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The history of theatre charts the development of theatre over the past 2,500 years. While performative elements are present in every society, it is customary to acknowledge a distinction between theatre as an art form and entertainment and theatrical or performative elements in other activities. The history of theatre is primarily concerned with the origin and subsequent development of the theatre as an autonomous activity. Since classical Athens in the 6th century BC, vibrant traditions of theatre have flourished in cultures across the world.
Theatre probably arose as a performance of ritual activities that did not require initiation on the part of the spectator. This similarity of early theatre to ritual is negatively attested by Aristotle, who in his Poetics defined theatre in contrast to the performances of sacred mysteries: theatre did not require the spectator to fast, drink the kykeon, or march in a procession; however theatre did resemble the sacred mysteries in the sense that it brought purification and healing to the spectator by means of a vision, the theama. The physical location of such performances was accordingly named theatron.
According to the historians Oscar Brockett and Franklin Hildy, rituals typically include elements that entertain or give pleasure, such as costumes and masks as well as skilled performers. As societies grew more complex, these spectacular elements began to be acted out under non-ritualistic conditions. As this occurred, the first steps towards theatre as an autonomous activity were being taken.
Greek theatre, most developed in Athens, is the root of the Western tradition; theatre is in origin a Greek word. It was part of a broader culture of theatricality and performance in classical Greece that included festivals, religious rituals, politics, law, athletics and gymnastics, music, poetry, 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 theatre of ancient Greece consisted of three types of drama: tragedy, comedy, and the satyr play.
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 BC, it flowered during the 5th century BC (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 and only 32 of the more than a thousand that were performed in during the 5th century have survived. We have complete texts extant by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The origins of tragedy remain obscure, though by the 5th century it was institutionalised in competitions (agon) held as part of festivities celebrating Dionysos (the god of 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 BC; official records (didaskaliai) begin from 501 BC, 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 BC—is the notable exception in the surviving drama. When Aeschylus won first prize for it at the City Dionysia in 472 BC, 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 BC). 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 plays by Menander. Aristotle defined comedy as a representation of laughable people that involves some kind of error or ugliness that does not cause pain or destruction.
Western theatre developed and expanded considerably under the Romans. The Roman historian Livy wrote that the Romans first experienced theatre in the 4th century BC, with a performance by Etruscan actors. Beacham argues that Romans 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 BC had a profound and energizing effect on Roman theatre and encouraged the development of Latin literature of the highest quality for the stage.
Following the expansion of the Roman Republic (509–27 BC) into several Greek territories between 270–240 BC, Rome encountered Greek drama. From the later years of the republic and by means of the Roman Empire (27 BC-476 AD), theatre spread west across Europe, around the Mediterranean and reached England; Roman theatre was more varied, extensive and sophisticated than that of any culture before it. While Greek drama continued to be performed throughout the Roman period, the year 240 BC marks the beginning of regular Roman drama. From the beginning of the empire, however, interest in full-length drama declined in favour of a broader variety of theatrical entertainments.
The first important works of Roman literature were the tragedies and comedies that Livius Andronicus wrote from 240 BC. Five years later, Gnaeus Naevius also began to write drama. No plays from either writer have survived. While both dramatists composed in both genres, Andronicus was most appreciated for his tragedies and Naevius for his comedies; their successors tended to specialise in one or the other, which led to a separation of the subsequent development of each type of drama. By the beginning of the 2nd century BC, drama was firmly established in Rome and a guild of writers (collegium poetarum) had been formed.
The Roman comedies that have survived are all fabula palliata (comedies based on Greek subjects) and come from two dramatists: Titus Maccius Plautus (Plautus) and Publius Terentius Afer (Terence). In re-working the Greek originals, the Roman comic dramatists abolished the role of the chorus in dividing the drama into episodes and introduced musical accompaniment to its dialogue (between one-third of the dialogue in the comedies of Plautus and two-thirds in those of Terence). The action of all scenes is set in the exterior location of a street and its complications often follow from eavesdropping. Plautus, the more popular of the two, wrote between 205 and 184 BC and twenty of his comedies survive, of which his farces are best known; he was admired for the wit of his dialogue and his use of a variety of poetic meters. All of the six comedies that Terence wrote between 166 and 160 BC have survived; the complexity of his plots, in which he often combined several Greek originals, was sometimes denounced, but his double-plots enabled a sophisticated presentation of contrasting human behaviour.
No early Roman tragedy survives, though it was highly regarded in its day; historians know of three early tragedians—Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius and Lucius Accius. From the time of the empire, the work of two tragedians survives—one is an unknown author, while the other is the Stoic philosopher Seneca. Nine of Seneca's tragedies survive, all of which are fabula crepidata (tragedies adapted from Greek originals); his Phaedra, for example, was based on Euripides' Hippolytus. Historians do not know who wrote the only extant example of the fabula praetexta (tragedies based on Roman subjects), Octavia, but in former times it was mistakenly attributed to Seneca due to his appearance as a character in the tragedy.
As the Western Roman Empire fell into decay through the 4th and 5th centuries, the seat of Roman power shifted to Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire, today called the Byzantine Empire. While surviving evidence about Byzantine theatre is slight, existing records show that mime, pantomime, scenes or recitations from tragedies and comedies, dances, and other entertainments were very popular. Constantinople had two theatres that were in use as late as the 5th century. However, the true importance of the Byzantines in theatrical history is their preservation of many classical Greek texts and the compilation of a massive encyclopedia called the Suda, from which is derived a large amount of contemporary information on Greek theatre.
From the 5th century, Western Europe was plunged into a period of general disorder that lasted (with a brief period of stability under the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century) until the 10th century. As such, most organized theatrical activities disappeared in Western Europe. While it seems that small nomadic bands traveled around Europe throughout the period, performing wherever they could find an audience, there is no evidence that they produced anything but crude scenes. These performers were denounced by the Church during the Dark Ages as they were viewed as dangerous and pagan.
By the Early Middle Ages, churches in Europe began staging dramatized versions of particular biblical events on specific days of the year. These dramatizations were included in order to vivify annual celebrations. Symbolic objects and actions – vestments, altars, censers, and pantomime performed by priests – recalled the events which Christian ritual celebrates. These were extensive sets of visual signs that could be used to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. These performances developed into liturgical dramas, the earliest of which is the Whom do you Seek (Quem-Quaeritis) Easter trope, dating from ca. 925. Liturgical drama was sung responsively by two groups and did not involve actors impersonating characters. However, sometime between 965 and 975, Æthelwold of Winchester composed the Regularis Concordia (Monastic Agreement) which contains a playlet complete with directions for performance.
Hrosvitha (c.935–973), a canoness in northern Germany, wrote six plays modeled on Terence's comedies but using religious subjects. These six plays – Abraham, Callimachus, Dulcitius, Gallicanus, Paphnutius, and Sapientia – are the first known plays composed by a female dramatist and the first identifiable Western dramatic works of the post-classical era. They were first published in 1501 and had considerable influence on religious and didactic plays of the sixteenth century. Hrosvitha was followed by Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179), a Benedictine abbess, who wrote a Latin musical drama called Ordo Virtutum in 1155.
As the Viking invasions ceased in the middle of the 11th century, liturgical drama had spread from Russia to Scandinavia to Italy. Only in Muslim-occupied Spain were liturgical dramas not presented at all. Despite the large number of liturgical dramas that have survived from the period, many churches would have only performed one or two per year and a larger number never performed any at all.
The Feast of Fools was especially important in the development of comedy. The festival inverted the status of the lesser clergy and allowed them to ridicule their superiors and the routine of church life. Sometimes plays were staged as part of the occasion and a certain amount of burlesque and comedy crept into these performances. Although comic episodes had to truly wait until the separation of drama from the liturgy, the Feast of Fools undoubtedly had a profound effect on the development of comedy in both religious and secular plays.
Performance of religious plays outside of the church began sometime in the 12th century through a traditionally accepted process of merging shorter liturgical dramas into longer plays which were then translated into vernacular and performed by laymen. The Mystery of Adam (1150) gives credence to this theory as its detailed stage direction suggest that it was staged outdoors. A number of other plays from the period survive, including La Seinte Resurrection (Norman), The Play of the Magi Kings (Spanish), and Sponsus (French).
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. This would lead to significant changes in the Late Middle Ages. In the British Isles, plays were produced in some 127 different towns during the Middle Ages. These vernacular Mystery plays were written in cycles of a large number of plays: York (48 plays), Chester (24), Wakefield (32) and Unknown (42). A larger number of plays survive from France and Germany in this period and some type of religious dramas were performed in nearly every European country in the Late Middle Ages. Many of these plays contained comedy, devils, villains and clowns.
The majority of actors in these plays were drawn from the local population. For example, at Valenciennes in 1547, more than 100 roles were assigned to 72 actors. Plays were staged on pageant wagon stages, which were platforms mounted on wheels used to move scenery. Often providing their own costumes, amateur performers in England were exclusively male, but other countries had female performers. The platform stage, which was an unidentified space and not a specific locale, allowed for abrupt changes in location.
Morality plays emerged as a distinct dramatic form around 1400 and flourished until 1550. The most interesting morality play is The Castle of Perseverance which depicts mankind's progress from birth to death. However, the most famous morality play and perhaps best known medieval drama is Everyman. Everyman receives Death's summons, struggles to escape and finally resigns himself to necessity. Along the way, he is deserted by Kindred, Goods, and Fellowship – only Good Deeds goes with him to the grave.
There were also a number of secular performances staged in the Middle Ages, the earliest of which is The Play of the Greenwood by Adam de la Halle in 1276. It contains satirical scenes and folk material such as faeries and other supernatural occurrences. Farces also rose dramatically in popularity after the 13th century. The majority of these plays come from France and Germany and are similar in tone and form, emphasizing sex and bodily excretions. The best known playwright of farces is Hans Sachs (1494–1576) who wrote 198 dramatic works. In England, The Second Shepherds' Play of the Wakefield Cycle is the best known early farce. However, farce did not appear independently in England until the 16th century with the work of John Heywood (1497–1580).
A significant forerunner of the development of Elizabethan drama was the Chambers of Rhetoric in the Low Countries. These societies were concerned with poetry, music and drama and held contests to see which society could compose the best drama in relation to a question posed.
At the end of the Late Middle Ages, professional actors began to appear in England and Europe. Richard III and Henry VII both maintained small companies of professional actors. Their plays were performed in the Great Hall of a nobleman's residence, often with a raised platform at one end for the audience and a "screen" at the other for the actors. Also important were Mummers' plays, performed during the Christmas season, and court masques. These masques were especially popular during the reign of Henry VIII who had a House of Revels built and an Office of Revels established in 1545.
The end of medieval drama came about due to a number of factors, including the weakening power of the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation and the banning of religious plays in many countries. Elizabeth I forbid all religious plays in 1558 and the great cycle plays had been silenced by the 1580s. Similarly, religious plays were banned in the Netherlands in 1539, the Papal States in 1547 and in Paris in 1548. The abandonment of these plays destroyed the international theatre that had thereto existed and forced each country to develop its own form of drama. It also allowed dramatists to turn to secular subjects and the reviving interest in Greek and Roman theatre provided them with the perfect opportunity.
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Commedia dell'arte troupes performed lively improvisational playlets across Europe for centuries. It originated in Italy in the 1560s. Commedia dell'arte was an actor-centred theatre, requiring little scenery and very few props. Plays did not originate from written drama but from scenarios called lazzi, which were loose frameworks that provided the situations, complications, and outcome of the action, around which the actors would improvise. The plays utilised stock characters, which could be divided into three groups: the lovers, the masters, and the servants. The lovers had different names and characteristics in most plays and often were the children of the master. The role of master was normally based on one of three stereotypes: Pantalone, an elderly Venetian merchant; Dottore, Pantalone's friend or rival, a pedantic doctor or lawyer who acted far more intelligent than he really was; and Capitano, who was once a lover character, but evolved into a braggart who boasted of his exploits in love and war, but was often terrifically unskilled in both. He normally carried a sword and wore a cape and feathered headdress. The servant character (called zanni) had only one recurring role: Arlecchino (also called Harlequin). He was both cunning and ignorant, but an accomplished dancer and acrobat. He typically carried a wooden stick with a split in the middle so it made a loud noise when striking something. This "weapon" gave us the term "slapstick".
A troupe typically consisted of 13 to 14 members. Most actors were paid by taking a share of the play's profits roughly equivalent to the size of their role. The style of theatre was in its peak from 1575 to 1650, but even after that time new scenarios were written and performed. The Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni wrote a few scenarios starting in 1734, but since he considered the genre too vulgar, he refined the topics of his own to be more sophisticated. He also wrote several plays based on real events, in which he included commedia characters.
During its Golden Age, roughly from 1590 to 1681, Spain saw a monumental increase in the production of live theatre as well as the in importance of theatre within Spanish society. It was an accessible art form for all participants in Renaissance Spain, being both highly sponsored by the aristocratic class and highly attended by the lower classes. The volume and variety of Spanish plays during the Golden Age was unprecedented in the history of world theatre, surpassing, for example, the dramatic production of the English Renaissance by a factor of at least four. Although this volume has been as much a source of criticism as praise for Spanish Golden Age theatre, for emphasizing quantity before quality, a large number of the 10,000 to 30,000 plays of this period are still considered masterpieces.
Major artists of the period included Lope de Vega, a contemporary of Shakespeare, often, and contemporaneously, seen his parallel for the Spanish stage, and Calderon de la Barca, inventor of the zarzuela and Lope's successor as the preeminent Spanish dramatist. Gil Vicente, Lope de Rueda, and Juan del Encina helped to establish the foundations of Spanish theatre in the mid-sixteenth centuries, while Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla and Tirso de Molina made significant contributions in the later half of the Golden Age. Important performers included Lope de Rueda (previously mentioned among the playwrights) and later Juan Rana.
The sources of influence for the emerging national theatre of Spain were as diverse as the theatre that nation ended up producing. Storytelling traditions originating in Italian Commedia dell'arte and the uniquely Spanish expression of Western Europe's traveling minstrel entertainments contributed a populist influence on the narratives and the music, respectively, of early Spanish theatre. Neo-Aristotelian criticism and liturgical dramas, on the other hand, contributed literary and moralistic perspectives. In turn, Spanish Golden Age theatre has dramatically influenced the theatre of later generations in Europe and throughout the world. Spanish drama had an immediate and significant impact on the contemporary developments in English Renaissance theatre. It has also had a lasting impact on theatre throughout the Spanish speaking world. Additionally, a growing number of works are being translated, increasing the reach of Spanish Golden Age theatre and strengthening its reputation among critics and theatre patrons.
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Renaissance theatre derived from several medieval theatre traditions, such as the mystery plays that formed a part of religious festivals in England and other parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. Other sources include the "morality plays" and the "University drama" that attempted to recreate Athenian tragedy. The Italian tradition of Commedia dell'arte, as well as the elaborate masques frequently presented at court, also contributed to the shaping of public theatre.
Since before the reign of Elizabeth I, companies of players were attached to households of leading aristocrats and performed seasonally in various locations. These became the foundation for the professional players that performed on the Elizabethan stage. The tours of these players gradually replaced the performances of the mystery and morality plays by local players, and a 1572 law eliminated the remaining companies lacking formal patronage by labelling them vagabonds.
The City of London authorities were generally hostile to public performances, but its hostility was overmatched by the Queen's taste for plays and the Privy Council's support. Theatres sprang up in suburbs, especially in the liberty of Southwark, accessible across the Thames to city dwellers but beyond the authority's control. The companies maintained the pretence that their public performances were mere rehearsals for the frequent performances before the Queen, but while the latter did grant prestige, the former were the real source of the income for the professional players.
Along with the economics of the profession, the character of the drama changed toward the end of the period. Under Elizabeth, the drama was a unified expression as far as social class was concerned: the Court watched the same plays the commoners saw in the public playhouses. With the development of the private theatres, drama became more oriented toward the tastes and values of an upper-class audience. By the later part of the reign of Charles I, few new plays were being written for the public theatres, which sustained themselves on the accumulated works of the previous decades.
Puritan opposition to the stage (informed by the arguments of the early Church Fathers who had written screeds against the decadent and violent entertainments of the Romans) argued not only that the stage in general was pagan, but that any play that represented a religious figure was inherently idolatrous. In 1642, at the outbreak of the English Civil War, the Protestant authorities banned the performance of all plays within the city limits of London. A sweeping assault against the alleged immoralities of the theatre crushed whatever remained in England of the dramatic tradition.
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English comedies written and performed in the Restoration period from 1660 to 1710 are collectively called "Restoration comedy". After public stage performances had been banned for 18 years by the Puritan regime, the re-opening of the theatres in 1660 signalled a renaissance of English drama. Restoration comedy is notorious for its sexual explicitness, a quality encouraged by Charles II (1660–1685) personally and by the rakish aristocratic ethos of his court. The socially diverse audiences included both aristocrats, their servants and hangers-on, and a substantial middle-class segment. These playgoers were attracted to the comedies by up-to-the-minute topical writing, by crowded and bustling plots, by the introduction of the first professional actresses, and by the rise of the first celebrity actors. This period saw the first professional woman playwright, Aphra Behn.
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 such as trapdoor tricks, "flying" actors, and fireworks. These shows have always had a bad reputation as a vulgar and commercial threat to the witty, "legitimate" Restoration drama; however, they drew Londoners in unprecedented numbers and left them dazzled and delighted.
Basically home-grown and with roots in the early 17th-century court masque, though never ashamed of borrowing ideas and stage technology from French opera, the spectaculars are sometimes called "English opera". However, the variety of them is so untidy that most theatre historians despair of defining them as a genre at all. Only a handful of works of this period are usually accorded the term "opera", as the musical dimension of most of them is subordinate to the visual. It was spectacle and scenery that drew in the crowds, as shown by many comments in the diary of the theatre-lover Samuel Pepys. The expense of mounting ever more elaborate scenic productions drove the two competing theatre companies into a dangerous spiral of huge expenditure and correspondingly huge losses or profits. A fiasco such as John Dryden's Albion and Albanius would leave a company in serious debt, while blockbusters like Thomas Shadwell's Psyche or Dryden's King Arthur would put it comfortably in the black for a long time.
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Neoclassicism was the dominant form of theatre in the 18th century. It demanded decorum and rigorous adherence to the classical unities. Neoclassical theatre as well as the time period is characterized by its grandiosity. The costumes and scenery were intricate and elaborate. The acting is characterized by large gestures and melodrama. Neoclassical theatre encompasses the Restoration, Augustan, and Johnstinian Ages. In one sense, the neo-classical age directly follows the time of the Renaissance.
Theatres of the early 18th century – sexual farces of the Restoration were superseded by politically satirical comedies, 1737 Parliament passed the Stage Licensing Act which introduced state censorship of public performances and limited the number of theatres in London to just two.
Beginning in France, melodrama became the most popular theatrical form. August von Kotzebue's Misanthropy and Repentance (1789) is often considered the first melodramatic play. The plays of Kotzebue and René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt established melodrama as the dominant dramatic form of the early 19th century.
In Germany, there was a trend toward historic accuracy in costumes and settings, a revolution in theatre architecture, and the introduction of the theatrical form of German Romanticism. Influenced by trends in 19th-century philosophy and the visual arts, German writers were increasingly fascinated with their Teutonic past and had a growing sense of nationalism. The plays of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and other Sturm und Drang playwrights, inspired a growing faith in feeling and instinct as guides to moral behavior.
In Britain, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron were the most important dramatists of their time (although Shelley's plays were not performed until later in the century). In the minor theatres, burletta and melodrama were the most popular. Kotzebue's plays were translated into English and Thomas Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery was the first of many English melodramas. Pierce Egan, Douglas William Jerrold, Edward Fitzball, and John Baldwin Buckstone initiated a trend towards more contemporary and rural stories in preference to the usual historical or fantastical melodramas. James Sheridan Knowles and Edward George Bulwer-Lytton established a "gentlemanly" drama that began to re-establish the former prestige of the theatre with the aristocracy.
Realism began earlier in the 19th century in Russia than elsewhere in Europe and took a more uncompromising form. Beginning with the plays of Ivan Turgenev (who used "domestic detail to reveal inner turmoil"), Aleksandr Ostrovsky (who was Russia's first professional playwright), Aleksey Pisemsky (whose A Bitter Fate (1859) anticipated Naturalism), and Leo Tolstoy (whose The Power of Darkness (1886) is "one of the most effective of naturalistic plays"), a tradition of psychological realism in Russia culminated with the establishment of the Moscow Art Theatre by Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.
The most important theatrical force in later 19th-century Germany was that of Georg II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen and his Meiningen Ensemble, under the direction of Ludwig Chronegk. The Ensemble's productions are often considered the most historically accurate of the 19th century, although his primary goal was to serve the interests of the playwright. The Meiningen Ensemble stands at the beginning of the new movement toward unified production (or what Richard Wagner would call the Gesamtkunstwerk) and the rise of the director (at the expense of the actor) as the dominant artist in theatre-making.
Naturalism, a theatrical movement born out of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) and contemporary political and economic conditions, found its main proponent in Émile Zola. The realisation of Zola's ideas was hindered by a lack of capable dramatists writing naturalist drama. André Antoine emerged in the 1880s with his Théâtre Libre that was only open to members and therefore was exempt from censorship. He quickly won the approval of Zola and began to stage Naturalistic works and other foreign realistic pieces.
In Britain, melodramas, light comedies, operas, Shakespeare and classic English drama, Victorian burlesque, pantomimes, translations of French farces and, from the 1860s, French operettas, continued to be popular. So successful were the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, such as H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) and The Mikado (1885), that they greatly expanded the audience for musical theatre. This, together with much improved street lighting and transportation in London and New York led to a late Victorian and Edwardian theatre building boom in the West End and on Broadway. Later, the work of Henry Arthur Jones and Arthur Wing Pinero initiated a new direction on the English stage. While their work paved the way, the development of more significant drama owes itself most to the playwright Henrik Ibsen.
Ibsen was born in Norway in 1828. He wrote twenty-five plays, the most famous of which are A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), The Wild Duck (1884), and Hedda Gabler (1890). In addition, his works Rosmersholm (1886) and When We Dead Awaken (1899) evoke a sense of mysterious forces at work in human destiny, which was to be a major theme of symbolism and the so-called "Theatre of the Absurd".
After Ibsen, British theatre experienced revitalization with the work of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, John Galsworthy, William Butler Yeats, and Harley Granville Barker. Unlike most of the gloomy and intensely serious work of their contemporaries, Shaw and Wilde wrote primarily in the comic form. Edwardian musical comedies were extremely popular, appealing to the tastes of the middle class in the Gay Nineties and catering to the public's preference for escapist entertainment during World War I.
While much 20th-century theatre continued and extended the projects of realism and Naturalism, there was also a great deal of experimental theatre that rejected those conventions. These experiments form part of the modernist and postmodernist movements and included forms of political theatre as well as more aesthetically orientated work. Examples include: Epic theatre, the Theatre of Cruelty, and the so-called "Theatre of the Absurd".
The term theatre practitioner came to be used to describe someone who both creates theatrical performances and who produces a theoretical discourse that informs their practical work. A theatre practitioner may be a director, a dramatist, an actor, or—characteristically—often a combination of these traditionally separate roles. "Theatre practice" describes the collective work that various theatre practitioners do. It is used to describe theatre praxis from Konstantin Stanislavski's development of his 'system', through Vsevolod Meyerhold's biomechanics, Bertolt Brecht's epic and Jerzy Grotowski's poor theatre, down to the present day, with contemporary theatre practitioners including Augusto Boal with his Theatre of the Oppressed, Dario Fo's popular theatre, Eugenio Barba's theatre anthropology and Anne Bogart's viewpoints.
Other key figures of 20th-century theatre include: Antonin Artaud, August Strindberg, Anton Chekhov, Frank Wedekind, Maurice Maeterlinck, Federico García Lorca, Eugene O'Neill, Luigi Pirandello, George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein, Ernst Toller, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Jean Genet, Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Heiner Müller, and Caryl Churchill.
A number of aesthetic movements continued or emerged in the 20th century, including:
After the great popularity of the British Edwardian musical comedies, the American musical theatre came to dominate the musical stage, beginning with the Princess Theatre musicals, followed by the works of the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and later Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The earliest recorded quasi-theatrical event dates back to 2000 BC with the "passion plays" of Ancient Egypt. This story of the god Osiris was performed annually at festivals throughout the civilization.
In his pioneering study of Yoruba theatre, Joel Adedeji traced its origins to the masquerade of the Egungun (the "cult of the ancestor"). The traditional ceremony culminates in the essence of the masquerade where it is deemed that ancestors return to the world of the living to visit their descendants. In addition to its origin in ritual, Yoruba theatre can be "traced to the 'theatrogenic' nature of a number of the deities in the Yoruba pantheon, such as Obatala the arch divinity, Ogun the divinity of creativeness and Sango the divinity of the storm", whose reverence is imbued "with drama and theatre and the symbolic overall relevance in terms of its relative interpretation."
The Aláàrìnjó theatrical tradition sprang from the Egungun masquerade, from oyo Igboho around the 16th century. The Aláàrìnjó was a troupe of traveling performers whose masked forms carried an air of mystique. They created short, satirical scenes that drew on a number of established stereotypical characters. Their performances utilised mime, music and acrobatics. The Aláàrìnjó tradition influenced the popular traveling theatre, which was the most prevalent and highly developed form of theatre in Nigeria from the 1950s to the 1980s. In the 1990s, the popular traveling theatre moved into television and film and now gives live performances only rarely.
"Total theatre" also developed in Nigeria in the 1950s. It utilised non-Naturalistic techniques, surrealistic physical imagery, and exercised a flexibile use of language. Playwrights writing in the mid-1970s made use of some of these techniques, but articulated them with "a radical appreciation of the problems of society."
Traditional performance modes have strongly influenced the major figures in contemporary Nigerian theatre. The work of Hubert Ogunde (sometimes referred to as the "father of contemporary Yoruban theatre") was informed by the Aláàrìnjó tradition and Egungun masquerades. Wole Soyinka, who is "generally recognized as Africa's greatest living playwright", gives the divinity Ogun a complex metaphysical significance in his work. In his essay "The Fourth Stage" (1973), Soyinka contrasts Yoruba drama with classical Athenian drama, relating both to the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's analysis of the latter in The Birth of Tragedy (1872). Ogun, he argues, is "a totality of the Dionysian, Apollonian and Promethean virtues." Hubert Ogunde must also be commended for his true passion for the African kind of theatre that maintains accurate Africanness, traditional forms of the Africans, the belief system, common values, folklores of the people.
Among the few proponents of popular travelling theatre in Nigeria include: Duro Ladipo, Moses Olaiya ( a popular comic act). These practitioners contributed a lot to kick off the African theatre. During the period of mixture and experimentation of the indigenous as well as the Western theatre.
The earliest form of Indian theatre was the Sanskrit theatre. It emerged sometime between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century and flourished between the 1st century and the 10th, which was a period of relative peace in the history of India during which hundreds of plays were written. With the Islamic conquests that began in the 10th and 11th centuries, theatre was discouraged or forbidden entirely. Later, in an attempt to re-assert indigenous values and ideas, village theatre was encouraged across the subcontinent, developing in a large number of regional languages from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Modern Indian theatre developed during the period of colonial rule under the British Empire, from the mid-19th century until the mid-20th.
The earliest-surviving fragments of Sanskrit drama date from the 1st century. The wealth of archaeological evidence from earlier periods offers no indication of the existence of a tradition of theatre. The ancient Vedas (hymns from between 1500 to 1000 BC that are among the earliest examples of literature in the world) contain no hint of it (although a small number are composed in a form of dialogue) and the rituals of the Vedic period do not appear to have developed into theatre. The Mahābhāṣya by Patañjali contains the earliest reference to what may have been the seeds of Sanskrit drama. This treatise on grammar from 140 BC provides a feasible date for the beginnings of theatre in India.
The major source of evidence for Sanskrit theatre is A Treatise on Theatre (Nātyaśāstra), a compendium whose date of composition is uncertain (estimates range from 200 BC to 200 AD) and whose authorship is attributed to Bharata Muni. The Treatise is the most complete work of dramaturgy in the ancient world. It addresses acting, dance, music, dramatic construction, architecture, costuming, make-up, props, the organisation of companies, the audience, competitions, and offers a mythological account of the origin of theatre. In doing so, it provides indications about the nature of actual theatrical practices. Sanskrit theatre was performed on sacred ground by priests who had been trained in the necessary skills (dance, music, and recitation) in a [hereditary process]. Its aim was both to educate and to entertain.
Under the patronage of royal courts, performers belonged to professional companies that were directed by a stage manager (sutradhara), who may also have acted. This task was thought of as being analogous to that of a puppeteer—the literal meaning of "sutradhara" is "holder of the strings or threads". The performers were trained rigorously in vocal and physical technique. There were no prohibitions against female performers; companies were all-male, all-female, and of mixed gender. Certain sentiments were considered inappropriate for men to enact, however, and were thought better suited to women. Some performers played character their own age, while others played those different from their own (whether younger or older). Of all the elements of theatre, the Treatise gives most attention to acting (abhinaya), which consists of two styles: realistic (lokadharmi) and conventional (natyadharmi), though the major focus is on the latter.
Its drama is regarded as the highest achievement of Sanskrit literature. It utilised stock characters, such as the hero (nayaka), heroine (nayika), or clown (vidusaka). Actors may have specialised in a particular type. Kālidāsa in the 1st century BC, is arguably considered to be ancient India's greatest Sanskrit dramatist. Three famous romantic plays written by Kālidāsa are the Mālavikāgnimitram (Mālavikā and Agnimitra), Vikramuurvashiiya (Pertaining to Vikrama and Urvashi), and Abhijñānaśākuntala (The Recognition of Shakuntala). The last was inspired by a story in the Mahabharata and is the most famous. It was the first to be translated into English and German. Śakuntalā (in English translation) influenced Goethe's Faust (1808–1832).
The next great Indian dramatist was Bhavabhuti (c. 7th century). He is said to have written the following three plays: Malati-Madhava, Mahaviracharita and Uttar Ramacharita. Among these three, the last two cover between them the entire epic of Ramayana. The powerful Indian emperor Harsha (606–648) is credited with having written three plays: the comedy Ratnavali, Priyadarsika, and the Buddhist drama Nagananda.
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Kathakali is a highly stylised classical Indian dance-drama noted for the attractive make-up of characters, elaborate costumes, detailed gestures, and well-defined body movements presented in tune with the anchor playback music and complementary percussion. It originated in the country's present-day state of Kerala during the 17th century and has developed over the years with improved looks, refined gestures and added themes besides more ornate singing and precise drumming.
Rabindranath Tagore was a pioneering modern playwright who wrote plays noted for their exploration and questioning of nationalism, identity, spiritualism and material greed. His plays are written in Bengali and include Chitra (Chitrangada, 1892), The King of the Dark Chamber (Raja, 1910), The Post Office (Dakghar, 1913), and Red Oleander (Raktakarabi, 1924).
Mrityunjay Prabhakar is one of the major young Hindi theatre director and playwright who emerged on Indian Theatre Scene in the last decade of the 20th century and established himself as a significant theatre activist in first decade of the 21st century. He started his theatre career from Patna during his graduation days. He has worked with several theatre groups like Abhiyan, Prerna, Mach Art group and Prangan in Patna. Later, he co-founded the group Abhiyan along with his friends. When he arrived Delhi for his further studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Here he worked with famous groups like Rang Saptak, Bahroop and Dastak. Later he founded his own group named SEHAR in 2005 and started working rigorously. He has got trained under leading figures of Indian Drama and Theatre world through different workshops he attended like Habib Tanvir, B.V. Karanth, Prasanna, Ratan Thiyam, D. R. Ankur and many more. He has worked with directors like D.R. Ankur, Lokendra Arambam, H.S. Shiva Prakash, Surendra Sharma, Parvez Akhtar, Vijay Kumar, Javed Akhtar Khan, Suman Kumar and others. He has worked as an actor, director, set designer, light designer and organizer in theatre.
Presently, Mrityunjay Prabhakar works primarily as a Theatre Director and Playwright with his group SEHAR. He is the founder-director of theatre troupe, SEHAR (Society of Education, Harmony, Art, Culture and Media Reproduction) (Registered under Society Act) in 2007. He has directed more than two dozens plays among them 'Sabse Udas Kavita', 'Khwahishen' ,'Jee Humen To Natak Karna Hai', ,'Dhruvswamini', 'Vithalala' and 'Suicide' have got special attention from the larger section of the society. His plays has been performed in different cities and theatre centres of the country apart from Delhi. His plays were part of some of the important theatre festivals of the country.
Mrityunjay Prabhakar's originally written Play 'Sadho Dekho Jag Baudana' was published by InkLit Publication. He has also written famous plays like 'Aao Natak Natak Khelen', 'Khwahishen', 'Jee Humen To Natak Karna Hai', 'Suicide', 'Hey Ram', 'Teri Meri Kahani Hai', 'Karnav' and others, which has been performed by different groups and directors in various theatre centres of the country. He has adopted famous Keniyan playwright Ngugi Wa Thiong's play 'The Black Hermit' as 'Jayen To Jayen Kahan'. The adoptation was first performed by NSD Graduate Randhir Kumar in 2005 in Patna. Later he reproduced the play in 2010 with SEHAR in Delhi. He has adopted H.S. Shivaprakash famous Kannad play 'Mochi Madaiah' in Hindi which was directed by Lokendra Arambam and published by Yash Publication, Delhi. An anthology on Contemporary Indian Theatre titled 'Samkaleen Rangkarm' is also credited on his name published by InkLit Publication. His Hindi Poetry Collection 'Jo Mere Bheetar Hain' was published by Akademi of Letters (Sahitya Akademi), India.
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There are references to theatrical entertainments in China as early as 1500 BC during the Shang Dynasty; they often involved music, clowning and acrobatic displays.
During the Han Dynasty, shadow puppetry first emerged as a recognized form of theatre in China. There were two distinct forms of shadow puppetry, Cantonese southern and Pekingese northern. The two styles were differentiated by the method of making the puppets and the positioning of the rods on the puppets, as opposed to the type of play performed by the puppets. Both styles generally performed plays depicting great adventure and fantasy, rarely was this very stylized form of theatre used for political propaganda. Cantonese shadow puppets were the larger of the two. They were built using thick leather which created more substantial shadows. Symbolic color was also very prevalent; a black face represented honesty, a red one bravery. The rods used to control Cantonese puppets were attached perpendicular to the puppets' heads. Thus, they were not seen by the audience when the shadow was created. Pekingese puppets were more delicate and smaller. They were created out of thin, translucent leather usually taken from the belly of a donkey. They were painted with vibrant paints, thus they cast a very colorful shadow. The thin rods which controlled their movements were attached to a leather collar at the neck of the puppet. The rods ran parallel to the bodies of the puppet then turned at a ninety degree angle to connect to the neck. While these rods were visible when the shadow was cast, they laid outside the shadow of the puppet; thus they did not interfere with the appearance of the figure. The rods attached at the necks to facilitate the use of multiple heads with one body. When the heads were not being used, they were stored in a muslin book or fabric lined box. The heads were always removed at night. This was in keeping with the old superstition that if left intact, the puppets would come to life at night. Some puppeteers went so far as to store the heads in one book and the bodies in another, to further reduce the possibility of reanimating puppets. Shadow puppetry is said to have reached its highest point of artistic development in the 11th century before becoming a tool of the government.
The Tang Dynasty is sometimes known as 'The Age of 1000 Entertainments'. During this era, Emperor Xuanzong formed an acting school known as the Children of the Pear Garden to produce a form of drama that was primarily musical.
Yuan drama spread across China and diversified into numerous regional forms, the best known of which is Beijing Opera, which is still popular today.
During the 333-year reign of the Spanish government, the introduced into the islands the Catholic religion and the Spanish way of life, which gradually merged with the indigenous culture to form the “lowland folk culture” now shared by the major ethnolinguistic groups. Today, the dramatic forms introduced or influenced by Spain continue to live in rural areas all over the archipelago. These forms include the komedya, the playlets, the sinakulo, the sarswela, and the drama. In recent years, some of these forms have been revitalized to make them more responsive to the conditions and needs of a developing nation.
In Thailand, it has been a tradition from the Middle Ages to stage plays based on plots drawn from Indian epics. In particular, the theatrical version of Thailand's national epic Ramakien, a version of the Indian Ramayana, remains popular in Thailand even today.
In Cambodia, at the ancient capital Angkor Wat, stories from the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata have been carved on the walls of temples and palaces. Similar reliefs are found at Borobudur in Indonesia.
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 Noh. A mixture of pantomime and vocal acrobatics, this style has fascinated the Japanese for hundreds of years.
Japan, after a long period of civil wars and political disarray, was unified and at peace primarily due to shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616). 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 form of theatre to flourish was Ningyō jōruri (commonly referred to as Bunraku). The founder of and main contributor to Ningyō jōruri, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725), turned his form of theatre into a true art form. Ningyō jōruri is a highly stylized form of theatre 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 single 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. They wore masks instead of elaborate makeup. Masks define their gender, personality, and moods the actor is in.
Kabuki began shortly after Bunraku, legend has it by an actress named Okuni, who lived around the end of the 16th century. Most of Kabuki's material came from Nõ and Bunraku, and its erratic dance-type movements are also an effect of Bunraku. However, Kabuki is less formal and more distant than Nõ, 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 16th 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.
Butoh is the collective name for a diverse range of activities, techniques and motivations for dance, performance, or movement inspired by the Ankoku-Butoh (暗黒舞踏 ankoku butō?) movement. It typically involves playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments, and is traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow hyper-controlled motion, with or without an audience. There is no set style, and it may be purely conceptual with no movement at all. Its origins have been attributed to Japanese dance legends Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Butoh appeared first in Japan following World War II and specifically after student riots. The roles of authority were now subject to challenge and subversion. It also appeared as a reaction against the contemporary dance scene in Japan, which Hijikata felt was based on the one hand on imitating the West and on the other on imitating the Noh. He critiqued the current state of dance as overly superficial.
The most popular forms of theatre in the medieval Islamic world were puppet theatre (which included hand puppets, shadow plays and marionette productions) and live passion plays known as ta'ziya, in which actors re-enact episodes from Muslim history. In particular, Shia Islamic plays revolved around the shaheed (martyrdom) of Ali's sons Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali. Secular plays known as akhraja were recorded in medieval adab literature, though they were less common than puppetry and ta'ziya theatre.
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