Monday, January 23, 2012

A History and Outline of the Western Theater

To most people, theater is a fun and exciting subject; and it very well is and can be.  However, theater wasn't always as entertaining to everyone as it is today.  Like any subject or field of study, theater has its glamorous and not so glamorous moments in time. I will briefly discuss the rise and fall of theater in the Western part of the world.

Theater's Origin
It is not known exactly when and where theater was started.  It is evident, though, that every culture has used some elements of theater to communicate, to pass down information, and to just entertain.  I will talk about the start of theater in the Western World

Greek Theater at Epidaurus

The Greek Theater (The Golden Age)
Two major elements in theater throughout this time (6th century B.C.) was storytelling and costumes.  The hot topics of the day were government, philosophy, science, and religion (I guess things never change), and they played a huge part in the theater arena.  It was all about Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility.  In a previous post, I briefly discussed the first known actors in history.  One of those mentioned was the Greek actor and member of the Dithyrambic Chorus, Thespis.  Of course, if he was the first "actor", then, of course, the place he acted was the place where the first theater experience happened.  Athens, Greece was the place and dithyrambs was the game.  As a matter of fact, Thespis was the first to win Athens' dithyramb and tragedy writing contest in 534 B.C.  The theaters (théatrons as they were called) were open areas, with a circle for dancing by the chorus.  The seating was in a semicircle on a hillside for up to seventeen thousand onlookers.  The actors wore masks to distinguish each character because of the great distance from them and the audience.  They also wore boots (cothurni) to add to their height.  Also, because of the audience's distance, they had to use presentational style acting; an exaggerated style.  I will talk about the different styles of acting in a later post.     

Roman Amphitheater
The Roman Theater
After the decline of Greece's power, the Roman took over the spotlight during the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C.  They were heavily influenced by the Greek theater, but, instead of improving on the art of theater, the Romans ran it into the ground.  It became more of a spectacle and a blood-sport.  Eventually, they would have real gladiatorial combats and had realistic sea battles in which they would fight to their literal death.  In the book, “Introduction to Acting” by Stanley Kahan, it talks about the extent an actor went to in order to achieve “emotional reality.”  “… the famous actor Aesop, while playing the role of the raving Orestes, killed a slave with his sword when the slave was on some errand and inadvertently crossed the stage”.  Now, if that wasn’t cruel, I don’t know what is.  The church’s resistance to theater in the western world was a huge contribution to its decline.

Commedia dell'Arte stock characters

 The Italian Theater

Between the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, the Commedia dell’Arte (comedy of professional players) emerged in Italy.  It wasn’t until the Italian Renaissance, about a thousand years after the Roman’s decline, until actors were able to show their faces.  Commedia dell’Arte was improvisational theater, which meant they had no scripts.  They created all the dialog and action as they went along.  The only thing they were given were scenarios; short scripts that gave the performers an outline of the plot.  Pantomime and acrobatics was their forte.  These Commedia groups were traveling troupes and were, most of the time, controlled by families.  During this time, Opera was invented by people who were under the impression that they were copying the Greek’s style of tragedy.  As a matter of fact, Opera is the only dramatic style that survived during this time.  

The Globe Theater.  London, England
  The English Theater (Elizabethan Era)
During a time known as the Elizabethan Era, theater reached one of its highest peaks.  In London, England, between the late 1500s and early 1600s, lived one of greatest and most important playwrights in theater history, William Shakespeare.  During this time, women did not perform on Elizabethan stages.  Whenever they needed a female role, prepubescent boys would play those roles.  After much criticism and debate about the true style of acting of this time, the consensus was that it was a presentational style of acting.  They concentrated more on their voices, probably because of the style of the playwrights.  In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, he writes sort of a guide to actors about their profession.  (I can give more detail to that list on a later post.)  Theater in England was shut down or destroyed for almost 20 years by the Parliament during the Commonwealth between 1642 and 1660.  However, theater was restored when the monarchy was reestablished by Charles II, who was an avid theater goer.  During this “Restoration” period, the acting style was more presentational.  This time period is so vast, that I may revisit this during another post.

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