Term Paper: World Theater History

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Roman Theatre History

Theatre has been an important part of every civilization empires. People did not have much entertainment in their lives back then and this was the only form of entertainment which would bring them away from the daily worries of work and household. Every theatre represents the culture and reflects the thoughts of that particular civilization and people. The Chinese are one of the oldest civilizations and their theatre gives us a picture of their civilization. Similarly the Roman theatre gives us an insight on the Romans and their culture and was a means of entertainment for the people. It was also for the purpose that the people would be involved in the theatre so that they would not spend time plotting against the emperor. The Roman theatre was vastly influenced by the Greek theatre. Many of its plays were translations of the Greek plays. The comedy works of Menander, a Greek writer, were translated and used by the Roman theatre. However, Roman theatre was not as influenced by religion as the Greek theatre. The difference between the Greek and Roman theatres was that the Roman theatres would show war scenes on stage whereas in the Greek plays, war was only mentioned and talked about on stage. This clearly shows us that via theatre one can get a deep insight on the culture of the society. In those days certain dress codes meant something particular e.g. A purple robe would mean that the character being played is that of a young man. Similarly the character of an old man would make use of a white wig or a white robe. Female actors were not available for the plays and men played roles of women. A yellow robe meant that the character being played is that of a woman. The normal time duration of their play was about two hours and most of them were only comical in nature and not very philosophical. The audience was very rude, loud and hardly ever applauded a good performance.

The Romans did not allow their women to act on stage and this showed the male dominance in their society. It is not known when the women started to come on the stage to perform in the Roman theatre but the time that it was declared forbidden is known. "It occurred in 1588 during the reign of Sixtus V, who conceding to the company of the Desiosi to give public performances, ordered that they were given in the daytime and with men also in the female parts" (Giulia De Dominicis, p.81). The main season for theatre in Rome occurred during their carnival season where men would disguise and cross-dressing was common. "The traditions of the carnival and the theatre were closely related, and the Roman audiences were accustomed to men performing as women, in the street as well as in the theatre" (Live Hov, p.61). Roman society was of male dominance and women's roles were limited to the household work and taking care of the children. They were not allowed to take part in other activities like performing in the theatre. The Roman entertainers played an important role in the society. They kept the audience busy with laughter and kept other events off their minds. The effect this brought about was that the public started to take less interest in the administrative block of the government and thought less about the removal or assassination of the emperor. Theatre back then was used and allowed for due to such reasons. Describing what Beacham wrote in his 1991 study of the Roman Theatre, Garret Fagan writes "Spectator and performer, audience and actor, were an integral part of the Roman social and political scene, though Beacham's emphasis is very much on the latter" (Garret Fagan, p.465).

The Roman theatre did not rise to the heights of the Greek theatre and the Roman audience was not interested in serious drama. Most of the initial drama of the Roman theatre was nothing but translations of the Greek counterparts. Gnaevus and others who succeeded him copied tragedies from the Greeks. Plautus however used the inhabitant elements belonging to the Romans into his play plots, "producing plays characterized by farce, intrigue, romance, and sentiment." Terrence, a refined and elegant "stylist" wrote primarily for the upper class of the Roman society and "dispensed with the element of farce" (The Columbia Encyclopedia). Although the audience of the Roman theatre was mostly into comedy, they observed their first dramatic performance about twenty five years before Menander was born. "The historian Livy tells us that in 364 B.C., in order to "disarm the wrath of the gods" who had visited the city with a pestilence, the consuls "amongst other efforts... instituted scenic entertainments." Livy then adds that these "were mimetic dances by natives of Etruria imported from abroad" (Vera Mowry Roberts, p.55). Etruscan players became highly popular in Rome and their dances, music and verses were much in demand and often imitated by the Roman youth. The actors in the Roman theatre were referred to as histriones or cantores. It is also believed that the actors were mostly slaves and the best of them were probably freed men. However the truth in this matter is not entirely known because not throughout the Roman history was acting taken to be something offensive or shameful to come and perform in public.

Music was very important in the Roman theatre which was quite similar to the Greeks. They both had musical elements incorporated in the drama. A commonly held belief is that songs or cantica were sung by trained professional vocalists who were employed for this job. The loud nature of the crowd forced the actors to speak in a loud voice so that they could be heard. The crowd would be so loud that at times the praeco (crier) would need to come to ask the audience for silence before the commencement of the play because it was only natural that the actors would not burst his lungs due to the behavior of the audience. This silence was of course short lived. It is also interesting to know that during the Imperial times there were tickets with the seat number, very similar to what we have in the theatres today. It is although believed by some that this was a privilege enjoyed by the upper class or the social elite. There were two types of seats in the Roman theatre. One was called scaena which was only for the actors and the other was cauea which was for the spectators. Senators and other people holding high political offices had their seats reserved since the Republican times. This in turn led to a very distinct discrimination between the upper and lower classes thus giving rise to much ill-feeling despite the fact that all classes went to the theatre. The other seats to the under privileged were given at a first come first serve basis and the front seats were the favorites and would fill up the earliest. People arriving late were permitted to enter even if the play had started.

The Roman theatre faced some problems in the beginning due to the fact that the audience was distracted by other events. The first performance of Hecyra was a ruin because the audience was distracted by the boxers and the rope dancer. The second performance was again a disaster as people heard of a rumor that a "gladiatorial display was about to take place" (W. Beare, p.165). The stage was a wooden one and some people hold the view that at a time the Romans had created a revolving stage. This is not considered as an authentic historical record of the history of Roman theatre. The actors and their dressing rooms were located behind the stage.

The Roman… [END OF PREVIEW]

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