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Contemporary British director Peter Brook wrote of theater and its essence in his book, The Empty Space (1968), “A man walks across this empty space (a bare stage) whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theater to be engaged” (p. 9). By Brook’s reckoning, the actor, the stage space, and the audience are the minimal necessary components for the art of the theater. At its most basic level, theater is a story presented in public by a performer or performers, for an audience.
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There exists a distinction between the related art forms of drama (the written text) and theater (the process of performing the written text within a designated space). A difference must also be drawn between theater as a form of artistic or cultural entertainment and the existence of theatrical components within a culture. Performance occurs regularly in daily life (e.g., sporting events, political campaigns, weddings, and other social rituals), but these are not considered theater in the strictest sense. These routine presentations form the basis of performance studies, a discipline that uses terminology from the theater and that of anthropology in an effort to analyze how it is that people and cultures stage rituals and events.
Theater as society has come to think of it is a live artistic form, featuring many artists (dramatist, actor, director, designers, and audience) who collaborate to create performance events. Theater is also considered from a conventional viewpoint to be the most complete of all the art forms, in that it integrates many disciplines (dance, music, acting, visual spectacle, language, sculpture) in the presentation of a story. Theater occurs in a staging space, in front of an audience, regardless of the dramatic location of the event being enacted. Moreover, theater is performed in real time and usually requires a compression of the dramatic timeline, rather than a moment-to-moment literal reenactment of the event. Theater is an imitation of the human experience, drawing its characters and plotlines from dramatic events recognizable to the audience. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his critical text Poetics,described theater (or drama) as an imitation of men in action. Theater is an artistic form that lends itself easily to critiques of social problems, heralding the possible transformation of society in the wake of a public performance expressing new ideas for change.
One explanation for theater’s origins lay in the ceremonial rituals of primitive cultures, usually linked to religious worship. Storytelling is an alternative explanation for theatrical origins, a performance in which a narrator such as a tribal leader or shaman recalled episodes important to the history of the tribe, acting out the events while interpreting the different characters for the shared enjoyment of the audience. The theatrical ritual achieved greater aesthetic sophistication as the cultures advanced, utilizing multiple actors, spectacle, dance, music, and costuming in an effort to make the performances more enjoyable. Society eventually began to prize these performances as much for their inherent entertainment and artistic values, as for their ritual significance.
Form and Style
Theater has developed different approaches to the creation of dramatic structure, utilizing a multitude of various styles and performance traditions. The play’s form is the clearly identifiable organization of the plot elements, while the play’s style is the means by which the form is interpreted for a contemporary audience. A theatrical form (e.g., comedy or tragedy) is a specific identifying plot structure as it demonstrates typical themes of human experience. A theatrical style (e.g., Shakespearian or expressionistic) is the representative interpretation of a form, based on audience expectations determined by place and time. Style may be associated with a specific historical period, playwright, culture, or artistic movement, whereas form is more universal and changes little from one culture to another.
The four distinct dramatic forms are: tragedy, comedy, drama, and mixed-forms. Tragedy concerns the fate of a main character who is caught up in events beyond his or her control, and is subsequently ruined as a consequence of a moral weakness or an inability to cope with difficult circumstances. Comedy—be it satire or farce— requires the happy or ironic resolution of a conflict involving an individual or a community. Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that the main difference between the tragedy form and the comedy form is that “one imitates people better, the other one people worse, than the average” (1967, p. 18). Tragedy and comedy were the dominant forms of theater until the eighteenth century. The form of drama emphasizes the moral seriousness of social issues, often through depictions of characters and situations drawn from daily life. Eighteenth-century French dramatic theorist Denis Diderot (1713-1784) advocated in his
A mixed-form dramatic text combines elements of the comedy and tragedy forms and is a very uncommon form of theater. Theatrical styles, on the other hand, are many in number. Each style is associated with a specific time period (e.g., Restoration comedy such as William Congreve’s The Way of the World), author (e.g., Shakespearian tragedy like Hamlet), or artistic movement (e.g., realistic drama, as an example Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard).
Although the essential nature of theater is constant, the theatrical art form developed differently during various historical periods and throughout the regions of the world. Eastern (Asian) theater traditions predate Western (European) theater and utilize vastly different conventions (i.e., agreed-upon performance techniques). Asian theater forms rely heavily on the elements of musical performance and bodily expression to relate the story line to the audience. Chinese theatrical forms were first recorded in 1767 BCE during the Shang Dynasty. Popular entertainments of the time included shadow-play and puppet theaters, and live entertainers often performed at teahouses. Chinese theater was performed on a bare stage, accompanied by music, and characterized by a strict adherence to traditions. The most prolific contemporary expression of Chinese theater is the Beijing Opera, which employs a strictly ordered system of dance, singing, and acting to enhance the performance. Indian theater dates from the first century CE, and included Sanskrit dramas in which Indian actors performed specific codified gestures and chanted intonations with musical accompaniment designed to cultivate a balanced aesthetic, emotional state called a rasa within the spectators. Formal Japanese theater dates from the sixth century CE and includes variations such as Noh theater (1374), a stylized musical dance-drama with choreographed movements and masks; Bunraki theater (early seventeenth century), a puppet theater; and Kabuki theater (1603)—the most popular form—in which dance and spoken dialogue are used in conjunction with sets, stylized make-up, and costuming, to achieve the desired theatrical effect.
The formal Western theater tradition began in Greece with the ritual worship of Dionysus, the God of wine and revelry. The word tragedy evolved from the Greek word tragoidia (goat-song), the performance that accompanied ceremonies of ritual animal sacrifice. In 534 BCE, the city of Athens organized a contest to determine the best tragedy during the religious festival of the City Dionysia. At the festival, tragedies were performed in sets of three linked stories drawn from either history or myth, followed by a satyr play (a short farcical comedy utilizing burlesque). Comedies were introduced at the City Dionysia after 487 BCE. The earliest Greek theaters were temporary wooden structures built into hillsides. Permanent theaters made of stone began to appear in the fourth century and were capable of seating more than ten thousand spectators. Greek actors performed on a small circular area called the orkestra (dancing place), which featured a thymele (small altar) for the ritual sacrifice, surrounded by the risers of the audience area, called the theatron (seeing place). The first skene (small scenic house) appeared in 458 BCE. The fifth century is recognized as the Golden Age of Greek Theater, with more than one thousand different plays believed to have been performed. Only thirty-one tragedies survive from the period—all written by three playwrights: Aeschylus (525-456 BCE), Sophocles (c. 496-406 BCE), and Euripides (c. 484-406 BCE). The Athenian playwright Aristophanes (c. 450-c. 388 BCE) is the only comic playwright of the time whose works have survived. Greek tragedies were written originally for just two actors, but in 468 BCE the use of a third actor was established. Each actor would play multiple roles, indicated by distinctive masks and representative props. Greek dramas also were the first to feature the chorus, a group of performers who chanted rhythmically, danced, and commented on the course of the action in the play.
Greek theater was appropriated by the Romans after 240 BCE but eventually gave way to more popular forms of entertainment. Roman citizens preferred spectacular and bloody events such as chariot races, armed contests between gladiators, wild animal fights, and mock naval battles (often staged in flooded amphitheaters). The rise of the Christian Church in the fourth century CE signaled a fierce opposition to theatrical practices, due to their origins in pagan rituals and their licentious subject matter. Organized theater all but disappeared by the sixth century, following the fall of Rome to the Visigoths, though some entertainment forms such as mimes, minstrels, and festivals continued in local communities until the Middle Ages and the re-emergence of theater as an art form. Liturgical dramas were performed during church services as a means of imparting religious doctrine to illiterate parishioners. The earliest recorded liturgical drama occurred during an Easter service around 925 CE, and included monks performing the discovery at the tomb. Plays moved out-of-doors and became part of religious festivals after 1300 CE, with performances staged on small, movable structures known as mansions. Local trade guilds took over the staging and financing of cycle plays (a group of plays featuring biblical story interpretations). Local vernacular language eventually replaced Latin as the spoken language of the performances, which also began to feature more secular subjects.
Religious strife and internal church conflicts changed the face of Europe in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. Religious theater was eventually outlawed, and entertainments began to be provided by a new professional theater during the Renaissance. Permanent theaters blossomed in London during the late sixteenth century and were staffed by acting troupes maintained by wealthy noblemen. The performances had a broad and popular appeal and were attended by the titled and commoners alike. The most famous English playwright of the period was William Shakespeare (1564—1616), who is believed to have penned an estimated thirty-eight plays. The English Civil War closed the London theaters in 1642. Meanwhile, opera emerged in Italy as a popular Renaissance form and prompted innovations such as scenic stage sets incorporating perspective drawing, machinery for changing background scenery in view of the audience, and rigging created for the purpose of flying people and scenic pieces around the stage. A new style called neo-classicism emerged in France during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which drama was made to conform to critical principles based on contemporaneous interpretations of classical theater. Most important were the unities of time, place, and action (each play should have a single plot action that could occur within a twenty-four-hour period and in locations that could realistically be reached during a single day of travel). Neoclassicism also demanded that the characters practice decorum (behaving according to strictly established social etiquette) and was centered on the notion of verisimilitude (the appearance of truth).
This preoccupation with realistic action/behavior onstage foreshadowed the early nineteenth-century development of romanticism. Romanticism was a revolt against the rules of the neoclassical theater and featured plotlines inclined toward emotional truth rather than rational knowledge and characters drawn from the lower social classes rather than the nobility. Romanticism flourished through the 1850s, followed at the end of the century by realism. Realism was the result of two modes of intellectual thought: The first involved the application of scientific thought to theatrical life, resulting in lifelike portrayals; while the second mode centered on democratic political ideals precipitating the need for social transformation. Theater was viewed as a laboratory of humanity, a place to test new ideas of social behavior and reform. The theater of the period exposed contemporary social ills (such as the plight of women in The Doll’s House, the best known of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s realistic works), and made suggestions for reform (freedom from outmoded social structures). The director emerged as an artistic force during this period, bringing creative and visual unity to the stage performance. Also important during the late nineteenth century was the origination of musical theater (which uses song, dance, music, and spoken dialogue to relate a story). Musical theater remains one of the most popular entertainments into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The avant-garde theater (also known as anti-realistic theater) was a strong presence in the early twentieth century, as writers and performers rejected realism and tried to reinvent the ideas of what constituted art. Avant-garde art pushed the boundaries of what is accepted as real, while at the same time attempting to document an individual’s perceptions of reality. Twentieth-century avant-garde theater styles include expressionism, futurism, dadaism, and surrealism. Absurdism (life cannot be logically explained) is a style of the avant-garde that became very influential in theater following World War II. This eventually led to a backlash of radical experimental theater in the 1960s, meant to mingle political significance with aesthetic creation. This experimentation laid the groundwork for the contemporary post-modernism movement, which signals a break with the modernist movement and traditional portrayals of experience. Post-modernism theater utilizes a mixture of styles and advocates the primacy of the audience response to the formation of the work. Despite this growth and evolution of alternative styles, however, realism and musical theater remain the dominant mainstream theater fare of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
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