The practice of drama and theater predates many other human inventions that include paper, glass blowing or even mirrors. Appropriately enough, early drama was a means of capturing human behavior in a way distributable to the masses, serving as proxy for both paper and mirrors.
While style of theater has evolved much since the origins of theater, the actual mechanics and ultimate goal of expression has not. Performers assume roles given to them both in their manner of delivering lines and the costumes, masks or makeup they don. Stage scenery was important for establishing the setting of the performance, and, as always, the audience was the key element in gauging the success or failure of a play.
Read on to learn more specifically about how modern theatre has come into being from its not-so-humble origins.
Greek Is the Word
Western theatre’s first vestiges appeared in Athens, Greece some three thousand years ago during mass religious celebrations that involved chanting and costumes. Choral processions honoring Dionysus — the Greek god of wine, religious rituals, religion and, later, theatre — involved participants dressing up in vibrant costumes and masks with exaggerated personas and facial features. After a certain point, some members of the procession would take on special roles designated by special costumes and behavior during the celebration.
Around 600 BC, these practices evolved during a series of annual festivals honoring Dionysus. Instated by the ruler Pisistratus and insanely popular, these celebrations involved the drinking, celebration and religious invocations of the earlier processions but with structured public contests in the arts. Competitions were held for the best musical performances, singing, poetry recitation and dancing to see who could win the audience’s favor.
According to both historical accounts of Aristotle and Greek legend, one such performer was said to excel at the feat of assuming different roles and tonalities during his recitation of poetry around 534 BC. Named Thespis, this wandering bard would dramatically leap onto the backs of wooden carts during recitations and fully invoke the voice and persona of the character speaking in the poem.
Thespis’ dramatic flair evolved the art form of public performance, and soon he became the embodiment of a new ideal that gave way to the title of “Thespian.”
Eastern Theatrical Tradition
The original influence of Thespis upon dramatic performance later led to the establishment of theater troupes and the popularization of play formats such as tragedies.
However, while this line of tradition developed into Western theatre, it is important to note other theatrical influences that evolved around the same time. One such practice was Indian Sanskrit drama, which was developed some between 200 BC and 100 AD. From 100 AD to 1,000 AD, hundreds of Sanskrit plays were written dramatizing epic religious texts as well as traditional plot lines using stock characters. Unlike Western theatre, Indian Sanskrit dramas permitted both male and female actors, with some all-female troupes becoming popular.
China has an even earlier theatrical tradition. Around 1,500 BC during the Shang Dynasty, acrobatic performances that included singing and music became popular entertainment for royalty. Shadow puppetry evolved some time later during the Han Dynasty.
These two forms of entertainment, puppetry and lavish musical productions, took on new life during the Tang Dynasty, which was known as “The Age of 1000 Entertainments.” The Emperor Xuanzong formed a classical Chinese acting school known as “Children of the Pear Garden,” a term that still occasionally applies to Chinese musical and performers of Chinese Opera to this day.
You can learn more about how the origins of theatre help color modern performances to this day by coming to visit the Lionheart Theatre and seeing our performers in action. You can also plan on catching a show from our upcoming 2016 season to see just how well thespians and the Children of the Pear Garden continue their tradition of excellence thousands of years later.