Introduction to Theatre - THEA 131 Dr. C. Frederic

THEATRE HISTORY - Beginning through the Renaissance


There are many theories as to the origins of drama/theatre. That drama evolved from rituals of ancient man is the most widely accepted. These rituals contained dramatic elements: a. music, b. dance, c. masks, costumes, d. performance/audience division, e. specific performance area.

Kinds of rituals:

  1. INITIATION - to teach tribe's customs to young boys reaching manhood.
  2. WAR - to kindle bravery in warriors.
  3. STORY - to imitate events of hunt or battle and to preserve history.
  4. RELIGIOUS - to appease numerous unseen spirits primitive man felt controlled his world.


The Egyptians were the first people to establish a definite drama (as far as we know). It took shape as early as 4000 BC. The oldest dramas are the 55 Pyramid texts (3000 BC and before), which were written on tomb walls - have plot, characters, stage directions. They show the ascent of the soul becoming a star = resurrection of body. From 3000-2000 BC - other plays developed:

  1. Coronation Festival - Performed at the coronation of each pharaoh.
  2. Heb Sed (Coronation Jubilee Play) - This play celebrated pharaoh's 30th year on throne and was written specifically for the honored pharaoh.
  3. Abydos Passion Play - This play had a resurrection theme and was part of a religious festival. It was staged almost continuously from 2500 - 550 BC as part of a religious festival that lasted several days. It was very elaborate. It included a mock water battle on Nile and a funeral procession in which the entire audience participated. The story of play - Set, god of evil, jealous of brother, Osiris. Set tricks O. into a coffin, nails it shut, and throws it into Nile. Isis, O's wife, finds coffin and buries O. Set digs it up, dismembers body, and throws it over the earth. Isis collects the pieces and buries them again. O. is resurrected and becomes the King of the Dead, ruling over those mortals who ascend to heaven.


    Drama was presented at festivals of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, who was worshiped to insure the return of spring/fertility.There are only 45 plays in existence from this period by 5 playwrights. Three were tragedians.


    1. Earliest - father of tragic drama
    2. Tragedian
    3. Concerned with man's relation to the gods; moral principle.

    SOPHOCLES (author of Oedipus Rex)

    1. Greatest - most flawless craftsman - most popular with Athenian audiences.
    2. Tragedian
    3. Portrayed man as he ought to be - searched for true nature of man


    1. Rebel/radical
    2. Tragedian
    3. Portrayed man as he saw them - his characters were more human and questioned existing conditions

    THEATRE OF DIONYSUS - Theatre was presented during the festival of Dionysia, god of fertility. Originally audience sat on ground while chorus danced in a circular area. Gradually, better seating for audience evolved as well as permanent stages, separation of actors from chorus onto elevated stage.

    Transition: After the fall of Greece, Rome copied Greek drama, with minor changes. Only have plays from 3 Roman playwrights, two comedians--Terence and Plautus--and one tragedian--Seneca. (These playwrights are important to us because during the Italian Renaissance, they were the most accessible plays to Italian playwrights intent on creating a new "classical" drama. Terence and Plautus=s plays served as a template for comedies, and Senecaís plays served as a template for tragedies.)


    [Drama continued after the fall of Rome, but little is known about it since the Church opposed it. Many pagan rites continued despite Church opposition. Some believe that the Church introduced its own dramatic activities to combat the appeal of the pagan rites.]

    The Church and Drama

    Dramatic interludes were first used in church services in the 9th or 10th century probably to make parts of the mass clearer to the congregation who did not understand the Latin service. Easter was the first event to be dramatized. These tropes (from the Latin, tropus, meaning added melody) probably originally sung and responded to by 2 parts of choir. Performed Easter morning in introductory part of Mass. They used scenery called "mansions," small houses (perhaps 3'x3' and not much taller than 4') that represented a given location: a town, someoneís home, heaven, hell, etc.

    Drama Outside the Church

    Plays began to be given outdoors around 1200. Staged in spring, summer. From this point on, the church had little direct involvement with drama. The plays were staged by trade guilds on platforms that were set up at various places throughout the town. Pageant wagons rolled up to each platform in intervals and performed play (example of intervals--plays were about 15 minutes long; started at 4:30 am; end 7:30 pm). Special effects - called secrets. As time progressed, most towns moved to performing the cycle plays in a Cornish Round. Instead of setting the platforms up at various points in the town, they would be set up in a circle in a field. The audience would stand in the center of the platforms, and the pageant wagons would line up behind the platforms. As soon as one mystery play finished, the next one would begin. The group that had finished would move their pageant away from their platform and the next pageant wagon would move into place. In this way, each mystery play only had to be performed one time, and the action was continuous. Eventually the cycle plays became very elaborate with a professional actor/director staging the entire production and as many as 400 performers involved in the production. Scenery and secrets, likewise, became much more elaborate.


    The town councils were usually the organizers of the Cycle plays, but the trade guilds put on MYSTERY PLAYS that were collectively called CYCLES. A MYSTERY PLAY is essentially a Bible history play. All of the Mystery plays in one cycle combined to tell the story of the Bible from the Creation to the Second Coming. Each play was complete yet connected as part of the larger religious story. Most of the Mystery plays still in existence are from 4 cycles:

    1. YORK - 48 plays
    2. CHESTER - 24
    3. TOWNLEY MSS. plays or WAKEFIELD - 32
    4. COVENTRY CYCLE - 42

    Other Religious Dramatic Forms

    MORALITY PLAYS - flourished between 1400-1550. Dramatize spiritual trials of average man. This is a bridge between religious and secular drama. Ex.: Everyman (c. 1500). They are allegories about moral temptations average man faces. During the 16th c. these were gradually secularized and performed by small professional troupes.


    Elizabethan Theatre Structure

    By late 16th c., 2 kinds of theatres - PUBLIC (open-air) and PRIVATE (indoor halls). Anyone could attend both; but the private theatres charged a higher admission.

    PUBLIC THEATRES - Due to merchant/local gov't. (primarily Puritans, who viewed theatre as the work of the devil)distrust and objections, theatres were built outside London. The 1st playhouse was the THEATRE (1576). This was followed by others, notably, the GLOBE (1599; burned and rebuilt - 1614). All were located in the northern suburbs or south bank of the Thames River. They varied in size, but we think the following were common characteristics:

    1. Large, unroofed space - Pit, Yard
    2. Enclosed by 3 tiers of roofed galleries (formed outside of building)
    3. Boxes (Lords' Room) in 1 gallery [We are not sure of the exact location of the Lordís Room. It may even have been on stage, perhaps the second level of the stage.]
    4. Raised stage (platform) extended into yard
    5. Multi-level wall at rear of stage
    6. At least 2 large doors at stage level, probably at each side of the stage, near the back of the stage.
    7. Discovery Space - at rear of forestage - to reveal/conceal actors/objects; One of the great mysteries of Elizabethan theatre is the location and structure of the Discovery Space. It may have been recessed into the back wall of the stage or it may have been a raised pavilion that jutted out on stage, curtained on 3 sides. If it was a pavilion, it may have been either permanent or temporary
    8. 2nd level facade - acting space (balconies, upper-story windows, aboard ship); possible location of Lords' Room
    9. A possible 3rd level - Musicians' gallery
    10. Machine Room - Above musicianís gallery. This room contained devices for raising and lowering actors playing angels, gods, etc. It also contained a cannon used during battle scenes.

    When a theatre had a performance that day, they raised a flag (different colors indicated different kinds of plays) to let people know. Performance time - mid-afternoon (after workday was over, though). To get in, audience paid a gatherer one penny; this admitted to the pit. If wanted to sit in the gallery - paid another gatherer another penny. If wanted to sit in the Lord's room, paid another gatherer another fee. The action of the plays was continuous with no act/scene breaks and little scenery, which may have been brought on in full view of the audience. Theatres closed in time of plague. The season for public theatres was May-Oct. Then toured, or later, played in private theatres.

    Lighting and Costumes

    Lighting - Public theatres - sunlight. For night scenes, brought on candles, torches, or lanterns to indicate that it was night.

    Costumes - little sense of history - basically contemporary dress. Conventionalized - i.e., Romans, added drapery. Company provided costumes (this was a major expense).

    Acting Troupes

    Company consisted of 10 SHAREHOLDERS (partners) and up to 10 more HIRED MEN (hired for 2 years at a set wage). Since WOMEN WERE NOT ALLOWED TO PERFORM ON STAGE, the companies also had apprentices who would play the female roles. The apprentices could move up to older (male) roles when got older if wanted (not many wanted to). The shareholders divided the profits of the company after expenses had been paid. HOUSEHOLDERS (part-owners of the theatre building itself) were paid 1/2 of the gallery's receipts as rent (the other 1/2 of the gallery receipts, and other receipts went to the acting troupe). The troupes played a repertory of plays that changed daily.

    WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (4/23/1564-4/23/1616) [This information is included in your notes on Hamlet]

    Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, 90 miles northwest of London. John Shakespeare, his father - prosperous glover, became chief alderman in 1571. S. went to good grammar school; well-read (learned Latin). Father's fortunes declined. S.'s goal to restore family fortunes which he did. Sometime after 1585 (had married Anne Hathaway 11/1582-had 3 children - Susanna - 5/83; twins Judith, Hamnet - 1585) moved to London. Good enough actor to prosper and become shareholder in leading company. Specialty - old men. Wrote 37 plays (we think). 1st play - Henry VI plays (1592?). In 1597, bought fine house in Stratford and achieved coat of arms - a gentleman; restored family fortunes. Traveled back and forth to London until 1610 when he retired. Died 1616. Perhaps wrote 2 plays after 1610 - Henry VIII (in collab. with Fletch and Beaumont) and Two Noble Kinsmen, but not very good.

    Plays - histories, comedies, tragedies, problem plays (Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and possibly Hamlet).


    Renaissance literally means re-birth. During the 16th c. we see a re-birth and growth in every area of the arts. As theorist evolved a set of guidelines for playwrights to follow, artists and architects design new theatres from seating arrangements to scene design to the mechanics of scene shifting. [NOTE: Women performed onstage for the entire period. As a result, the practice of allowing women to perform spread throughout Europe.]

    The Renaissance began in the 1300s and co-existed with the Middle Ages/Medieval Thinking. The Renaissance did not dominate until the 16th c. A number of things brought about the Renaissance: 1. The decline in feudalism, 2. the increased growth of cities, 3. increased power of princes/rulers, 4. the lessening influence of the church over learning and life, 5. the invention of the movable type printing press.

    Forms of Renaissance Drama - As the Renaissance began, there were 3 forms of drama:

    1. TRAGEDY: 1st tragedy written in Italian - Sofonisba (1515) by Giangiorgio TRISSINO. He followed the Greek formula. Followed/overshadowed by CINTHIO. Orbecche (1541) 1st Italian tragedy performed, followed Senecan formula.
    2. COMEDY: originally copied Romans/Greeks (subject/settings as well as structure). Evolved to Italian subjects/settings - well-established by 1540.
    3. PASTORAL: A love story, featuring romanticized characters such as shepherds and shepherdesses, nymphs and satyrs, in an idealized rural setting.

    OPERA - Towards the latter part of the 16th c., the CAMERATA ACADEMY of Florence (academy - group of scholars organized to study one subject--i.e., classical drama, literary theory) attempted to re-create Greek tragedy--chorus, music, dance, plots from mythology. Others had tried this before, but the Camerata believed that Greek tragedies were sung/chanted. Renaissance audiences loved the results which became what we know as OPERA. The 1st opera was Dafne (1594) [text Rinuccini, Caccini; music Jacopo Peri]. The 1st great operatic composer was MONTEVERDE who emphasized the musical aspect - Orfeo (1607). By 1650, opera's popularity had spread all through Italy and Europe.

    Development of the Italian Stage

    During the 16th c., each duke who ruled an Italian state had a theatre (not a permanent structure--usually built in a large drawing or ball room and then torn down). These dukes were very competitive. The overall interest in the classical period extended to architecture. The discovery in the 15th century of a book by a 1st century B.C. architect sparked this interest. The book contained a chapter on theatres (no pictures, led to interpretations).

    The 1st result of this discovery was the TERENCE STAGE - (late 15th/early 16th c.) a continuous facade (wall) divided into a series of curtained openings, each representing the house of a different character (similar in concept to medieval mansions). The facade was at the back of a platform - acting space. Soon added perspective painting (1st known example of perspective painting in scenery was Ariosto's The Casket in 1508).

    PERSPECTIVE PAINTING - Developed in the 15th c. in the art world (painter Masaccio, architect Brunelleschi). It created the illusion of space and distance, a magical spectacle which the Italians loved. PERSPECTIVE - in scenery is the illusion of diminishing size and greater distance as near the back of the stage. Conventionalized settings were employed: for comedy - regular houses; for tragedy - palaces; pastorals - woods.

    Other developments include several methods of changing scenery (groove system, chariot and pole) as well as the seating configuration that still exists today--box, pit, and gallery.[BE SURE TO ASK ME IN CLASS TO EXPLAIN THESE SYSTEMS TO YOU.]

    By mid 17th c., Italian architecture and staging practices were set and remained the standard until the late 19th c.