Ram Narayan Meena

Academic Officer (Sanskrit)

National Institute of Open Schooling,

(Ministry of Human Resource and Development)

A-24, 25, Sector-62, NOIDA, U.P.-201309


 Abstract: Western Theater is not only manifestation of human emotions but it was always been used a tool of liberation and emancipation. Since its origin to contemporary time, it addressed its contemporary issues and tried to present them in realistic ways.  From its emergence it was linked with rituals and ceremonies, later on it served in holistic scenario of the society.

Keywords: Theater, myths, rituals, liberation, emancipation, classical, religious Drama, morality, authority, Tragedy, comedy, Romance etc.  

The investigations regarding the origins of theater is a very old one in western tradition of theater. It begins with different kinds of myths. The western tradition believes in the myth that when the first human being saw another human being in Eden, the theater came into being. The logic behind this myth is that when a person communicates to the other, to understand the other person and to be understood by them, with the aid of body movements or any kind of gestures, the art of theatrical performance comes into existence. Thus, we see that the theatre in western tradition emerged from myth, religious and social rituals and related ceremonies. Rituals are deeply connected to myths because at the root of all the rituals there is a myth that converts itself and is expressed through the theatre. Myths also enter into tradition and customs of any culture in all ages and again it expresses itself through rituals and ceremonies and also through theatre.

In western literary history, The Pyramid texts[i] are the earliest example of rituals and ceremonies converting into theatrical forms[ii]. Theatre of the western world can be divided as Classical, Modern and Postmodern Theatre as marking some differences among them during different Periods. In classical theatre, we can identify moralistic plot. The classical theatre used established historical forms to convey meaning while the modern theatre used acting methods.

We can understand the development of classical theatre by studying its different phases of emergence. Before the rising of the Greek civilization, theatre was the mean to communicate with the people to fulfil the objectives of kings and priests of that time. Greeks shifted the theatre in service of the society, which was the main objective of it. It is considered that the Greek theatre has originated from the figure ‘Thespis’ who is a citizen of the ancient Greek city of Thespian. In those times, ‘Thespis’ was the exponent of the new style called tragedy. In This new style, one performer performed the words of individual characters in the different stories. In this process different masks have been used.

After Thespis, Aeschylus[iii] introduced the concept of second and third actor in his dramas to expand the possibility of plot and histrionics, which was later developed by Sophocles[iv]. The role of chorus is very important in Greek drama but by the development of characters in Sophocles’s dramas, it was decreased. Euripides[v] adopted naturalistic approach in which we can see foreshadow of later drama form. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were tragedy writer while Aristophanes[vi] and Menander[vii] were comedy play writers.

After the decline of Greek prosperity, Romans saved the theatre in Rome. The Alexander (Macedonian General) preserved and kept the theatre and Greek plays alive. Roman theatre adopted many theatrical elements from Greek theatre in a widespread way. Roman theatre was divided in two forms- first was ‘Fabula Palliata’ and second was ‘Fabula Togata’. What constituted Fabula Palliata form of Roman theatre were some Greek theatre plays that were translated into the Latin language and some others which were written based on the concepts of Greek theatre plays. The term Fabula Togata was employed to include Roman native origin. Plautus[viii] was the famous playwright who wrote this type of drama.

In medieval period, at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire and before the Renaissance[ix] (About 1000 A.D. to 1400 A.D.) is called “Dark age” in European history. In this period, the theatre slowly declined. The church outlawed the theatre describing it as sinful to perpetuate myths. In spite of this, the church had supported the theatre through the entire medieval time.

“This resulted from the Church’s need to establish itself in the community…The Church ultimately linked its own religious holidays with these seasonal festivals and began to use dramatic form to illustrate the stories underlying these holidays so as to reinforce their religious connotation and to better communicate the stories to an illiterate congregation.”[x]

Plays were based on miracle, passion and morality and were staged in open-air theatres near by the Church, which were enjoyed and admired by the society. The miracle play staged largely in France as well as the mystery play in England. The morality play is also the type of a religious drama which reached its peak in 15th centaury AD. Morality plays were religious allegories, the most famous being everyman. Another type of popular drama in medieval times was the interlude primarily known for entertainment. Beside the Church, many theatre troupes, itinerant street players, jugglers, acrobats, animal trainers and theatre bands also helped carry forward and preserve the certain aspects of theatre like fictional characters or stock characters. By the Protestant Reformation Movements, the Catholic Counter-Reformation Movements, stability of government, hegemony of state and the idea of secularization affected the theatre in different manner, which helped it to re-emerge as secular theatre.


Influence of renaissance on theatre changed the pattern and echo of the theatre all over the Europe. Italy was the first country in entire Europe where both imitation and translation of the classical theatre and dramatic works occurred. The works of Terence, Plautus, Seneca Ariosto and Machiavelli (La Mandragola, 1524 A.D.) were largely explored and applied. The Giovanni Battista Guarini (1537A.D.–1612 A.D.) and Torquato Tasso were made very popular in the pastoral drama in Italy.

Intermezzo was the most popular Italian form of theatre in renaissance period. Role of the music and lively entertainment in theatre were increasing and this was the main reason that the native interest for the music was considered as the important factor behind the emergence of the opera form in 16th century A.D.

 “Reformation and recovery of classical models of art and literature were the most important influences that led to more liberal understanding of the nature of truth and its discussion in theatre”[xi].

Under the influence of renaissance, religious drama was suppressed because it was considered that main reason of civil unrest is performance of religious drama. As an effect of this, the supreme authority of Church and its influence on theatre was curtailed. The result of this was suppression of religious drama, as the religious controversy caused by the performance of religious dramas contributed to civil unrest. As the central authority of Church was fragmented, power of the local/regional bodies increased. Latin was over-powered by vernacular that led to more secular and regional topics and nature of theatre.

In France, Estienne jodelle’s work Cleopatre captive (1553 A.D) started classical imitation. Before it, the French drama was based on Roman models as well as Italian imitations therefore it suffered from the same rigidity. Alexander Hardy who is called first professional playwright of France initiated the romantic reaction to classical dullness which continued till the Cardinal Richelieu supported classic forms of theatre in 17th century A.D. In Spain, Lope de Rueda  started the path future Spanish drama as romantic, lyrical and the mixed tragicomic form. Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca were also the famous renaissance playwrights of Spain.  Lope de Vega wrote the plays of many types. He emphasized on plot, character and romanticism. The influence of renaissance was less on theatre in England than the Italy. In England, theatre was mostly influenced by protestant reformation and the movement towards nationalism. Drama was free from classical rigidities during 16th century in England. William Shakespeare (1564 A.D.-1616 A.D.) was the great dramatist of the renaissance period as his tragedies, comedies and chronicle plays are landmark in the history of theatre. Before Shakespeare, we can see a number of notable playwrights who came in limelight under ‘Elizabethan theatre’ and ‘Jacobean theatre’.  John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson were famous among them. In 1642 A.D., England parliament banned the theatre and it remained so till 1660 A.D. Theatre during that period had gone out of focus. However, French and Italian traditions of theatre influenced the theatre in England during the period. After 18th Century to continue onwards, Theatre in all major traditions continue changing in different manner under the effect of ‘commercialization of all kinds of art forms’, ‘technological development’, ‘generalization of subject matter’, ‘expansion of the world of ideas and  thinking process’, ‘participation of ordinary people’ which makes it more accessible to masses, ‘handover of the theatre from the hands of the Church and monarchs to newly emerged classes like the merchants, the industrialists, the bourgeoisie and then the masses and ordinary people.


If we see in reference to postmodern theatre, the classical theatre is characterised by its value addition in its dramatic plot and Aristotle’s laws of dramatic unities is very closely associated to it. When classical theatre had transformed in modern theatre we see that with the movement of ‘man’/character at the forefront of dramaturgy, Hegelian philosophy renewed into modern drama.

In a strong reaction to the overwhelming influence of absurdist and nihilistic approaches   a new kind of theatre emerged as Postmodern theatre in the Western world in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This new theatrical style challenged, attacked and deconstructed a number of the core ideas often presented in Modernist theatrical productions considering the Postmodern notion of “truth” as ultimately unverifiable. An audience was to judge the truth in respect of drama being presented. The main techniques being used in post modern theatre can be summed up as follows-

• Radical experimentations in language and thought;

• The pastiche of different textual and historical sources;

• The inclusion and even outright celebration of sources and tropes taken from popular culture;

• The use non-linear storytelling conventions;

• The abandonment of any attempt to replicate reality;

• The flagrant combination of wild humor with terrible tragedy;

• The self-conscious acknowledgement of a play’s fictionalise and;

• The privileging of theatrical improvisation over the strict adherence to a script.

Postmodern Western theatre responds to the multi-cultural, ironic, cynical, and chaotic social, political, philosophical and artistic atmosphere of the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century .It does not consider world as an absurd destructive place . Post modern tendency views meaning and truth relatively. The playwrights and directors such as Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, Sam Shepard and Eric Bogosian are considered among the most popular and prominent practitioners of Postmodern Western theatre.

As an abstract, the western theatre has such a long rich tradition it underwent through many changes time to time. the beautiful art of entertainment known as theatre has religious origin but later on so much acclaimed by the sublime hearts of spectators that it became part of public life .True nature , human folly , etiquettes , ways of living , copying pseudo manners of  restoration era theatrical art produced ‘magna-carta’ of human behaviour  . With advancement of technology and internet arts forms are being reshaped, transformed taking new shapes. The more updated version of theatrical art in form of cinema is playing crucial role to reflect contemporary socio political life of people. By going through the article an erudite serious reader will surely develop a deep understanding to the theatrical concepts and its evolvement.


[i] The time period of the Pyramid texts considered near about 2800B.C to 2400 B.C.

[ii] http://www.cwu.edu/~robinsos/ppages/resources/Theatre_History/Theahis_1.html  accessed on 25.09.2012.

[iii] Tragic trilogy text –Oresteia / 525-456 B.C.

[iv] Text -Oedipus Rex / 496-406 B.C.

[v] The time period of Euripides is considered near about 480 B.C.-406 B.C.

[vi] The time period of Aristophanes is considered near about 448-380 B.C.

[vii] The time period of Menander is considered near 342-292 B.C.

[viii] The time period of Plautus is considered near 250 B.C.-184 B.C.

[ix] Renaissance is a French word, which means ‘rebirth’. Renaissance was a Socio-cultural movement (between near about the 14th century A.D. to the 17th century A.D.) started from Italy when Greek texts and classical scholars moved to Italy after fall of Constantinople city in 1453 A.D., which later covered entire Europe.

[x] http://www.tctwebstage.com/ancient.htm; accessed on 05.10.2012.

[xi] http://web.viu.ca/gardinere/thea112/Lectures/renaissance_theatre_europe.htm; accessed on 08.10.2012