A History of Theatre: The first performances

(Being the first in a short series…)

The first theatrical performances took place in Ancient Greece in c.600 BC. Documents suggest that these initial shows were shown at Thrace, in the northeast of the country. The earliest performances involved dancing, by the choros (chorus) rather than acting, and were dedicated to the Gods; some of these are first recorded as having taken place in honour of the decadent god Dionysus.

The first plays were performed in the Theatre of Dionysus, which had been built in the shadow of the Acropolis in Athens at the beginning of the 5th century. Attending it proved to be a hugely popular pastime, so much so that soon other theatres were being built all over Greece. Amphitheatres were constructed in which to show plays. These were open-aired circular structures, constructed of wood and mud, with banked seating surrounding a raised stage.

A new breed of writers emerged alongside the theatre – the playwright. These playwrights created new stories specifically to be performed by actors, and in 534 BC a man called Thespis, who is considered to be the first ever well known actor, won a drama competition in Athens.

The earliest theatrical performances were monologues, with just one actor telling a story and a chorus of dancers and singers helping him to set the scene. It was the playwright Aeschylus who was the first person to add a second actor to his plays. He also cut down the size of the chorus, so the audience weren’t distracted from the interactions of the lead actors. Aeschylus’s play The Persians, was first performed in 472 BC, and is the oldest surviving of all Greek plays. It was at this time that dramas were classified into comedy, tragedy and satyr plays.

Aeschylus trained others to write plays. One of his pupils, Sophocles went on to add a third actor to his plays. In 468 BC, Sophocles won a prize for one of his tragedy plays, defeating Aeschylus in the competition. By 423 BC the theatre was commenting on current affairs within its plays. The philosopher Socrates was well known enough to be satirized in Clouds, a comedy written by Aristophanes.

The theatre became influential very quickly in Greece. Wealthy citizens would sponsor plays and politicians would pay to have them performed to improve their popularity. It wasn’t long before the power of the theatre spread beyond Greece into Rome, and then on across the vast Roman Empire.

The next article on this topic will follow soon.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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