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History of theater

Table of contents
1 Ancient Greek Theater
2 Roman Theater
3 Asian Theater
4 Theater in the Middle Ages
5 Commedia dell'Arte
6 Elizabethan Drama

Ancient Greek Theater

The earliest days of western theater remain obscure, but the oldest surviving plays come from ancient Greece.

Dramatic and theatrical productions in ancient Greece may have come from the revelry of the Bacchanalia, an ancient Greek festival in honor of the god Dionysus. In any case, the modern theater was born in ancient Greece. Important playwrights in ancient Greek theater include:

Aristotle is also important, primarily for his timeless theories on the dramatic arts, although his theories, especially the Three Unities, have been disputed. Some scholars believe they are meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

The above-mentioned playwrights made some of the most renowned Greek plays, but their staging had little or nothing to do with twentieth-century theater. Their dramas were always part of a series of three performances, where the middle part only was the drama, while the events always ended with dance. The dramas rarely had more than three actors (all male), who played the different roles using masks. There was a chorus on the stage all the time which sang songs and sometimes spoke in unison. As far as we know, each drama was played just a single time, at the traditional drama contest.

The importance of ancient Greek theater came largely in retrospect, as major playwrights like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe tried to recreate classical theater unsuccessfully. Another attempt to revive classical theater argued that Greek actors did not speak, but sang. From this school came the opera.

Roman Theater

The theatre of ancient Rome was heavily influenced by the Greek tradition, and, as with many other literary genres, Roman dramatists tended to adapt and translate from the Greek. For example, Seneca's Phaedra was based on that of Euripides, and many of the comedies of Plautus were direct translations of works by Menander.

Asian Theater

Theater began in Asia during a period of 1000 years, roughly from a.d. 350 to 1330, a time when there was little theater in Europe. The cultures of Asia reached a high point in philosophy and religion during this period, which left a permanent impression on Asian theater.

Japanese Theater

During the 14th century, there were small companies of actors in Japan who performed short sometimes vulgar comedies. A director of one of these companies, Kan'ami (1333-1384), had a son, Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) who was considered one of the finest child actors in Japan. When Kan'ami's company performed for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), the Shogun of Japan, he implored Zeami to have a court education for his arts. After Zeami succeeded his father, he continued to perform and adapt his style into what is today Nő. A mixture of pantomime and vocal acrobatics, this style has fascinated the Japanese for thousands of years.


The countries of Asia, after a long period of civil wars and political disarray, was unified and at peace primarilly due to emperor Tokugawa Ieyasu (1600-1868). However, alarmed at increasing Christian growth, he cut off contact from Japan to Europe and China and outlawed Christianity. When peace did come, a flourish of cultural influence and growing merchant class demanded its own entertainment. The first forms of theater to flourish was known as Bunraku. The founder and main contributor to Bunraku, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), turned his form of theater into a true art form. Bunraku is a highly stylized form of theater using puppets, today about 1/3d the size of a human. The men who control the puppets train their entire lives to become master puppeteers, when they can then operate the puppet's head and right arm and choose to show their faces during the performance. The other puppeteers, controlling the less important limbs of the puppet, cover themselves and their faces in a black suit, to imply their invisibility. The dialogue is handled by a singler person, who uses varied tones of voice and speaking manners to simulate different characters. Chikamatsu wrote thousands of plays during his lifetime, most of which are still used today.


Kabuki began shortly after Bunraku, legend has it by an actress named Okuni, who lived around the end of the sixteenth century. Most of Kabuki's material came from Nő and Bunraku, and its erratic dance-type movements are also an effect of Bunraku. However, Kabuki is less formal and more distant than Nő, yet very popular among the Japanese public. Actors are trained in many varied things including dancing, singing, pantomime, and even acrobatics. Kabuki was first performed by young girls, then by young boys, and by the end of the sixteenth century, Kabuki companies consisted of all men. The men who portrayed women on stage were specifically trained to elicit the essence of a woman in their subtle movements and gestures.

Seeking further articles on non-western theatre.

Theater in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages in Europe, theater was a vital part of people's civic, economic, and religious lives. Among the more notable religious plays were "The Summoning of Everyman" (an allegory designed to teach the faithful that acts of Christian charity are necessary for entry into heaven), passion plays (such as the one at Oberammergau, which is still performed every 10 years), and the great cycle plays (massive, festive wagon-mounted processions involving hundreds of actors, and drawing pilgrims, tourists, and entrepreneurs) 1. The morality play and mystery play (as they are known in English) were two distinct genres. These plays did not have a script as such, but were passed on by memory and might exist, and be written down, in many different forms.

In an age when religion influenced nearly all aspects of public and private life, there was little formal audience for secular theater; nevertheless, wandering minstrels and folk plays developed even as the religious pageants expanded.

Since many of the most theatrically successful medieval religious plays were designed to teach Catholic doctrine, the Protestant Reformation targeted the theater, especially in England, in an effort to stamp out allegiance to Rome. See Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c.1400-c.1580 (1994).

Commedia dell'Arte

See Commedia dell'Arte

Elizabethan Drama

The Renaissance brought the genius of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and the Baroque theater produced Moliere.

seeking articles on theatre 1600-1900