A Brief History of Theater – from the ancients to today, Part 1

I wanted to write a post on the brief history of theater – hence the title – but in doing my research I realized that it was quite the undertaking.

Like, impossible.

So, to begin with, let me just say that this isn’t a text book on theater history. If you want that, you should go buy a text book on theater history. This is an overview. Important, landmark events and people that helped to shape our current theatrical world – and still, there is no way it can be 100% complete.

I just did it because I wanted to do it. Let’s leave it at that.

But this could be a good starting point, and an interesting read for anyone who wants to know what happened before superheroes and pop groups from the 70s and 80s took over Broadway. I tried my best to hit most of the major events over the past centuries, but theater is a global thing. So I had to ask some questions and make some decisions:

First, where do I focus? The Americas? Europe? Do I ignore Asia and its thousands of years of performance art? That isn’t fair, since at some point it all blends together. But, let’s be honest, western theater (as opposed to Kabuki) is probably the most popular and what we most regularly recognize as “our” theater, particularly since American theater started with British theater.  So, for me, focusing on Europe and America is the way to go.

Basically, theater as we know it started in Greece more than 2,000 years ago. Thespis, the first “actor”, was essentially the inventor of tragedy. He was the first to use dialogue in a play. So, in a nutshell, he invented theater as we know it some time around 537 BC.

Then came the Greek tragedians. The most famous of which are Aeschylus (Agamemnon and Prometheus Bound), Sophocles (Oedipus and Antigone), and Euripedes (Hippolytus). Their influence is immeasurable. Theater was off and running.

Shortly afterwards, the Romans began their own theater tradition.

Then came the Christians and the excommunication of actors in 197 AD. Christians were forbidden from attending theater. In 300 there was widespread Christian resistance against theater – they didn’t approve of its lewd messages. In 568, all roman spectacles are stopped, and in 692, theater is officially opposed by the church. Theater at this point consisting of roving troupes of performers – slaves, but performers.

By 925, medieval theater was, as would be expected, religious theater. Three hundred years later, religious drama was being performed outside of church – the beginning steps to establishing secular drama and theater. But, thanks to the church, quite literally nothing happened for nearly 1,000 years.

English plays started popping up in early 15th century, followed by the return of professional actors in the mid 15th century. Commedia Dell’Arte troupes appeared shortly after.

Commedia Dell’Arte was a form of improvisational theater that relied on stock characters – delineated by different masks – and was the precursor to pantomime. It was popular until the late 1700s.

Commedia Dell'Arte
Commedia Dell’Arte

In a reversal, Elizabeth I bans religious dramas in 1558. She did this to try and subdue a potential uprising between the Catholics and the Protestants. This led to a surge of secular drama. Theater is back on the upswing.

William Shakespeare is born in 1564.

The first permanent theater opens in London in 1576. Christopher Marlowe, the most important English playwright who isn’t Shakespeare, is stabbed to death at the age of 29.

1595 – Romeo and Juliet

1599 – The Globe theater opens.

1601 – Hamlet

Will Shakes


And theater is back, and it spreads throughout Europe and everything is great, until…

1642 – Puritans take over England, beheading King Charles, and closing the theaters.

Literally nothing happens for 18 years.

1660 – Theaters reopen. Women can play the roles of women. A novel idea.

In 1716, the first theater in America was built in Williamsburg, Va. In 1752, professional theater began in American with the arrival of pro troupe from England. .

First theater in New York – The Theater on Nassau Street.  http://www.musicals101.com/bwaythhist1.htm

David Garrick. Born in 1717 in England, David Garrick began his extraordinary career at the age of 22, when he first appeared as Shakespeare’s Richard III. He is regarded, without much argument, as the greatest actor of his time, and one of the greatest ever. He revolutionized a natural style of acting, that was rare at the time, and added a maturity to the profession. He did the same to the techniques of running a theater company, including demanding strict adherence to rehearsal rules, and creating consistency among costumes, scenery, and lighting. Oddly enough, this was rare at the time. (source: http://www.garrickclub.co.uk/david_garrick/)

David Garrick
David Garrick

Plays banned in America – 1774 – Congress closed the theater from 1774 until the end of the American Revolution, citing theater, along with other forms of entertainment, as “expensive Diversions and Entertainments”. Following the revolution, Shakespeare continued his popularity in the states, and American works started popping up towards the end of the 18th century (the plays produced until that point were usually British – not surprising).

1849 – The Astor Place Riot. Twenty two people died over performances of Macbeth. British actor William Macready vs. American actor Edwin Forrest. Macready was performing at the Astor Place Opera House (no longer there) when a crowd of Forrest supporters descended and began rioting. State militia came in, fired shots to stop the rioters, and killed 22 people. Macready finished his performance – barely – and escaped the country, never to perform in America again. http://www.shakespeareinamericanlife.org/stage/onstage/yesterday/astor.cfm

Astor Place Riot
Astor Place Riot

Edwin Booth. A superstar actor, theater owner, and interpreter of Shakespeare. One of the greatest American actors to ever live. His brother assassinated President Lincoln.  That’s where you’ve seen that name before.

Edwin Booth playing Hamlet
Edwin Booth playing Hamlet

Realism – Mid-late 19th century. Henrik Ibsen is by many to be considered to be the seminal writer of realistic plays. His work addressed issues that, at the time, were probably considered very controversial. His play, A Doll’s House, questions a woman’s role in society, and its action and ending would be considered surprising even to today’s audience. Ibsen’s structure and writing style – one that mirrored real life more closely than previous playwrights – set the standard for modern drama. He is, in effect, the first modern playwright. His influence can be seen everywhere, but most notably in the work of Arthur Miller (who even penned a modern adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People). Other writers of realism include Anton Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw. (source: http://novaonline.nvcc.edu/eli/spd130et/realism.htm#eme)

Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen

1895 – The Moscow Art Theater is founded by Constantin Stanislavsky. A breakthrough company, the influence of which cannot be measured, gave birth to Stanislavsky’s unique style of producing theater, eventually leading to his “method” of techniques emphasizing emotion-based acting. He worked with actors to discover the very human elements of characters. I wrote a brief post on some of his techniques. You can read it here. (source: http://www.biography.com/people/constantin-stanislavski-9492018)



Part 2 – 20th century and beyond – coming…at some point. Eventually.


I used a variety of sources (this wasn’t all from my head and you can see some of the sources cited above), but this one in particular helped me out tremendously, and offers a great outline: http://www.glencoe.com/theatre/Timeline/timeline_content.html. From there I continued my research on many different sites, and in books, all while trying my best to avoid Wikipedia whenever possible.