Theater History Resources

Classical Theater

The origins of theater in ancient Rome and Greece set the precedent for theater all over the world. The theater in ancient Greek culture began around 550 and 220 BC in the city of Athens, the political center of Greece at that time. Originally used to celebrate the festival of Dionysus, it was expanded and was exported to colonies around Athens to promote cultural identity in Greece. The first Greek tragedy was attributed to Thespis, the winner of the first theatrical contest in Greece. To this day, theater-performers are referred to as “thespians.” Other playwrights at the time were Choerilus, Pratinas, and Phrynichus . All tragedies were individual, unique pieces specifically written to honor Dionysus until the Hellenistic period when plays began to be repeated in performances. While the Greeks preferred their tragedies and religious ceremonies in their drama, Romans preferred comedies and pure entertainment. That being said, much Roman drama was derived from Greek drama and was rewritten for the Roman stage. There is very little “Roman” drama represented today that was not Greek in origin. Romans did introduce new aspects into their plays such as different costumes to represent different characters, such as a purple robe to represent a young man and a yellow robe to represent a woman. As in Greek drama, all actors in Roman plays were also men, even women characters. The Romans’ need for action and entertainment turned theatrics into something more and more violent. Crude sexual acts would take place on stages as part of theatrical entertainment; criminals would be executed for the sake of entertainment. Gladiators would fight lions. Men would fight each other to the death. Actions such as these led the Christians to rebel against “theater” as a whole.

Medieval & Renaissance Theater

Medieval theater is that which was between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance period. Due to the excesses of the Roman theatrical experiences, the Roman Catholic Church banned all theater around the time of the Middle Ages. Therefore, much formalized theater was nonexistent during the medieval period. Much of the theater that did exist took place in inn yards or in traveling wagons or on wagon stages taken from town to town. Mimes, minstrels, storytellers, jugglers, and the like traveled to find their audiences and to find financial sustainability. The period that followed Medieval times is known as Renaissance. It was born from several medieval traditions, one being the mystery plays, or retelling of legends based on Biblical themes. With the Renaissance period, also, came the theatres. Actors were members of companies attached to noble households that performed in various locations. The first of the Renaissance permanent theaters was “The Theater,” built by James Burbage, but quickly theaters were built to accommodate the companies. Theater was still looked down upon by most authorities, and by many others as well. However, Queen Elizabeth I had a fondness of theater, and the companies performed many “rehearsals” for the public for financial gain to practice for the performances for the Queen. The end of the English Renaissance Theater began with the rising of the Puritan movement and their hostility toward the theater. They believed that theater promoted immortality, and they complained of the practice of men dressing as females. On September 2, 1642, the Puritan faction, then in control of London, ordered the close of all London theaters. They would remain closed for eighteen years, finally reopening after the Restoration.

Elizabethan Theater

The time of Elizabethan Theater represents the beginning of the English Renaissance period. As noted previously, Queen Elizabeth I had a great fondness of art and drama, and she enjoyed the theater immensely. This allowed the theaters to gain notoriety again and build with permanence. Notable playwrights of the Elizabethan time were William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson. Elizabethan Theater was for the masses as well as for the royalty. For a penny one could enter the theater and enjoy the pre-show singing and dancing. For another penny he could stay and watch the show.

Modern Theater

It was from those humble beginnings that we get the modern theater of today. The theaters of today are grandiose and expensive. Themes of plays are as varied as books that are published. Actors are paid often more than politicians, and writers can make a living to be envied. Thespians are no longer the lower class of citizens, and costumes are as magnificent and costly as the stages and scenery that go into theater productions.

Theater Costumes and Makeup

Costumes and makeup are an integral part of the stage and theatre. The first costumes were rudimentary; robes were utilized. As noted previously, different colored robes designated different characters. Costumes became more elaborate and costly during the Elizabethan era, but also more contemporary. The cost of the costumes demanded that each piece be able to be worn for most every play. Modern theatre of today, however, lends itself to costumes to go with each and every character. Costumes are set within the period in which the play takes place. Makeup has also changed throughout the years; although, it has not gone through as much a transformation. The most notable changes are the material that is used in the makeup. Before 1850, the only materials available for makeup were white face powder, India ink, rouge, burnt cork, lamp black, burnt paper, spirit gum, and wool crepe hair for facial hair and false noses. At that time greasepaint was developed, and colors are developed. Even more developments came about in the 1890’s with lipsticks, eyeliners, as well as waxes and Vaseline. Many of the makeup that was used at that time continues to be used today.

Theater Resources

There is no doubt that America is in love with the theatre. Millions of dollars are spent on the theatre each year on Broadway. The Tony awards are televised and watched by millions of people. And museums are created and dedicated to theatre as well. From the time of the Greek plays of Dionysus to the Broadway spectacles of today, the theatre continues to entertain and continues to grow.