History of the Theatre

Going to the theatre has been a popular human pastime for thousands of years. It has appeared in various forms since the time history has been recorded and expressed in a variety of different ways. In this review, we will take a look at some of the most popular forms from three key geographical areas - European, African and Asian. While we are unable to cover all form of theatre this article will lay the foundation for an understanding of the theatres' evolution through history.

European Theatre


European theatre began in ancient Greece, in Athens in particular (long before cars, Ferraris, traffic congestion, car accidents, car insurance for impounded cars became common!) and was the foundation for all theatre to follow in that part of the world. The word theatre actually comes from a Greek word which means a place where a play is staged. There were two key forms of theatre that the Greeks enjoyed creating and watching, these were comedy and tragedy. Comedy was used to express things like satirical views on society, poking fun at politicians, education, and literature. Tragedy took on a more serious note and was used to explore the way the world worked, human nature, and what it meant to be human.


Before the middle ages, the ancient Romans had taken on Greek theatre and used it to expand their own ideas about humans and humanity. After the Roman Empire fell, during the Early Middle Ages, the church would often stage theatrical versions of biblical events throughout the year and the theatre in Europe at this time was dominated by religious themes. As the Middle Ages progressed religious and liturgical productions continued to flourish but were also performed alongside more secular plays that often dealt with supernatural, or moral themes. There was a backlash from authorities in the middle of the 16th century which saw several countries ban religious plays altogether. This led to a revival of Greek and Roman theatre during the Renaissance as Europe looked back to the classical world for inspiration.


The 16th century also saw the establishment of bands of professional actors putting on increasingly professional shows. In London at this time, the city authorities were generally against plays but fortunately, the Queen did not share this view. Theatres sprang up outside the City's jurisdiction to serve the growing popularity of plays in London and one of these was the Globe, made famous by the titan of theatre - William Shakespeare, who lived from 1564-1616. Shakespeare and his contemporaries took the theatre to new heights in their exploration of human nature, history, and dramatic production.


Shakespeare's plays have continued to be performed in the present day, as well as a whole host of other varieties. The theatre continues to be popular and Shakespeare plays alongside big budget modern productions that travel the world and smaller independent shows that deal with virtually every theme imaginable.

African Theatre

Ancient Egyptian

Some of the oldest records of theatrical style events occurred around 2000 BC in Ancient Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians put on what is called passion plays that told the story of the divinity Osiris at various festivals throughout the year. Some say that the Osiris shares many things in common with the biblical telling of Jesus.

Ghanaian and Yoruban

Ghanaian theatre first appeared as a commentary on the European colonization of Africa. One of the first plays of this form was The Blinkards which was a satirical look at Africans who had taken on European culture. This sharp satire targeted Europeans, rich African farmers, and Africans who were imitating Europeans and was one of the main catalysts for Ghanaian theatre. The origins of Yoruban theatre can be found in a traditional ceremony where the ancestors of the dead come back to the world to visit the living. This form of theatre features gods, and death, ancestors, and their interactions.


The first African American theatre is the African Grove Theatre in New York which was established in 1821. The origins of African American theatre predate its influence by the environment of the USA and its roots can be found in African culture. African American theatre began being performed in parks and cabins and included music, dance, songs, and the telling of traditional stories.

Asian Theatre


Indian theatre emerged around the first and second century BC and its earliest form was Sanskrit Theatre. It was popular for over a thousand years until it was forbidden by Islamic conquerors in the 10th and 11th century, then emerged again after the 15th century. The first known Sanskrit play, by Sudraka, involved comedy, court drama, romance and sex and was made into a movie in 1984. In the 17th century, an elaborate form or theatre called Kathakali emerged which involved elaborately made up and dressed actors, music, and movement, which originated in Kerala. A more modern form of Indian theatre was expressed through the playwright Tagore, who dealt with Indian identity, nationalism, greed, and spiritualism.


Theatrical entertainment has been performed since at least 1500 BC in China. The Shang Dynasty arranged shows of music, acrobatics, and clown performances. During the Han and Tang dynasties, a very unique form of theatre became popular - shadow puppets. Puppet shows were usually used to depict fantasy and adventure. Originally it was almost never used for political purposes up until the 11th century when the government stepped in to use it more extensively. Theatre, in general, flourished during The Tang dynasty which was referred to as 'The Age of 1000 Entertainments' and many forms were popular from Shadow Puppetry, musical drama, and many acting schools popped up throughout the country. During the Song dynasty plays that involved acrobatics were popular and this was developed further during the Yuan dynasty and has continued up until today with the Beijing Opera.


One of the first popular forms of Theatre in Japan is Noh, which is still big today. Noh emerged during the 14th century and consisted of a mixture of vocals and pantomime, and was originally mainly short comedy. Noh and a style called Bunraku (puppetry) evolved into one of Japan's most famous forms of theatre - Kabuki. Kabuki originated in the 16th century and at first, all actors were girls, then boys, then finally just men. Kabuki actors were trained to perform dance, song, and pantomime. Kabuki remains a popular form of theatre in Japan.

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The theatre has a long, varied, and diverse history, and continues to be one of the world's most popular pastimes. This is due to its immediacy and its ability to adapt and evolve to trends, ways of thinking, and the desires of its audiences for entertainment, enlightenment, and novelty.