Theater is an art form that is steeped in tradition and rich in history. From the early beginnings to the Great White Way, theater has gone through many transformations in its time.
The followers of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine, would throw lavish cult ceremonies in ancient Greece. They would dance and sing, in choral form, the stories of Greek myth. In the 6th century BC a priest of Dionysus, Thespis, began to introduce a new element into the storytelling that has widely become accepted as the birth of theater. He would engage in dialogue with the chorus. In essence, Thespis became the first actor. Hence the term “thespian.” Around the 3rd century BC, theatrical contests would become a regular part of the annual festival held in honor of Dionysus. Tragedies were the main form of theater in its early years. Towards the beginning of the 5th century BC, comedies started to make their way into the Greek theater tradition in form of The Frogs, The Wasps, and Lysistrata.
Theater began to make its way from Greece to Rome as being a part of the Roman games that were held every September. The Roman games took place between the Palatine and Aventine hills in Rome. This area would become known as Circus Maximus. The games originated as a harvest festival with main events being chariot races or boxing matches. Clowns began to appear in these festivals as a side show and midway through the 2nd century BC, plays became a part of the Roman games. In addition to the sporting events, clowns, and plays, gladiator matches also became a part of Rome’s entertainment.
Toward the late 10th century, Christian churches began to introduce dramatic effects into their Easter liturgy to help visualize the theme of resurrection. This was first introduced depicting the story of Mary Magdalene and two other women visiting the tomb of Jesus whereupon they would find it empty. From these initial storytelling methods, the medieval Christian drama was born. More scenes began to be enacted during church services as well.
In part two of this series, pre-Shakespeare theater and Shakespeare will be explored as a light is continued to be cast upon the history of theater.