Primitive Man



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History of Theatre (EXAM)

Primitive Man


  • Rhythmic movements evolved into pantomimes that told, showed or mimicked.

  • Initiation dances (boys reaching manhood), war dances, story dances, religious dances.

  • Ritual evolved out of religious dances.



Egyptian Theatre


  • As far as we know, the first people to establish a definite drama (3000 BC)

  • Primarily concerned with life after death.

  • Five types of Egyptian plays---all serious and all performed in tombs or temples:

    • Pyramid plays were written on pyramid walls and included stage directions. These religious dramas showed the ascent of the soul and the resurrection of the body.

    • Coronation Festival (crowning a new pharaoh)

    • Heb Sed or Coronation Jubilee (performed on the pharaoh’s 13th year of reign)

    • Medicinal play (magical healing---Isis’s child is bitten by a scorpion and Isis heals the child using artificial respiration and magic.

    • Abydos Passion play (resurrection theme---Set, the god of evil, becomes jealous of his brother Osiris. He tricks Osiris into a coffin, nails it shut, and throws it into the Nile. Isis (wife of Osiris) finds the coffin and buries it, but Set digs him up, dismembers the body and scatters the pieces. Isis collects the pieces and buries them again. Osiris is then resurrected and becomes King of the Dead.



Hebrew Theatre


  • Although dance and ritual are mentioned, there is no reference to a definite theatre. However, two books of the Bible are read as dramatic literature. The Song of Solomon contains poetic dialogue and was probably read or performed at a wedding. The Book of Job is written like a 5-act drama. However, there is no record of it having been performed.



Greek Theatre


  • Drama so outstanding it has never been surpassed.

  • The Golden Age of Greece (500-400 BC) brought the greatest tragedies of all time.

  • Had its beginnings in the Dionysian rites (the god of wine and fertility).

  • Tragedy developed out of Dionysian rites. Tragedy literally means goat song. No one knows why, but some speculate that either a goat was sacrificed at the end, or the performers wore goat skins.

  • The Dionysian rites grew into a festival of plays where the best tragedy received a prize. This festival lasted 5 or 6 days. The first day, people observed religious rites, drank wine, sang, and partied. That first night, people attended the theatre by candlelight.

  • The next days were for dythrambic contests, performed by choral groups. The final days were for the play contests. Each day a different dramatist was featured who would offer fou plays: a trilogy (3 plays around a central theme) and a satyr (farce) that provided comic relief. At the end of the festival a winner was announced who would be allowed to wear the coveted ivy garland.

  • Comedies (komos---band of revelers) were performed in the afternoon. Most comedies were performed at the Lenaea festival (in February).

  • Plays were performed out of doors. Most plays were performed with benches carved into a hill that looked down into a circle of hard packed earth---something like our amphitheatres today. They seated 20,000.

  • The acting area was called the orchestra, the actors changed costumes in a skene (a small building) from which we get the word scene. A proskenion (we get proscenium) was placed in front of the skene for the actors.

  • The actors were all men who, to make themselves taller by wearing thick soled shoes and a high head piece (called onkus); he also wore masks which not only denoted character, but helped project his voice (like a megaphone).

  • Costumes were very colorful and elaborately embroidered.

  • Staging was simple. The deus-ex-machina was the mechanical device used for lowering and raising gods, or getting a hero out of harm’s way. This term is used today to describe when a hero gets out of an impossible situation in an unlikely way.

  • Most plays revolved around ancient myths that were familiar to the audience. Plays also used a choragus (chorus) to explain the exposition.

  • Tragedies had rules (according to Aristotle)---not all playwrights followed them:

    • Must have a catharsis or spiritual purge and inspire the audience to lead better lives.

    • Hero must be in a high social position and posses a tragic flaw.

    • Must have a change of fortune or reversal.

    • Must be written in poetry.

    • Must have a series of closely related events, take place within a 24-hour period, and take place in one locale.

  • The first winner of the prize was Thespis (we get the word thespian)

  • Famous playwrights: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Aristotle.



Roman Theatre


  • Theatre was frowned upon by aristocrats---audience comprised of lower class whose tastes ran to spectacle and vulgarity.

  • Greek theatre degenerated and comedies became vulgar slapstick.

  • Roman playhouses were portable wooden platforms.

  • 60 BC Pompey built a huge auditorium around a small statue of Venus in order to make the auditorium legal. The “steps” of the “temple” became the seats.

  • Caesar became jealous, so he built a playhouse in the shape of two wooden theatres that could revolve to face one another---After a play, the seats were swung around to create ampitheatres for chariot races and gladiatorial contests.

  • Plays were overshadowed by colosseum events (gladiatorial contests, feeding individuals to lions, and special arenas called naumachiaes, which were filled with water, and slaves fought on ships until all were killed.)

  • Roman theatre became so base that when Rome fell in 476 A. D. and the Christian church took over, all theatrical activity was banned.



Hindu Theatre


  • According to mythology, Brahma invented theatre.

  • Performed for the upper class, usually in gardens.

  • The only scenery was a decorated wall, behind which the actors changed.

  • Plays always ended happily.



Chinese Theatre


  • Started as interpretive dancing at ancestor worship but evolved into plays.

  • Used a thrust stage.

  • No curtain or scenery. Chorus suggests scene changes. Musicians required.

  • Originally, men played all parts. Acting was artificial, and symbolic (each movement meant something----i.e. a sleeve over the eye meant weeping).

  • Properties and colors also had symbolic meaning. I. E. white paper falling from a red umbrella meant snow; a man with a whip meant he was on horseback; a actor carrying a flag represented an army; a flag with a wavy line represented a river.

  • The prop man was “invisible” because he wore black.

  • Elaborate, colorful costumes were worn. Thick make up signified character. (Red stood for faithfulness; blue for cruelty; white for evil, etc.)



Japanese Theatre





  • Similar to Chinese theatre.

  • Noh plays were written in formal, classical style for aristocrats.

  • Scenery consisted of a tapestry hung on the back wall.

  • Wooden masks were worn.

  • Properties were multi-functional and were used for suggestion. I. E. a fan could become a dagger, a tray, a letter, or a fan.

  • Common man’s theatre was called Kabuki. It evolved in 1600 when O-Kuni (a woman) began singing and dancing in the street. Kabuki incorporates song and dance, and is more melodramatic and sensational than the Noh plays. Kabuki is known for lavish color, elaborate costumes, and thick stylized make up.

  • Acting is most important. Men must be able to realistically play women (even today).



Medieval Theatre


  • Called the Dark Ages because little or no cultural activity.

  • Began with the Fall of Rome and continued till the 12th Century in Europe.

  • The church that buried drama, revived it in order to “teach” the Christian story to the uneducated.

  • Performed on traveling wagons---people would travel from one wagon to the next to see a complete story. Were also performed at “stations” in cathedrals.

  • Three types of plays (The 3 “M’s”) Mystery (Bible stories), Miracle (saints), and Morality (taught right from wrong)



Italian and Spanish Renaissance Theatre


  • Travels of people like Marco Polo had stimulated curiosity in arts and sciences.

  • (Leornardo DiVinchi, Michelangelo)

  • Comedia dell’ Arte was improvised comedy performed for the masses in the street---companies included 7 men and 3 women who would adlib around a scenerio. This also included songs, dances, acrobatics, stunts, and fight scenes.

  • Stock characters evolved:

    • Harlequin (wore a stylized diamond costume) was the clever, witty one.

    • Pierrot was lovelorn and moody

    • Columbine was flirtatious and pretty

    • Pantolone (wore baggy trousers---get word pantaloon) was gullable father.

  • Aslo pseudoclassicism began which copied ancient Roman forms.

  • Most successful form was the newly created opera which supplanted drama---huge auditoriums were built.



Elizabethan Theatre


  • Think Shakespeare.

  • Elizabeth I was a huge fan of the arts, endorsed plays, and placed actors under her protection.

  • Playhouses were called “Wooden O’s”---most famous was the Globe theatre.

  • Lighting was natural (O’s were open to outside light). Used a thrust stage. Groundlings caused problems. Men played all parts. Plays were held in afternoon.



French Renaissance


  • Due to war, the renaissance hit late in France, and form was limited to neo-classicism (imitating the classics)

  • Primarily for the royalty

  • Moliere is the high point of the French Renaissance, writing in the Commedia dell’ Arte style. He changed his name so that his family would not be disgraced by having an actor in the family.


Restoration and 18th Century

  • After the Puritans took over England, they cancelled theatre as being “evil.”

  • Charles II restored theatre, built the theatres torn down by the Puritans, and “restored” theatre.

  • New theatres were built----proscenium stages/archs---not thrust stages.

  • Audience was sophisticated and aristocratic: very witty, insincere, immoral, and dissipated. Primarily comedies were performed.



19th Century Continental Theatre

  • At first, type changed to an emotional escape into adventure, beauty, and sentimental idealism (Think The Three Musketeers and Victor Hugo).

  • Midway through, drama became very realistic.

  • Primary playwright was Henrik Isben (A Doll’s House), Chekhov, Beorge Shaw, and Oscar Wilde.

  • Stanislavski, the famous director, started the Stanislavski technique of realistic acting.


19th Century American Drama

  • America finally stepped up to the plate, stopped borrowing from Europe, and developed its own style.

  • Early drama had been regarded as “sinful” by the Puritans.

  • President Washington endorsed theatre and Washington developed as a theatrical haven.

  • Showboats became popular and theatrical playhouses were built.

  • America began the practice of using historically accurate costumes.

  • Theatre managers formed traveling companies.

  • Three types of theatre “invented by Americans”

    • Minstrel shows were developed (done in black face and featuring Negro songs and jokes).

    • Vaudeville: a variety show

    • Melodrama: think soap opera


20th Century Drama

  • Techniques and technology advanced. Theatre becomes very, very popular.

  • Impressionism becomes popular.

  • America invents the musical comedy and broadway starts!


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