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The History of Theatre
Part one:
The Greeks
Before the Greeks there were the
• Cavemen! As previously mentioned, our
earliest ancestors likely re-enacted great
hunts, harvests, feats of heroism and bravery
and perhaps even some love stories for their
families around the fire.
• Eventually, music may have been added, such
as the beat of a drum.
• Dancing would have almost certainly
accompanied that.
• However – there are no written records of
these performances, just speculation.
The Egyptians (surprise)
• The first record of a theatrical performance
comes from ancient Egypt.
• Dating back to about 2000 BC, it describes a
lengthy three day performance arranged by
and starring I-Kher-Wofret of Abydos.
• The performance used realistic battles and
high ceremony to reenact the murder,
dismemberment, and resurrection of the god
But get me to the Greek(s)…
• Despite the Egyptians, the Greeks are given
credit for giving theatre its start.
• About 1400 years after Osiris met his bloody
demise, the Greeks were paying tribute to
their gods as well.
• In honor of Dionysis, the god of wine and
fertility, the Greek chorus danced around an
alter, upon which a sacrificed goat was placed.
The Chorus
• The chorus played an important role, keeping
the audience informed as to what was
happening on-stage.
• However, in 534 BC, a man named Thespis
broke away from the chorus and held dialogue
with them on-stage.
• It is from this lone wolf that we derive the
word thespian.
Thespis: the original actor
• While on stage, the Greek chorus sang a song
called “goat song” or tragos.
• It is from this word that we derive the word
• The Greeks also contributed monumentally to
the development of the stage.
• By the time women attended theatre around
400 BC, Greek theatres could seat up to 15000
• Large masks worn by the actors helped those
at the back hear better.
Imagine the acoustics!
Hellloooo! Can you hear me?
• Because the plays had so few actors – up to 3
only – the masks allowed one actor to play
several roles.
• Also, because women did not act, these
devices allowed men to play women’s roles.
• The roof of the ever-expanding theatre
structures was used as an acting area for the
• If the gods needed to fly, a crane-like device
called a machina would hoist them into the
Deus ex machina (ma ke nah)
• The term deux ex machina refers to the plot
device originating in Greek theatre in which a
problem was resolved quite unexpectedly
when a god would appear from nowhere and
save the day.
Early Greek Playwrights
• Original copies of Greek plays are
disintegrating with the ages, but they are still
remembered and performed because of their
timeless themes.
• Some of the famous Greek playwrights
competed against each other in playwriting
competitions for prizes and public favour.
Aeschylus (b.525 BC)
• Known as the “Father of Tragedy”
• Wrote about the choices men make, and the
consequences that follow.
• Famous plays include Agamemnon, the
Libation Bearers, and the Euminides.
Sophocles (b.497 BC)
• Oedipus, the King, Oedipus of Colonus, Electra,
and Antigone.
• He is often compared to Shakespeare as the
greatest playwright of all time.
Euripides (b. 484 BC)
• The last great writer of Greek tragedy
• The Trojan Women, the Medea, and the
• Originated the use of the prologue as a way to
summarize the play for the audience before
the action.
Starting to notice a pattern here?
Aristophanes (b.448 BC)
• The only writer of ancient Greek comedy
whose works still exist in whole today.
• Modern audiences have less appreciation for
Aristophanes, as his style of wit gets lost in
• His plays mocked the leaders of Athens, the
gods, and even his playwright counterparts.
A little video to sum it up