- Social Sciences
- African Studies
- American Studies
- Asian Studies
- Communication Sciences
- Ethnic Studies
- European Studies
- Gender Studies
- Physical Sciences
- Life Sciences
- Animal Communications
- Cell Biology
- Evolutionary Biology
- Food Science and Technology
- Human Anatomy
By Ned Chaillet, Tracy C. Davis, Sir Tyrone Guthrie
Theatre, also spelled theater, in dramatic arts, an art concerned almost exclusively with live performances in which the action is precisely planned to create a coherent and significant sense of drama.
Though the word theatre is derived from the Greek theaomai, “to see,” the performance itself may appeal either to the ear or to the eye, as is suggested by the interchangeability of the terms spectator (which derives from words meaning “to view”) and audience (which derives from words meaning “to hear”). Sometimes the appeal is strongly intellectual, as in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but the intellectual element in itself is no assurance of good theatre. A good performance of Hamlet, for example, is extremely difficult to achieve, and a poor one is much less rewarding than a brilliant presentation of a farce. Moreover, a good Hamlet makes demands on the spectator that may be greater than what that spectator is prepared to put forward, while the farce may be enjoyed in a condition of comparative relaxation. The full participation of the spectator is a vital element in theatre.
There is a widespread misconception that the art of theatre can be discussed solely in terms of the intellectual content of the script. Theatre is not essentially a literary art, though it has been so taught in some universities and schools. For many years the works of the Greek dramatists, Shakespeare, and other significant writers such as Friedrich von Schiller were more likely to be studied than performed in their entirety. The literary side of a theatrical production works most effectively when it is subordinated to the histrionic. The strongest impact on the audience is made by acting, singing, and dancing, followed by spectacle—the background against which those activities take place. Later, on reflection, the spectator may find that the meaning of the text has made the more enduring impression, but more often the literary merit of the script, or its “message,” is a comparatively minor element.
Yet it is often assumed that the theatrical experience can be assimilated by reading the text of a play. In part, this is a result of the influence of theatrical critics, who, as writers, tend to have a literary orientation. Their influence is magnified by the fact that it is difficult to make serious theatre widely available; for each person who sees an important production in a theatre, thousands of others will know it only through the notices of critics. While reviewers in the mainstream press may give greater credence to such elements as acting and dancing, critics in the more serious journals may be more interested in textual and thematic values. Such influences vary from country to country, of course. In New York City a critic for one newspaper, such as The New York Times, may determine the fate and historical record of a production, assuring it a successful run or forcing it to close overnight. In London, however, audiences have notoriously resisted the will of the critics.
This is not to say that the contribution of the author to the theatrical experience is unimportant. The script of a play is the basic element of theatrical performance. In the case of many masterpieces it is the most important element. But even these dramatic masterpieces demand the creative cooperation of artists other than the author. The dramatic script, like an operatic score or the scenario of a ballet, is no more than the raw material from which the performance is created. The actors, rather than merely reflecting a creation that has already been fully expressed in the script, give body, voice, and imagination to what was only a shadowy indication in the text. The text of a play is as vague and incomplete in relation to a fully realized performance as is a musical score to a concert. The Hamlets of two great actors probably differ more than two virtuoso renditions of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations possibly can. In general, the truly memorable theatrical experience is one in which the various elements of performance are brought into a purposeful harmony. It is a performance in which the text has revealed its meanings and intentions through skillful acting in an environment designed with the appropriate measure of beauty or visual impact.
This article contains a treatment of the art of theatre in the most general terms, an attempt to illuminate what it is and why it has been regarded as a fundamental human activity throughout history. An extensive treatment of the elements of theatre can be found in theatrical production. For the relationship of theatre to music and dance, see theatre music, opera, and dance. For historical treatment of Western theatre, see Western theatre. The theatrical traditions of other cultures of the world are considered in articles such as African theatre, East Asian arts, Islamic arts, South Asian arts, and Southeast Asian arts. For a general survey of dramatic literature and its tragic and comic forms, see dramatic literature. Dramatic literature is also treated in articles on the literatures of particular languages, nations, or regions—e.g., African literature, Belgian literature, English literature, French literature, German literature, Russian literature, and so on.
Exactly how the theatre came into being is not known. While it is indisputable that the traditions born in ancient Athens have dominated Western theatre and the theories of Western drama up to the present, it is impossible to state with certainty what the theatre was like even a few years before the appearance of Aeschylus’s earliest extant play, Persians (472 bce). Legend attributes the invention of the dithyramb, the lyrical ancestor of tragedy, to the poet Arion of Lesbos in the 7th or 6th century bce, but it was not until the creation of the Great Dionysia in Athens in 534 that tragic drama established itself. The Dionysiac festivals were held in honour of Dionysus, a god concerned with fertility, wine, and prophecy. Dionysiac celebrations, held in the spring, were traditionally occasions for frenzy, sexual license, and ecstatic behaviour welcoming the return of fertility to the land after the winter (reflected dramatically in the Bacchants by Euripides). The Great Dionysia was a more formal affair, with its competition in tragedy, but its religious purpose is often cited as a pointer to the origin of drama itself.
In the theories that see drama as a development from primitive religious rites, the dramatist is often described as a descendant of the priest. Theatrical representation could have arisen first from the substitution of an animal for a human sacrifice, say, a goat for a virgin or a young warrior. In time, the formula of the sacrifice might have been enacted ritualistically without the actual sacrifice of the animal. (The word tragedy is descended from the Greek tragōidia, meaning “song of the goats.”)
Considered in such a way, the most famous of Greek tragedies, Oedipus the King by Sophocles, can be seen as a formalistic representation of human sacrifice. Oedipus becomes a dramatic embodiment of guilt; his blinding and agony are necessary for the good of all Thebes, because it was by killing his father and marrying his mother that he first brought the gods’ curse upon his people. Aristotle felt that the representation on stage of Oedipus’s suffering was a means of catharsis—vicarious purgation or cleansing—for the spectators.
However, other explanations for the origin of drama have been offered. Mimesis, the artistic representation or imitation of an event, has been discerned in such rituals as war dances, which are intended to frighten the enemy and instill courage into the hearts of the participants. These dances may imitate the action of battle itself, or at least the way in which the participants hope to see the battle develop.
The origins of drama have also been attributed to simple storytelling, as when the storyteller adopts a false voice or adds characterization through movement and costume. In such terms, the art of theatre could be described at its most fundamental as the presence of an actor before an audience.
Whatever the primary motivation, the first systematic elaboration of theatre can be seen through the work of the Greek playwrights of 5th-century-bce Athens. Aeschylus apparently inherited a form that consisted of a single actor responding to or leading a chorus. His innovation is generally considered to have been the use of a second actor, and it was either Aeschylus or Sophocles who added a third actor as they competed each year for prizes in the Great Dionysia. Once a third actor appeared, the chorus gradually declined, and it was the multiplying individual characters who assumed importance. In this way, ancient Greece left to posterity a measure of specialization among theatrical performers.
Beyond these formal elements, however, Classical drama offers a pattern of development that has been reenacted continually in other cultures throughout history. The rapid rise and decline of drama in ancient Athens paralleled the rise and decline of Athenian civilization itself. Great periods of achievement in theatre have tended to coincide with periods of national expansion and achievement, as in Elizabethan England. Conversely, periods of excessive materialism, such as those during which ancient Greece or ancient Rome declined, tend to produce theatre in which ostentation, spectacle, and vulgarity predominate.
Probably more than in other arts, each theatrical style represents an amalgamation of diverse heritages. Greek theatre has long had the most direct influence on Western culture, but in the late 20th century Balinese and Japanese arts were frequently adapted in the West. Chinese and Indian theatrical practices have had wide influence in Asia. A fundamental difference between borrowings from Greek theatre and borrowings from Asian traditions is that the techniques of Greek performance have not been handed down with the texts. Most of what is known about the actual performance of Greek plays is the result of scholarly and archaeological research. Information about the nature of the music and of choral dances, for example, is very skimpy.
In Asian theatre, on the other hand, techniques as well as texts have survived. For example, the Noh theatre of Japan has been handed down through families of performers with few changes for hundreds of years. In addition to the instructions for performers contained in India’s Natya-shastra, there is a major descriptive treatise on music, giving guidance on musical techniques. The Natya-shastra, which may be as old as Aristotle’s Poetics (4th century bce), is a book with very specific injunctions to performers, including dancers. Some of its techniques may be found in surviving theatre forms such as the Indian kathakali dance. In turn, some of these techniques were assimilated during the second half of the 20th century by such Western directors as Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, and Eugenio Barba. Other writers and directors created new relationships between Eastern and Western theatre by consciously exploiting techniques and traditions from such forms as Kabuki and Noh.
There is little doubt that the Greek theatre—and especially the study of its literature—has provided Western theatre with a sense of continuity in stories, themes, and formal styles. The plays themselves are regularly revived, with discernible references to specifically modern concerns. It is also notable that the Greek theatre has served as a model for a wide range of great writers, from Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille in 17th-century France to Eugene O’Neill in the United States during the 20th century. When Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) touched its audiences with awe and pity in the manner of Aristotle’s prescriptions, critics debated whether the play could be genuinely tragic in the Greek sense, given that it had no nobler a protagonist than the salesman Willy Loman.
Theatre as expression
Mimesis in theatre
The art of the theatre is essentially one of make-believe, or mimesis. In this respect it differs from music, which seldom attempts to imitate “real” sounds—except in so-called program music, such as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which suggests the sounds of a battle. In this respect the art of narrative in literature is much closer to that of the theatre. In a story, considerable attention must be paid to plausibility. Even if the story is not intended to be believed as having actually happened, plausibility is essential if the story is to hold the auditor’s attention. The principal factor in plausibility is not precise correspondence with known facts but inner consistency in the story itself.
Drama also requires plausibility, but in drama it must be conveyed not by a narrator but by the actors’ ability to make the audience “believe in” their speech, movement, thoughts, and feelings. This plausibility is based on the connection between the impression made by the actors and the preconceptions of the auditors. If the character Hamlet is to be plausible, the actor must make an audience believe that Hamlet could conceivably be as he is presented. This does not mean that the actor must make the audience believe that he (or she) literally is Hamlet, merely that he is plausibly and consistently making-believe to be Hamlet. The aim of a performance is not to persuade spectators that a palpable fiction is fact, that they are “really” there, out on those bitterly cold battlements of Hamlet’s castle at Elsinore. Indeed, they are far freer to appreciate the play and to think about it if they are not “really” present. Knowing all the time that it is a figment, they are willing to enter into the make-believe, to be transported, if it is sufficiently convincing. Yet they know that, however thrilling or pleasurable the rapture, it may be shattered at any moment by some ineptitude or mistake on the stage or by a coughing neighbour in the audience.
That is the basic rule, or convention, of the make-believe of the theatre. The actor breaks the basic rule of the game if he forgets his words, or laughs at private jokes, or is simply incompetent, or is unsuited to his part. No modern audience can accept a vulgar, lumpish, elderly Hamlet, because Hamlet is a young prince whose lines are consistently thoughtful and witty. Yet it is not necessary that the actor playing Hamlet should “really” be all these things; he need only give the impression of being princely, witty, elegant, and young enough to sustain the credulity of the people sharing the make-believe. That credulity can extend a considerable way; the actress Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet several times in her old age.
Thus, in every performance there must be realism in some degree. At certain epochs and in certain kinds of plays, the aim has been to be as realistic as possible. But even the most realistic production (e.g., Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard as first produced by Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904) made immense concessions to theatrical artifice. Conversation in real life often leads nowhere; it is full of inconclusive, meaningless, boring passages. It does not necessarily attempt, as every word in Chekhov’s play must, to fit into a story, to be part of the expression of a theme, or to introduce and reveal a group of characters.
Though most commercial, light comedies continue to be written and acted realistically, realistic theatre fell out of fashion in the first half of the 20th century in response to a host of avant-garde theatrical experiments and the advent of motion pictures. Just as realistic painting declined when photographs began to achieve similar effects mechanically, so did staging that attempted to reproduce the actual world in every detail lose artistic status when such effects became commonplace in films.
Even before the introduction of motion pictures, the theatre was moving toward extravagantly nonrealistic theatrical effects, from the puppet-inspired theatre of Alfred Jarry, author of Ubu roi (1896; “King Ubu”), to the Symbolist dramas of Maurice Maeterlinck, the concept of the Übermarionette (“Superior Puppet”) developed by Edward Gordon Craig, and theatrical Surrealism. The most unrealistic productions, however, inevitably retained certain realistic features; the actors still had to be human, no matter how fantastic the script and settings might be.
Theatre as social expression
In different contexts, various aspects of humanity have seemed important and have therefore been stressed in Western theatrical representation. Much Renaissance drama, for instance, emphasized the individuality of each character, while in later 17th-century theatre, which was much more restricted in its philosophy and in its setting, a character was presented not as a creature who occupied a unique place and status in the universe but rather as someone adapted to and determined by the quite limited environment of 17th-century society. The greatness of the Elizabethan theatre was the universality of its outlook and the breadth of its appeal. Since the latter part of the 17th century, the art of the theatre has been concerned with smaller themes and has aimed at a smaller section of society.
From the 17th through the 18th century, the theatre’s leading characters were almost exclusively persons of breeding and position; the “lower classes” appeared as servants and dependents, mostly presented in low comedy. Rustics were almost automatically ridiculous, although sometimes their simplicity might be endearing or pathetic. The 17th-century plays of Molière are a good deal more egalitarian than English plays of similar date or even of a century later; but even Molière never allowed the audience to forget that his plays were about, and for, persons of high station. A very clear line is drawn between employers and employed in these plays, and the latter, though often more intelligent, never seem to belong to even the same species as the former. However, such English plays as John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) and George Lillo’s The London Merchant; or, The History of George Barnwell (1731) were influential and theatrical successes that stood out against the norm.
By the early 19th century, European theatre had become at least as much a middle-class as an aristocratic entertainment. Nevertheless, it was still thought important, especially in London, that the actors suggest gentility. George Bernard Shaw, in Our Theatres in the Nineties (1932), remarked that, to be employed in a good production, it was far less important that a young actor be talented than that he speak “well” and be beautifully dressed. The plays that succeeded throughout Europe were plays about men and women of good social position, and the plots were concerned with some infringement, usually sexual, of the genteel code of behaviour; The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893) by Arthur Wing Pinero is an example. The melodrama that dominated 19th-century European (and especially British) theatre championed the values of the middle class. However, the new literary drama of Henrik Ibsen that emerged during the second half of the century challenged those values.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet theatre broke with gentility. The heroes and heroines of Soviet theatre were muscular, idealistic workers. In western Europe, however, gentility continued in the 1920s and ’30s to be the dominant aim of the fashionable theatre. In New York City it received a setback at the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s. At a famous series of productions at the Group Theatre, the director Harold Clurman was in conscious revolt against the oppressive bourgeois gentility of the day. The Group Theatre was not spectacularly successful, however, and it stayed in existence for no more than a few years.
In Europe after World War II, the theatre made more-concerted efforts to reflect and to interest a wider section of society. By that time, however, audiences at all levels had lost the habit of theatregoing and were fast losing the habit of moviegoing, as television was becoming the popular medium of drama—indeed, of all entertainment. Theatre began to be directed not to any one class in society or to any one income group but rather to anyone who was prepared for the energetic collaboration in the creative act that the art demands. By the end of the 20th century, the emergence of digital technologies that enabled the use of high-quality recorded video and sound in theatres had sparked a debate over the “liveness” of theatre and whether the nature of theatre itself had become fundamentally altered by these technologies.
Elements of theatre
The theatrical hierarchy
Theatrical art demands the collaboration of the actors with one another, with a director, with the various technical workers upon whom they depend for costumes, scenery, and lighting, and with the businesspeople who finance, organize, advertise, and sell the product.
Collaboration among so many types of personnel presupposes a system that divides duties. In the commercial theatre the most powerful person is usually the producer, who is responsible for acquiring the investment that finances the production. The rehearsal of the play is conducted by the director, who is responsible for interpreting the script, for casting, and for helping to determine the design of the scenery and costumes. Under the director’s general direction, a stage manager, possibly with several assistants, looks after the organization of rehearsal and the technical elements of the performance—light and curtain cues, properties, sound effects, and so on.
Naturally, the hierarchy varies somewhat in different circumstances. In the state-subsidized Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, for example, the apex of the pyramid has traditionally been occupied by an artistic director, who is more concerned with guiding the policy of the theatre than with details of administration or the preparation of any single production—though the artistic director may, of course, also assume responsibility for the preparation of a number of productions. In regional theatres, implementation of artistic policy may be subordinate to a board of directors that is ultimately responsible for overseeing costs.
The dominant expression—so far as the audience can tell—is nearly always that of the actor. It may therefore be wondered why theatres are no longer dominated by the actor-manager system, as they were during the 19th century in Europe and the United States. In London, for example, Sir Henry Irving managed the Lyceum for 21 years (1878–99) as its artistic director, administrator, producer-director, and leading actor. After Irving’s day, theatrical business became infinitely more costly and complicated. Budgets in Irving’s time were only a fraction of what they are today. A single Broadway musical can now cost many millions of dollars, while the running costs of organizations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company are tens of millions of pounds each year. In addition, negotiations with trade unions make oversight of a theatre significantly more complicated.
Although the leading actor seems to dominate a performance completely, that actor is often only a mouthpiece: the words spoken so splendidly were written by someone else; the tailor and wigmaker must take some credit for the actor’s appearance; and that the actor should play the part at all was usually the idea of a producer or director.
Even before the actors assemble for the first rehearsal, the producer, director, designer, and—if available—the author have conferred on many important decisions, such as the casting and the design of scenery and clothes. In the commercial theatre, the capacity of the theatre that is selected and the anticipated number of the show’s performances determine the budget and therefore the scale of the production. (Different considerations affect the planning of programs in the subsidized theatre, including responsibility to new writing, to the national heritage, and to a balanced repertoire.) Certainly the most lively part of the work still lies in the period of rehearsal, but much of the artistic imprint has been determined before rehearsals.
The role of the audience
The theatre depends more than most arts upon audience response. If the house is not full, not only does the performance lose money but it also loses force. It is unusual—but not impossible—for new ideas, even for new ways of expressing old ideas, to achieve wide commercial success. With few exceptions, people apparently do not go to the theatre to receive new ideas; they want the thrilling, amusing, or moving expression of old ones.
If a performance is going well, the members of its audience tend to engage in collective behaviour that subordinates their separate identities to that of the crowd. This phenomenon can be observed not only at the theatre but also at concerts, bullfights, and prizefights. The crowd personality is never as rational as the sum of its members’ intelligence, and it is much more emotional. Members of an audience lose their powers of independent thought; unexpected reserves of passion come into play. Laughter becomes infectious; grave and solid citizens, as members of an audience, can be rendered helpless with mirth by jests that would leave them unmoved if they were alone.
While an audience may typically be a passive participant in a modern theatrical performance, this norm is neither universal nor transhistorical. Until the late 19th century, when auditoriums were first darkened, audiences were highly responsive, demonstrating disapproval as boisterously as approval. This type of involvement is still evident in British pantomime, which is produced annually during the Christmas season. During the 20th century, audience passivity was challenged through the theories of drama associated with Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal and through the breaking of various social codes, as occurred in the Théâtre Action in France or the Théâtre Parminou in Quebec. Such interactive relations with the fictional stage world—either bringing audience members onstage to interrupt and redirect action or involving the public unwittingly as witness to a theatre event—are typically engineered to challenge individuals’ political beliefs as well as a society’s norms.
The effect of theatre structure
From the 17th to the early 20th century, few dreamed of building a theatre in other than the traditional proscenium style. This style consists of a horseshoe shape or rounded auditorium in several tiers facing the stage, from which it is divided by an arch—the proscenium—which supports the curtain. Behind the curtain the backstage machinery facilitates quick changes of illusionistic scenery. This type of theatre was developed for Italian opera in the 17th century. From the proscenium theatre’s introduction, productions of plays of all themes have tended to exploit the audience’s pleasure in its dollhouse realism.
Whereas today’s proscenium theatre separates the audience from the performers, the theatres of Elizabethan England and 16th- and 17th-century Spain were open stages (also called thrust stages), structured so that the actors performed in the very midst of their audience. English theatres had evolved from the courtyards of inns, while Spanish theatres took corrales (courtyards enclosed by the backs of several houses) as their model; in both a raised platform was erected for a stage. Some members of the audience stood around it while others watched from windows and galleries surrounding the courtyard.
In the early years of the 20th century, the English actor-manager William Poel suggested that Shakespeare should be staged so as to relate the performers and the audience as they had been on the Elizabethan stage. His ideas slowly gained in influence, and in 1953 just such a stage, with no curtain and with the audience sitting on three sides of it, was built for the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Ontario, Can. A considerable success, it had a strong influence on subsequent theatre design. The Globe Theatre was rebuilt in London in the 1990s along even more rigorous reconstructive principles.
The open stage proved suitable not only for Elizabethan plays but also for a wide repertoire. It will probably never completely replace the proscenium, which remains more suitable for the countless plays that were written with such a stage in mind, including the highly artificial comedies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oscar Wilde. On the other hand, the more realistic plays of Ibsen, Shaw, and Chekhov, all written for the proscenium theatre, lend themselves well to the open stage.
There are a number of reasons for preferring the open stage. First, more people can be accommodated in a given space if arranged around the stage instead of just in front of it. This is important not merely for the economic advantage of a larger capacity but also for artistic reasons—the closely packed audience generates more concentration and a greater sense of unity.
A second reason for preferring the open stage is that the actors are nearer to more of their audience and can therefore be better heard and seen. This point is contested by adherents of the proscenium stage, who claim that the actor at any given moment must have his back turned to a large part of the house and, as a result, must be more difficult to see and hear. If the open stage is used efficiently, however, the actor’s back will never be turned to anyone for more than a few seconds at a time. Likewise, an open stage allows actors to be more aware of their audience.
After the arguments for the open stage were first made and gained popularity after the middle of the 20th century, many theatres—such as the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.—were designed “in the round” so that the audience completely surrounded the stage. Other theatres followed the example of Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theatre by taking as the starting point an “empty room,” in which a different environment may be constructed for each production, radically altering the relationship between actors and audience for each play. The proliferation of “black box” spaces from the 1960s onward demonstrates the popularity of this configuration, in which a neutral space—a theatrical tabula rasa—can be, through spatial reconfiguration and minimal scenic detail, redesignated again and again in infinite variety.
The proscenium has come to be associated so closely with creating “illusion” that, its critics argue, it has led to a misconception about the function of drama and to a misdirection of the energies of dramatists, players, and audiences. A single-minded attempt by the actors to create, or by the audience to undergo, illusion reduces drama to a form of deception. By the end of the 20th century, proscenium theatre had become a term used to denigrate an art form dominated by bourgeois aesthetics and dismissed as not innovative.
The art of the theatre is concerned with something more significant than creating the illusion that a series of quite obviously contrived events are “really” happening. King Lear is far more complex and interesting than that. Art is concerned not with deception but with enlightenment. The painter’s art helps its audience to see and the musician’s art helps it to hear in a more enlightened way: Rembrandt and Bach are trying not to deceive their audiences but to express and to share their deepest thoughts and feelings. Similarly, the art of the theatre is concerned with expressing the most profound thoughts and feelings of the performers about the story they are enacting, so that the audience may partake in the ritual event. The actual configuration of the stage and audience spaces may be less important in this respect than the performances themselves.
The influence of writing and scholarship
Like the other arts, the theatre has been the subject of a great deal of theoretical and philosophical writing, as well as criticism, both of a journalistic and of a less ephemeral character. Members of the theatrical profession have probably been influenced by the work of scholars and theorists more than they realize. Scholarship has made Shakespeare’s work, for example, far more intelligible and coherent. On the other hand, many of the scholarly debates over small points seem irrelevant in the theatre.
A commendable example of scholarship is the emendation by the 18th-century editor Lewis Theobald of Mistress Quickly’s description of Falstaff’s death in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Act II, Scene 3) from “a table of green fields,” which, in the context, seems unintelligible, to “a [i.e., he] babbled of green fields,” which is not only comprehensible but touching. But it scarcely alters the way in which an actor will speak this phrase. It is one descriptive phrase among five or six others relating Falstaff’s fumbling with the sheets, playing with flowers, and smiling at his fingers’ ends. It may be among the greatest descriptions of the moment of death in all Western literature; in the course of performance, however, an audience does not follow even so great a passage as this word by word. Likewise, a compelling actor playing Hamlet can ask whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the “eggs and bacon” of outrageous fortune, and few will be aware that he has not said “slings and arrows.” And, if Mistress Quickly says “a table of green fields” with good accent and discretion, the musical flow and emotional effect of this marvelous speech will hardly be diminished.
From the late 19th century, theatre attracted considerable attention from scholars. The German tradition of Theaterwissenschaft (“theatre science”), following the work of Max Herrmann, was particularly influential during the last decades of the 19th century in defining theatre studies as distinct from literature. Brander Matthews pioneered the teaching of playwriting in universities in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, and, as a result, today all the theatre arts garner respect as academic disciplines. Beginning in the 1940s, Alois M. Nagler trained generations of students at Yale University to value original documents and historical data in the study of theatre, an approach that considerably expanded knowledge of performance style and production circumstances across historical periods and around the world.
From the 1980s onward, theatre scholarship—like almost all scholarship across the humanities—showed the influence of deconstruction, postmodernism, and interculturalism (an analytic approach that emphasizes the relationships between cultures). Cross-cultural approaches by both scholars and theatre artists also reflected the tremendous influence of anthropology on the field. The result was that, by the turn of the 21st century, theatre was no longer studied as an art form isolated from other social practices; instead, performance was regarded as something that exists along a continuum that includes theatrical performance—what is conventionally “on the stage”—as well as everyday life, religious devotion, a multitude of rituals, and many forms of spectacle presented by (and by way of) the mass media and other elements of a culture’s media network. Scholarship of the mid-20th century often emphasized the work of “great” artists in various disciplines (playwriting, acting, directing, design, and so forth); in the first decade of the 21st century, scholars tended to disregard the biographies of these individuals and instead to emphasize aesthetic achievements in theatre as culturally relevant statements with meaning that is determined not just by the artists but also by those who watch and listen. Theatre came to be studied not primarily as an elite form but as one pursued in and by communities of all kinds. Within this environment, performance studies emerged as a discipline alongside theatre studies and pushed many scholars toward a more inclusive approach (aesthetically, socially, and transculturally).
Yet until the late 20th century, scholars and professionals in the English-language theatre lived almost completely segregated from one another. The tradition was rather different in continental Europe, where for many centuries the dramaturge was a vital part of the state theatre companies. A dramaturge is usually a writer, critic, or scholar who advises a theatre on literary points, as well as editing classic texts and perhaps translating foreign plays. With the establishment of the National Theatre of Great Britain in 1962, the idea of a dramaturge was transplanted to Britain, the critic Kenneth Tynan becoming part of the theatre management in 1963. Other British theatres, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, fruitfully married scholarship, in the form of a dramaturge, to their planning of productions.
The place of theatre in contemporary life
Work, leisure, and theatre
In general, human beings have regarded as serious the activities that aid in survival and propagate the species. At all levels of sophistication, however, serious human pursuits offer opportunities for entertainment. Perhaps members of the human species have never made a clear-cut distinction between work and play. All kinds of work may be enjoyed under the proper circumstances, be it surgery, carpentry, housework, or fieldwork. The best workers engage themselves in work that permits, even demands, an expression of their invention and ingenuity. Indeed, the most valuable workers are often not the most strenuous but rather the most ingenious and resourceful, and as their tasks increase in complexity and responsibility, the need for intelligence and imagination increases. These qualities are also expressed in the play of such people.
In the times and places in which theatre has become frivolous or vulgar or merely dull, the more educated theatregoers have tended to stay away from it. This was the case in London during the first half of the 19th century. A similar movement away from the theatre by the intelligentsia occurred in New York City in the middle of the 20th century, as fewer and fewer serious dramatic productions were undertaken. While Broadway became devoted primarily to musicals or star vehicles, interest in serious theatre developed in the smaller and more specialized Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theatres and in regional theatres.
Of the many theories and philosophies propounded about the purposes of theatrical art, from the Poetics of Aristotle onward, most presuppose that the theatre is directed toward an elite consisting of the wealthier, more-leisured, and better-educated members of a community. In these theories, popular theatre is assumed to be noisily cheerful and egregiously sentimental, with easy tunes, obvious jokes, and plenty of knockabout “business.” In the 20th century, however, the distinctions between social classes in the West became more blurred. Egalitarian manners became fashionable, indeed obligatory, and the theories that gave serious art a role exclusively for the upper classes lost much of their force. Likewise, elite interest in “folk” forms generated new audiences for such forms and helped save traditions around the world that might otherwise have succumbed to industrialization and cultural globalization.
Paradoxically, while more people in industrialized nations are enjoying more leisure than ever before, there has not been a proportional increase in theatrical attendance. Those engaged in white-collar professions or employed in a managerial capacity, unlike the aristocrats of earlier times, generally allow themselves little leisure time. Of those engaged in industry, whose leisure time has increased, a significant proportion do not choose to attend the theatre regularly. Moreover, the theatre’s efforts to appeal to the whole community generally have been futile. There exists an ever-widening gulf: on one side, a small, enthusiastic, and vocal minority clamours for art galleries, symphony concerts, and drama; on the other side, the majority is apathetic with regard to these cultural pastimes and institutions. The apathy—or even hostility—felt by the majority was evident in the 1980s and ’90s in controversies over state support for the arts, centred especially on the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States and the Arts Council of Great Britain.
The role of subsidy
In most countries at the turn of the 21st century, a serious theatre, with or without massive public attendance, had to be sustained by financial support that went beyond box-office revenue. Public funds were—and continue to be—used for this purpose throughout Europe and in much of Asia and Africa. The assumption behind such a subsidy is that a serious theatre is simply too costly to pay its way. Usually, national theatres in urban settings are the recipients of support.
In Great Britain in 1940, under the threat of imminent invasion in World War II, the national government took the first steps toward subsidizing theatre by guaranteeing a tour of the Old Vic theatre company against loss. Subsequently, with the establishment of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946, its support of theatre increased continually. By the 1970s many millions of pounds were committed each year to supporting a network of regional theatres, small touring groups, so-called fringe theatres, and the “centres of excellence,” meaning the Royal National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the English National Opera, and the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Subsidy in Britain was the means by which the British theatre industry became the strongest in the world, both as a significant export and as a chief tourist attraction. Under successive Conservative governments, however, such subsidy was slashed, and by the 1990s funds derived from a national lottery were substituted for direct government support.
Until the middle of the 20th century, private patronage and box-office revenue were still the sole supports of legitimate theatre in the United States, but eventually charitable support was encouraged by a structure of tax allowances and by philanthropic organizations such as the Ford Foundation. With few exceptions, however, professional theatre in the United States remained strictly a commercial business. In the West in the late 20th century, only in Germany did there exist a truly generous level of federal and civic support for the arts.
At the turn of the 21st century, private money compensated for decreasing public subsidy in both the United States and Great Britain. Corporate sponsorship became increasingly important in underwriting theatre companies as well as specific shows. Such a means of funding tended to be more conducive to large-budget theatre and well-established companies (particularly opera, ballet, and regional theatres) with strong ties to local philanthropic and corporate communities. Start-up or smaller companies were less likely to be sustained by corporate sponsorship; such funding was also often considered anathema by companies committed to political critique.