Ancient greek theatre medieval theatre

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Mr Doneda (Comparison of Ancient Greek, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance Theatre)




From 5th century BC – 200B.C approx.

From collapse of the Western Empire of the Roman Empire in 5th Century AD

Rome fell but not the Catholic church – Church assumed a power over Europe lasting 1000 years

In England from 1560 - 1642

Drama needs 3 things: actors; conflict and audience – this is what separates Drama from Ritual



  • Aeschylus 525 – 456 B.C

  • Euripides 480 – 406 B.C

  • Sophocles 495 – 406 B.C


  • Aristophanes 448 – 338 B.C

  • Menander 342 – 291 B.C

  • Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593) – great poet; spy; atheist; homosexual; controversial; best playwright ever before Shakespeare; stabbed to death in a fight

  • Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) – famous for his comedies; moral

  • William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) – brilliant characterisation; wrote 37 plays; bisexual


  • Guilt; emphasis on the individual facing challenges with the gods, himself, others, or the state; complex characters who have psychological motivation; choices NB; suffering and challenges leading to self-recognition and a higher law above man; justice; disharmony as a result of choices; closely associated with religion – often stories based on myth or history; deeds of heroes; good and evil; wars; marriages and adulteries; conflict between parents and children

  • Drama adopted ritual drama as it increased its own rites and ceremonies

  • Drama used to educate the unlearned and strengthen the faith

  • Didactic – to teach and spread the Christian faith

  • To promote a godly way of life

  • Based on Bible stories – life of saints; life, death and resurrection of Christ; vices and virtues; angels and devils; God and Satan

  • Deals with man’s relationship with man rather than with God

  • Subject matter dealt with new knowledge and scientific discoveries

  • Comedy dealt with contemporary events

  • It required interpretation

  • Clear genres – comedy and tragedy





  • At first role of CHORUS all important and this gets reduced over time as actors introduced

  • Thespis introduced first actor

  • Aeschylus introduced the 2nd

  • Sophocles introduced the 3rd

  • Playwrights originally acted but by 449 B.C. with contests for tragic actors, they didn’t

  • Three-actor rule

  • Main actors chosen by lot and the others by the main actors and playwrights

  • Actors paid by the State

  • Only leading actors eligible for the competition

  • Vocal acting – declamatory – to project emotional tone, mood and character

  • Three kinds of delivery – speech, recitative and song

  • No facial importance – masks used

  • Gesture and movement broad and simple

  • Actors usually played more than one role

  • Men played all the parts

  • Stylized – masks, choral

  • Chorus from 50 at first down to 12-15

  • Only 3 dramatists were granted choruses by the civic magistrate

  • Chorus entered with a stately march, sometimes singing

  • Choral passages sung and danced in unison or two groups

  • Sometimes they exchanged dialogue with the main characters

  • Chorus made up of amateurs – 11 months of training and most expensive part of the production

  • Dithyramb – a hymn sung in unison by the chorus around the altar of Dionysus dealing with the life and death of Dionysus, and later tales of the demi-gods/heroes

  • Tragic actors – remained a static, god-like creature, speaking and singing in harmony with music; declamatory voice; upright dignified posture

  • Comic actors – agile; acrobatic

  • Liturgical dramas – priests; later choir boys and laymen. No women. All amateurs

  • Mystery Plays – actors were amateurs/citizens/craftsmen e.g. each scene performed by different guilds

  • Miracle Plays – performed by a special group

  • Morality Plays – professional actors/troupes of player

  • Folk dramas – men dressed in fanciful clothes; known as mummers

  • Interludes and Farces – small group of travelling actors

Professional Actors

  • When the church banned theatre around the 6th century AD, professional actors were forced to make their living in other ways

  • Became wandering entertainers (Puppet shows; acrobats; singers; dancers; jugglers; accompanied by musicians and clowns)

  • Specialised one-man entertainer – the minstrel (sang ballads; a musician, poet and actor all in one; moved from castle to castle; often brought news; often used as a go-between in secret matters)

  • From 10th century when Church introduced religious plays, actors were more accepted, but not welcome

  • No women – only men and boys

  • Boys selected for their slight build and light voices played the female roles

  • Young actors trained by older actors

  • The comedians of the company would play the older female parts

  • All were dancers, singers and could play musical instruments

  • The clowns/fools improvised their parts

  • More and more quarrels between James I and the Puritans (Protestant Christians) led to a civil war and in 1642 theatres being shut down by parliament and no acting for 18 years








  • Greek society viewed gods in human terms – eg. Gods held grudges

  • A strong concern for humanity

  • Harmony was dependent on a conjunction of human and divine forces

  • City –states with some rights and democracy (not for women or slaves)

  • Highly educated upper classes

  • Homosexuality acceptable and most men had young men as lovers (women were seen as there for childbearing and domestic activities)

  • The human body, sport and beauty admired e.g. the Olympic Games – athletes were naked

  • Life was dominated by the Church

  • FEUDALISM – 3 classes (Churchmen; Nobles; Working class)

  • Holy days – holidays

  • Mass was in Latin – people didn’t understand

  • Pope as the head of everything – God’s voice on earth

  • King had many barons and lords serving him; gave land to the barons who in turn gave land to lords – in turn they had to fight for the King and provide knights

  • The lord built a manor house or castle and demanded service from the peasants who stayed on the land; 1 – 3 villages made up a manor; peasants paid taxes and didn’t own the land – had to pay it for protection

  • Peasants paid taxes in crops and animals; worked for the lord 3 days a week

  • Many peasants were serfs (slaves)

  • Many peasant revolts occurred

  • Class system was rigid – you were born and died in one class

  • Church argued that this was God’s will

  • Craftsmen/artisans – higher than peasants (carpenters/smiths/bakers etc)

  • Had to belong to a guild and pay fees

  • Merchants – began to sell goods for money

  • Became wealthy and also formed guilds

  • Merchants gradually robbed the lords of their inherited power

  • Women – no rights; poor women worked in the fields; rich women could only marry – usually at 12-13 years of age; if no man wanted them they became nuns

Two great movements: The Renaissance and The Reformation (Protestant revolution of Martin Luther – start of capitalism and nationalism)

The Renaissance began in northern Italy and then spread through Europe. Italian cities such as Naples, Genoa, and Venice became centres of trade between Europe and the Middle East. Arab scholars preserved the writings of the ancient Greeks in their libraries. When the Italian cities traded with the Arabs, ideas were exchanged along with goods. These ideas, preserved from the ancient past, served as the basis of the Renaissance. When the Byzantine empire fell to Muslim Turks in 1453, many Christian scholars left Greece for Italy.

The Renaissance was much more than simply studying the work of ancient scholars. It influenced painting, sculpture, and architecture. Paintings became more realistic and focused less often on religious topics. Rich families became patrons and commissioned great art. Artists advanced the Renaissance style of showing nature and depicting the feelings of people. In Britain, there was a flowering in literature and drama that included the plays of William Shakespeare.

In some ways Humanism was not a philosophy per se, but rather a method of learning. In contrast to the medieval scholastic mode, which focused on resolving contradictions between authors, humanists would study ancient texts in the original, and appraise them through a combination of reasoning and empirical evidence. Humanist education was based on the programme of 'Studia Humanitatis', that being the study of five humanities: poetry, grammar, history, moral philosophy and rhetoric. Although historians have sometimes struggled to define humanism precisely, most have settled on "a middle of the road definition... the movement to recover, interpret, and assimilate the language, literature, learning and values of ancient Greece and Rome".[43] Above all, humanists asserted "the genius of man ... the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind."








Performed for special occasions (festivals) and competitive (prizes awarded)

Four festivals each year:

  • Rural Dionysia - December

  • Lenaia – January (merrymaking)

  • Anthesteria – end of Febuary

  • City Dionysia – end of March (contest for best tragedy) 5 days

  • Liturgical dramas – during Church festivals (Easter/Christmas)

  • Plays were elaborate and could last up to 40 days

  • Miracle Plays – performed on the feast day of a saint

  • Folk dramas – religious holidays

  • Public Playhouses – afternoon performances

  • Indoor Theatre – evening performances



  • Playwrights applied to the archon (religious leader) for a chorus

  • Expense borne by a choregai, wealthy citizen chosen by the archon and appointed by the magistrate – paid for training, costuming etc; one choreogus per dramatist and matched by lot

  • State responsible for theatre buildings, prizes, payments to actors and playwrights, prizes jointly awarded to playwright and choragus.

  • Playwrights called didaskalas (teacher) – didactic = teaching

  • Had to produce 3 tragedies and 1 comedy

  • Always acted around the altar of Dionysus

  • Entrance at first was free, and then later a small charge was made. Poor citizens were sponsored by the government.

  • Liturgical Dramas – the Church

  • When drama moved outside true control fell into the hands of the Trades Guilds

  • Mystery Plays: town council decided which plays would be performed; allocated to Trade Guilds for production; Master Script had to be approved by the Church; Trade Guilds allocated plays connected to their craft/trade e.g. Bakers – The Last Supper

  • Professional companies – Lord Chamberlain’s Men; The King’s Men

  • Actors needed the protection of a noble – referred to as a patron

  • Performed in innyards on temporary platform stages

  • The more polished companies would perform in courts and nobles’ homes

  • Actors usually had a fixed share in the company which means that they got a fixed part of the profits – salaries

  • They paid rent for acting in different playhouses





  • A Chiton – sleeved, decorated tunic, usually full-length – allowing for freedom of movement, derived from the robes of Dionysian priests

  • Colour would indicate status e.g. royal colours for king

  • Some symbolism – king with a sceptre or warrior with a spear

  • Comedy: chiton made very short; male characters wore a phallus; exaggerated

  • Masks – lightweight – linen/cork/wood

  • Mouths enhanced projection like a megaphone

  • Mask indicated age, sex, standing and dominant emotion with exaggerated features

  • Tragic actor – a mask with distorted features; thick-soled boots; padded clothing

  • Comic actor – soft slippers; flesh-coloured tights; short tunic; heavily padded; large red leather phallus; very exaggerated features on mask

  • Priests’ garments/vestments or normal clothing

  • Simplistic, contemporary dress

  • Discarded robes from nobles or patrons

  • Actors not concerned about the period of the play – no attempt at realism

  • Main characters had added detail to their costume to indicate class or profession





  • Spectators first stood or sat on hillside overlooking orchestra (the dancing place); later seats added on hillside

  • Semicircular auditorium in open air

  • At the back a stage house (skene)

  • A low platform in front of skene allowed free access between the stage and orchestra area

  • Roof of skene could also be used as an acting area

  • Skene at first built from wood and then stone

  • Deaths occurred off-stage and bodies wheeled in afterwards on exaustra

  • Gods made appearances from roof of stage house with crane-like device called machine

  • Scene changes – 3 flats put together to form a triangle and triangle mounted on a central pivot – the periaktoi

  • Liturgical Dramas – symbolic e.g. throne = Herod’s palace; acted on platforms representing something (mansions/houses) situated around the Church; using space as an acting area; mingling of actors and audience; congregation stood around the platforms

  • Moved outside the church eventually – plays became more elaborate with more actors; laymen became more involved

  • Different methods of staging developed

Static Presentation

  • Stages fixed in one place – mansions

  • Mansions could be spread out in a church or town square

  • Audience moves between mansions

  • Or mansions could be grouped together to form one long stage in front of church doors

  • Some towns built arenas – rounds, or sometimes put the mansions in the centre

  • Each scene performed by different guilds

  • Special effects – stage machinery kept secret

Perambulatory Presentation

  • Developed from processions through towns, stopping at intervals

  • Mansions mounted on pageant wagons

  • Each wagon – one scene

  • Travelled the countryside and stopped at pre-arranged open spaces

  • Actors acted on the wagons and the space around

  • Audience remained in one place

  • Suited to lengthy Mystery cycles


  • A small group of travelling players felt the need for an organised form of stage. It had to be cheap, attractive and portable and provide a place of entrance/exit; a background where action could take place; a raised stage; a dressing room; a property store and an upper level

  • Booth stage provided entrances by the gaps in the curtain at either end; boards laid on trestles or barrels for the acting area; dressing rooms in the booth at the back and under the stage; properties could be stored in the booth and under the stage; an upper level – a ladder placed in the booth; curtains were packed into baskets and boards were borrowed from each town; could be set up in market places, halls, courtyards and inns

  • Took place in innyards and squares at first, but very noisy and full of drunken people


  • As theatre became more acceptable, the public playhouse developed:

  • Open-air

  • In the form of an amphitheatre

  • Eight-sided

  • Audience in the central yard – the pit area was for groundlings

  • The pit was encircled on 3 sides and 3 galleries provided shuttered seating for the nobility

  • The one gallery continued around towards the back of the stage and formed the balcony

  • The balcony would be used for upstairs scenes or for the musicians – sound effects

  • Underneath the balcony was the chamber – the only curtained room for indoor scenes

  • On the other side of the chamber were two doors – for exits and entrances

  • The apron stage was level with chamber and jutted out into the pit

  • Overhanging the stage was the heavens painted with stars and moons; gold and blue

  • Trapdoors could be found in the heavens and stage floor

  • The heavens was supported on pillars

  • Above the balcony was the tower

  • A trumpeter would announce the opening of the play

  • At the top of the tower was a flag used to advertise the play

  • No electricity so performances took place during the day

  • It was closed during bad weather

  • No painted backdrops

  • A change in scenery or venue was indicated in the dialogue – actors pretended that various parts of the stage were different places

  • Some plays gave a slight indication of place

  • A bush in a barrel would represent a forest

  • No special lighting effects

  • 1 penny to enter

  • 2500 – 3000 spectators

  • Rowdy, noisy atmosphere

  • Audiences from all walks of life

INDOOR THEATRES (e.g. Blackfriars)

  • Some indoor theatres were built – the upper classes did not want to go to the theatre with the rowdy masses

  • Roofed; lit by candles; usable in bad weather; rectangular shape; the stage at one end across a shorter side; audience sat on benches; the stage was separated from the audience by a Proscenium arch; it was beautifully carved and painted; the stage had back doors and a gallery above; to indicate scene changes they had painted scenery on flats – an invention from Italy; 6 pennies to enter; 600 spectators; reserved atmosphere









  • Well-known stories of gods, heroes – mainly myths

  • Hero had to make a moral choice

  • Sad stories that told of war; death; suffering

  • Chorus always present

  • Play set at same place and time

  • Action of play completed within one day

  • A series of episodes separated by choral odes/songs performed by a chorus

  • Very little external action – murders done behind the scenes and messengers very important to tell the audience what happened

  • Main characters were above the normal citizen – kings etc

  • Late point of attack

  • Focus is on the psychological and ethical attributes of the characters and not on their physical or sociological standing

  • Written in verse

  • Hero stands as a symbol for an entire culture or society rather than an individual

  • The central figure is caught in a series of tragic circumstances

  • The situation is irretrievable – there is no way out

  • They face a tragic fate and must go forward to meet it with dignity and determination – they show an immense ability to suffer

  • Truths come to light by inquiry

  • Tragedy from “tragos” (a goat – as a goat was sacrificed on the first day of the Festival, or given as a prize on the last day)


  • Started with the antics of villagers after harvest collected – antics of the satyres (half-men/half goats who attended on Dionysus) – fooling and rough horseplay developed into true comedies

  • Komoidia – means merrymaking

PLAYS WERE NOT EXPECTED TO BE ORIGINAL – the interest for the audience lay in how the dramatist had chosen to deal with the subject matter and assess the quality of the acting and how the chorus had been used. This lack of emphasis on originality was also visible in Medieval and Elizabethan/Renaissance Drama


Liturgical Plays

  • Around 6th Century theatre was banned as ungodly

  • Re-introduced in 10th century and became a major feature of Christian Festivals

  • Short plays introduced into church services

  • Trope introduced (short passage of words introduced into the sung mass/service on a scene from the Bible

3 types of plays developed:

Mystery Plays

  • Major form of religious plays

  • Stories from the Bible

  • Consisted of play cycles - e.g. about 50 playlets in a cycle

  • Not presented every year

  • Each major town had its own cycle

Miracle Plays

  • Incidents from the lives and works of the saints

Morality Plays

  • Form a bridge between religious and secular drama (non-religious)

  • Not Bible stories and not in a cycle

  • Single episode/story

  • Subject: overcoming moral temptations

  • Use of allegory (abstract qualities such as emotions are given human form) – these qualities are personified; they symbolise a spiritual or moral aspect of man’s life

  • Rhyming passages/verse

  • No divisions such as acts or scenes

  • Place of action is man’s soul – a struggle to possess and convert this area

  • A dramatised parable – a story which makes a point around a theme

More and more comic interludes between the religious plays and to keep the audiences entertained

More and more spoken in the vernacular (English etc)


Folk Dramas

  • Developed from rituals

  • Visited local inns or manor houses to entertain the local nobility

  • Subject matter: heroes or comedy etc


  • Short plays between the courses of a banquet

  • Everyday subject matter and language

  • Farce often used

  • Performed to noblemen and indoors


  • Humorous plays

  • Made fun of the moral corruption of people

  • No religious content

  • In theatre, a farce is a comedy which aims to entertain the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, disguise and mistaken identity, verbal humour of varying degrees of sophistication, which may include sexual innuendo and word play, and a fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases, culminating in an ending which often involves an elaborate chase scene. Farce is also characterized by physical humour, the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and broadly stylized performances. (Wikipedia)

Two ways (among many) of looking at TRAGEDY:


  • Concerned with one central figure – a tragic protagonist (we can therefore identify ourselves with this)

  • Portrayed as a believable human being – strong characterisation

  • An element of hope is disappointed or ambition is frustrated

  • The protagonist dies

  • It does not propose a solution to defeat and disappointment in life – nor does it see despair and lack of hope as being the only way


  • Tragedy asks ultimate questions: why are we here? Does life have meaning? Can life have meaning in the face of so much suffering? – the causes of this suffering is diverse yet they all agree that through suffering people gain wisdom

  • Tragedy pushes the individual to the outer limits of existence where one must live or die by one’s convictions – realising what is truly important and going for it even in the face of great danger – bravery

  • Tragedy depicts men and women who, dissatisfied with the hand destiny/life/others/society has dealt them, challenge the rules of the game – sometimes they win and sometimes they lose – but they always demonstrate the power of free will. Some see it as an investigation into the possibilities of human freedom

  • This tremendous strength of the hero and bravery, sets him/her apart from the rest of humanity – it inspires us with a vision of human potential.

Renaissance – tragedy falls on someone of noble birth; the suffering is always exceptional; tragedy was seen as something that could warn the present rulers not to give themselves to vice, injustice or ambition or else they might meet the same fate; saw the tragedy as being due to a “moral flaw” in the protagonist





Did not give Drama much. Mainly in two areas: staging and comedy


  • Built on flat ground – not on a hill; huge wall of masonry, often elaborately decorated; no more chorus/dithyramb and therefore no more orchestra needed; focal point in a Roman theatre was the high stage, with tiers of benches in front and an elaborate stage wall, the “frons scaenae” behind, often two storeys high; often had a curtain that disappeared into a trough at the front of the stage; for audience there were awnings, fruit-sellers and on hot days, showers of perfumed water; indoor theatres as well – but now instead of good drama there was bawdy and obscene mimes and farces dealing with drunkenness, greed, adultery and horseplay or lavish acrobatic spectacles featuring scantily clad dancers – actors lost their reputation


  • Clowning – Roman humour of the clowns Maccus and Bucco, the foolish old man Pappus, and the hunchbacked slave Dossennus


  • Due to the huge religious upheavals (Reformation etc) all religious theatre was eventually banned and this led to an upsurge of theatre going back to its classical roots

  • They realised that the Medieval stage was not appropriate for classical dramas – theatre architects applied principles of Roman theatre architecture (Vitruvius) to Italian buildings – such as a frons scaenae

  • They developed a new type of theatre building with a proscenium arch and they developed painted scenery (Serlio)

  • Commedia dell’arte – improvised comedy (but more of this in a later note on PHYSICAL COMEDY)

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