It is unlikely that any human society (at any rate until the invention of puritanism) has denied itself the excitement and pleasure of dancing. Like cave painting, the first purpose of dance is probably ritual – appeasing a nature spirit or accompanying a rite of passage. But losing oneself in rhythmic movement with other people is an easy form of intoxication. Pleasure can never have been far away.
Rhythm, indispensable in dancing, is also a basic element of music. It is natural to beat out the rhythm of the dance with sticks. It is natural to accompany the movement of the dance with rhythmic chanting. Dance and music begin as partners in the service of ritual.
Drama of a kind is present in the rituals of primitive tribes. While musical instruments provide a compulsive rhythm, and members of the tribe join in a communal dance, there is often also a dramatic figure who is the centre of attention. In mask and costume, strikingly fierce or mysterious, an unseen actor impersonates a spirit which either threatens or secures the fortunes of the tribe.
While such an encounter is undoubtedly dramatic, it does not involve theatre in the conventional sense. Theatre requires the addition of a sung or spoken text – a development which first occurs, like so many others, in ancient Greece.
Greek theatre: from the 6th century BC
The origins of Greek theatre lie in the revels of the followers of Dionysus, a god of fertility and wine. In keeping with the god’s special interests, his cult ceremonies are exciting occasions. His female devotees, in particular, dance themselves into a state of frenzy. Carrying long phallic symbols, known as thyrsoi, they tear to pieces and devour the raw flesh of sacrificial animals.
But the Dionysians also develop a more structured form of drama. They dance and sing, in choral form, the stories of Greek myth.
In the 6th century BC a priest of Dionysus, by the name of Thespis, introduces a new element which can validly be seen as the birth of theatre. He engages in a dialogue with the chorus. He becomes, in effect, the first actor. Actors in the west, ever since, have been proud to call themselves Thespians.
According to a Greek chronicle of the 3rd century BC, Thespis is also the first winner of a theatrical award. He takes the prize in the first competition for tragedy, held in Athens in 534 BC.
Theatrical contests become a regular feature of the annual festival in honour of Dionysus, held over four days each spring and known as the City Dionysia. Four authors are chosen to compete. Each must write three tragedies and one satyr play (a lascivious farce, featuring the sexually rampant satyrs, half-man and half-animal, who form the retinue of Dionysus).
The performance of the plays by each author takes a full day, in front of a large number of citizens in holiday mood, seated on the slope of an Athenian hillside. The main feature of the stage is a circular space on which the chorus dance and sing. Behind it a temporary wooden structure makes possible a suggestion of scenery. At the end of the festival a winner is chosen.
The Greek tragedians: 5th century BC
Only a small number of tragedies survive as full texts from the annual competitions in Athens, but they include work by three dramatists of genius. The earliest is the heavyweight of the trio, Aeschylus.
Aeschylus adds a second actor, increasing the potential for drama. He first wins the prize for tragedy in 484 BC. He is known to have written about eighty plays, of which only seven survive. One of his innovations is to write the day’s three tragedies on a single theme, as a trilogy. By good fortune three of his seven plays are one such trilogy, which remains one of the theatre’s great masterpieces – the Oresteia, celebrating the achievement of Athens in replacing the chaos of earlier times with the rule of law.
Sophocles gains his first victory in 468 BC, defeating Aeschylus. He is credited with adding a third actor, further extending the dramatic possibilities of a scene. Whereas Aeschylus tends to deal with great public themes, the tragic dilemmas in Sophocles are worked out at a more personal level. Plots become more complex, characterization more subtle, and the personal interaction between characters more central to the drama.
Although Sophocles in a very long life writes more plays than Aeschylus (perhaps about 120), again only seven survive intact. Of these Oedipus the King is generally considered to be his masterpiece.
The youngest of the three great Greek tragedians is Euripides. More of his plays survive (19 as opposed to 7 for each of the others), but he has fewer victories than his rivals in the City Dionysia – in which he first competes in 454 BC.
Euripides introduces a more unconventional view of Greek myth, seeing it from new angles or viewing mythological characters in terms of their human frailties. His vision is extremely influential in later schools of tragic drama. Racine, for example, derives Andromaque and Phèdre from the Andromache and Hippolytus of Euripides.
The beginning of Greek comedy: 5th century BC
From 486 BC there is an annual competitition for comedies at Athens – held as part of the Lenaea, a three-day festival in January. Only one comic author’s work has survived from the 5th century. Like the first three tragedians, he launches the genre with great brilliance. He is Aristophanes, a frequent winner of the first prize in the Lenaea (on the first occasion, in 425 BC, with the Acharnians).
Eleven of his plays survive, out of a total of perhaps forty spanning approximately the period 425-390 BC. They rely mainly on a device which becomes central to the tradition of comedy. They satirize contemporary foibles by placing them in an unexpected context, whether by means of a fantastic plot or through the antics of ridiculous characters.
A good example is The Frogs, a literary satire at the expense of Euripides. After the death of the great man, Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back his favourite tragedian. A competition held down there enables Aristophanes to parody the style of Euripides. As a result Dionysus comes back to earth with Aeschylus instead.
In The Wasps the Athenian love of litigation is ridiculed in the form of an old man who sets up a law court in his home, to try his dog for stealing cheese. In Lysistrata the horrors of war are discussed in a circumstance of extreme social crisis; the women of Greece refuse to make love until their men agree to make peace.
The Greek theatre: 4th century BC
An exclusively Greek contribution to architectural history is the raked auditorium for watching theatrical performances (appropriately, since the Greeks are also the inventors of theatre as a literary form).
The masterpieces of Greek drama date from the 5th century BC. At that time, in Athens, the audience sit on the bare hillside to watch performances on a temporary wooden stage. In the 4th century a stone auditorium is built on the site, and there is still a theatre there today – the theatre of Dionysus. However this is a Roman reconstruction from the time of Nero. By then the shape of the stage is a semi-circle.
In the first Greek theatres the stage is a full circle, in keeping with the circular dance – the choros – from which the theatrical performance has evolved. This stage is called the orchestra (orchester, a dancer), because it is the place where the chorus sing and dance.
Epidaurus, built in about 340 BC, provides the best example of a classical Greek theatre. In the centre of the orchestra is the stone base on which an altar stood, reflecting the religious aspect of theatre in Greece. The rising tiers of seats, separated by aisles, provide the pattern for the closest part of the auditorium to the stage in nearly all subsequent theatres – where these seats are still sometimes called the orchestra stalls.
Roman comedy: 3rd – 2nd century BC
In most cultural matters Rome is greatly influenced by Greece, and this is particularly true of theatre. Two Roman writers of comedy, Plautus and Terence, achieve lasting fame in the decades before and after 200 BC – Plautus for a robust form of entertainment close to farce, Terence for a more subtle comedy of manners. But neither writer invents a single plot. All are borrowed from Greek drama, and every play of Terence’s is set in Athens.
The misfortune of Plautus and Terence is that their audience is very much less attentive than in Athens. And the reason is that Roman plays are presented as part of a broader event, the Roman games.
The games, held every September, are originally a harvest festival. Taking place between the Palatine and Aventine hills in Rome, in an area known as the Circus Maximus, the main events are sporting contests – chariot races or boxing matches. Clowns soon become one of the side shows, to be joined from 240 BC by plays – enjoying much the same status. A play of Terence’s, in 165, fails to attract much attention because it is going on at the same time as a rope dancer and a boxing match.
Since 264 BC gladiatorial contests have also been part of Rome’s entertainments. In popular terms make-believe drama proves no match for the excitement of real death. The Roman circus is more famous than Roman theatre (see the Roman circus and gladiators).
Liturgical drama: 10th century AD
During the centuries of upheaval in Europe, after the collapse of the Roman empire, theatre plays no part in life. But with the approach of the first millennium, in the late 10th century, Christian churches introduce dramatic effects in the Easter liturgy to enliven the theme of resurrection.
The gospels describe Mary Magdalene and two other women visiting the tomb of Jesus and finding it empty. In about 970 the bishop of Winchester, eager to emphasize this important moment, introduces a custom which is already in use (he says) in certain French monasteries.
During the Easter morning service in Winchester three monks enact the arrival at the tomb of the three women, while another (as the angel in the story) sits beside the high altar (the holy sepulchre). The angel, intoning in Latin, asks the women whom they are seeking? Jesus of Nazareth, they chant in reply. He says Jesus is not here, he has risen, go and tell the people. The three turn to the choir with a joyous Alleluia! resurrexit Dominus (‘the Lord is risen’), and the choir launches into the Te Deum.
From these small beginnings there develops the great tradition of medieval Christian drama. More and more scenes are enacted during church services, some quite boisterous. Herod, in particular, tends to make a lot of noise.
Mystery plays: 12th – 16th century AD
In about 1170, priests somewhere in France decide to move a performance to a platform outside their church and to give it in the language of the people. Their French play, the Mystère d’Adam (‘Mystery of Adam’), introduces some very popular characters in medieval imagination – the wicked devils, who can be vividly enacted in the street but not inside the church. The play ends with devils arriving to tie Adam and Eve up in chains, before dragging them off with a great clatter of pots and kettles. They and their victims vanish into a hole from which smoke belches forth.
The flaming mouth of Hell is set to become a standard and increasingly spectacular element in the mystery plays.
Over the centuries the narrative of such plays extends from Adam and Eve to encompass the entire Bible story, from the Creation to the Last Judgement. The lives of saints are also much performed, in what are known as miracle plays. The torments suffered by saints in their martyrdom give these stories a special appeal for medieval audiences.
St Apollonia is a popular subject (tortured by having all her teeth pulled out). In a Danish 16th-century play about St Dorothy, the saint has already been whipped, partially burnt at the stake and stretched with tongs before the executioner lists the Real torments which he has in store for her.
Gradually the plays become longer and the productions more elaborate. In some places the performance lasts for an hour a day spread over a month, in others the entire biblical cycle is enacted in a dusk-to-dawn pageant lasting three days.
In most of Europe the plays are done on fixed open-air platforms, usually along one side of a square, with little ‘houses’ or mini-stages set up for different scenes. A famous illustration of one such stage survives from Valenciennes in 1547. But in some places an entirely different style of performance evolves, with the players forming a long slow procession.