Toby Simkin presents Theatre History Timeline - Theatrical History

Broadway & Global Theater History

A timeline of theatrical history 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 — 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 featured mock drunkenness, sexuality, pranks and physical comedy. They date back at least to 500 BCE. Only one complete script remains: Cyclops. is an adventurous comedy by Euripides.
499 BCE Aeschylus’ began competing at Dionysus Festival in 449 BCE. Most of his plays were part of trilogies; the only extant Greek trilogy is The Orestia.
496 BCE Playwright Sophocles is born in Colonus, a village near Athens in 496 BCE. Later in his career, at the Dionysus Festival, he won 24 contests, never lower than 2nd place; and is believed to have introduced the 3rd actor; reducing the chorus to 15 (from 50)
~490 BCE Ancient Greek theatre masks had cork mouth pieces that acted like megaphones which would help amplify the actors’ voices to the back of the theatre. Some Greek theatres had a capacity over 14,000, so large masks made it clear for the people furthest away which character was which and what they were feeling. The materials used to create the masks were made out light weight, organic materials such as stiffened linen, leather, wood or cork.
486 BCE The word “comedy” comes from the Ancient Greek (kamaida) derives from the words for ‘revel’ and ‘song’ (kamos & ada) According to Aristotle, comic drama actually developed from song, and that comedy was slow to gain official acceptance because nobody took it seriously. The first ‘official’ comedy was staged in 486 BCE at the Dionysus Festival and originates from Dionysian cult and more specifically from the hymns devoted to Dionysus, called “phallic hymns“.
485 BCE Playwright Euripides is born (480-406 BCE) was very popular in later Greek times, little appreciated during his life sometimes known as “the father of melodrama“.
~475 BCE First outwardly gay theatrical person? Ancient sources mention Sophocles’ homosexuality. The Greek rhetorician Athenaios reported that Sophocles loved boys like Euripides loved women. The poet Ion of Chios relates an anecdote involving Sophocles seducing a serving boy at a symposium, and Athenaios one in which Sophocles is tricked by a male hustler.
472 BCE A 2nd actor is introduced by Aeschylus. The oldest play still in existence is The Persians by Aeschylus (523 – 456 BCE) who is described as the father of tragedy. The play was written in 472 BCE. Aeschylus wrote at least 90 plays, but only 7 have survived the ravages of time
458 BCE The earliest reference to “walking a red carpet” is from the Greek father of tragedy Aeschylus, whose play Agamemnon in 458 BCE, had the title character (and hero) greeted by his vengeful wife Clytemnestra, and invites him to walk a “crimson path” to his house and eventual doom (stabbed to death by her in their bathtub because of his adultery).
~450 BCE The skene, a tent or small wooden hut was probably added in the middle of the 5th century. (the source of term scene) Located at the rear of the acting space (upstage wall of stage) It probably did not exist for Aeschylus’ early tragedies. It had at least one, and perhaps as many as three openings (possible doors) which could be used as entrances.
449 BCE Playwrights cast themselves in their plays till 449 BCE, with the growth of the contests, the main actors were chosen by lot, and the others by the main actors and the playwright. Actors were semi-professional, at best & were paid by the State.
446 BCE Playwright Aristophanesis was born in 446. He later became a comic playwright of ancient Athens. 11 of his 40 plays survive virtually complete. These provide the only examples of a genre of comic drama known as Old Comedy. Known as the Father of Comedy, Aristophanes has been said to recreate the life of ancient Athens more convincingly than any other author. With a career of fighting accusations of slander, and many of his plays denounced, in 424 BCE, The Knights, the first of many plays that he directed himself, he says through the Chorus in that play “In my opinion, the author-director of comedies has the hardest job of all.
~442 BCE A 3rd actor and a chorus of 15 is introduced by Sophocles. All performers were males actors, singers & dancers and used masks (supported with costume pieces) to portray the variety of characters. The actors – 1 protagonist (the star) and 2 other actors performed all of the speaking parts. These restrictions were to ensure equality in competition and keep costs low for the state funding the actors. The Chorus, costumes, musicians, and rehearsal time were funded by an appointed private citizen, a khorÄ“gos, which was a role carrying great prestige.
5th Century
BCE
Theatre was so important in Ancient Greece that the state would pay for poor people to attend performances.
430 BCE Sophocles’s Oedipus, entered at the Dionysus Festival and comes 2nd.
5th Century
BCE
Ancient Greek audiences stamped their feet rather than clapping their hands to applaud.
5th Century
BCE
In Ancient Greek Theatre, characters did not die onstage. If a character needed to be killed they would go offstage and their body would be displayed on the ekkyklema, a platform that could be wheeled on through sliding doors in the skene. (Sophocles’s play Ajax is an exception)
427 BCE Aristophanes (446 – 386 BCE) is known as the Father of Comedy where 11 of his 40 plays survive and provide the only real examples of a genre of comic drama known as old comedy, and are used to define it. Aristophanes won second prize at the Dionysus Festival in 427 BCE with his first comedy play The Banqueters. His other better known plays are: Wasps, The Frogs, The Acharnians, Clouds, Birds, Ecclesiazusae, Peace, The Wasps, and Lysistrata.
5th Century
BCE
The Greek Tragedy and Comedy masks were created in the 5th Century BCE. Both daughters of the god Zeus, the comedy mask is known as Thalia, who in Greek mythology is the Muse of Comedy and Idyllic Poetry. Thalia is depicted with the comedy mask in one hand, and a trumpet or bulge in the other. The tragedy mask is known as Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy. Melpomene is depicted with the tragedy mask in one hand, and a knife or a club in the other.
406 BCE Famous Greek tragedian playwright Euripides (480 – 406 BCE) of Athens dies. In his career, he served for a short time as both dancer and torch-bearer before pioneering theatrical innovations as a playwright that profoundly influenced drama, especially in the representation of heroes as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances – this allowed future writers to adapt to the first theatrical comedy.
405 BCE Sophocles for over 60 years until his death in 405 BCE aged 91), was the most successful playwright of ancient Greece, entering his tragedies in 30 competitions, winning 18 first prizes (and never judged lower than 2md place) at the City of Dionysia in 30 years. Only 7 of his 120 plays remain, of which was Oedipus Rex and Antigone are the most famous.
~360 BCE According to the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE), the plot is the most important feature of a dramatic performance. Aristotle taught that tragedy is composed of six elements: plot-structure, character, style, thought, spectacle, and lyric poetry. The characters in a tragedy are merely a means of driving the story; and the plot, not the characters, is the chief focus of tragedy.
~342 BCE The outdoor Theatre of Dionysus in Ancient Athens was the oldest theatre. This permanent Greek theatre was built around 342 BCE. With an estimated capacity of up to 17,000 people, with 78 stone rows built up a slope overlooking the stage. Remodeled to fit the Roman ideal during the reign of Nero (61 BCE), and last used for a theatrical performance during the 4th century CE.
~340 BCE The Great Theatre of Epidaurus was built, by architect Polykleitos in 340 BCE. Among all the ancient theatres, Epidaurus theatre is the most beautiful and best preserved ancient theatres. The auditorium was carved into the side of Mount Kynortio. It had a capacity of 13,000, divided into 2 parts: 21-rows of seats aimed for the citizens and 34-rows of seats aimed for the priests and rulers. The theatre remained in use for nearly 1000 years. The theatre was the inspiration for London’s Olivier Theatre which opened in 1976.
~340 BCE Now with permanent theatre structures, within 200 years after the start of the Greek theatres, the first stage machinery and scenery were added to the shows. They used a system of revolving upright prisms, much like the system used in modern rotating billboards, to show a change of location. These were called Periaktoi. They used mechanical trap doors and the machina: a crane for winching gods on and off the stage (‘Deus ex machina’).
4th Century
BCE
In ancient Greece the proskenion (from which we get proscenium) was a long shallow area that we would recognize as a stage. The skene was a walled area with 3 doors at the back of the proskenion (upstage), on which scenery could be painted and actors could hide behind.
~340 BCE Aristotle wrote a chronological statement of the steps in the evolution of theatre:

  1. Aeschylus added the 2nd actor,
  2. & Diminished the parts of the Chorus,
  3. & Gave prominence to the text;
  4. Sophocles added the 3rd actor,
  5. & added scene-painting,
  6. & made longer plots;
  7. & became dignified by eliminating grotesque diction by Satyric drama and
  8. & changed metre from tetrameter to Iambic.
~300 BCE The first actors union “The Artists of Dionysus” was started in Greece in the 4th century BCE, by traveling companies of actors who traveled around the Mediterranean during the Hellenistic period. to protect the rights of performers. This included the right to be excluded from military service and the right to travel through enemy territories without hindrance in order to give performances.

FROM GREEKS TO ROMANS

4th Century
BCE
Romans first experienced theatre in the 4th century BCE, with a performance by Etruscan actors. The theatre of ancient Rome was a thriving and diverse art form, ranging from festival performances of street theatre, nude dancing, and acrobatics, to the staging of Plautus’s broadly appealing situation comedies, to the high-style, verbally elaborate tragedies of Seneca.
3rd Century
BCE
Western theatre developed and expanded considerably under the Romans.
284 BCE Lucius Livius Andronicuswas born in 284 BCE. He went on to write works for the stage – both tragedies and comedies – which are regarded as the first dramatic works written in the Latin language of ancient Rome. His comedies were based on Greek New Comedy and featured characters in Greek costume, he is regarded as the father of Roman drama and of Latin literature in general. he died in 204 BC
240 BCE Roman drama began in 240 BC with the plays of