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In ancient Rome, comedy and drama
were enhanced by actors' masks that
also helped to amplify their voices.


Western audiences have thrilled to dramatic or comical theatrical performances since the time of the ancient Greeks.

Early theater was centered in Greece's major city-state, Athens, where theatrical performances -- with its roots in Greek mythology -- became a popular part of religious festivals held throughout the year.

Theatrical competitions included entries by such playwrights as Sophocles,  Aeschylus, and Euripides, the latter often cited as "the father of all modern drama" and the first playwright to dramatize his character's psychological underpinnings and motives.

Roman theater later expanded upon Greek drama, with a reworking the ancient texts. The Romans eventually contributed their own brand of drama, as well as a more varied interpretation of what constituted popular theater including sophisticated stagings of tragedies, broad comedies and farces.

With Rome's inevitable fall, the tradition of theater as an institution effectively disappeared throughout Europe. Except for traveling bands of actors staging impromptu performances, theater of the Dark Ages as a whole was often condemned by the church as a pagan and sinful practice. With economic development theater during the later Middle Ages once again flourished, although mainly under the auspices of the church with emphasis on religious drama.

David Garrick as Richard III, 1745
In costume as Richard III, actor
David Garrick became the theater's
first recognized Shakespearean "star".

With the church's grip on power beginning to weaken during the Reformation, a backlash against religious plays soon provided a perfect opportunity for countries to develop there own national theater traditions, including Italy's very popular commedia dell'Arte. Meanwhile, the Globe Theatre in London became the center of the Elizabethan stage featuring the timeless historical dramas, comedies and tragedies of English playwright William Shakespeare.

Following a Puritan crackdown on "immoral" stage plays, the 17th century Restoration saw the theater come roaring back with elaborately staged Restoration comedies complete with moveable sets, bawdy plots, music, dancing and lots of action.

In turn, the 18th century swung the pendulum in the opposite direction with melodramatic Neoclassicist stagings of plays which were more formal and elaborately costumed. The first recognized "star" of the British stage, actor David Garrick, also won wide acclaim in his roles as Hamlet and in other plays by the Bard as Shakespeare's genius as a playwright became fully appreciated.

By the 19th century, theater had matured throughout Europe, most notably in Germany where the director (rather than the actor) became a prime creative force behind the success of a play. Later, the buttoned-down Victorian era nevertheless saw a marked taste for burlesque and French farces.

In the latter half of the century, Henrik Ibsen emerged as the most important playwright of his generation with such works as "A Doll House" and "Hedda Gabbler" while the wildly popular comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan finally put musical theater on the map both in London and New York.

By the 1930's, the bright lights of
Broadway began to eclipse even
London's West End

By the 20th century, New York's Broadway had come to eclipse even London's West End in the number and variety of popular musicals, written by such Broadway stalwarts as Ira and George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, all of whom became popular household names. Today, their songs and lyrics are still "packing them in" at theaters on Broadway and throughout the world.

America also produced a number of important dramatists during this time including Eugene O'Neill, ("Long Day's Journey into Night", "The Iceman Cometh") Arthur Miller ("Death of a Salesman") and Tennessee Williams ("A Streetcar Named Desire", "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof".)

Just up ahead, find out more about the long history of theater worldwide with an all-star guide to Web resources covering everything from Greek classical theater to Shakespeare, from the London stage to the Great White Way ....

More about theater history around the Web:

Jack Wolcott's Theatre History on the Web - Check out links and resources galore covering the full spectrum of history, lighting, costume and more for Greek classical, medieval and Renaissance, Elizabethan, non-Western theatre and more.

Theater - Here's the full sweep including Greek dramatists, medieval theater, modern musicals, plus a look at national theater traditions in Italy, France, Britain and more.

Variety Stage: Theater Playbills and Programs - Browse an great online cache of 146 examples from the turn-of-the-century with background history, from the U.S. Library of Congress.

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