theater, building, structure, or space in which dramatic performances take place. In its broadest sense theater can be defined as including everything connected with dramatic art—the play itself, the stage with its scenery and lighting, makeup, costumes, acting, and actors.
Theater in ancient Greece developed from the ceremonial worship of the god Dionysus (in which the death and rebirth of the god were celebrated) and was communal in nature. The focal point of the structure in which the ceremony took place was a level, circular space at the foot of a hill. Around this space, called the orchēstra, an auditorium rose in a large semicircle. Behind the orchēstra was the skēne, a building where the actors could change costume. Between the skēne and the orchēstra was a space called the proskenion, which later developed into the stage.
The original religious nature of Greek drama made audiences particularly receptive to the cosmic themes presented in classical tragedy. Greek actors performed in masks and stylized costumes (see mask). The chorus remained in the orchēstra throughout the play, performing intricate dances and chants while commenting on the dramatic action taking place on the proskenion. The date at which the proskenion became a raised stage is uncertain, but it had definitely achieved this status by the Hellenistic period (3d–1st cent. BC).
The years from the decline of classical Greece through the Hellenistic period to the Roman era saw the erosion of serious drama and a corresponding increase in the architectural grandeur of theaters. As the religious and thus the choral element diminished, the skēne became an elaborate structure and the orchēstra was increasingly reduced in size.
Ancient Rome and the Early Christian Era
In Rome, for the first time, theaters were enclosed within a single wall, making them architectural units. The Roman skēne (in Latin the scaenae frons) was frequently monumental in scale. Roman audiences never evinced an interest in serious drama but accepted romantic comedy as long as it included an element of farce. By the period of the Empire, Roman theater had degenerated into brutal and obscene spectacle, and it was finally banned by the Christian church.
While Greek actors were highly respected, their Roman counterparts were originally slaves. Although position of Roman actors had improved by the 1st cent. BC (as evidenced by the career of Quintus Roscius), later Christian antipathy to the stage led to the view of the actor as a social outcast. Until the 10th cent., theatrical performances were restricted to traveling acrobats, jugglers, mimes, and the like. Popular types of traveling theater, performed on plain wooden platforms, also existed throughout the Greek and Roman periods. Native farce and burlesque probably flourished before Aristophanes; it certainly did by the 3d cent. BC in the Greek phylakes and the Roman fabula Atellana.
In the 9th cent. drama returned to the Western world in the form of mystery and miracle plays, which were performed in churches. Usually stories from the Bible, such plays were first acted by priests, their stage consisting of different platform sets arranged in rows along the side of the nave of the church. One effect of the church setting was to create a close relationship between audience and performer.
Later these plays were moved out of the church into the street, where the platform sets were arranged around an area in which the audience could stand or move from place to place in a prescribed order. Acting took place either on the platforms, in front of them, or between them, depending on the need. The platforms were often elaborate in their decoration and stage machinery. With the shift to the streets, acting was transferred from the priesthood to the amateurs of the guilds or professional players.
After the advent of the Renaissance in Italy there were various attempts to construct theaters on Roman models, the culmination of this movement being the Teatro Olimpico (1580–84) at Vicenza, designed by Andrea Palladio. However, the development of the theater form that was to dominate until the 20th cent. began with the Teatro Farnese (1618) at Parma, designed by Gian-Battista Aleotti. Of primary importance was Aleotti's use of the proscenium arch creating the picture-frame stage.
Italians also introduced painted perspective scenery, first outlined in the treatise Architettura (1537–45) of Sebastiano Serlio. While these developments were taking place in an academic and aristocratic milieu, the commedia dell'arte was carrying on a popular theater of improvisation, which did much toward developing professional acting as opposed to courtly amateurism.
In England and Spain, theories of theater construction were less tied to classical example than in Italy. The Spanish theater developed in the corral, or courtyard, of various large buildings, where plays were originally performed, while the innyard served as a similar model in England. These theaters offered greater flexibility of movement than did the Italian. The Elizabethan audience in England included all levels of society, and professional actors were treated with relative respect. By the closing of the theaters by the Puritans in 1642, English audiences had become overwhelmingly aristocratic, a tendency that continued in the Restoration period.
In 17th-century England the designs of Inigo Jones revealed Italian influence in their use of perspective scenery and the proscenium arch. However, English theater never indulged in the architectural extravaganzas that proliferated on the continent. In 17th-century Europe the trend in theater production was increasingly toward more elaborate machinery and scenery with less and less concern for the drama itself. This trend is illustrated by the triumph of opera in Italy and Spain and, later, by the popularity of the exuberant baroque architecture and scene design of the Bibiena family throughout 18th-century Europe.
Theaters in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
The development of a middle-class audience in 18th-century France and England created a desire for more realistic settings and acting. Although some attempts were made in the 18th cent. (notably by David Garrick in England and Adrienne Lecouvreur in France) to combat the artificial, rhetorical style of acting then popular, it was not until the late 19th cent. that a more natural style of acting gained wide acceptance. Of great importance in the development of realistic acting was Constantin Stanislavsky, cofounder of the Moscow Art Theater, who stressed the actors' absolute identification with the characters they portray.
Similarly, realism in scenery and costumes was not popular until well into the 19th cent. The creation of realistic effects was facilitated by the introduction of gas lights in the early 19th cent. and of electricity later in the century. Electric lighting was, however, also used for antirealistic effects by such scene designers as Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig. The introduction of gas lighting made it possible to dim the auditorium lights, a practice that tended to make the audience more separate from the stage. Richard Wagner, in his opera theater at Bayreuth, attempted further to isolate the audience by means of a gap of darkness between a double proscenium arch. While most commercial theaters today still use the proscenium arch stage, there has been much experimental work to restore a vital relationship between audience and stage.
By the late 19th cent., theater was dominated by commercial playhouses in large cities, particularly in England and the United States. However, in the late 19th cent. several independent theaters, more interested in art than in making money, came into being, including the Théâtre Libre in Paris (1887), the Freie Bühne in Berlin (1889), the Independent Theatre Society in London (1891), and the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia (1891).
Smaller independent theaters were also prevalent in the early 20th cent., as in the Provincetown Players (1915) in the United States. Concurrently, antirealistic expressionist and symbolic movements in theater were developing, such as Vsevolod Meyerhold's constructivism, the "theater of cruelty" of Antonin Artaud, and the "epic theater" of Bertolt Brecht. There was also a growing interest in Asian theater, which seemed attractive to many because of its relatively bare stage, symbolic stage properties, and stylized, nonrealistic acting (see Asian drama).
Theatrical developments since World War II, especially in noncommercial theater, have brought the stage more in contact with the audience. Theater-in-the-round became popular at American universities in the 1930s, and in the 1950s and 60s many "music tents" featuring theater-in-the-round sprang up in American cities. Experimental relationships between audience and acting space have also been constructed. Such groups as the Living Theater of Julian Beck and Judith Malina produced free-form events in which audience and actors mingled, thus removing completely traditional barriers between them.
For further information see separate articles on drama, Western; acting; directing; and scene design and stage lighting. See also articles on theaters and theater groups: Abbey Theatre; Comédie Française; Deutsches Theater; Drury Lane; Federal Theatre; Globe Theatre; Group Theatre; Habima Theater; Hôtel de Bourgogne; Meiningen Players; Old Vic; Royal National Theatre, and Royal Shakespeare Company.
See the general theater histories by G. W. Gladstone (1985), P. Hartnoll (1985), B. D. Grose (1985), O. G. Brockett (5th ed. 1987), and P. Kuritz (1988); A. Clunes, The British Theatre (1964); A. Nicoll, Development of the Theatre (5th ed. 1967) and The English Stage (1978); E. Mordden, The American Theatre (1981); P. P. Gillespie, Western Theatre: Revolution and Revival (1984); M. C. Henderson, Theater in America (rev. ed. 1996).