A Very Brief History of Theater

Red chair on empty stage lighted with spotlights


Theater is a sub-division of the performing arts that focuses on live shows or performances by actors whose main aim is to create self-contained drama. Since its early inception, theater has managed to evolve into various practices, some of which include gestures, dance, and pantomime, all of which are combined with other art forms to portray a single artistic performance.

Early origins

The origins of Greek theater can be traced back to the revels of the follows of Dionysus, who was their god of fertility and wine. In adhering with their god’s special requests, spectacular ceremonies were held in his honor. His female devotees used to dance themselves into state of frenzy. They carried long phallic symbols called thyrsoi, which they would tear to pieces and eat the raw flesh of sacrificial animals.

Over time, the Dionysians developed a more structured kind of drama. They began to sing and dance in choral form. In 6th Century BC, a priest of Dionysus called Thespis introduced a new element, which basically can be seen as the birth of theater. He used choruses to dialogue, which in effect made himone of the first actors. Since then, those in the theatrical profession have used the name Thespian as a badge of honor.

In addition, Greek Chronicles dating back to the 3rd Century BC recorded Thespis as being the first winner of a theatrical award. He took the prize in the first competition for tragedy held back in Athens around 534 BC.

Theatrical contests ended up being a regular feature of the annual festival held in honor of Dionysus. It was held for four days, each spring, and was referred to as the City of Dionysia. Four authors were picked to compete. They had to write three tragedies each and a satyr play. Each performance took a whole a day in front of a big crown, usually in a festive mood, seated on the slopes of the Athenian hillside. The center piece of the stage was circular space, where dances and songs were performed.

Other early performances

The first buildings used for theatrical performance in Britain were amphitheaters introduced by the Romans, who had adopted the practice from ancient Greece. In most cases, the structures used were semi-circular and made of wood, and later rebuilt in stone. They were open air, with banked seating surrounding the center stage.

Medieval theatrical performances were done on elaborate temporary stages inside barns, great halls, or in the open-courtyards of galleried inns. They were multi-sided buildings with a covered platform stage against one side. These structures served as the basis for of the Elizabethan timber framed, open-air theatres we have today, like the Globe in London. All theatrical performances took place during the day.

Based on the kind of performance, theater has been broadly classified into 3 categories, which are musical, drama, theater, and comedy. All of these components emerged at different times in the history of theater and have since then progressed to the modern theater we have today.

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