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Theatre History (Part 2)

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Shakespeare   ::   Neoclassicism   ::   Romanticism   ::   Realism   ::   Activities

Neoclassicism and the Beginning of "Isms"

Neo , of course, means "new" and classicism simply refers to the ancient Greeks and Romans. So Neoclassicism in drama refers to a new kind of theatre that the ancient Greeks and Romans had.

It all started with the Renaissance in Europe. In the late middle ages (beginning just after 1095), the Catholic Church began sending armies to Jerusalem to "liberate" it from the Jews and Muslims. These were called the Crusades. On the way to Jerusalem, personnel in these armies went through cities like Constantinople and others and discovered some very interesting things. For example, they discovered new forms of architecture, the number zero, and, coolest of all, they discovered ancient play texts written by ancient Greek writers such as Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripedes.

With these new discoveries, suddenly the world was a new place and everything had to be classical, or "neo-classical" since it was all new, or at least renewed. Suddenly theatre became popular again (okay, not "suddenly") after the ban on it for nearly 1000 years.

Attempts at recreating ancient Greek plays abounded, and soon rules were established based on ancient Greek scholars such as Plato and Aristotle. And this is the vital thing to remember about all of this: Neoclassicism involved the codification and creation of dramatic rules that were supposed to be adhered to. If a play did not adhere to these rules, it was shunned by the scholars of the day (and was probably a big hit with the masses!). Scholars thought that audiences would not be able to understand what was going on!

The most important thing about these rules was that the scholars and playwrights using them sought to capture verisimilitude , or the "appearance of truth." This is an important concept, for with verisimilitude comes a plethora of other questions such as "What is truth?" and "What's the best way to access truth?" and other tricky queries.

These rules really came into their own in France in the 1600s. From this time, they dominated theatrical thought all over Europe—except England, which had a habit of doing it's own thing.

The most important of these often complex rules were the Three Unities of time, place and action. To violate these unities, it was thought, would be to confuse the audience. Here are the unities in detail.

Unity of Time The events in a play should take no longer than 1 day. (But whether that means 12 hours—sunrise to sunset—or 24 hours was a hot debate!).
Unity of Place The events in a play should take place in one general area (or it would violate the Unity of time with all of that travel).
Unity of Action The play should have one general plot or through line of action. Sub-plots were generally forbidden.

In reviewing Oedipus the King , does this play conform to these rules? Many plays do, even today. Think for a moment and anticipate what kind of reaction these rules would evantually engender. When you have an idea of what a free-thinking playwright might eventually think, you may be in the frame of mind to see how the ISMs all came to be.

Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 06). Theatre History (Part 2). 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