Lecture Notes



Early Cultures


1.    In primitive cultures, theatre grew out of ritualistic prayers and hymns created to appease the forces that controlled the universe.


2.    Entire tribes performed rituals. Later, the religious leaders were given the honor of performing the rituals in the place designated as appropri­ate for holy ceremonies.


3.    Rituals were used to re-create past deeds and to preserve the history and beliefs of the tribe.




1. In Egypt dramas dealt with mythology and religion. (In Mesopotamia, the oldest mystery play told of the sacred marriage between god and man.)


2.    Priests presented creation dramas as well as medicinal dramas, which celebrated their skills.


3.    Religious rituals were performed by a chorus of religious leaders at the temple of the particular god or myth that was being celebrated.




1.    Little is known about the origin of Indian drama, which is called Sanskrit (classical) drama.


2.    Theatre probably grew out of dance. Itinerant dancers and mimes often performed for celebrations.


3.    Theatre buildings had precise measurements of ninety-six by forty-eight feet, divided exactly in half


4.    There was no scenery, so location was conveyed through a spoken pro­logue. Subsequent locations were described using stylized movements and gestures.


5.    Acting and dance were integrated into expressive body art with exact gestures and movements.


6.    The earliest Sanskrit drama of which we are aware can be traced to 320 A.D. It dealt with moods, or rasas.


7.    Sanskrit drama had no tragedy; good always triumphed over evil. The plays had between one and ten acts, each covering no more than twenty-four hours, with no more than a year’s time passing between acts.



Early Theatre in Other Regions of Asia


1.    The Chinese theatre space was a rectangular hall with a balcony on three sides and an acting platform that jutted out into the audience.


2.    In the ninth century, Emperor Tang Ming Huang established the first school of scenic art and music.


3.    During the Sung Dynasty (960—1279) song, dance, and dialogue were melded into stories.


4.    Plays were based on traditional, familiar stories, with actors using exact gestures similar to those used in India.


5.    Japanese drama became increasingly important after the seventh centu­ry A.D., with the development of No and Kabuki theatre.


6.    Approximately 100 of the 240 dramas still in existence were written by Zeami Kiyotsugu (1364—1444), who performed with his father, Kanami Kiyotsugu (1 333—84).


7.    Performers of No drama were associated with a temple, while the Kabuki performers were considered to be of the lowest social class, and they were not allowed to perform for the higher classes of Japan.


8.    Kabuki theatres had resident playwrights, who wrote for the individual company members. Since women were not yet allowed to perform, male actors played female roles.


Greek Theatre


1.    By the fifth century B.C., theatre in Athens was extremely advanced, coinciding with the advanced commercial, political, and cultural condi­tions of this city-state.


2.    Greek theatre probably started before the sixth century B.C. with dithy­rambs, or hymns to the god Dionysus.


3.    Greeks held festivals to worship their principal deities. Before the devel­opment of drama, the highlight of the festival was the offering of a sacri­fice. Originally, the sacrifice was human; later, goats were offered.


The Development of Drama

1.    The development from the Dionysian hymns to the appearance of full-scale dramas was gradual.


2.    For many years, there was only a chorus. Later, an individual actor spoke by himself. Legend says the first person to do this was Thespis in 534 B.C. (his name gives us the word thespian, a synonym for “actor”).


3.    Later, the chorus dressed as satyrs (half goat and half man). The plays were then called “goat songs,” or tragoidia, from which we get the word tragedy.


4.    The origin of comedy is not known, although there are theories that it may have developed from dances and songs improvised by Dionysian revelers or by a group of young men (komos) who were heckling the crowd during the procession to the altar of Dionysus.


5.    Three festivals developed: the City Dionysia, the Lenaia, and the Rural Dionysia. All plays still in existence were from the City Dionysia.


6.    Each festival elected a master of revels, the archon, who selected the plays, which were submitted by the playwrights, and sought out the choregus.


7.    The person appointed to the prestigious position of choregus paid for the costumes and the musicians, and for training the actors.


8.    The actors, known as hypokrites, were paid by the state.


9.    Tragedies were presented as trilogies in the morning, while comedies were

presented separately in the afternoon.


10. Aeschylus, The first important dramatist wrote 80 or 90 plays 7 of which are still in existence today, he relied heavily on a chorus of about 50 and used traditional themes based on myths and Olympian laws.  Sophocles, was the next major writer that wrote well over one hundred plays and is credited with introducing the third actor. Euripides the third major writer and wrote plays mainly concerned with human beings as an individual. He wrote ninety two plays 17 tragedies survive as well as a satyr play.


11. The Greek chorus served as a unifying force in the dramas. Although the chorus varied in size, it acted as a character, a narrator, or a mes­senger, commenting on the action of the play as it progressed.


12. Greek comedy dealt with current events and ordinary people. It was considered inferior to tragedy.


13. Old Comedy (454—404 B.C.) emphasized an idea. Aristophanes

(c. 448—380 B.C.) was the major writer of the form, which made use of a chorus.


14. New Comedy was made popular by Menander (c. 342—292 B.C.), who poked fun at local middle-class citizens. The chorus was omitted due to heavy taxation and the absence of financial support.


15. At first, plays were presented outside in an open space. Later, perma­nent seats were added and the skene was built so that actors could dress and wait for their entrance. A themele, or altar, was placed in the center of the playing space, called the orchestra. Later the skene was used as a backdrop for the action onstage.


16. A mechene, or crane (also called a deus ex machina), was used to bring in the gods to solve the characters’ problems.


17. Actors in Greek theatre were highly respected, trained, and skillful. They wore specific masks to play various characters. Tragic actors wore a high boot, or kothornos, to add to their physical stature.


18. Comic costumes were simpler and always included a large leather phallus.


19. Probably the greatest contribution of the Greek theatre was the writ­ings of Aristotle, whose ideas about the structure of dramas still influ­ence playwrights today.


Roman Theatre

1.    Romans were exposed to Greek drama during the First Punic War (264—241 B.C.). In 240 B.C. Livius Andronicus produced the first Greek play in Rome, translated into Latin.


2.    Even though Romans regarded Greek culture as decadent, Roman playwrights imitated Greek drama.


3.    Romans viewed theatre as entertainment and did not associate it with the worship of gods.


4.    Theatre festivals were staged by magistrates, who hired acting compa­nies to perform plays.


5.    Actors, histriones, lost prestige and were often considered as slaves by the acting company managers.


6.    Roscius, Rome’s most famous actor, was made a knight.


7.    Actors wore linen masks with wigs attached that covered the entire head. Acting was largely based on improvisation. Movements were broad and exaggerated.


8.    Initially, theatres were temporary buildings. In 55 B.C. the first perma­nent theatre was erected at Pompeii. Built on a level spot, the theatre had stadium—style e seating. Awnings stretched over the top to protect the audience from the elements.


9.    Periaktoi, three-sided devices that could be rotated, were used to indi­cate changes in location by showing different designs. Some believe a backdrop was used as well.


10. The Atellan farce, the oldest form of Roman comedy, was based on improvisation and stock characters and included lewd jokes.


11. Gnaeus Naevius (270-201 B.C.) is the first Roman dramatist of whom there is record. The two most popular Roman comedy playwrights were Platutus and Terence.


12. Seneca (4 B.C.—65 A.D.) wrote the only Roman tragedies still in exis­tence. His plays were adaptations of Greek tragedies, but were closet dramas, written to be recited rather than produced as plays. They con­tained a great deal of violence, with elaborate speeches, soliloquies, asides, and sensationalism.


13. After the fourth century A.D., largely because of the influence of the Christian church, the theatre lost popularity until the tenth century.


Additional Information

1.    The mystery plays referred to in this chapter are similar to Christian mystery plays, but they are the religious plays of ancient Mesopotamia— celebrating the sacred marriage between gods and men.



2.    A prologue is an opening speech or poem, which comments on the action and gives information regarding the location, time, and situation of the play. The prologue became popular again during the Elizabethan period. Paired with an epilogue, which closed the action, this conven­tion was extensively used during the Restoration. The use of the pro­logue lasted well into the eighteenth century, but it disappeared during the nineteenth century. Prologues and epilogues were often used to make witty commentaries on political and social conditions.


3.    Dionysus (Bacchus in Roman mythology) was the Greek god of wine, whose worship took many forms. For example, it was believed that women would withdraw for a time into the wild amid experience a mysti­cal communion with nature. It was also believed that Dionysus would die and be reborn each year, thus the rites surrounding his patronage were related to fertility.