A Brief History of Drama

The history of drama stretches back to some of mankind's earliest civilizations. It's always fun to learn the history of a play that you're watching. You could be seeing something that people have enjoyed for hundreds or thousands of years.

Drama in Ancient Greece
Drama as we know it got its start back in ancient Greece. Many of the plays written during the Classical period, from 525 BC to 385 BC, are still performed today. Antigone, Oedipus Rex and Medea are among the plays written during this time. Not only are these plays still popular as theatrical productions, they also greatly influenced playwrights throughout histor

The Rise of Comedy
During the period between 350 BC and 250 BC, comedy came to be much more prominent in the theater. Outlandish buffoonery, political farces and sexual innuendo were prominent features of the comedy plays of this era. Eventually, comedy became a bit more refined; it was this New Comedy that then influenced modern comedic playwrights.

Sadly, the Dark Ages was a time when drama became nearly extinct. The Christians opposed theatrics, thus there was no theater in the Roman empires during this time. Ironically, the church that nearly obliterated theater was also responsible for its resurgence; the Christian church began to present the Passion Play, a popular dramatic interpretation of the Resurrection during Easter services.

Theater Returns
The Renaissance saw a huge resurgence in all types of art, including theater. It was during this time that Commedia Dell'arte flourished and the first Elizabethan playhouse opened. William Shakespeare, one of the world's most renowned playwrights, wrote and produced many plays that are still performed regularly even today. Shakespeare was one of the first to weave comedic elements into tragedies. He also developed a structure and several types of characters that are still common in modern drama.  

Let the Women Speak
Prior to the 17th Century, the world of drama belonged to men. Even Shakespeare's plays were performed by entirely male casts. In the mid 1600s a few pioneering women began to pave the way for women in the theater. It would be quite some time before acting was considered an acceptable profession for women.

From Romance to Realism
The 18th century was a time when more plays were being written for and about the middle class. Toward the end of the century, the Romantic period began in Western Europe, which heavily influenced the theater of that era. Romanticism focused on emotion rather than intellect. This movement continued through the beginning of the 19th century.

Romanticism gave way to Realism during the 19th century, paving the way for the era of contemporary drama in the 20th century. Contemporary drama shows the influence of all that has come before. Modern drama involved much experimentation with new forms and ideas. In the early part of the 20th century, musical drama came to dominate stages in New York and England, although each theater season saw the release of straight dramatic plays as well.

Drama schools and drama classes once taught an exaggerated acting style. During the 20th century, this gave way to a more natural dramatic style. Realism was prominent for much of the 20th century, even as experimentation and absurdity were becoming more popular. During the 1960s and 1970s, playwrights such as Tom Stoppard, Sam Shepard and David Mamet began writing plays in which the main focus was the language and dialogue of the play, with very little action. 

In the new millenium, the classic works of the Greeks and Shakespeare remain popular as high-art drama. Many of the wilder experiments of the late 20th century have fallen out of fashion, although the absurdist comedies still draw crowds. Modern musicals have scaled back from the lavish productions that graced Brodway and the West End, largely due to high production costs. The public fancy changes through the decades, but our love of drama is as strong as ever.

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