 6th century BCE, it flowered during the 5th century BCE (from the end of which it began to spread throughout the Greek world), and continued to be popular until the beginning of the Hellenistic period.   No tragedies from the 6th century BCE and only 32 of the more than a thousand that were performed in during the 5th century BCE have survived.   We have complete texts extant by AeschylusSophocles, and Euripides.

The origins of tragedy remain obscure, though by the 5th century BCE it was institution alised in competitions (agon) held as part of festivities celebrating Dionysos (the godof wine and fertility).   As contestants in the City Dionysia’s competition (the most prestigious of the festivals to stage drama) playwrights were required to present a tetralogy of plays (though the individual works were not necessarily connected by story or theme), which usually consisted of three tragedies and one satyr play.   The performance of tragedies at the City Dionysia may have begun as early as 534 BCE; official records (didaskaliai) begin from 501 BCE, when the satyr play was introduced.

Most Athenian tragedies dramatise events from Greek mythology, though The Persians—which stages the Persian response to news of their military defeat at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE—is the notable exception in the surviving drama.   When Aeschylus won first prize for it at the City Dionysia in 472 BCE, he had been writing tragedies for more than 25 years, yet its tragic treatment of recent history is the earliest example of drama to survive.   More than 130 years later, the philosopher Aristotle analysed 5th-century Athenian tragedy in the oldest surviving work of dramatic theory—his Poetics (c. 335 BCE).

Athenian comedy is conventionally divided into three periods, “Old Comedy”, “Middle Comedy”, and “New Comedy”. Old Comedy survives today largely in the form of the eleven surviving plays of Aristophanes, while Middle Comedy is largely lost (preserved only in relatively short fragments in authors such as Athenaeus of Naucratis). New Comedy is known primarily from the substantial papyrus fragments of Menander. Aristotle defined comedy as a representation of laughable people that involves some kind of blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster.

Roman theatre – Main article: Theatre of ancient Rome

Mosaic depicting masked actors in a play: two women consult a “witch.”

Western theatre developed and expanded considerably under the Romans. The Roman historian Livy wrote that the Romans first experienced theatre in the 4th century BCE, with a performance by Etruscan actors. Beacham argues that they 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 Plautus‘s broadly appealing situation comedies, to the high-style, verbally elaborate tragedies of Seneca. Although Rome had a native tradition of performance, the Hellenization of Roman culture in the 3rd century BCE had a profound and energizing effect on Roman theatre and encouraged the development of Latin literature of the highest quality for the stage.The only surviving Roman tragedies, indeed the only plays of any kind from the Roman Empire, are ten dramas- nine of them pallilara- attributed to Lucuis Annaeus Seneca (4 b.c.-65 a.d.), the Corduba-born Stoic philosopher and tutor of Nero.

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