The theater is essentially one branch of the performing arts and
while any performance can be considered theater, performing arts focus
more or less exclusively on live entertainers producing a self contained
drama. A performance is said to be dramatic if it creates a
representational illusion and, using this very broad definition, the
theater can be said to have existed since the dawn of time and to have
been born out of the human love of storytelling. Over the centuries the
theater has taken on many forms using speech, gesture, music, dance and
much more effectively combining the other performing and visual arts
into one single artistic form.
Theater simply means "a place for seeing" and the first recorded
theatrical performance took place in Egypt in 2500 BC. This series of
sacred plays was based upon the myth of Isis and Osiris and began a long
association between the theater and religion which has endured to this
It was the ancient Greeks who started the process of formalising
theater as an art and they drew up strict definitions of both tragedy
and comedy, as well as of other theatrical forms including satyr. As
with the religious plays first seen in ancient Egypt, Greek plays also
made extensive use of characters drawn from mythology. It was the Greeks
too who came up with the idea of dramatic criticism, the concept of
acting as a career and specific theatrical architecture. In modern times
these ancient works have been interpreted and adapted in a thousand
different ways to meet the needs of our time. For example, in 1944
Anouilh used Antigone to make a statement concerning the Nazi occupation
of France and in 1948 Brecht compared Creon to Hitler and Thebes to the
defeated Germany. It is also worthy of note that the theater masks
commonly used in Greek performances were widely adopted in both
first-century and second-century Rome as a form of private and public
decoration and two of the forms (comedy and tragedy) came to represent
the theater itself. This symbol of the theater survives today.
Theater in the West continued its development under the Roman Empire
in medieval England and took on a number of alternate forms in France,
Italy, Spain and Russia from the 16th to the 18th century. The trend
over the years was to move away from the Greek and the Renaissance
poetic drama to a somewhat more realistic style, particularly after the
Industrial Revolution. At the same time a uniquely North American
theater appeared during the colonization of the new world.
Theater in the East can trace its history back to 1000 BC and the
Sanskrit dramas of ancient India. theater in China also dates back to
about the same time and Japanese forms of Kabuki, Kyogen and Noh date
back as far as the 17th century AD.
In the medieval Islamic world puppet theater (which included hand
puppets, shadow plays and marionette productions) was especially popular
as were live passion plays in which actors re-enacted scenes drawn from
Drama is the aspect of the theater in which speech (whether from
written text (plays) or improvised) is paramount. While we talk about
classical forms of Greek and Roman drama there is also classic English
drama (such as the works of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe)
and classic French drama (including the works of Moliere) which are
still performed today.
There has always been a close relationship between music and the
theater and musical theater combines music and songs with dance routines
and spoken dialogue. Modern musical theater grew out of variety,
vaudeville and the music hall of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Musical theater also includes spectacle and contemporary Broadway
musicals frequently involve lavish costumes and grand sets which are
provided by million dollar budgets.
Comedies these days are simply theater productions which use humour
as the vehicle to tell a story. This would encompass everything from a
modern farce like Boeing Boeing to a classical play like As You Like It.
When theater is used in a deliberately humorous way to express a bleak,
controversial or taboo subject this is referred to as black comedy.