Modern American Theatre
Modern American theatre has changed a lot since the time of traditional Greek Tragedies and Roman Theatrics. Technology changes have changed many of the different methods that we use to convey artistic styles and themes. Today’s theatre has many contrasting and diverse styles; it contains both higher levels of musical and acting talent. The Broadway sensation “Wicked” for instance, is a great example of modern theatre. It contains a very interesting script, and the theme of the story is a combination of comedy and tragedy. Technology changes in costuming, prop building and even acting has changed everything about the theatre. Wicked also took on an international presence, unlike past theatre, which was isolated to regional performances and even seasonal performances, Wicked has been shown on every continent on the planet. Even though there have been a lot of changes in modern theatre, the core components of modern theatre are still the same as they have been in the past. Although theatre has evolved a lot from historical theatre, many of the same themes, styles and developments are still consistent with the past.
Theatre had its origins in the earliest parts of human history. Before there was actual theatre and actors, the first form of theatre can be found in the development of dance culture. Dances were originally performed in commemoration of major events, celebrations and religious ceremonies. At first, they were very informal affairs with little practice, but dancing as rituals evolved into very sophisticated forms of artistry by the 3000B BCE era. The foremost reason that dancing occurred was for religious rituals. The theme of religion that first originated in ritualistic dancing will continue in theatre for more than four thousand years. Famed critic Ellis Havelock explains, “Religious dances, it may be observed, are sometimes ecstatic, sometimes pantomimic. . . . Pantomimic dances, with their effort to heighten natural expression and to imitate natural process, bring the dancers into the divine sphere of creation and enable them to assist vicariously in the energy of the gods. The dance thus becomes the presentation of a divine drama.” As dancing became more sophisticated with time, and they were eventually performed at every level, especially before major events such as wars, seasonal changes, or religious celebrations. Eventually, rituals evolved further into sophisticated displays that took on themes and styles, this was the first development of drama as we know it (Bellinger, 1927). The evolution of dance from tribal and informal affairs into very complicated rituals can be seen in Persian and Asian early civilizations, they exhibited the most complex form of evolving dance culture.
Despite the early development of dance, there are many similarities to modern theatre. First, ritualistic dances had heavy religious overtones and only performed during key periods of time. This was the foundation of Greek theatre, which directly evolved from these tribal dances and dramas. Another similarity is the development of story-telling through theatre, as dances took on more sophistication; they took on story-lines, complicated plots and a common theme that is carried in the dance. The emerging concept of stories through dance was very important because it led to the creation of theatre. This type of dance culture evolved slowly into a new type of theatre during the Greek era, this era saw the rise of theatre, not as a religious experience, but rather as an art form.
Greek theatre is where modern theatre draws its roots from. It is the start of the Western tradition of theatre because not only did the Greeks enjoy theatre as part of religion, but also saw it as an art form. The first steps towards Greek theatre occurred when dances and rituals to the ancient Greek God of Win, Dionysus, became more and more sophisticated. The biggest change was the addition of style and theme that led to the development of plays, where spoken word was used rather than only song and dance.
Formal Greek theatre is renowned for its style, themes and physical constructions. Every element of modern theatre can be traced to Greek theatre. The great Greek playwrights were very interested in the development of theme in their plays. They were the first to create category of themes suited for different plays. These themes included tragedy, comedy and satire. Tragedy was the most common element in Greek plays, in particular, the biggest development that the Greeks made as in the concept of a “Tragic hero”, or a hero who is ultimately defeated by their hubris (Bates, 45-47). Stylistically, Greek plays had a very specific structure; they were created primarily to be played once, therefore, they were often staged in a series of four plays. With the first three being tragedies and the final one a comedy that tied them all together to lighten the mood of the crowd. The development of style and a system for organizing plays along scenes and acts was very important and is still something that persists in modern theatre. Finally, the Greeks were also known for their actual physical constructions of theatre areas. Unlike, the previous era where rituals were performs at religious centers and in preparation for battles, the Greeks created amphitheaters within every city where they would hold yearly plays and contests. Amphitheaters were large central stages that are surrounded by raised stairs for seating. They became the popular form of theatre construction for the next thousand years.
Greek theatre can be seen as the roots of all modern theatre because they added many of the different core elements that we see in theatre today. They were also the first to have professional actors and playwrights rather than religious figures. Greek theatre started the trend of having professional performers by introducing the actor’s guild where they trained very skilled troupes that would travel around Greece and perform for cities and rural areas along the way.
Following Greek theatre, the next evolution of theatre occurred during the Roman era. Roman theatre was not extremely original because it took many of the elements of Greek theatre and made it their own. Many Roman plays were adaptations or even direct copies of Greek plays, so much of their architecture, styles and themes were the same. The biggest difference between the two is that Romans made theatre much more secular. Their plays did not focus on religion nearly as much as Greek theatre, which meant that they were more focused on the aesthetics and art of theatre. This led to the extended use of props to communicate different meaning. For instance, a black wig was used to mean that a character is a very young man. The use of props and elaborate backgrounds surrounding theatre made them more attractive and accessible to the masses. This meant that theatre was one of the main forms of entertainment during the Roman era. Because Roman theatre was less sophisticated than Greek theatre in many ways, and it did not have a religious focus, they performed many more comedies than tragedies. Overall Roman theatre is important to the history of theatre because it represented easier access to the arts and a secular approach to theatre.
Theatre during the medieval era however, took a very large step backwards. While the Roman era expanded on the Greek era, the Medieval or “Dark Ages” represented a period of chaos and seclusion. The fall of the Roman Empire meant that Europe became less focused in the cities and more agrarian. Without a large audience to appeal to, the concept of theatre almost died completely. During this era, theatre and plays were exclusively religious in nature and were performed by monks and priests as they traveled around the country. The only type of theatre that was available related strongly to the Bible. Rather than having props or physical stages, plays were performed by traveling monks as they moved from village to village, there ewes no formal staging areas. From a style perspective, plays were performed as if they were direct translations of the Bible and all of the different scenes and acts corresponded with Biblical stories. One of the most famous plays of this era was the “English Cycles”, which portrayed the birth and death of Jesus. Theatre during this era took a very large step backwards from the advances made from the Greek and Roman era, however, the majority of theatre development did not die, but they were not explored until much later during the Renaissance revival period.
The era that had the most influence on modern theatre was the Renaissance era. American theatre draws most of its influences from this era because it closely relates to the style, themes and structures that we are use to in our modern era. The Renaissance was a period of revival that took place across Europe as changes in technology, art, science and all aspects of life took place at the same time. There were many different theatre movements during this era; the two largest of these was the Spanish theatre movement and the English theatre movement. In Spain, theatre evolved during the “Golden Age” of around 1550 to 1700 when Spain was the most powerful country on the planet. During this era, theatre became divided into three areas, religious, comedic and musical.
The greatest development in theatre occurred in England during this period, English theatre is best known for the Elizabethan period, where theatre as an art form flourished. English theatre is known for two areas, theatre construction and its famous actors and writers. English theatre was the first to construct very large theatres solely for the use of plays and musicals. These “hubs” were where the most famous plays were performed, and the most famous of these was the Globe theatre where Shakespeare held his performances. The construction of these theatres was very influential to modern theatre because it resulted in the development of standalone arenas for performances. This was a much bigger step towards more stylized displays, better props and most importantly, permanent actors. Elizabethan era produced the most well known and famous writer, William Shakespeare. During Shakespeare’s career, he almost single handedly propelled theatre to the top of entertainment and national attention. His Globe theatre would attract royal donors and he was sponsored by the Queen. During this era, English theatre took theatre to new heights of success and as a result, many of today’s conventions are adopted from this era. Even today Shakespeare’s plays are reproduced in theatres around the country. The neo-classic era was known for using very formal decorum around each performance, where every part of the display had to be picture perfect.
Modern theatre is very hard to explain unless we can see it through the lenses of history. American theatre is very diverse, it contains many different styles of theatre that includes traditional theatre in the form of Shakespeare plays, but it also extends out as far as Cirque De Soleil and the modern Broadway musicals. All of these different forms of theatre have common similarities however that were inherited from the past. One of the major developments of modern theatre is the location of a central theatre “Mecca” in New York City. The development of Broadway, especially in the early 1900s made it one of the most prominent areas of theatre culture in the world. Broadway brought out a new culture to theatre because it created “theatre as art” to a new level; it also brought social distinction between classes.
The theme that is consistent in American theatre is Realism, a concept that was developed as early as the Roman era, but only became mainstream during the Renaissance and beyond. Realism is theatre that depicts real life, both its pitfalls and its brutality. This is best seen in a classic American play, “The Death of a Salesman”. Which showed how the American dream can sometimes be only a dream for the majority of the American middle class? Theatre has now diversified to many different thematic focuses however. Musicals, theatre, and classical theatre are very different each with their own “Mecca” and focus.
Another major development is in the educational system for actors and writers, within modern theatre it is no longer a guild system as in previous generations and eras, but now there are formal schools and colleges that teaches the art of acting and theatre. Actors and writers formed their own guilds that were able to leverage their talents to help increase theatre within the US in general. As technology increased, theatre is now more accessible than ever, stages are much easier to construct and skilled actors and writers can travel the world in order to stage their performances. Technology has also made it much easier to build props, so performances today are becoming more realistic with better props and better technology.
Theatre has a very strong place in our society because of its culture and history. However, even with the success of theatre it has changed because of the emergence of television and radio, which compete with theatre in terms of entertainment venues. As a result, theatre has become a more upper class or “sophisticated” enjoyment, which has led to the emphasis on musicals. In the new millennium, theatre will change even more, this can already be seen with the new types of musicals such as “Wicked” that are being performed on Broadway, as well as new theatre troupes like Cirque De Soleil which are revolutionizing how we see theatre and theatrical performances. In both cases, theatre is very much alive, and many of the elements of today’s theatre can be seen throughout history. For thousands of years, theatre has developed and become a very important part of our society. Therefore it only makes sense that it will continue to be more important as time goes on.
Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. August Wilhelm Schlegel. London: George Bell & Sons, 1904. pp. 200-12
Manual of Greek Literature from the Earliest Authentic Periods to the Close of the Byzantine Era. Charles Anthon. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1853. pp. 160-174.
The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. Ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906.
A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927.
A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 3-8.
Book Title: The Dance of Life. Contributors: Havelock Ellis – author. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin. Place of Publication: Boston. Publication Year: 1923. Page Number: iii.