ClassicsOnline Home » TIMSON, D.: History of Theatre (The) (Unabridged)
This bold undertaking covers Western theatre from ancient Greece to the present day. It traces the development of dramatic art through the miracle plays, the great Shakespearean period, Molière and Racine in France, Goethe in Germany, through the nineteenth century and the main movements in the twentieth century. It is illustrated by numerous examples of differing styles, with some historical recordings as well and excerpts from nearly fifty plays—a fascinating journey. It is written by David Timson, the British actor and director who features extensively on Naxos AudioBooks in both roles.
The History of Theatre
‘He that denies then theatres should be,
He may as well deny a world to me.’
So wrote Thomas Heywood in 1612, shamelessly borrowing an
idea from his contemporary William Shakespeare. It is a thought that echoes
through this history, that the theatre reflects the world, and the world, the
theatre. Is art, imitating life, or vice versa?
The world would have rolled on if the phenomenon of theatre
had never existed, but the quality of human life would have undoubtedly been the
poorer. Theatre may not be a physical necessity, but as King Lear says, ‘allow
not nature more than nature needs, man’s life’s as cheap as beasts’.
At its best the theatre is an arena for ideas, stimulating
and controversial ideas at that, for it is in its nature to be anarchic and to
continually question accepted views. Thus, Ibsen and Chekhov raise in their
plays, social questions the 19th century would rather have ignored, and point
the way forward in the 20th century for playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht,
George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Miller. Food for thought is one thing, however,
but it is also the theatre’s job to entertain and add to the ‘gaiety of
nations’. Celebration of the human spirit is also important. The feeling of
satisfaction as evil is defeated, the joy when a love-match works out, or
amusement as a fool is exposed. This is why the long-time symbols for the
theatre, recognized the world over, are the masks of Comedy and Tragedy. They
balance each other and are inseparable, reminding us that you can’t have one
without the other. The serious and the ridiculous go ever hand in hand in our
Sophocles and Aristophanes, Racine and Molière, Ibsen and
Feydeau. These are the playwrights whose work endures from age to age, but the
story of the theatre is also the story of actors, “that despicable race”, whose
inspiration, invention and dedication to their ephemeral art, provide the
life-blood of this story. As acting styles continually changed with each
generation, moving inexorably towards a more naturalistic ‘real life’
presentation, so too theatre buildings evolved to match those styles. From the
giant arenas of the Greeks, the open platform of the Elizabethans, the intimate
Court-theatres of Molière, the picture-frame stages of the 19th century, to the
flexible small studio spaces of the 20th.
Any history is bound to be subjective, and there will be
omissions, and aspects of this history treated too briefly for some. Selection
too has meant that this ‘History’ is essentially a history of Western Theatre.
Both Western and Eastern theatre evolved from ritualistic dances linked to
religion, but whereas Western theatre sought an ever more naturalistic
presentation, the theatre of India, China and Japan retained a highly stylized
manner of performance. Their repertoire is unchanging and timeless. It is a
different tradition and requires a separate study.
I have tried to give at least a taste of all the major
developments in this long and diverse history, which spreads over 2,500 years.
I hope the taste will wet the appetite for listeners to go on their own
journeys of discovery. I have tried to stick to the highways, but the bye-ways
of theatre history are too tempting at times not to explore. My hope is that
this colorful and eventful history will contain something to catch every
listener’s imagination, and that:
‘we shall both make you sad, and tickle ye.’
(Thomas Middleton, 1613)
Notes by David Timson
GLOSSARY OF TECHNICAL TERMS NOT FULLY EXPLAINED IN THE TEXT
AMPHITHEATRE - From the Greek amphi, meaning around.
Literally a theatre that surrounds the action. Developed by the Romans
originally for gladiatorial fights, and later drama. The Colosseum is a
APRON-STAGE (or Forestage) - The part of the stage in front
of the proscenium arch, and before the curtain (if there is one). It projects
into the auditorium, allowing the actors to be closer to the audience.
BACKCLOTH - The drop-scene at the back of the stage. Usually
painted to represent a scene such as a garden or street, or else just blue to
depict the sky.
BOX-SET - Used in the 20th century to depict a naturalistic
room. Where a setting is made up of ‘flats’ linked together to give the
appearance of solid walls and ceiling.
BUSINESS - A term which describes any action on a stage,
comic or serious, which does not involve dialogue, e.g. ’He spends the next two
minutes silently tearing up all his manuscripts and throwing them under the
table...’ (The Seagull)
FLATS - A canvas fronted frame, traditionally placed in rows
on both sides of the stage, painted to complement the backcloth, e.g. in a
forest scene, the ‘flats’ would represent trees. Also used to construct a
GROUND-ROW - A low piece of scenery at ground level, painted
to depict a grassy bank or low wall. It helps in a conventional setting to give
a feeling of depth to the scene.
IMPROVISATION - Where a production is created without a
script. The actors rely on their skills of invention for the dialogue and
action. It provided the foundation for the Commedia dell’Arte troupes of the
MASQUE - Elaborately staged allegorical dramas, involving
music, dance and song, with spectacular sets and costumes. They were popular in
the courts of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, where courtiers and
monarchs themselves performed behind the anonymity of masks. The masque
contributed to the development of Opera.
PIT - Less expensive seating-area of the auditorium, usually
behind the stalls (the more expensive seats), on the ground floor. Originally
called the ‘pit’ after part of the Drury Lane theatre built on the site of a
PLOT - The story or narrative of a play.
PROSCENIUM ARCH - An often-elaborate permanent arch, which
divides the stage area from the auditorium, through which the audience views
the play. Most theatres built during the 19th century, placed great emphasis on
the proscenium arch being the equivalent of a ‘frame’ for their dramatic
PROPS - The everyday articles or properties used by the
actors to express character or move the plot along, e.g. spectacles, handbags
SCENARIO - A summing up of the main elements in a dramatic narrative.
A rough version of the plot. The basis for the Commedia dell’arte’s
STOCK PIECES - Pieces of scenery re-used for more than one
production, not individually designed, e.g. A Woodland scene. Also applies to
reliable plays repeated because of their guaranteed success.
TIRING-HOUSE - The Elizabethan equivalent of the dressing
TRAPS (or Trap-doors) - Holes cut in the stage with hinged
lids through which actors can descend or ascend as part of the action. Much
used in Pantomime, e.g. ‘Arrival of the Genie in Aladdin’.
UNITIES - The ‘unities’ refers to the classical concept
propounded by Aristotle that dramatic action should occur in one place and at
one time, i.e. the action should not be spread over many years and many
locations. It was a strong influence on European playwrights from 16th-18th
WINGS - The ‘flats’ that define the edge of the acting area,
screen off from the audiences view the sides of the stage where the actors
assemble to make their entrances. This off-stage area is also referred to as
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TIMSON, D.: History of Theatre (The) (Unabridged)