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HISTORY OF THEATRE
 
 


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Greek theatre: from the 6th century BC

The origins of Greek theatre lie in the revels of the followers of Dionysus, a god of fertility and wine. In keeping with the god's special interests, his cult ceremonies are exciting occasions. His female devotees, in particular, dance themselves into a state of frenzy. Carrying long phallic symbols, known as thyrsoi, they tear to pieces and devour the raw flesh of sacrificial animals.

But the Dionysians also develop a more structured form of drama. They dance and sing, in choral form, the stories of Greek myth.
 









In the 6th century BC a priest of Dionysus, by the name of Thespis, introduces a new element which can validly be seen as the birth of theatre. He engages in a dialogue with the chorus. He becomes, in effect, the first actor. Actors in the west, ever since, have been proud to call themselves Thespians.

According to a Greek chronicle of the 3rd century BC, Thespis is also the first winner of a theatrical award. He takes the prize in the first competition for tragedy, held in Athens in 534 BC.
 







Theatrical contests become a regular feature of the annual festival in honour of Dionysus, held over four days each spring and known as the City Dionysia. Four authors are chosen to compete. Each must write three tragedies and one satyr play (a lascivious farce, featuring the sexually rampant satyrs, half-man and half-animal, who form the retinue of Dionysus).

The performance of the plays by each author takes a full day, in front of a large number of citizens in holiday mood, seated on the slope of an Athenian hillside. The main feature of the stage is a circular space on which the chorus dance and sing. Behind it a temporary wooden structure makes possible a suggestion of scenery. At the end of the festival a winner is chosen.
 






The Greek tragedians: 5th century BC

Only a small number of tragedies survive as full texts from the annual competitions in Athens, but they include work by three dramatists of genius. The earliest is the heavyweight of the trio, Aeschylus.

Aeschylus adds a second actor, increasing the potential for drama. He first wins the prize for tragedy in 484 BC. He is known to have written about eighty plays, of which only seven survive. One of his innovations is to write the day's three tragedies on a single theme, as a trilogy. By good fortune three of his seven plays are one such trilogy, which remains one of the theatre's great masterpieces - the Oresteia, celebrating the achievement of Athens in replacing the chaos of earlier times with the rule of law.
 









Sophocles gains his first victory in 468 BC, defeating Aeschylus. He is credited with adding a third actor, further extending the dramatic possibilities of a scene. Whereas Aeschylus tends to deal with great public themes, the tragic dilemmas in Sophocles are worked out at a more personal level. Plots become more complex, characterization more subtle, and the personal interaction between characters more central to the drama.

Although Sophocles in a very long life writes more plays than Aeschylus (perhaps about 120), again only seven survive intact. Of these Oedipus the King is generally considered to be his masterpiece.
 







The youngest of the three great Greek tragedians is Euripides. More of his plays survive (19 as opposed to 7 for each of the others), but he has fewer victories than his rivals in the City Dionysia - in which he first competes in 454 BC.

Euripides introduces a more unconventional view of Greek myth, seeing it from new angles or viewing mythological characters in terms of their human frailties. His vision is extremely influential in later schools of tragic drama. Racine, for example, derives Andromaque and Phèdre from the Andromache and Hippolytus of Euripides.
 






The beginning of Greek comedy: 5th century BC

From 486 BC there is an annual competitition for comedies at Athens - held as part of the Lenaea, a three-day festival in January. Only one comic author's work has survived from the 5th century. Like the first three tragedians, he launches the genre with great brilliance. He is Aristophanes, a frequent winner of the first prize in the Lenaea (on the first occasion, in 425 BC, with the Acharnians).

Eleven of his plays survive, out of a total of perhaps forty spanning approximately the period 425-390 BC. They rely mainly on a device which becomes central to the tradition of comedy. They satirize contemporary foibles by placing them in an unexpected context, whether by means of a fantastic plot or through the antics of ridiculous characters.
 









A good example is The Frogs, a literary satire at the expense of Euripides. After the death of the great man, Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back his favourite tragedian. A competition held down there enables Aristophanes to parody the style of Euripides. As a result Dionysus comes back to earth with Aeschylus instead.

In The Wasps the Athenian love of litigation is ridiculed in the form of an old man who sets up a law court in his home, to try his dog for stealing cheese. In Lysistrata the horrors of war are discussed in a circumstance of extreme social crisis; the women of Greece refuse to make love until their men agree to make peace.
 






The Greek theatre: 4th century BC

An exclusively Greek contribution to architectural history is the raked auditorium for watching theatrical performances (appropriately, since the Greeks are also the inventors of theatre as a literary form).

The masterpieces of Greek drama date from the 5th century BC. At that time, in Athens, the audience sit on the bare hillside to watch performances on a temporary wooden stage. In the 4th century a stone auditorium is built on the site, and there is still a theatre there today - the theatre of Dionysus. However this is a Roman reconstruction from the time of Nero. By then the shape of the stage is a semi-circle.
 









In the first Greek theatres the stage is a full circle, in keeping with the circular dance - the choros - from which the theatrical performance has evolved. This stage is called the orchestra (orchester, a dancer), because it is the place where the chorus sing and dance.

Epidaurus, built in about 340 BC, provides the best example of a classical Greek theatre. In the centre of the orchestra is the stone base on which an altar stood, reflecting the religious aspect of theatre in Greece. The rising tiers of seats, separated by aisles, provide the pattern for the closest part of the auditorium to the stage in nearly all subsequent theatres - where these seats are still sometimes called the orchestra stalls.
 






Roman comedy: 3rd - 2nd century BC

In most cultural matters Rome is greatly influenced by Greece, and this is particularly true of theatre. Two Roman writers of comedy, Plautus and Terence, achieve lasting fame in the decades before and after 200 BC - Plautus for a robust form of entertainment close to farce, Terence for a more subtle comedy of manners. But neither writer invents a single plot. All are borrowed from Greek drama, and every play of Terence's is set in Athens.

The misfortune of Plautus and Terence is that their audience is very much less attentive than in Athens. And the reason is that Roman plays are presented as part of a broader event, the Roman games.
 










The games, held every September, are originally a harvest festival. Taking place between the Palatine and Aventine hills in Rome, in an area known as the Circus Maximus, the main events are sporting contests - chariot races or boxing matches. Clowns soon become one of the side shows, to be joined from 240 BC by plays - enjoying much the same status. A play of Terence's, in 165, fails to attract much attention because it is going on at the same time as a rope dancer and a boxing match.

Since 264 BC gladiatorial contests have also been part of Rome's entertainments. In popular terms make-believe drama proves no match for the excitement of real death. The Roman circus is more famous than Roman theatre (see the Roman circus and gladiators).
 







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