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 day.
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 Muslim history.
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.