The Latymer School History Magazine - page 10

Theatre has been an
important facet of different
cultures throughout Western
history, beginning with the
Greeks and branching out
into the variety of forms it
takes today. It has been
shaped over time to meet
the demands of society and
has evolved as ideals and
interests have changed. But
as well as simply being a
source of entertainment, it
has been an important way
for people to share and
express moral, political and
religious ideas with the rest
of the world.
The Ancient Greeks are seen
as the pioneers of western
theatre, with the word
‘theatre’ itself originating
from the Greek ‘theasthai’,
which means ‘to behold’. The
tradition began in the festival
of Athens, at which men
would perform songs and
plays in order to welcome
the god Dionysus. The plays
illustrated the power and
divinity of the gods and the
foolishness of humans who
question their might. The
three main forms of Greek
play were the comedy, the
tragedy and the satyr plays.
Many tragedies, such as
Oedipus Rex, are still
popular today and are well-
known for their use of the
chorus, which is responsible
for conveying the moral
message of the play.
As with many other aspects
of their culture, the Romans
were deeply influenced by
the theatre of the Greeks.
After its empire expanded
into Greek territory and
discovered its remnants of its
culture, the Romans fused its
drama with their own pre-
existing conventions to
create what was considered
to be the most sophisticated
form of theatre ever made.
Italy was thrown centre stage
in the world of theatre for
centuries afterwards,
affecting the cultures of
several societies to come.
The only surviving Ancient
Roman plays are all from a
genre known as ‘fabula
palliata’, which, again, is
heavily influenced by Greek
theatre.
Medieval theatre had an
entirely different purpose to
that of Ancient Greek and
Roman. Both civilisations had
been focussed on honouring
and welcoming the gods but
European medieval theatre
had a more practical
purpose: teaching the word
of the bible to the masses. It
was the Church’s opinion
that the vastly illiterate
peasantry, who knew little
Latin, were unable to fully
appreciate the teachings that
Christianity had to offer, so
they organised dramatic
productions of significant
stories from the bible. This
initially took place in
churches, but eventually
evolved into an open-air
event performed on
pageant-wagons as its
popularity grew - thanks
partly to its inclusion of
crude humour to keep the
peasants’ attention. The
acting was amateur as it was
likely that most of the plays
were performed by
members of the local
community. France and
Germany, in particular, saw
the rise of a genre of theatre
still popular today: the farce.
Farce is a particular sub-
genre of comedy which
involves slapstick humour
and frantic, irrational and
sudden actions, seen in
modern day comedies such
as the well-known television
series Fawlty Towers.
From Tudor England came
the most well-known
playwright in the world:
William Shakespeare. Whilst
the world of theatre had
evolved to become more
popular in upper class circles
(even Henry VIII had
professional actors in his
company to entertain him),
successful theatres of the
people had also been
established. The most
notable of these was The
Globe, in which Shakespeare
and his contemporaries
established many of the
theatrical conventions still
used today. Going to the
theatre became not only
more popular, but also
became hierarchical, with the
establishment of theatres
which sold more comfortable
seats to the well-off and
crowded standing room for
those who couldn’t afford
them. Even during the age of
Shakespeare, there was a
theatrical obsession with
Italy, with many of the
extremely popular revenge
tragedies of the time
associated with the hot-
headed and passionate
Italians. Meanwhile, Italy itself
was also committed to the
production of new forms of
drama. The establishment of
a new form of comedy -
comedia dell’arte - saw the
introduction of mask work
and stock characters to the
theatre, to help the audience
identify with the action. The
world of comedia dell’arte is
also seen as responsible for
the introduction of
improvisation to drama and,
even more importantly, for
encouraging the
employment of women in
the theatre, as opposed to
male actors filling female
roles.
In England, under the rule of
Oliver Cromwell, drama,
amongst other art forms, was
forbidden, and theatres were
closed for 18 years. After the
monarchy was restored and
King William II crowned,
people in England became
more optimistic and
flamboyant than ever before,
in defiance of the Cromwell’s
puritanical regime. This was
reflected in the theatre of the
time, which also became
more flamboyant, with
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