Western Theatre From the Greeks to 21st Century

The Breadth of Western Theatre

In Module Two, we discussed the Traits of Theatre, and now we have a general idea of what theatre is and what it isn't. But how did we come to define the term "theatre" in these ways? Where does theatre, as we know it here in Canada, come from? By studying the history of theatre from the time of the ancient Greeks,  we can discover the origins of our modern theatre and understand how the art form has developed and evolved as it spread across the Middle East, Europe and to North America.  And we begin our study of theatre history with the Greeks because this type of theatrical tradition, called "Western Theatre" has dominated the theatre practices in North America; much more so than Asian or African theatrical conventions and aesthetics. So, because this is an introduction to theatre, we will focus on the Western theatrical traditions.

What Do We Mean By “Western Theatre”?

Watch the video below, and as you are watching, answer the following questions. This will help you understand how our definition of what theatre is-- and what it isn’t-- came to be.

  1. Who first defined what we now call the Western Theatre and what a play was?
  2. What is the difference between performance and theatre?
  3. What was the basic understanding of theatre when it was emerging as a distinct art form?
  4. What were two things that affected what was put on stage in Greek theatre?
  5. What are the two big genres (types) of theatre?
  6. In the Western Theatre tradition, was is the most essential element of a play?
  7. What other countries base their theatrical traditions and aesthetics on Greek theatre and Aristotle?

Exploring Theatre Through Time

It's helpful to study theatre history not only to understand how theatre as an art form has evolved, but because theatre reflects life-- people, their values, and worldview-- you can get a pretty accurate snapshot of a particular time period by studying their theatre.  We can identify and compare the theatres of the past with the theatre of today to see the differences and similarities. And the study of theatre history helps us to appreciate and understand contemporary theatrical conventions and practices when we go to see a play, or when we develop our own theatre productions.  So have a good look at the Theatre History timeline, paying particular attention to things like: Aesthetics--how do they change? Theatre Space/Stages. Audience--who was going to the theatre? Dramatic Literature--what were they writing about? Who were the Performers--were they amateurs? Professionals? Men? Women?                

Have fun exploring theatre through the ages!

Click the Fullscreen button in the top right corner of the timeline for a better view.

Figure 3-1: Greek Theatre Time Line. Permission: Courtesy of the Distance Education Unit, University of Saskatchewan.