Toby Simkin presents Theatre History Timeline - Theatrical History

Broadway & Global Theatre History

A theatre history timeline featuring major dramatic events in history from the birthplace of theatre in Ancient Greece leading through decades of Roman, Elizabethan and others, to the emergence and development of the West End to Broadway and it’s Golden Age through to today.

The original (started in about 1995, and always developing) timeline of theatre history — available within my TheatreTerms app, often copied on the net, but this is the source and complete… enjoy!

EARLY ORIGINS

2000 BCE The earliest recorded quasi-theatrical yet dramatic production dates back to 2000 BCE with the “passion plays” of Ancient Egypt. This story of the god Osiris was performed annually at festivals throughout the civilization. The acting of those days was extremely realistic as Greek historians tell us that many actors died of the wounds received in the ‘play’ battles between the enemies of Osiris and the forces led by his son, Ap-uat.
1500 BCE The earliest references to theatrical entertainment in China as early as 1500 BCE during the Shang Dynasty; they often involved music, clowning & acrobatic displays.
1200 BCE Around 1200 BC, in Thrace (in northern Greece), the Cult of Dionysus arose, in worship of of the god Dionysus (god of wine and fertility). Ancient Greek theatrical-style, religious-based events grew out of sporadic festivals in worship of Dionysus. The ceremonies were a measured frenzy; chaos with a purpose. The Dionysians practiced ritualistic celebrations that included intoxication, orgies, human and animal sacrifices, and hysterical rampages by women called the maenads. However, over the next 6 centuries, the cult spread across Greece, growing steadily more mainstream and civilized.
1149 BCE Depending on how we define ‘theatre’, in Egyptian culture from the reign of Ramses V (1149 ~ 1145 BCE). One such play was Contendings of Horus and Seth – while it didn’t have a “proper” theatrical venue, was peppered with off-color jokes and outright bawdiness, making it perhaps the “first written play comedy”
~700 BCE Around 700 BCE, at the same time ancient Athens rose to political and military power, Greece became the word’s cultural center with festival entertainments – the most important of which was the “Dionysus Festival“. Honoring the gods and goddesses was now more civilized. Citizens would gather to watch more, rather than participate. From these festival entertainments, developed 3 dramatic genres: tragedy in the late 6th century BCE, the satyr play in 500 BCE and lastly comedy in 486 BCE.
~700 BCE The first form of a permanent theatre building was a Chinese theatre, established by the Emperor about 700 BCE so writers could apply themselves to the development of a poetic drama.
625 BCE Arion, of Methymna is possibly the worlds first director. It is likely he invented the tragic mode (tragikou tropou) and the first to make the chorus stationary and to sing dithyramb and to give a name to what was sung by the chorus, and to introduce satyrs speaking in verse at Corinth.
~600 BCE Dithyranbous evolution by Arion of Methemna. The first theatrical-style production of sorts as we know it began in ancient Greece began when Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon, transfers “tragic choruses” to Dionysus for a religious ceremony called Dithyramb in which a chorus of 50 men dressed as satyrs in goat skins, with protruding phalluses, would sing and danced in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. Ancient Greeks laid out the criteria of the dithyramb as follows:

  • special rhythm
  • aulos (musical instrument) accompaniment in Phrygian (harmonic) mode
  • enriching text
  • considerable narrative content
  • originally antistrophic (a kind of ancient dance) character.

THEATRE’S ANCIENT GREEK ORIGINS

6th Century BCE The word ‘theatre‘ comes from a Greek word “theatron,” meaning meaning “to behold” “a place for seeing”. Prior to 342 BCE, theatres were temporary wooden structure built for the Dionysus Festival (in the City Dionysia) and dismantled when the celebration was concluded. The audience probably sat on wooden benches (theatron) and the actors and chorus performed on a flat, roughly circular 85′ diameter dirt floored acting area (orchestra).
6th Century BCE The word ‘tragedy‘ comes from Greek words tragos and ode, which roughly translates as “goat song“. The invention of Greek tragedy was generally ascribed to the first actor, Thespis of Icaria and propagated by the playwright Aeschylus.
532 BCE The first known actor/singer was Thespis of Icaria (Dionysos, Greece) became the first person to speak and sing individual lines in the Dithyramb in March, 532 at the Dionysus Festival. He is credited with introducing a new style in which a singer or actor performed the words of individual characters in the stories. He added narration and acted out dramatic episodes, thus the beginnings of modern theatre were born. Thespis is the first known actor in written plays. Thespis was so influential that we still call actors Thespians.
534 BCE The world’s first award-winning actor, was Thespis of Attica, wins the first annual Dionysian Festival dramatic competition on November 23, 534 BCE. His prize was a goat and a basket of figs.
6th Century BCE In ancient Greece the ‘orchestra’ was the circular acting area at the foot of the hill, where the chorus (and actors) performed. In the center of the orchestra there was often was an alter (or thymele). It was located directly in front of the theatron (seating area).
523 BCE Aeschylus (523 BCE – 456 BCE) who is often described as the father of tragedy is born.
~500 BCE Pratinus of Phlius introduces the Satyr play to Athens where satyric drama is born. Pratinas participated in the tragic Dionysus Festival contest with a satyric drama, which punctuated their tragedies, and were designed to lighten the mood. Costumes were Goatskin loincloth with phallus in front and tail in back. They used phallic props, and