A Brief History Of Theatre

Posted on 22 September 2016

Theatre has been around for what seems like forever or at least as far back as we can track society that is. The word theatre itself means a place for seeing, usually a building where a dramatic performance is given but theatre is so much more than that. Theatre is more than just a building, it is the telling of stories and putting on a show. It is turning a group of people into an audience and bringing them together through performing arts. 

Photo credit: Dominique Landau

When you think of the historical roots of theatre it is often thought upon to go straight to Ancient Greece and its amphitheatres which you would be right so in doing as it’s the first recorded theatre in Europe dating back to 600 B.C. but that would be putting theatre into a box and it’s far too big for that. Arguably, theatre can be dated back all the way to 8500 B.C. considering tribal dance and religious rituals. Theatre, depending on how you define it, goes hand in hand with society as it has always been a part of life to express and perform in some way or other. 

Whilst theatre has always been a part of human culture in one form or another, for example the Ancient Egyptians so great signs of being very involved in theatre and performance, but many believe that it was in fact the Ancient Greeks who formed how we think of theatre today, despite its beginnings dating back over 2500 years. The records state it began with a religious festival, much like the history before them, in which they honoured the god Dionysus (God of wine and fertility). The Dionysians developed the more structured form of drama that we are influenced by today; by dancing and singing. 

A lot of the influences from the Greeks are still around today, such as the masks they used to show emotion and character, which are often used as a symbol of theatre. These masks were introduced by Thespis himself, a poet who won a dramatic play competition, and whom actors today are often named after: thespians. Tragedies were their forte, and told of Greek myths, many of them performed and interpreted to this day. The Romans too, were inspired by the Greek theatre, and much like everything else changed it to suit them. They wrote Greek plays in Latin and preferred comedies. Roman theatre had a lot of competition, what with it being 300 B.C. and the interesting public executions that were occurring, so from this came the need to be grander and bolder. Thus the creation of vast and impressive public theatres of which over the next two centuries, the Roman’s built approximately 125 of. 

Despite the protests of the theatre that Christians brought, shutting down theatres and fighting, theatre eventually rose again with religious plays, once again (although it took them a good 1000 years to get back on track). Theatre expanded across the world, professional actors eventually making a comeback and theatres opening everywhere, slowly but surely commencing onwards. 

The 1500’s in England are what shaped a lot of our theatre today, what with Shakespeare on the scene and the birth of Globe Theatre. With all the greats that Shakespeare has given us though, theatre didn’t go on without its hiccups and hurdles, closing and reopening, women being allowed to perform, the middle class dominating as the audiences and not to mention the new styles that were introduced whether in the play itself or the costumes and sets. 

Theatre has and is influenced by history and the history of theatre. All that has happened in its history of getting here and surviving its turmoil’s has made it what it is. Now it is a bigger part of our culture than ever, thanks to all that came before it, and is more accessible than before. Hopefully, it will continue to grow and develop; and surely it will always be around. 


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By Jade Ali

A love for theatre stemmed from my love of literature and music, but the West End on my doorstep opened up a whole new appreciation and passion for all things stage-y