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The History of Western Drama. Beginning Acting Resource: Robert Cohen. Theatre, 8 th edition. Greek Drama. 534 BCE - 336 BCE. Greek Theater. Dithyrambs Thespis Ritual festivals feature competition of plays Tetralogy Singing and dancing chorus 1 – 3 actors

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the history of western drama

The History of Western Drama

Beginning Acting

Resource: Robert Cohen. Theatre, 8th edition.

greek drama

534 BCE - 336 BCE

greek theater
Greek Theater



Ritual festivals feature competition of plays


Singing and dancing chorus

1 – 3 actors

Use of masks to portray a variety of characters

Aristotle’s Poetics


Dramatic Genres

  • Tragedy
    • From the Greek word “tragos,” meaning goat song.
    • Serious portrayal of human suffering, through protagonist’s hamartia and decline.
    • Concluded with catharsis
  • Satyr Play
    • Bawdy comedy that satirized accompanying trilogy.
    • One complete satyr play survived: The Cyclops, by Euripides
  • Comedy
    • Humorous handling of political issues, sexuality, and the gods.
    • Often included nudity, animalistic characters
    • Performed separately from tetralogy

Greek Playwrights

  • Aeschylus – Orestia, Prometheus Bound
  • Sophocles – Oedipus Tyrannos, Antigone
  • Euripides – The Trojan Women, The Cyclops, Medea
  • Aristophanes – Lysistrata, The Birds

Greek Theatron

  • Orchestra
  • Thymele
  • Skene
  • Eisodoi(or parados)
  • Ekklyklema
  • Deus ex machina

Hellenistic Period

  • Period spans the rule of Alexander the Great to the rise of the Roman Empire.
  • Greek culture extended into Europe and Asia, due to military conquests.
  • Drama included Greek tragedies and new comedy
  • Chorus reduced in importance, and provided music and dance, light entertainment.
  • Playwright
    • Menander- Dyskolos (The Grouch), Epitrepontes (Men at Arbitration) Samia (Girl from Samos)
roman theatre
Roman Theatre

240 BCE - AD 476

roman theater
Roman Theater

Adapted from Greek drama

Mainly comedies, performed for ruling classes during festivals and holidays

Lacked religious and cultural meaning.

Performed alongside circuses and gladiatorial competitions.

Chorus was removed from performance.



Roman Playwrights

  • Plautus – The Menachmi Twins, Aulularia, Pseudolus
  • Terence – The Eunuch, Andrian, The Brothers
  • Seneca – Hercules, Octavia, Phaedra

Roman Auditorium

  • Platae
  • Frons scaenae
  • Vomitorium
  • Orchestra

Roman Theater, Orange, France

the middle ages
The Middle Ages

AD 900 - 1500

the middle ages1
The Middle Ages

Christian doctrine dominated literature, culture

Rise of feudal system, nobles and peasants, and rural communities

Tropes– QuemQueritis

1210 AD, Pope removed drama from the Mass

Cycle Plays – The York Cycle

Morality plays – Everyman

York Mystery Play, 2010


The Cycle Play

  • First dramas written in English
  • Playlets relating the stories of the Bible
  • Community guilds responsible for production of each playlet
  • Large scale productions lasted several days (40+) with large casts (300+)
  • No notable authors
  • Rolling procession
  • Performed at high religious events
  • Written in verse to elevate status of characters, subject matter

Video Clip

the renaissance
The Renaissance
  • Creative movement that influenced all of Europe
  • Emphasis on discovery, individual potential, creativity, reasoning
  • Rediscovery of Greek and Roman ideas, including humanism: “man is the measure of all things”
  • Decline of feudal system, religious dogma

England– Shakespearean Era

  • 1559 – Queen Elizabeth I bans religious cycle plays
  • Drama written in verse, prose, and doggerel
  • Included foreign locales, complex stories, historical reference
  • Travelling players
    • Named after sponsor: Lord Admiral’s Men, Lord Chamberlain’s Men
    • Skilled actors, musicians, acrobats writers
    • All male troupes; boy companies
  • Public Theater
    • Enclosed yard, with 3-story gallery for viewing
    • Raised stage, backed by tiring house
    • The Rose, The Globe


    • William Shakespeare – Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, The Tempest
    • Christopher Marlowe – Tamburlaine the Great, The Tragedy of Dr. Faustus
    • Ben Jonson – Volpone, The Alchemist
  • 1642 – Puritans named actors and drama “sinful,” banning all theatrical performances. Ended with the return of Charles II to the throne in 1660.

England– (con’t.)

The Globe Theater, London, England



  • Renewed interest in Greek and Roman culture by elite society
  • Developments in architecture, painting, literature: Filippo Brunelleschi, Leonard da Vinci, Petrarch
  • Proscenium Arch
  • Travelling troupes were skilled actors, musicians, acrobats, female performers
  • Commedia dell’arte
    • Stock characters
    • Use of masks, costumes, portable stages, slapstick
    • Lazzi

Video Clip


Spain– Spanish Golden Age

  • Spanish Inquisition (1480)
  • 1400’s - Dramas were liturgical, religious in nature
  • 1500’s – secular pasos performed by travelling companies
  • Women permitted to perform in productions
  • Dramas included themes of personal honor, chivalry, blended genres
  • Corrales de comedia
  • Playwrights
    • Lope de Vega – Fuenteovejuna
    • Pedro Calderon de la Barca– Life is a Dream
    • Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote, stage adaptations
the royal theater
The Royal Theater
  • Royalty became patrons of theater, commissioning plays and entertainment, establishing aesthetic standards
  • 1600’s - Started in Spain, and progressed to France, then England.
  • Performances became social gatherings for elite society


  • French Neoclassicism
    • Established strict format for playwriting, limiting creativity
  • Drama focused on social commentary, domestic issues; lacked plot and action
  • Tennis court performances
  • Public theater - Parterre, proscenium arch, loges
  • Playwrights
    • Pierre Corneille – Le Cid, Medee
    • Moliere, (aka Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) – Tartuffe, The Imaginary Invalid, The Bourgeois Gentleman
    • Jean Racine – Phaedra, Alexander the Great, Andromaque


  • English Restoration (1660)
  • Restoration Comedy – aka “Comedy of Manners”
  • English Royal Patent of 1662 – allowed female actresses at “legitimate” theaters
    • The Drury Lane
    • Covent Garden
    • Raked stage, proscenium arch, bench seating in pit
  • Playwrights
    • William Wycherly– The Country Wife
    • William Congreve – The Way of the World
    • AphraBehn– The Rover
    • John Dryden – A World Well Lost

Video Clip

  • Developed in reaction to elitist styles of French Neoclassicism and Restoration Comedy
  • Began as sentimental comedy
  • Appealed to the masses
  • Focused on appeals to emotion rather than intellect
  • Reflected the virtues of private life
  • Featured action, exotic locales and exaggerated passion
  • Evident in Opera and early musicals


    • Richard Steele – Conscious Lovers
    • Joseph Addison – Cato
    • George Aiken – Uncle Tom's Cabin, based on novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe
    • Alexandre Dumas – Camille, The Three Musketeers
    • Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe – Faust
    • Edmond Rostand – Cyrano De Bergerac

Realism – likeness to life

  • Influenced all facets of theater: playwriting, direction, acting, and design
  • Examined social, psychological and political complexities of life
  • Complex characters and relationships
  • David Garrick – Actor-Producer of the Drury Lane Theatre
  • Fourth Wall
  • Playwrights
    • Henrik Ibsen – A Doll’s House, HeddaGabler, Ghosts
    • George Bernard Shaw – Major Barbara, St. Joan
    • Anton Chekhov – The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters

Naturalism– a slice of life

  • Extreme form of realism where natural and social environment override individual willpower
  • Character development versus plot development
  • Established in France by theorist, Emile Zola
  • Playwrights
    • August Strindberg – Miss Julie
    • Arthur Schnitzler – La Ronde
modern theatre
Modern Theatre

1880 – Current


Antirealism –

  • Began in Paris, 1880, by artists who saw Realism as ordinary and mundane
  • Plays explore the human condition; characters are symbolic, facing universal conflicts, and withstanding adversity
  • No principles or formulas for aesthetics, but some with similar characteristics
  • Drama included verse, novelty, fantasy, superhuman abilities, extravagance

The Age of “Isms”

  • Symbolism
    • Explored inner human reality not directly or literally perceived
    • Symbolic characters represent philosophical ideals or warring internal forces
    • August Strindberg – A Dream Play (1902)
  • French Avant Garde
    • Abandoned conventions of Realism to create new theatrical style
    • Alfred Jarry – UbuRoi (1896)
  • Expressionism
    • Attacked senses with bright lights and color, abrasive sound effects, and aggressive pace
    • Eugene O’Neill – The Hairy Ape (1921)

The Age of “Isms”

  • Theater of Cruelty
    • Explored the source of dreams, using cruelty, savagery, criminality
    • Employed language for its sounds rather than meaning
  • Theater of Alienation
    • Use of theater to influence public issues and motivate social action
    • Bertolt Brecht – The Good Person of Szechuan, The Caucasian Chalk Circle
  • Theater of the Absurd
    • Themes based on the search for meaning or purpose in life
    • Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot, Endgame
    • Harold Pinter – The Birthday Party, The Homecoming

American Realism

  • First major theatrical form in United States
  • Confronted impact of social issues on normal people
  • Enhanced by realistic acting style developed by theater companies
  • Popularized by American film industry
  • Playwrights
    • Eugene O’Neill – Beyond the Horizon, Mourning Becomes Electra, Anna Christie
    • Clifford Odets – Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!
    • Arthur Miller – Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons
    • Tennessee Williams – The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire
    • August Wilson – Fences, The Piano Lesson, Gem of the Ocean
  • 1970’s – sexuality, profanity, violence, used to shock audience
  • 1980’s – focused on diversity to raise public consciousness, global awareness
  • 21st Century – became a platform to debate issues of terroism, war, religious rights, and political control

Theatrical styles

  • Experimental theatre
    • Dadaism
  • Nonlinear theater
    • David Auburn, Proof
    • Harold Pinter, Betrayal
  • Open Theater
    • Joseph Chaikin, Open Theatre Company
  • Diversity
    • Feminist theatre ensembles
    • Negro Ensemble Company
    • Color blind, and cross gender casting
    • Fusion theatre
    • Macaroni theatre
    • Exploration of sexual preferences – Tony Kushner, Angels in America

Theatrical styles

  • Spectacular Theatre
    • Advances in lighting, sound and computer technology
    • Apparent in cinema, performance art, musicals, music concerts
  • Verbatim Theatre
    • Moises Kaufman – The Laramie Project (2002)
    • My Name is Rachel Corrie(2005)
  • Workers’ Theatre
    • El TeatroCampesino, California (1965)
    • Free Southern Theater, Mississippi (1963)
    • Cornerstone Theater, California (1986)
  • Movement art and dance theatre
  • Solo performance
    • William Luce – The Belle of Amherst (1976)
    • Jay Presson Allen – Tru(1989)
asian theater
Asian Theater
  • Developed in isolation from Western culture
  • Emphasis on imagery and symbolism, rather than realism and literary merit
  • Drama includes dance, song, chant, mime, acrobatics, puppetry
  • Centered around folk history, cultural myths, ancient religion
  • Drama featured multiple authors, improvisation, and adaptations


  • Sanskrit Dance-Theater
    • Documented in treatise Natyasatra, detailing play structure, stage buildings, performance, etc.
    • Died out in 10th century due to Mongol conquests and fragmented culture
  • Kathakali– “story play”
    • Developed in 17th century
    • Based on stories from the Mahabharata


  • Shadow Plays
  • Xiqu – “tuneful theater”
    • Performers must be skilled in all: singing, speech, acting, movement, acrobatics, martial arts
    • Teahouse performances
    • Included both humorous and serious elements
    • Beijing Opera
    • 100 Words Festival


  • No
    • Ceremonial drama, retelling myths and supernatural events
    • Characters include shite, waki, and chorus
    • Comic interlude called the kyogen
  • Bunraku
    • Developed in 6th century, using life-like puppetry
    • All-male puppeteers, musicians, and chanters
    • Three puppeteers per character, cloaked in black
  • Kabuki
    • Originated in 17th Century
    • Multi-act play, utilizing stylized costumes, face paint, scenery, movement

Notable Asian Playwrights

  • Rabindrinath Tagore (1861 – 1941) - India
    • Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for poetry
    • Challenged classical sanskrit, and wrote poetic, political, and personal works
  • Ts’ao Yu (1910-1996) - China
    • Influenced by Greek and Western drama, wrote “spoken theater”
  • Kuan Han Ch’ing (1241 – 1320) - China
    • wrote in zaju style, The Injustice of Dou E
  • ChikamatsuMonzaemon(1653 – 1725) – Japan
    • Domestic dramas, usually ended with suicide of one or both lovers