Ancient Theatre

On this page we consider the theatre of ancient Greece, the history of theatre as it migrated from Greece to Rome, and the history of Medieval theatre following the fall of the Roman Empire, a theatre dominated by an unlikely combination of the Church and itinerant troupes of entertainers.

Greek Theatre

If theatre is to be defined as involving the art of acting a part on stage, that is the dramatic impersonation of another character than yourself, we begin with Thespis. A figure of whom we know very little, he won the play competition in honor of the Greek god Dionysus, in 534 B.C. While it is uncertain whether Thespis was a playwright, an actor or a priest, it is his name with which the dramatic arts are associated in our word “Thespian.”

 Greek theatre took place in large (the largest ultimately held twenty thousand people) hillside amphitheatres. The players included a chorus and their leader, and the “lines” were more chanted than spoken. The chorus performed in the “orchestra,” not on a raised stage. The use of masks to represent characters and high-soled boots worn to add height to the players limited the movement of the actors. Indeed, the concept of “actors” themselves was not originally a part of Greek theatre, but was developed as a consequence of certain playwrights of particular genius.

Greek drama was dominated by the works and innovations of five playwrights over the 200 years following Thespis. The first three of these were tragedians. Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.), who is most famous for his tragic trilogy the Oresteia, introduced the concept of a second actor, expanding the possibilities for plot and histrionics through the interaction of two characters in his dramas. While Aeschylus ultimately used a third actor, it was Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) who actually initiated this innovation. Sophocles is most famous for his trilogy Oedipus Rex, and in his works the role of the chorus in Greek drama diminishes in favor of the interplay between characters and the development of character itself. It was Euripides (480-406 B.C.), however, while winning fewer competitions than Aeschylus or Sophocles, who foreshadowed the ultimate form of drama as we know it – employing a far more naturalistic or human approach in his works, in contrast to the remote scale and formalized conventions used by his contemporaries.

The last two Greek playwrights were the authors of comedies: Aristophanes (448-380 B.C.) and Menander (342-292 B.C.). There was a separate competition for comedy which, while also dedicated to Dionysus, took place at the smaller winter festival, rather than the major spring festival at which the tragedies were presented. As has been true throughout the history of theatre, the comedies, dependent on topical humor and satire for much of their content, have not survived the ages as well as tragedy – which deals with more universal themes. However, the universal popularity accorded these playwrights during their lifetimes attests to the significance which this dramatic form can have. The popularity of their work, and the diminishing appeal of tragedy to the audiences of the time, can also be interpreted as a comment on the role which theatre plays in society at large. Tragedy was at its height in Greek society when that society was at its height, while comedy – an outlet for the frustrations of society as well as a diversion for the masses – was most popular during the decline of Greek government.

Roman Theatre

The decline of Greek government and society coincided with the rise of the Roman Republic and subsequent empire. The Romans borrowed extensively from Greek theatre. Although Roman theatre may not be held in the same high esteem as that of the Greeks, we have inherited much from the influence of the Roman Theatre, including the word “play” itself, which derives from a literal translation of the Latin word ludus, which means recreation or play. Roman theatre took two forms: Fabula Palliata and Fabula Togata. Fabula Palliata were primarily translations of Greek plays into Latin, although the term is also applied to the original works of Roman playwrights based upon Greek plays. We are familiar with the latter from the works of Terence (190-159 B.C.), who introduced the concept of a subplot, enabling us to contrast the reactions of different sets of characters to the same events or circumstances. The Fabula Togata were of native origin, and were based on more broadly farcical situations and humor of a physical nature. An author of some of the better examples of this type of drama is Plautus (c.250-184 B.C.).

 Again, perhaps as a reflection of the society itself, performed drama in Rome consisted primarily of Fabula Togata, as well as the spectacles of the gladiators and chariot races made familiar by modern Hollywood treatment of the Roman Empire. Plays of a more serious literary nature continued to be written, but these were not intended to be performed so much as read or recited. Although we have few works by Roman playwrights surviving to us in forms that would lend themselves to revival, the influence of the Roman world on the form of the stage is one which had more lasting effect. The semi-circular orchestra of the Greek theatre came to be eclipsed by the raised stage and the more vigorous style of acting employed by the performers. However, the greatest impact Rome may have had on the theatre was to lower it in the esteem of the Church – an impact that was to retard the growth of the dramatic arts for several centuries.

The bent toward low comedy and its mass appeal – coupled with its association with the entertainment of the arena (which involved the martyrdom of early Christians) – almost certainly contributed to its disfavor by officials of the early Christian Church. Plays, or ludii were associated with either comedy of a coarse and scurrilous nature, or with pagan rituals and holidays. It was the latter, however, which may account for the survival of theatre through the Middle Ages.

Medieval Theatre

Some have written that theatre died following the fall of the Roman Empire, and its memory was kept alive only in the performances of roving bands of jongleurs: itinerant street players, jugglers, acrobats and animal trainers. However, while such troupes did help to maintain certain aspects of theatrical art, particularly that involving stock characters, the Church itself contributed to the preservation of theatre.

It is ironic that the Church, which caused theatres to be outlawed as the Roman Empire declined and then fell, was one of the primary means of keeping theatre alive through the Middle Ages. This resulted from the Church’s need to establish itself in the community – a community still steeped in pagan ritual and superstition which manifested itself in seasonal festivals. The Church ultimately linked its own religious holidays with these seasonal festivals and began to use dramatic form to illustrate the stories underlying these holidays so as to reinforce their religious connotation and to better communicate the stories to an illiterate congregation.     Next–>