Theatre History

Learning about the history of theatre is crucial in any theatre classroom. Below are very brief descriptions of the changes that theatre has gone through throughout history. For more in-depth research, please see the links below.

Ancient Greek Theatre: The beginning of theatre as we know it. Stories had often been told through songs, but theatre is considered to have been invented by the Greeks when a man named Thespis began to act out the actions of the songs he was performing, inhabiting different characters while doing so. Thespis is considered to be the first actor, and this is where we get the term "Thespian."

Theatre at this time was performed once a year, as part of a festival honoring the Greek God Dionysus. The festival was a competition between the playwrights, who entered their plays into the competition, often acted in them, and served as a form of director, although that title would not exist for thousands of years. The principal characters in the plays were played by three men who wore different masks to distinguish their characters. These actors were supplemented by a chorus who would often portray citizens of the city in which the play takes place, and would frequently be used to enact backstory during the play, such as in Agamemnon, when the chorus is used to enact the story of Agamemnon going off to war and sacrificing his daughter.

The key difference between ancient Greek tragedies and the theatre of today is that while playwrights today mostly compose original stories that makes the audience ask the question "what is going to happen next?" the plays of ancient Greece were well known myths and stories that the audience would have been familiar with. Rather than the mystery being what will happen next, Greek tragedians sought to make their audiences question why these events happened, often using the past to comment on the politics of the time. The Greeks also did not mix their comedy with tragedy, they were kept completely separate. Comedies were what today we would consider very farcical, often using sexual and obscene humor. A good example of this is Lysistrata, in which a woman attempts to stop the Peloponnesian war by persuading the women of the land to deny the men sex until the war is put to an end. 

Roman Theatre: Like Much of Roman culture, the theatre of Ancient Rome was heavily inspired by the Greeks. Many plays produced in Rome at this time were simply translations or updated versions of Greek plays, although Rome also had a number of original Roman plays. The theatre began to evolve in this time, eventually transitioning away from masked performers in favor of more elaborate costumes. Actors were not well respected in Rome. Plays generally had a mix of free and enslaved people as actors, and actors were not allowed to vote or serve in the military, and giving a bad performance often resulted in punishment. 

Unfortunately, very few Roman plays survive today, but we know that like Greek theatre, they had both tragedies and comedies. The comedies were also very crude and sexual like the Greek's. Roman theatre had a lot more competition than Greek plays did. It was no longer an event that the entire city came to watch. Roman theatre was a part of festival just like Greek theatre, honoring Jupiter instead of Dionysus, but there were many other options for entertainment, like reenactments of sea battles, Gladiators, Lion pits, jugglers and acrobats,and sexual performances involving naked mimes.

Renaissance Theatre: This period is often referred to as Elizabethan Theatre, although it began significantly before the reign of Queen Elizabeth. During this time, playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Middleton, and Ben Johnson were very popular, although they are historically overshadowed by the period's most famous playwright by far, a man from Stratford-Upon-Avon named William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is widely accepted to be the greatest playwright in history, and his work makes Renaissance Theatre one of the most important periods of theatre in history, perhaps second only to Greek Theatre. During this time there were strict restrictions instituted by the government limiting what could be seen onstage, the most notable being that no holy sacraments could be seen in a play, meaning that there are no onstage weddings in any of Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare and the other playwrights of this time were very aware of Roman plays and playwrights, resulting in many references to Roman Mythology in Shakespeare's works, and many plays of the Renaissance were updated versions of stories told in the Roman Theatre. They were not, however, familiar with the works of the ancient Greeks and were not directly influenced by it.

The proscenium stage that we know today had still not been invented, the theaters of this time had audience nearly surrounding the stage, and most of the audience stood rather than sitting. Sitting behind the stage, while a very bad angle at which to view the play


Crash Course: An excellent video series that teaches the complete history of theatre:

General Overview:

Greek Theatre:

Roman Theatre:

Renaissance Theatre:




20th Century: