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Theatre History (Part 1)

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Origins   ::   Greek   ::   Roman & Medieval   ::   Commedia Dell 'Arte   ::   Activities

Origins of Theatre

First of all, it is vital to realize that every culture around the world has some form of theatre. It is a basic, human tendency to create theatre. This is true whether you believe in Adam and Eve or in cavemen (or both).

Theatre is the most human of the arts because its subject matter is life itself. Its medium is live human actors, which keeps it human (though some directors have wanted actors to be more like robots!). Theatre is also ephemeral, i.e. of the moment, lasting only a very short time, just like much of our lives consists of temporary things.

If we ask ourselves, "Selves, how would theatre have come into being?" All we have to really do is ask ourselves "What are some basic ways we communicate orally?" Well, there's talking, of course. That requires the use of words (or cavemen might grunt in meaningful ways). While talking, we might use our hands or our stance to communicate. These are gestures that require movement. We also communicate with our face as we smile, frown, or look disturbed.

So now what are some basic reasons we communicate? Here are a few suggestions:

  • to inform, convince, or motivate
  • to celebrate
  • to establish or reaffirm paradigms, beliefs, memberships and identities
  • to heal
  • to request
  • to play

Assuming that theatre is an artistic means of communication, how can these elements become artistic? Can we label these with artistic activities? Sure we can. Watch:

  1. Storytelling: This form of communication uses a narrative mode and sometimes uses a dramatic mode. The famous philosopher Aristotle (4th Century BC) noted that humans naturally like to imitate others, both through storytelling and through action. The term he used was mimesis, which indicates impersonation and/or enactment.
  2. Dance is another means of communication that many feel may have contributed to the origins of theatre. Mimesis can apply here, too, especially as it is in human nature to imitate, but not exactly. We like to change things so that our perspective of events can be understood more clearly.
  3. Ritual and sympathetic magic is another means of communication that often involves storytelling, dance or both. Aristotle suggested that formal theatre originated with mimesis and these artistic things and combined with profound and mythical thought to form ritual. Ritual, which is always performative, transforms much of its spiritual essence to artistic essence. Though he presents only vague evidence in his philosophical treatises, Aristotle’s theories on the origin of theatre have been pretty much believed since the discovery of his manuscript The Poetics in the late 14th Century. He is finally beginning to be doubted.
  4. Games may be another means by which theatre originated. Even kids play "house" and "doctor." The playing of games has a natural tendency to drift toward the dramatic, and theatre is often the result.

The origins of theatre may be made up of one or most likely all of these activities. All are still around and all still profoundly affect our lives.

Copyright 2008, David Sidwell. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 06). Theatre History (Part 1). Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License