Theater or theatre is a form of performance and literary art in which a person or group of persons act out stories that may be fictional or factual, for the entertainment, instruction, indoctrination, or propagandization of other people.
A theater (or theatre) is also the venue in which theater is performed.
Classically, the term theater refers to actors performing on a stage in the physical presence of their viewers. This is the view most commonly held in the industry today. It also includes a variety of forms that use music and/or dance to tell a story, and other forms that include no dialogue at all and/or involve one or more performers using gestures to enact issues, themes, or emotions. More broadly, theater includes any form of acting-out, whether one does it "live," in a motion picture, or on television.
History of Theater
Greece and Greco-Macedonian Civilizations
The first instances of theater gave the term its name. It involved actors performing on a stage in the well of a half-circle arena (the theatron). The usual subject matter in the Greek theater involved the Greek pantheon and various heroic and military stories of the ancient Hellenic civilizations prior to the First Olympiad. Besides the paying of homage to pagan gods, the classic Greek plays quite often treated sensitive subjects—famously including incest, adultery, rape and murder—in a mature and forthright manner. Greek plays came primarily in three types: Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire. The most well known Greek plays were tragedies, involving characters who came to bad ends, usually by displaying excessive pride and trying to outdo the gods or thwart prophecy.
The people of Israel received their first exposure to theater with the conquest of restored Israel by Alexander the Great and their subsequent subjection to the Seleucid Empire. The leaders of that empire sought to expose their subjects to all things Greek, a process called "Hellenization" (from the Greek name for the country of Greece, Hellas). The Jews were scandalized and, with the ouster of the forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes by Judas the Maccabee, were determined never to partake of theater or any other Greek thing ever again.
When Rome finally conquered Greece, the Romans quickly learned the Greek language and copied many Greek art forms, including theater. The difference was that Roman theater placed less emphasis on religion and more on spectacle and excitement. Roman audiences jaded quickly, however, and often expressed their frustration and impatience with rude, insensitive, and frankly loutish behavior. Roman plays tended to be comedies, though many Roman plays had military themes.
Roman gamesmasters—chiefly the plebeian and curule aediles (magistrates in charge of public works)—elevated theater to a high art. In addition to the poetic narratives that had characterized Greek theater, Rome introduced athletic competition, especially that famous genre called gladiatorial combat (from the Latin gladius a short double-edged sword) in which two men would fight duels with military weapons. At first these duels were mock duels. Then, beginning with the Imperial period, these duels became actual duels to the death, usually between slaves, condemned criminals, and/or prisoners of war. Emperors after Augustus added combat between man and beast—and most famously, Emperor Nero publicly executed his enemies, especially Christians, by releasing carnivorous animals to eat them before a large audience.
Medieval and Renaissance Europe
When Rome fell, theater was out of fashion, primarily because humans abandoned cities and were organized on farms and in villages. With the re-establishment of law and order, dwelling in cities became safe again. Theater came back with the cities.At first, under Roman Catholic dominance, theater consisted of liturgical drama. Eventually, however, theater returned to its secular roots—and by the time of William Shakespeare, the subject matter in theater was, more often than not, vulgar and even obscene. Puritans and other religious leaders objected vehemently to theater—and not merely to its content but to the behavior of many theater attendees. The Puritan cleric Thomas White famously said,
The cause of plagues is sin, if you look to it well, and the causes of sin are plays; therefore the causes of plagues are plays.
That the Black Death had broken out a scant century before he made that statement was regarded as no coincidence. Yet the theater was part of a trend that could not be stopped.
One remarkable consequence of the continued religious opposition to theater was that women could not appear in plays. This did not, however, mean that scripts never featured female characters. Instead, prepubescent boys played those parts, with often shocking realism.
Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian Theater
During the nineteenth century, theater became more refined, especially as women began to act in plays. This was especially true during the Victorian era, an era given to ostentatious display in visual art and architecture but also to scrupulous modesty in fashion and deportment. This era is also called the "neoclassical" era of theater.
With the French Revolution and overthrow of the Ancien Regime, the theater began to take the place of the church in a secularized world as the central gathering-point and socializing of the community. An increasing vulgarization and coarsening of public morals set in.
After the death of King Edward VII of Great Britain, a general coarsening of society set in. Motion pictures, a new medium, began to compete with the traditional stage, but the general principles were the same: theater is theater, whatever the medium. Theater both reflected and accelerated this coarsening. This was far more true of film than of the live stage. Performers on the live stage tended to restrain themselves, out of their own sense of modesty and also of consideration for the sensitivity of the general public to acts depicted by actual persons in the physical presence of others. These considerations operated less obviously in film, and so motion pictures began to feature increasingly sinful plots, and also the sort of spectacle of which Nero would have been proud.
Motion pictures were a United States invention and were primarily, though not solely, a United States product. Therefore, anything that happened in or to "the movies" in the United States affected motion-picture projects throughout the world, except in certain totalitarian nation-states. In those states—chiefly Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—motion pictures were purely a tool of propaganda in support of the ruling regime or its ideals.
In 1930, the trade association of motion-picture producers in the United States established the Motion Picture Production Code, in an effort to convince the viewing public that they were sensitive to their concerns. For about four years, they honored this code more in the breach than otherwise. But then former United States Postmaster General William Hays became President of the Motion Picture Production and Distribution Association, and in that capacity he made sure that the Production Code Administration, or "Hays office", would enforce the code in fact, rather than with lip service only.
The contrast between "pre-Code" and "post-Code" films was striking. With Hays' trusted friends in charge, salacious plots, plot themes, and plot devices were strictly forbidden—as was the use of obscene language, or any violation of the Third Commandment. No character could commit a criminal act and escape punishment for that act—not even if it were an act of understandable (by human ways of thinking) vengeance. Neither could any character disrobe on camera, nor commit adultery or fornication with impunity.
"Nature abhors a vacuum," and so motion-picture projects came to emphasize non-salacious themes. During this era, most actors in motion pictures transferred to that medium from the stage—and since motion-picture technology was relatively primitive, special effects were necessarily limited. And so the "talent" for acting took precedence over superficial appearance and "set pieces." Plot themes tended to emphasize the sort of human drama requiring responsible decision and action. In addition, this era saw a return of liturgical drama, especially in motion pictures. With the entry of the United States into the Second World War, another theme became prominent: duty, honor, and the often severe demands that these two ideals required of people, men and women both.
Further Decline and Coarsening
Victory in the Second World War brought with it a rush to mutual indulgence, and theater in all its media—stage, film, and a third medium, television, again both reflected and accelerated this trend. The Motion Picture Production Code came under intense pressure—and finally, with the release of a truly shocking film involving adultery, embezzlement, invasion of feminine privacy, and murder (the last staged with almost nauseating realism), the Code was doomed. It was abandoned completely in 1968. With this abandonment came an abandonment, for many decades, of liturgical drama in favor of stories designed merely to excite, scare, or titillate—and often to propagandize.
Television's moral restraints survived somewhat longer—for though the Hays Office was now disbanded, the US Federal Communications Commission imposed strict rules on what could, or could not, be shown in a medium that was, after all, transmitted directly into people's homes at a time when minor children might be watching. Thus for two decades, motion pictures had one set of standards, and television had another—though as television turned increasingly to action, adventure, and crime drama, writers found ways to introduce salacious elements that a child might not recognize as such, though an adult would.
With the coming of Community Antenna Television came the notion of voluntary subscription to certain packages, called channels, of television content. Here the FCC made a critical decision: to allow the content of a subscribed channel to be far more obviously salacious than before, so long as one had to subscribe to that channel, and pay an extra fee to receive it. The FCC might have thought that non-subscribed, "broadcast" channels might remain non-salacious, but this hope proved false. Today, on nearly any channel, a viewer might tune in a spectacle at least as shocking, and with just as much appeal to prurient interest, as an attendee of the ancient Greek theater in the days of Antiochus IV Epiphanes might have enjoyed.
The traditional stage is far less well attended than it once was. It, too, has reverted to its perhaps original form, and often is a venue for experiments in forms of acting that severely test a viewer's capacity for suspension of disbelief, a conscious act often critical to a viewer's appreciation of theater in any medium.
Post-War Theater Continuation
While there was a physical decline in theater attendance, theater as an art form experienced rebirth. As a counter to naturalism and realism of the early 20th century, war time and post war practitioners focused on the 'theatricalization' of the stage. This can primarily be attributed to the work of Bertolt Brecht and his Epic Theater, which attempted to defamiliarise the audience by removing habitual illusionary techniques. Audiences would be able to see the theater at work, with no attempt being made to hide the elements of production. It was also part of Brecht’s vision that, in following the path of his ‘enlightened’ predecessors Diderot and Lessing, the theater should be ‘a place of entertainment and instruction’. Brecht’s theater attempted to find a position between entertainment through suspension of disbelief, and encouraging thought through alienating his audience from being swept up in their emotions.
Naturalism still had a place in the western theatrical canon, with American playwrights such as Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams writing realistic scripts throughout the 1950s, and for the latter two, beyond. Many of the plays released during this period have become American classics, including Long Day’s Journey Into The Night, Death of a Salesman, and A Streetcar Named Desire respectively.
Drawing upon the surrealist movement, the ‘theatricalization’ of the stage by Brecht, and the rejection of naturalism, the absurdist school of thought became an important part of modern theater. In the Theater of the Absurd, the most well know play is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. As evidenced by Godot, plots in absurdist theater are often circular, with inane dialogue. The lives of the characters (often atheist) are usually portrayed as meaningless, often because they cannot find or understand God. The influence of Beckett, and indeed the entire school of though can be seen in the works of contemporary practitioners David Mamet and Suzan-Lori Parks.
Inspired by the works of Brecht, and performance art, post-dramatic theater emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Post-dramatic theater does not usually focus on a script or characterization, instead opting to focus on the aesthetics of a performance, and the interaction between text, performer and space. Post-dramatic theater can be seen as reintroducing the spectacle back into theater. As with most avant-garde work, it tends to have a liberal bias, and often focus on immoral themes such as abortion (as seen in the works of Heiner Muller) or drug use (as seen in the works of the Wooster Group).
Some important American playwrights include:
- See Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series of historical novels, and especially their glossaries, that specifically address the subject of pre-Imperial gladiators.
- Quoted in "In Fair Verona", Time, December 20, 1954; retrieved on April 6, 2007 from the Time on-line archive
- Brecht, Bertolt (1940), ‘On Experimental Theatre’, pp. 130-135
- Fortier, Mark (2002), ‘Theory/Theater: An Introduction’, 2nd Ed, Routledge, Oxon.
- Fischer-Lichte, Erika (2002), History of European Drama and Theatre, Routledge, London.
- Theater The New York Times.