Performance art is as old as the world itself. The common belief is that theatre, as we know it today in the Western World, evolved from the ritual, and more specifically, the Greek rituals at the Dionysus festivals. Dionysus was the god of wine and fertility. It started with the Dithyramb, a song chanted by a chorus of up to 50 men, in honour of Dionysus.
It is believed that Thespis (6BC), a singer in the dithyramb, was the first person to step forward as an actor. He used masks to portray different characters. Eventually the characters grew from one to three. During Ancient Greek Times only men were allowed to act. They portrayed all the different characters by swapping masks and costumes. The Greek Tragedy was the first play to be performed.
Acting was stylised and spectacular with dance and movement. Specific movements and gestures were used to depict emotions like crying and praying.
Roman and Greek Theatre bloomed until the fall of the Roman Empire around 500- 600AC. Political instability, barbaric invasions and diseases terrorised the world. Theatre declined to the odd wandering performer, doing juggling tricks and mime. Formal theatre didn’t exist anymore.
The Roman Catholic Church gained more and more ground during these times and was opposed to the pagan element in theatre and performance.
It is ironic that the church, at the end, was responsible for the Revival of Theatre.
During Medieval Times people were mostly illiterate. All church services were conducted in Latin and not in the vernacular. In an attempt to make church services more accessible to the common man, the church introduced Mystery and Morality plays into their service. Certain Bible stories were performed like the birth of Jesus or the Crucifixion.
As the stories became less and less biblical, plays were moved outside the church to fixed stages and Pageant Wagons.
In the early Renaissance period, the Commedia Dell’ Arte became a popular art form. It was a very physical form of theatre with a lot of clowning and comic movements from the characters. Like in Eastern Theatre, actors performed the same character for many years.
Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre must certainly be the best known theatre from the Renaissance period. Spectacle was of utmost importance as theatre was open to all classes. Shakespeare’s eloquent language was not understood by everybody, so a lot of action and spectacle was necessary to entertain everybody. It was still only men that were allowed to act. The well-known motion picture Shakespeare in Love explores this issue very well.
With the Industrial Revolution and the emphasis on science during the 1900s, the theatre underwent a massive change. Stanislavsky, the Russian director, started to place emphasis on the emotions of the characters. He believed that the actor should experience the emotion of the character on stage and explore the idea of “sense memory”.
Dramas changed from stories about heroes and Noble figures to stories about everyday people and their tragedies. Acting became more realistic and believable. Spectacle made space for real emotion on stage.
World War One and Two brought another turn about in Theatre. Science failed the world. What should have saved the world is now killing people. Brecht, the revolutionary playwright, together with Erwin Piscator, a Marxist, began a movement against realism, called Epic Theatre. Here it was required of the actor to distance himself from the character. Instead of asking ” Who am I’? as in the times of Realism, the actor should ask “What am I?” The person became less important than what he represented in society. A character would be referred to as the soldier, instead of Simon, as in Caucasian Chalk Circle.
After World War Two, the world was in turmoil and people started questioning their existence. Absurd Theatre made its entrance into the world. The best known play of these times must be Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Two characters waiting at the roadside for Godot, who never shows up. Acting techniques changed. The dialogue was dark and without hope, where characters would talk senseless lines with little emotion just to contrast this with clowning actions.
Modern theatre is believed to have started with Epic Theatre and today we have a wonderful eclectic acting style. Classical plays are done either true to the time period or in a modern version. Many of Shakespeare’s plays have been adopted very successfully into a modern setting making them more accessible to modern man.