Since Will

The History of Theatre in the 18th,  19th and 20th Centuries is one of the  increasing commercialization of the art, accompanied by technological innovations, the introduction of serious critical review, expansion of the subject matters portrayed to include ordinary people, and an emphasis on more natural forms of acting. Theatre, which had been dominated by the Church for centuries, and then by the tastes of monarchs for more than 200 years, became accessible to merchants, industrialists, the bourgeoisie and then the masses. In this section we give a brief sketch of the development of theatre during the last three centuries.

The Eighteenth Century

Theatre in England during the 18th Century was dominated by an actor of genius, David Garrick (1717-1779), who was also a manager and playwright. Garrick emphasized a more natural form of speaking and acting that mimicked life. His performances had a tremendous impact on the art of acting, from which ultimately grew movements such as realism and naturalism. Garrick finally banished the audience from the stage, which shrank to fit behind the proscenium where the actors now performed among the furnishings, scenery and stage settings.

Plays now dealt with ordinary people as characters, such as in She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1734), and The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan. This was the result of the influence of such philosophers as Voltaire and the growing desire for freedom among a populace, both in Europe and North America, which was, with advances in technology, beginning to find the time and means for leisurely occupations such as patronizing commercial theatre. It was also in the 18th Century that commercial theatre began to make its appearance in the colonies of North America.

The Nineteenth Century

During the 19th Century, the Industrial Revolution changed the way people lived and worked – and it changed the face of theatre as well. Gas lighting was first introduced in 1817 in London’s Drury Lane Theatre. Arc-lighting followed and by the end of the century, electrical lighting made its appearance on stage. The necessity of controlling lighting effects made it imperative, once and for all, that the actors retreat behind the proscenium (until the reappearance of open stages and theatre in the round in the 20th Century). The poor quality of lighting probably contributed to the growth of melodrama in the mid-19th Century, where the emphasis was less on content and acting, and more on action and spectacle. Elaborate mechanisms for the changing and flying of scenery were developed, including fly-lofts, elevators, and revolving stages.

Playwrights, due to the tastes of the public and copyright laws of the times, were poorly paid, and the result was the ascendancy of the actor and the action over the author until later in the century with the appearance of great playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), and Anton Chekov (1860-1904). That serious drama continued to develop during this time is witnessed not only by these and similar authors, but by the work of the actor and director, Konstantin Stanislavsky (1865-1938), who wrote several works on the art of acting, including An Actor Prepares, which laid the foundations for the “method” of the Actor’s Studio in the 20th Century.

The Twentieth Century

The 20th Century has witnessed the two greatest wars in history and social upheaval without parallel. The political movements of the “proletariat” were manifested in theatre by such movements as realism, naturalism, symbolism, impressionism and, ultimately, highly stylized anti-realism – particularly in the early 20th Century – as society battled to determine the ultimate goals and meaning of political philosophy in the life of the average person.

At the same time, commercial theatre advanced full force, manifesting itself in the development of vastly popular forms of drama such as major musicals, beginning with Ziegfield’s Follies and developing into full-blown musical plays such as Oklahoma!, Porgy and Bess, and Showboat. Ever greater technological advances permitted spectacular shows such as The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon to offer competition to another new innovation: film. Ultimately, the cost of producing major shows such as these, combined with the organization of actors and technical persons in theatre, have limited what live theatre can do in competing with Hollywood.

Serious drama also advanced in the works of Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) in his trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra and in The Iceman Cometh; Arthur Miller (1915-2005), in The Crucible and Death of a Salesman; and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), whose Glass Menagerie, produced immediately after World War II, arguably changed the manner in which tragic drama is presented. Serious drama was accompanied by serious acting in the form of the Actor’s Studio, founded in 1947 by Elia Kazan and others, later including Lee Strasberg. The art of writing comedy was brought to a level of near-perfection (and commercial success) by Neil Simon (1927- ), whose plays such as Rumors, The Odd Couple, and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, are among the favorites for production by community theatres.

Again, this site doesn’t pretend do anything more than hit some highlights in the history of theatre, but we thought we’d include at least a taste.

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