Introduction to Theatre - THEA 131 Dr. C. Frederic

THEATRE HISTORY - Restoration to Present


In England, following Medieval period was the Elizabethan Period/Shakespeare. Shortly after Shakespeare's death (S. died - 1623), King Charles I is deposed (1642). The next period in England is referred to as the COMMONWEALTH period. With the Puritans in control, theatre is banned until 1660 when Charles II is restored to throne. During the RESTORATION, women allowed on stage for the first time in England. The dominant form of drama was the COMEDY OF MANNERS Bcharacters, events are subordinate to social values, customs. These plays were aimed at the decadent aristocracy. The plays very risqué. As the 17th century drew to a close, the merchant class regained power in Parliament and began exerting pressure for reform. Gradually as the 18th century began, plays became more moral--evolved into SENTIMENTAL COMEDY (alternatively called Sentimental Drama), which was the forerunner of MELODRAMA, the most popular 19th century form of drama. The only major difference in the two is that in Sentimental Comedy, the bad guy reforms. In Melodrama, the bad guy is punished. Both kinds of drama display a strict moral justice (the good guy must win). Both have comic relief (usually servants), suspense, and an extreme REVERSAL at the end (that is, the play seems to be going in one way and then abruptly turns in the other direction--to let the good guy win). See the discussion of Melodrama below.


Huge changes took place in the 19th century. It was a period of both political and industrial revolution. The "Age of Reason" (18th century) gave way to Romanticism and Realism. The rise of the middle class, the move to cities, and the mechanization of everything brought radical changes. For example, science provided the stage with gas, limelight, the arc light, and the incandescent bulb.

MELODRAMA - Developed at the same time as Romanticism and became the most popular dramatic form of the 19th c. Evolved from 18th c. sentimental comedy, with one major difference - the good were rewarded and the bad were punished instead of reforming. The most important features of melodrama are:

  1. Strict moral justice (this is most important feature)
  2. Hero/heroine undergoes trials at the hands of a villain
  3. Comic relief (usually servants)
  4. Suspense
  5. Extreme reversal at the end (the action appears to be going in one direction, then turns and goes in a completely different one)
  6. Stock characters were developed
  7. Emphasis on events (since characters were stock, or types, this allowed an emphasis on events)
Melodrama surpassed all other forms in popularity during the 19th century and into the 20th century.

ROMANTICISM - covers the years 1800-1850. The Neo-Classics (in 18th century) had originally felt that if a writer followed the rules, he could write a good play. Eventually playwrights began to feel that rules restrict genius. Romantics further rejected the Neo-classical principles (such as the unities of time and place, separation of genres, etc.). They felt that there should be no rules. The Romantics believed that Shakespeare had never let rules restrict his genius, and, as such, was considered the ideal. Folklore, especially rebellious folk heroes, became popular as the subject of Romantic plays.



The industrial revolution threw many craftsmen and laborers out of work. People flocked to the cities looking for work. While may of the merchant became wealthy, poverty among the lower classes became ever more widespread. Politically, most European countries reverted to repressive forms of government that they had had pre-19th c.

Background of Realism - Reformers no longer expected to achieve changes overnight. They rejected the idealism of the Romantics. Reinforced by the 19th c. fascination with mechanics and science, verifiable facts based on observation became the writer's goal. Realists tried to come to grips with the truth as they perceived it, but the definition of truth was limited to what could be experienced sensually. Realism presents its audience with an abundance of seemingly real-life evidence and allows the audience to draw its own conclusions.

HENRIK IBSEN (1828-1906) - (We have previously covered this material) Norwegian. Ibsen revolutionized the drama with his realistic depictions of ordinary people dealing with real-life problems in the interiors of ordinary homes. His characters dealt with such controversial issues as women's role in society (A Doll House), hereditary disease and mercy killing (Ghosts), and political hypocrisy (An Enemy of the People). Although these plays met with criticism and sometimes were shut down by the local law, they nevertheless changed the face of drama forevermore.

A Doll House (1879)
Ghosts (1881)
An Enemy of the People (1882)
The Wild Duck (1884)

ANTON CHEKHOV (1860-1904) - If realism got its start with Ibsen, it reached its peak with Chekhov. He creates deeply complex characters and develops his plots and relationships more or less between the lines. Each Chekhovian character is filled with secrets, none of which is ever fully revealed by the dialogue (much like real people). His plays mixed humor with the pathetic; characters often trapped but unaware of cause of unhappiness or a solution. Most of his plays were first by the Moscow Art Theatre. The Seagull (1896/1898) - 1st success [note-1896-unsuccessful production at Alexandrinsky Theatre (now Pushkin Theatre) in St. Petersburg]

Uncle Vanya (1899)
The Three Sisters (1901)
The Cherry Orchard (1904)

MOSCOW ART THEATRE - Professional troupe that played to the general public. Founded in 1898 by CONSTANTIN STANISLAVSKY (1865-1938), artistic/production director. Long rehearsals, careful attention to detail--acting, sets, costumes, etc. Out of this, Stanislavsky developed his approach to acting, which we still use today. [What it boils down to is this: 1. Actor must train his body and voice, 2. use of emotion memory (Strasberg's magic "IF"), 3. Character's super-objective, throughline. Stanislavsky constantly changed technique. Said if something does not work for you, throw it out.]


Until the early part of the 20th century, the United States mainly imported good theatre from Europe. Very few American playwrights of any note until the emergence of EUGENE O'NEILL (1888-1953), who was the first American playwright to receive world-wide recognition. Plays by O’Neill include: Long Day's Journey into Night, Moon for the Misbegotten, and A Touch of the Poet.

20th CENTURY REALISM - By the late 1940s, realism in the theatre was modified. People had discovered that reality was not as simple as they had thought (A-bomb, WWII,etc.). For example, sets were suggested, there were more scenes and fewer acts in the plays, and there was a great deal of experimentation.

POSTWAR AMERICAN DRAMATISTS - Without a doubt, the two best American playwrights of the Post-WWII period were Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) - (Previously covered this material). His plays are filled with people unable to cope psychologically with what they viewed as the brutalities of American life. He uses comic/serious elements for contrast. Shows spiritual/material worlds in conflict.

The Glass Menagerie (1945)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
Summer and Smoke (1952)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)

Arthur Miller (1915- ) - He felt that man was responsible for his own choices and for correcting society. Wrote what he argues are tragedies. Modified realism.
All My Sons (1946)
Death of a Salesman (1949)
The Crucible (1953)
After the Fall (1964)

THEATRE OF THE ABSURD - As World War II ended, people began reacting to the horror of the war. As always, drama reflected society, and the Theatre of the Absurd was born. It began in France, post WWII-1950s. Believed that truth is unknowable and that man cannot communicate. Man is lost and all of his actions are senseless, absurd, useless. Visuals more important than words in these plays. This movement first attracted world-wide attention with SAMUEL BECKETT's (1906-1989) Waiting for Godot (1953). His works are concerned with the nature of human existence. [He was an American, originally James Joyce's sec'y (JJ-Irish), then settled in France-liked French, more concise language.] Endgame (1957). The Absurdist movement had a major effect on drama, helping to break the stranglehold that realism had had on the theatre.

BROADWAY - Broadway is a street running north-south the length of Manhattan, but its name has come to stand for New York theatre. It has traditionally been the center of American theatre, and every American playwright’s ultimate goal. Today, the theatre district lies largely between Times Square and 53rd street. Most of the legitimate theatres are generally clustered on side streets. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to bring Broadway back to its former glory, recuing the theatre district from the X-rated movie houses, peep shows, and adult video stores. Corporations such as Disney have become actively involved in the restoration of Broadway.


Believe it or not, the musical as we know it is one of the newest dramatic genres. Granted, song and dance have been part of dramatic presentations since the rituals of ancient man, but the musical play that contains songs fully integrated into the plot dates only from 1927 and the musical Showboat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Before that, the plot was generally a thin device that merely served as an excuse for the chorus girls to sing and dance, the young leads to sing and dance, the low comedian to sing and dance, . . . well, you get the picture. The plots of musicals were rarely logical and were adapted at will to fit the particular talents of any given star, whether it be playing a given instrument, juggling, or a specific comic shtick. [Case in point: White Lilacs (1928), the life of Chopin–Odette Myrtil played George Sand. Since Myrtil could play the violin, J.J. Shubert inserted a scene in which Sand played one of Chopin's compositions. When Myrtil refused, claiming Sand couldn't play the violin, J.J. gave the quintessential answer: "Who'll know?"]

It is arguable that musical comedy had its beginnings in the ballad opera of the early 18th century. Ballad opera originated in England in 1728 when John Gay wrote The Beggar's Opera using popular song melodies with original lyrics. Although The Beggar's Opera has a familiar setting (various parts of London), the settings generally were long ago and far away. Burlesque, in which popular plays, people, and events were mocked in a musical form, also contributed to the musical comedy since a broad comedy style was used in order to highlight the talents of the burlesque comedians and the songs tended to be more closely related to the plot. By the turn of the century, musicals began to resemble more the musicals of today–a romantic love story with a comic sub-plot, lots of songs and dances, many pretty young chorus girls and boys, and comedians.

Although Showboat ushered in the change in 1927, it was during the 1930s that the musical really began to come of age, particularly in 1932 when Of Thee I Sing (book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) won the Pulitzer Prize for the librettists and Ira G. (George was slighted because it was a literary award). Although this awarding of a respected literary prize to a musical sparked a debate among critics, it also acknowledged the musical as a valid genre. In the years to follow, such writers as George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and Leonard Bernstein produced such musicals as Porgy and Bess (1935–based on the play by Dorothy and Dubose Heyward; music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Dubose Heyward and Ira Gershwin), which initially was poorly-received, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's big hits–Oklahoma! (1943–notable as being the first musical that has fully integrated songs and dances), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949–the second musical to win the Pulitzer Prize), The King and I (1951)–, Alan J. Lerner and Frederic Loewe's My Fair Lady (1951) and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, a modernization of the Romeo and Juliet story (1957–with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). Through most of the seventies and the eighties, the musical field was dominated by works that increasingly were less romantic escapes and more substantial in plot. The major musical composers of this era were/are: Stephen Sondheim A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1975), and Sunday in the Park with George (1984)–, the British Andrew Lloyd Webber–Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Phantom of the Opera–, and the French-British musical team of Alain Boublin and Claude-Michel Schonberg–Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. As can be seen, the musical genre, which once was uniquely American, has become a part of the international theatre scene. In the 1990s, musicals gradually moved away from the elaborate sets and special effects that seemed to be overwhelming the music. Musicals such as Rent (music, lyrics, book by Jonathan Larson) and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk (music by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark, and Ann Duquesnay, lyrics and book by Reg E. Gaines), featuring contemporary music and dance, as well as the imaginative production of The Lion King (music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, book by Roger Allers, and Irene Mecchi) directed by Julie Taymor heralded a return to music and dance as the focus.


OFF-BROADWAY AND OFF-OFF BROADWAY - Competition from movies and television continued to challenge the theatre's popularity as the '40s and `50s progressed. Broadway increasingly offered plays that catered to the "tired businessman" and offered little intellectual stimulation. Others wanted to offer plays that were more excting, innovative, and/or thought-provoking. This became a major stimulus to the Off-Broadway movement, which began in the late 1940s. In order to avoid the financial constraints that they felt hampered artistic freedom, these groups sought alternative spaces in out-of-the-way buildings whose main attraction was a low rent. Since many of these buildings were not originally theatres (although some were), a great deal of experimentation with performer/audience arrangements resulted.

In the early 1960s, many of the same financial constraints that afflicted Broadway began to be felt Off-Broadway as well, forcing Off-Broadway to become more conservative also. As a result, Off-Off Broadway sprang up. Once again, experimental theatre and/or theatre by new playwrights was presented in out-of the way buildings not originally intended as theatres.

Perhaps the most famous Off-Off Broadway theatre company is the LaMama Experimental Theatre Club founded by Ellen Stewart in 1961. After occupying a number of buildings (tell story about getting audience to help move to another building after one performance), La Mama acquired its own building with two theatres in 1969. Still very active.

Boundaries have blurred between Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway although my own rule of thumb is that Off-Broadway is Equity (union) and Off-Off-Broadway is not. Some of the most important Off-Broadway/Off-Off Broadway theatres include: Circle in the Square, The American Place Theatre, The Public Theatre/American Shakespeare Festival.

ENVIRONMENTAL THEATRE - While Off-Off Broadway houses were springing up as venues for experimentation, various theatre groups were being founded whose members were searching for alternative ways to present theatre. THE LIVING THEATRE - Founded in 1946 (1st public performance, 12/5/51) by JUDITH MALINA and JULIAN BECK, lasted until 1970. This troupe performed politically critical pieces that were largely improvisational. They abandoned standard theatrical practices and experimented with performer-audience relationships as well as no costumes, make-up, or sets. Other groups, notably Richard Schechner's PERFORMANCE GROUP, experimented along the same lines, but stretched the boundaries to include audience involvement in the performance and exploring such taboos as nudity and simulated sexual behavior onstage.

BLACK THEATRE - There had always been a black theatre. However, it was primarily performed for all-black audiences. There had been notable exceptions. In the 1920s-1930s, during the HARLEM RENAISSANCE, a number of black playwrights had plays produced on Broadway. Black performers performed on Broadway (notably Ethel Waters, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Louis Armstrong, etc.), but usually in plays written by white playwrights and directed and produced by white men.

During the 1960s, a new Black theatre movement emerged. Although these groups were aimed mostly at black audiences, they paved the way for black performers, playwrights, directors, and producers to move into mainstream American theatre. The 1st important group was the BLACK ARTS REPERTOIRE THEATRE founded in NYC by LEROI JONES in 1964. After the government (Office of Economic Opportunity--this was prior to the formation of the National Endowment for the Arts) withdrew support because of radical tone to plays, Jones moved to Newark, NJ, changed name to IMAMU AMIRI BARAKA, and formed SPIRIT HOUSE, a theatre in which he wanted to create a black arts movement completely removed from the white context. As militancy declined in the 1970s, it lost its power.

Other groups formed, including The NEW LAFAYETTE THEATRE, founded in 1967, dissolved in 1973 over in-group dissension. Also, NEGRO ENSEMBLE COMPANY - founded in 1968. Performed a variety of plays and had training program for actors, directors, playwrights. Less radical than other groups; still in operation.

African-American theatres created a demand for African-American actors, such as Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, and Moses Gunn. African-American playwrights were also able to get their plays performed more easily. Two of the earliest playwrights to receive recognition were James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry. Currently, the most popular and the best is August Wilson–Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984) was his first play, followed by Fences (1985), which won the Pulitzer Prize. Wilson's plays concentrate on African-American identity and the dual quests for fulfillment and dignity.

James Baldwin - Blues for Mister Charlie (1964)
Lorraine Hansberry - A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
LeRoi Jones - The Toilet (1964)
Ntozake Shange - For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (1975)
August Wilson - Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986)
Anna Deveare Smith - Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities (1992), Twilight in Los Angeles, 1992 (1993). [Note: Smith’s works are really one woman shows or performance pieces. They are created from series of interviews of subjects who are part of a given event, such as the aftermath of the Rodney King beating {Twilight . . .}.]

WOMEN'S THEATRE - During the 1980s, one of the most noteworthy developments was the increased number of women playwrights. Among the best were MARSHA NORMAN–'night Mother (1981) which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983--BETH HENLEY–Crimes of the Heart (1979) which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981--and WENDY WASSERSTEIN–The Heidi Chronicles (1988) which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. In addition to women playwrights, feminist theatres grew during the 1980s. Among them was: Women's Experimental Theatre in New York.

MULTICULTURAL THEATRE - Reflecting the United States growing recognition of the many different cultures that together create the fabric of America, mainstream theatre took a growing interest in theatre representative of various minorities, both cultural and social, during the 1980s and 1990s. Hispanic/Latino Theatre, Asian Theatre, Native American Theatre, to name a few, as well as plays that addressed such social issues as AIDS, all found mainstream audiences (many for the first time).

Tony Kushner - Angels in America, Part I: The Millenium Approaches (1992), Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika (199?)
David Henry Hwang - M. Butterfly (1986)
Maria Irene Fornes - Fefu and Her Friends (1977), Mud (1983)

RESIDENT THEATRES - As Broadway's stranglehold on the New York Theatre lessened with the rise of OB and OOB, the resident theatre company outside New York was revived in the 1950s, most notably by the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and the Actor's Workshop in San Francisco. There are many fine regional theatres including the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, the Alley Theatre in Houston, the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Resident theatres have become increasingly attractive to playwrights as the pressures to produce an immediate hit there are much less than on Broadway. Since resident companies are not concerned with the prospect of a long run, nor are they as concerned with the box office of one production (since they look at the entire season), they are often willing to take greater chances than Broadway producers are. (This is also true for OB and OOB). As a result, more and more plays are now presented on Broadway only after they have been proven elsewhere.

[NOTE: As a rule of thumb, resident theatres have a company of actors on staff, while regional theatres do not.]