A Brief History of Theatre

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Greek Theatre

The Greeks are famous for drama. Theatre probably began with a group of people called a chorus singing and dancing in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine. Then about 534 BC, a man named Thespis added a single actor to the chorus. A second actor was added and then a third. Eventually, the three actors stood on a stage while the chorus stood in the foreground and commented on the action. All the actors were male and they wore masks. The audience sat in tiers of seats in a semi-circle. (Our word theatre is derived from the Greek word theatron, which means the place where people listen).

The Ancient Greeks invented tragedy in which some great person is destroyed not by wickedness but through error. They also wrote comedies. (Our word comedy comes from the Greek word for merrymaking, Komoidia). Among the great Greek dramatists were Aeschylus (525-456 BC), Aristophanes (448-380 BC), Euripides (480-406 BC), and Sophocles (496-406 BC).

The theatre continued to be popular during the time of the Roman Empire and theatres were built in a number of Roman towns. But with the collapse of Roman rule theatre disappeared from Western Europe for centuries.

Modern Theatre

The theatre was revived in the Middle Ages. The plays were religious. At first, they were put on by the Church and they were based on Bible stories or were meant to teach the people Christian values. Later plays were financed by craftsmen’s guilds. They were called mystery plays. (Mystery meaning craft). The actors were usually amateurs and plays were performed on carts or wagons in marketplaces or inn yards. They included lots of earthy humour.

However, in Tudor times theatre became separated from religion. The Tudors wrote secular plays, both comedies and tragedies. In the early and mid-16th century, secular plays were put on for the rich and in educational establishments such as schools and universities. Classical plays were performed and modern comedies.

In the 16th century groups of professional actors became common. However, Tudor governments were suspicious of actors. They were regarded as layabouts who did no useful work. From 1572 actors had to hold a licence from a noble. Without protection from some powerful man, actors were likely to be arrested as vagrants!

In the early 16th century actors performed in market squares or in inn courtyards. However, in the late 16th century theatre became more and more popular and it eventually became worthwhile making a purpose-built theatre in large towns. In 1576 a man named James Burbage built the first theatre. Others followed. Those who could afford the best seats were sheltered from the weather. However, the poor customers stood in the open air. They were called groundlings. Rich people sat on the stage!

There were no female actors in Tudor times. Boys played women’s parts. Plays were usually held during the day because of the difficulty of lighting a stage.

The theatre remained popular. However, the Puritans disapproved of the theatre and in 1642 they banned it completely. The theatre began again in 1660.

In the early 17th century the stage jutted out into the audience. In the late 17th century it took on its modern form. In the early 17th century boys played women’s parts. However, after 1660 actresses performed. On 8 December 1660, Margaret Hughes performed on stage as Desdemona in Othello. She was the first recorded actress in England.

The theatre was also popular in the 18th century. In the early 18th century most towns did not have a purpose-built theater and plays were staged in buildings like inns. However, in the late 18th century theatres were built in most towns in England. 

In North America, New York gained its first theater in 1732. Philadelphia gained a theater in 1766.

In the 19th century, the biggest change to theatre was the introduction of firstly gas light then later electric light. In the 20th century theatre faced competition from cinema. Nevertheless, it remained popular. In Britain, theatre censorship ended on 26 September 1968.

On 12 June 1997, a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre opened in Southwark, London. (The first one opened in 1599 but it burned down in 1613).