A Quick Theatre History Time-Line
Written by Ella Embry
November 13, 2017
Ever wondered how we got from Oedipus to Angels in America? What happened between Shakespeare’s time and Ibsen’s? Here’s a quick and easy timeline of the big highlights of theatre history, focusing specifically on European and American theatre, and how we got to today’s American theatre!
Ancient Greek Theatre
The great birthplace of comedy and tragedy. The ancient Greeks performed during the Great Dionysia Festival as a way to discuss their current democracy by either dramatizing it or making fun of it. Aristotle wrote his Poetics that many theatre artists still look to today as a valuable resource for making good art.
Medieval Passion Plays
During the dark ages, the Church utilized theatre as a way to tell the illiterate masses how they could, and should, get into heaven. This type of theatre is also known as didactic theatre, or theatre meant to teach specific lessons. Check out our article on Medieval theatre here.
Starting around 1545, comedic stock theatre became popular. Now less about politics and more about entertainment, lazzi was born. Lazzi is a bit of repeatable comic business such as a fall or a slap throughout the show. Lazzo, the plural form of the word, can still be found in modern day shows. Commedia Dell’arte helped pave the way for Renaissance theatre in Europe!
Most people think of Shakespeare when they talk about plays written during the Renaissance period. His work dominated the popular culture of the time, and even some of today’s popular culture! The Renaissance was a rebirth so a lot of themes of the Ancient Greek theatre came back into style. Check out our articles on Shakespeare and the Elizabethans and Jacobeans!
When King Henry VII reformed England to be a Catholic nation to a Protestant nation in the 16th century, he took power away from the Church. This shift meant new, very strict censorship laws that shut down medieval passion plays almost overnight. Shakespeare’s new plays now had to be careful not to mention or use any religious themes.
When Charles II was restored to the throne in England, after the interregnum period when the puritanical thought ruled the country and theatre was banned, new artists were ecstatic to no longer have any rules. The new theatre wrote plays about romance, games, and the leisure time of the wealthy class.
In France, the French Academy would strictly regulate new plays. They banned any plays that criticized them so playwrights had to be clever. Plays written during this period used poetic justice, when the villains get beaten and the hero gets the girl, and verisimilitude, or lifelikeness to real people and places.
In the 1800s over in America, urbanization was taking the nation by storm and the Industrial Revolution lead to a rise of new stage technologies. New theatre artists believed that specific musical chords were directly linked to certain emotional responses and that there was a way to perfectly match the two to produce the best play possible.
In response to the absolute villains and heroes of melodrama, realism was born as a way to bring authenticity and verisimilitude, or life-likeness, to the stage. There are no true heroes or villains and plays became character driven rather than plot driven. Subtext, or the double meaning to a character’s dialogue, was introduced during this time period.
Also known as Dialectical theatre, Epic theatre was introduced by Brecht as a way to address politics on the stage. He used discontinuous narratives and non-linear plot structure in order to alienate his audiences. By removing empathy for his characters, he made audiences focused on the ideas being presented on the stage.
Modernism and Anti-Realism
Modernist theatre sought to add empathy back to the stage and challenge the conventions of popular theatre. Symbolist drama tried to reveal the hidden symbols in life, futurism wished to transform humanity, dada theatre that embraced the absurd, and surrealism that focused on dreams and the consciousness were some of the popular movements during this time period.
Today’s theatre is a large melting pot of different parts of all of its predecessors. However, the movement as a whole seeks to avoid defining an absolute truth and instead invites the audience to reach their own, individual interpretation. It seeks to raise questions more than it does to give answers.
Interested theatre history? Check out our other features below!
- Know the Basics: Shakespeare
- Know the Basics: The Medieval Plays
- Know the Basics: Renaissance Theatre
- 10 Contemporary Native American Playwrights You Should Know
- 10 Contemporary Playwrights of Color You Should Know
- 10 Asian American Playwrights You Should Know
- 10 Latinx, Hispanic, and Chicano/a Playwrights You Should Know
- 10 Eighteenth-Century Female Playwrights You Should Know
- 10 Nineteenth-Century Female Playwrights You Should Know
- 10 Classic Russian Playwrights You Should Know
- 12 Elizabethan and Jacobean Playwrights You Should Know
- 7 Greek and Roman Playwrights You Should Know
- 13 Classic American Playwrights You Should Know
- Early 20th Century Broadway Composers and Lyricists You Should Know