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Ancient Greece, 5th century B.C | Mediaeval mystery plays | Elizabethan England |
Classical Japanese drama; Noh, Kabuki | Spanish Golden Age |
17th-century France | Romantic theatre (Germany, France, England) |
Rise of the director | Theatre since World War II |
The theatre that flourished in Athens in the fifth century B.C. is considered to be the foundation for all Western drama. The citizens of ancient Greece began to rely less on gods and religious customs and more on themselves when it came to making crucial decisions. Also at this time, Western philosophy began as a way of organizing thought, of discussing ideas in a reasonable fashion, and of instituting a form of government based on public participation and discussion: in a word, democracy. But in rejecting the laws and traditions founded on the gods and mythical heroes, were they not taking a terrible risk? Theatre arose as a response to this concern. Athenian authorities were to find this form of communication so powerful that they built open-air theatres that would accommodate thousands of people; it even became compulsory for citizens to attend performances, which were held as part of religious festivals. The theatre was based on the idea of a chorus: a commentator on the action, a sort of ideal spectator who echoed the opinions of the audience. In this same century the genre of tragedy was born, a representation of the stressful nature of the human condition and the nobility of the human spirit in the face of such stress; Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were the three great tragedians of the era. Comedy was also a popular genre, which criticized and ridiculed well-known public figures. All of the extant comedies of the fifth century are by a single author: Aristophanes.
In the Middle Ages, life and thought were dominated by faith—and not, like today, by knowledge—which united society and gave the world its meaning. With the exception of the art of the troubadours (travelling singers and poets), mediaeval theatre was created for religious occasions by members of the community: craftsmen, priests, peasants, scholars. It was performed in temporary installations, often in front of a church or in the town square. The most spectacular form of mediaeval theatre was the mystery play, which was widely performed in France, Italy and Britain from the 14th to 16th centuries. At their height, they were highly elaborate productions, often requiring years of preparation and performed before thousands of pilgrims from all over Europe. Spread over several days, or even weeks, they recounted the history of the world: from Adam and Eve to the Last Judgement, including the life of Christ and the patron saints of the site in question. Mechanical devices, trapdoors, and other artifices were employed to portray flying angels, fire-spouting monsters, miraculous transformations and graphic martyrdoms in a mixture of the sacred and profane, sermons and spectacular effects. The mystery play declined and eventually disappeared with the advent of Protestantism and the religious upheavals of the Renaissance.
If Japan has preserved its traditional theatre, it is partly because the country remained isolationist until the second half of the 20th century. Not only have the texts been preserved, but all also the exact manner of interpreting them (intonations, gestures, movements, costumes, sets and music). The oldest of Japanese dramatic forms, Noh, dates from the middle of the 14th century. It is perhaps the most non-realistic theatrical style in the world. The dramatic roles are danced rather than acted, and a chorus chants the text to the accompaniment of a flute and two drums. Grounded in Buddhist thought, noh dramas frequently depict the salvation of the soul: ghosts or tormented spirits encounter monks or travellers and explain why they are haunting a particular place. The early 17th century saw the birth of the kabuki, a much more spectacular form with a wide range of subjects: from the historical exploits of warriors and the codes of loyalty and morality, to domestic dramas telling the stories of the middle and lower classes in sentimental and melodramatic fashion. Around the same time bunraku began to flourish: a highly refined puppet theatre in which the texts are delivered by a singer-narrator seated at the side of the stage. Each of the dolls is manipulated by a master operator and two assistants, all of whom remain visible and dressed in black. The greatest kabuki and bunraku dramatist was Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724).
Under Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, England became a naval, financial and political power. Its citizens began to discover that the English language, until then considered largely utilitarian (literature was most often written in French, Italian or Latin), contained immense poetic potential. The world was changing and people wanted to hear about new ideas, romantic adventures, bloody tales of revenge, the history of its monarchs. Theatre, as a result, reached unprecedented heights of popularity. It was typically presented in round or octagonal buildings with thatched roofs covering the structure surrounding an open courtyard. It could accommodate over 2,000 people, who would surround the stage on three sides. The rhythm of the action was often lighting-quick and the stage stripped to the bare essentials: a throne was enough to suggest a royal court; replaced by two tables and four chairs, it became a tavern. The greatest dramatist of the period, of course, was Shakespeare, although at the time he was equalled or surpassed in popularity by the shadowy Christopher Marlowe (Tamburlaine, 1587; Doctor Faustus, c. 1592) and the classical satirist Ben Jonson (Volpone, 1606; The Alchemist, 1610).
For the hundred years roughly between 1580 and 1680, Spain dominated Europe with its riches (gold and silver pillaged from the New World), despite gradually yielding its power to England and then France. This period, called the “Siglo de Oro” (Golden Age), was characterized by exceptional creativity: from the great paintings of Velázquez to Cervantes’ satirical novel Don Quixote (1605, 1615). The theatre also flourished: the upper classes commissioned private performances at court and at home, while the public most often assembled in corrales, where improvised stages were set up at one end of the square formed by the walls of adjoining houses, which could accommodate up to 2,000 people. The most common dramatic form was the comedia, a type of tragi-comedy in verse with stock characters and wide thematic range: comedies of manners, cloak-and-dagger comedies of love and intrigue, philosophical dramas, lives of historical figures. The principal playwrights of the period were Felix Lope de Vega (1562-1635), who wrote over one thousand plays, including Fuente Ovejuna (c. 1614), and Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681), whose Life is a Dream (1635) is still performed today.
Under the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, France became the most powerful and influential country in Europe, especially between 1660 and 1690. French artists and thinkers of this period were convinced, not altogether wrongly, that the grandeur of their culture equalled that of ancient Greece and Rome. To give theatre a certain nobility, the neoclassicists formulated guidelines that would reflect the order, logic, and refined emotion of the ancient models: verse was to be used in tragedy and comedy; plays were to exhibit “decorum” (no violence or battle scenes or mix of registers); the three unities of time, place and action were to be observed (i.e. all action must unfold within a single day, in the same place, with no subplots). In addition, playwrights were to avoid all recourse to magic (philtres, potions) or the intervention of gods at critical moments. Corneille and Racine in tragedy, and Molière in comedy, were able to use these limitations to their advantage, focusing on the willpower and self-mastery of their characters, constructing a theatre of exceptional density.
Romanticism (which has nothing to do with candle-lit dinners) is a cultural movement that swept Europe at the turn of the 19th century. Artists began to value inspiration, imagination and individual expression more than the rules of composition that governed the classical models. Instead of clarity and unity, mystery and contrast were the watchwords. Ancient Rome and Greece were no longer the great fountains of inspiration: they were replaced by such mediaeval legends as the epic of King Arthur. The socio-political ideas behind the French Revolution changed the mentalities of playwrights: if theatre was to accurately depict the world, it had to portray much more than the life of kings. Deriving inspiration from Shakespeare’s historical dramas, artists finally found room on stage for the average man. La Tour de Nesle (1832) by Alexandre Dumas père, for example, is set in the Middle Ages and presents Queen Marguerite de Bourgogne alongside lower-class ruffians and rogues. In Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas (1838), Victor Hugo portrays a peasant who has much more nobility of spirit and heart than the “real” aristocrats. But more than anything else, Romantic drama was concerned with imagination and emotion, which overshadowed rules and reason.
Until the late 19th century, it was usually the author or leading actor who was responsible for the artistic coordination of a theatrical production. This often led to situations that today we would find unacceptable: the lead actress, for example, might decide to wear a dazzlingly chic outfit, even if it didn’t suit her character or the styles worn by the other actors. In the late 19th century a new mentality emerged: a need was felt for a single vision, an artistic point of view that would guide the work of everyone involved, giving the production an aesthetic unity and thematic coherency. Between 1870 and 1900, in numerous European tours, the German troupe Meininger was a model of coordination and organic unity, meticulous in its concern for historical accuracy and authenticity in costumes and sets. The company’s sharply focused productions profoundly affected the thinking of such artists as André Antoine, who founded the Théâtre-Libre in Paris in 1887, Constantin Stanislavsky in Moscow, and especially Max Reinhardt in Berlin, who accorded directors the prominent role they enjoy today.
After the death and destruction caused by the Second World War (1939-1945), the ideological horrors of Nazism, the extermination of six million Jews and the detonation of the first atomic bomb, Westerners were plunged into an age of uncertainty, questioning their ideological foundations. Whether it be the idea that we lead our lives according to our reason and free will, or that “progress” leads to happiness, or that we live under the protection of God, nothing was certain, everything under question. In the late 1940s, certain authors (notably Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco) began writing a form of theatre that abandoned the traditional landmarks: Beckett’s characters were the rejects of humanity, wretched beings placed in situations with no way out. Ionesco, in The Bald Soprano (1950), destroyed the links between theatre, words and our perception of reality: after several minutes of small talk, a couple make the astonishing discovery that they are husband and wife. Their plays are called “theatre of the absurd” not because the dialogue is absurd, but because they present a worldview in which human life has no meaning or purpose within the immutable laws of the universe.