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The incredibly fascinating history of theatre & how it shaped cinema

Hollywood owes a great debt of gratitude to classical theatre as it is the oldest ancestor of cinema with incredibly rich history.

Performance theatre was one of the earliest forms of expressive art and it has shaped what modern cinema is today. It has such a fascinating history… let’s unpack.

NEWS: Hollywood celebrities are starting to regret their votes.

Theatre is one of the oldest and most enduring forms of entertainment in the world. Dating back to the time of the Ancient Greeks, it has brought joy and sorrow to generations of people. Yet today’s theatrics are very different from what came before.

In fact, theatre has changed dramatically over the thousands of years since its inception, often in strange and wonderful ways. We take a look through its long and fascinating history, from its earliest days to its most modern incarnations.

Ancient Greek origins

Ancient theater in a summer day in Acropolis Greece, Athnes
History of Theatre & Cinema: Ancient theater in a summer day in Acropolis Greece, Athnes

As one of the oldest art forms in existence, it’s amazing that theatre has lasted for so long. Captivating audiences since time immemorial, it has evoked laughter and tears from millions of people over the course of millennia.

It’s not the only form of popular entertainment to have endured. So have many of our most favoured entertainment pastimes, from board games like chess to tile games like mahjong. Alongside theatre, many have changed dramatically over time, with the latter providing a prime example. Still played the world over, mahjong is now most commonly enjoyed in its
virtual form, with sites like Vegas Slots Online providing the chance to play for free.

But, while mahjong began in China, theatre had its earliest origins in Ancient Greece, where it would have been quite different from its modern incarnation. Aside from the language used being incomprehensible to modern ears, you’d have found something else confusing about
the on-stage antics: all the performers were men.

Attired in masks, every role – including female ones – was filled by a male actor, and not allof them were playing characters as we know them. Some were also employed as the ‘chorus’ i.e. performers who took no part in the main story but instead personified the character’s conscience.

Medieval morality plays

For a long time after its creation, theatre followed this Grecian model; but that all changed when Medieval morality took over. As Christianity gained momentum in Europe, people began to view plays differently, seeing them as sinful and immoral.

To stop itself from being wiped out entirely, theatre had to adapt, and the tone of its storytelling changed dramatically, from brash and bawdy to serious and moralistic. Bible stories became common fare onstage, often coinciding with the various religious festivals and changing based on the season.  

While this tactic initially worked well, it faltered when the Protestant Reformation came along. With a number of high-profile religious figures seeking to ban these Biblical plays, playwrights had to try something else entirely.

Shakespearean drama

Replica of a human skull on vintage books
History of Theatre & Cinema: Replica of a human skull on vintage books

Enter William Shakespeare, who revolutionised Elizabethan theatre. Very much a man of his times, he was part of a wave of playwrights who began to create and write their own stories, with many of this master wordsmith’s plays still acted out in theatres today.

Around this time, theatres themselves began to change, thanks in part to the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I. A patron of the arts, Elizabeth saw theatre flourish under her reign, with many of the first permanent playhouses opening in London at this time.

These open-air structures were not dissimilar to many modern theatres, with semi-circular galleries and a pit below, although they were open to the elements rather than being enclosed. This meant that those nearest to the stage were likely to get rained on when the weather took a turn for the worse.

Machine plays

Sadly, theatre was once again put at risk under the reign of Oliver Cromwell, whose Puritans banned it for 18 long years. Upon the restoration of the monarchy, however, this ancient form of entertainment was revived once more.

Comedy was again in vogue, with bawdy, explicit parodies of society figures proving popular. These embodied a form of entertainment known as ‘Restoration comedy’, with their appeal paving the way for later ‘machine plays’.

The latter were one of the earliest examples of props and theatrical effects being put to use on-stage, with these extravagant productions featuring musical numbers, elaborate costumes, and the use of trapdoors, fireworks, and smoke-and-mirror type special effects.

The rise of realism

As the world progressed into the 19th century, theatre underwent another subtle paradigm shift. This time, the move was towards realism, with stories reflecting the social and moral issues of the time. Theatre sought to offer new perspectives to its audience, with Russian plays, in particular, depicting the brutal realities of life among the working class.

Theater in Kazan Russia
History of Theatre & Cinema: TheatreKazan Russia

The rest of Europe was slower to catch on, preferring the softer social comedies of writers like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. However, as it progressed into the 20th and 21st centuries, gritty realism and diversity of experience pervaded – a trend also reflected on our televisions screens and in other forms of media.  

‘Innovation’ became the word of the century, with theatre experimenting and exploring its boundaries in a way it never had before. This led to the incredible entertainment on offer today: progressive, intelligent, and capable of making us feel and think in a way we wouldn’t have without it.

All hail theatre. Long may its magnificent reign endure.

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