Japanese theatre

History of theatre

Asian Theatre

Indian Theatre

Folk theatre and dramatics can be traced to the religious ritualism of the Vedic peoples in the 2nd millenium BC. This folk theatre of the misty past was mixed with dance, food, ritualism, plus a depiction of events from daily life. It was the last element which made it the origin of the classical theatre of later times. Many historians, notably D. D. Kosambi, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Adya Rangacharaya, etc. have referred to the prevalence of ritualism amongst Indo-Aryan tribes in which some members of the tribe acted as if they were wild animals and some others were the hunters. Those who acted as mammals like goats, buffaloes, reindeer, monkeys, etc. were chased by those playing the role of hunters.

In such a simple and crude manner did the theatre originate in India during Rig Vedic times. There also must have existed a theatrical tradition in the Harappan cities, but of this we lack material proof.

Natya Shastra

Bharata Muni (fl. 5th–2nd century BC) was an ancient Indian writer best known for writing the Natya Shastra of Bharata, a theoretical treatise on Indian performing arts, including theatre, dance, acting, and music, which has been compared to Aristotle's Poetics. Bharata is often known as the father of Indian theatrical arts. His Natya Shastra seems to be the first attempt to develop the technique or rather art, of drama in a systematic manner. The Natya Shastra tells us not only what is to be portrayed in a drama, but how the portrayal is to be done. Drama, as Bharata Muni says, is the imitation of men and their doings (loka-vritti). As men and their doings have to be respected on the stage, so drama in Sanskrit is also known by the term roopaka which means portrayal.

The Natya Shastra is incredibly wide in its scope. It consists of minutely detailed precepts for both playwrights and actors. Bharata describes ten types of drama ranging from one to ten acts. In addition, he lays down principles for stage design, makeup, costume, dance (various movements and gestures), a theory of aesthetics (rasas and bhavas), acting, directing and music, each in individual chapters.

Bharata sets out a detailed theory of drama comparable to the Poetics of Aristotle. He refers to bhavas, the imitations of emotions that the actors perform, and the rasas (emotional responses) that they inspire in the audience. He argues that there are eight principal rasas: love, pity, anger, disgust, heroism, awe, terror and comedy, and that plays should mix different rasas but be dominated by one. According to the Natya Shastra, all the modes of expression employed by an individual viz. speech, gestures, movements and intonation must be used. The representation of these expressions can have different modes (vritti) according to the predominance and emphasis on one mode or another. Bharatamuni recognises four main modes: speech and poetry (bharati vritti), dance and music (kaishiki vritti), action (arabhatti vritti) and emotions (sattvatti vritti).

Classical Indian Theatre

The Ramayana and Mahabharata can be considered the first recognized plays that originated in India. These epics provided the inspiration to the earliest Indian dramatists and they do it even today. Indian dramatists such as Bhasa in the second century BC wrote plays that were heavily inspired by the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Kālidāsa in the first century BC, is arguably considered to be ancient India's greatest Sanskrit dramatist. Three famous romantic plays written by Kālidāsa are the Mālavikāgnimitram (Mālavikā and Agnimitra), Vikramuurvashiiya (Pertaining to Vikrama and Urvashi), and Abhijñānaśākuntala (The Recognition of Shakuntala). The last was inspired by a story in the Mahabharata and is the most famous. It was the first to be translated into English and German. In comparison to Bhasa, who drew heavily from the epics, Kālidāsa can be considered an original playwright

Medieval Indian Theatre

The next great Indian dramatist was Bhavabhuti (c. 7th century). He is said to have written the following three plays: Malati-Madhava, Mahaviracharita and Uttar Ramacharita. Among these three, the last two cover between them, the entire epic of Ramayana. The powerful Indian emperor Harsha (606-648) is credited with having written three plays: the comedy Ratnavali, Priyadarsika, and the Buddhist drama Nagananda. Many other dramatists followed during the Middle Ages.

Chinese Theatre

Shang Theatre

There are references to theatrical entertainments in China as early as 1500 BC during the Shang Dynasty; they often involved music, clowning and acrobatic displays.

Tang Theatre

The Tang Dynasty is sometimes known as 'The Age of 1000 Entertainments'. During this era, Emperor Xuanzong formed an acting school known as the Children of the Pear Garden to produce a form of drama that was primarily musical.

During the Han Dynasty, shadow puppetry first emerged as a recognized form of theatre in China. There were two distinct forms of shadow puppetry, Cantonese southern and Pekingese northern. The two styles were differentiated by the method of making the puppets and the positioning of the rods on the puppets, as opposed to the type of play performed by the puppets. Both styles generally performed plays depicting great adventure and fantasy, rarely was this very stylized form of theatre used for political propaganda. Cantonese shadow puppets were the larger of the two. They were built using thick leather which created more substantial shadows. Symbolic color was also very prevalent; a black face represented honesty, a red one bravery. The rods used to control Cantonese puppets were attached perpendicular to the puppets’ heads. Thus, they were not seen by the audience when the shadow was created. Pekingese puppets were more delicate and smaller. They were created out of thin, translucent leather usually taken from the belly of a donkey. They were painted with vibrant paints, thus they cast a very colorful shadow. The thin rods which controlled their movements were attached to a leather collar at the neck of the puppet. The rods ran parallel to the bodies of the puppet then turned at a ninety degree angle to connect to the neck. While these rods were visible when the shadow was cast, they laid outside the shadow of the puppet; thus they did not interfere with the appearance of the figure. The rods attached at the necks to facilitate the use of multiple heads with one body. When the heads were not being used, they were stored in a muslin book or fabric lined box. The heads were always removed at night. This was in keeping with the old superstition that if left intact, the puppets would come to life at night. Some puppeteers went so far as to store the heads in one book and the bodies in another, to further reduce the possibility of reanimating puppets. Shadow puppetry is said to have reached its highest point of artistic development in the eleventh century before becoming a tool of the government.

Sung and Yuan Theatre

In the Sung Dynasty, there were many popular plays involving acrobatics and music. These developed in the Yuan Dynasty into a more sophisticated form with a four or five act structure.

Yuan drama spread across China and diversified into numerous regional forms, the best known of which is Beijing Opera, which is still popular today.

Southeast Asian Theatre

Theatre in Southeast Asia was mostly influenced by Indian theatre.

Thai Theatre

In Thailand, it has been a tradition from the Middle Ages to stage plays based on plots drawn from Indian epics. In particular, the theatrical version of Thailand's national epic Ramakien, a version of the Indian Ramayana, remains popular in Thailand even today.

Khmer and Malay Theatre

In Cambodia, at the ancient capital Angkor Wat, stories from the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata have been carved on the walls of temples and palaces. Similar reliefs are found at Borobudur in Indonesia.

Japanese Theatre


During the 14th century, there were small companies of actors in Japan who performed short, sometimes vulgar comedies. A director of one of these companies, Kan'ami (1333-1384), had a son, Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) who was considered one of the finest child actors in Japan. When Kan'ami's company performed for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), the Shogun of Japan, he implored Zeami to have a court education for his arts. After Zeami succeeded his father, he continued to perform and adapt his style into what is today Noh. A mixture of pantomime and vocal acrobatics, this style has fascinated the Japanese for hundreds of years.


Japan, after a long period of civil wars and political disarray, was unified and at peace primarily due to shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1600-1668). However, alarmed at increasing Christian growth, he cut off contact from Japan to Europe and China and outlawed Christianity. When peace did come, a flourish of cultural influence and growing merchant class demanded its own entertainment. The first form of theatre to flourish was Ningyō jōruri (commonly referred to as Bunraku). The founder of and main contributor to Ningyō jōruri, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), turned his form of theatre into a true art form. Ningyō jōruri is a highly stylized form of theatre using puppets, today about 1/3d the size of a human. The men who control the puppets train their entire lives to become master puppeteers, when they can then operate the puppet's head and right arm and choose to show their faces during the performance. The other puppeteers, controlling the less important limbs of the puppet, cover themselves and their faces in a black suit, to imply their invisibility. The dialogue is handled by a single person, who uses varied tones of voice and speaking manners to simulate different characters. Chikamatsu wrote thousands of plays during his lifetime, most of which are still used today.


Kabuki began shortly after Bunraku, legend has it by an actress named Okuni, who lived around the end of the sixteenth century. Most of Kabuki's material came from Nõ and Bunraku, and its erratic dance-type movements are also an effect of Bunraku. However, Kabuki is less formal and more distant than Nõ, yet very popular among the Japanese public. Actors are trained in many varied things including dancing, singing, pantomime, and even acrobatics. Kabuki was first performed by young girls, then by young boys, and by the end of the sixteenth century, Kabuki companies consisted of all men. The men who portrayed women on stage were specifically trained to elicit the essence of a woman in their subtle movements and gestures.


Middle Eastern Theatre

Ancient Egyptian Theatre

The earliest recorded theatrical event dates back to 2000 BC with the passion plays of Ancient Egypt. This story of the god Osiris was performed annually at festivals throughout the civilization, marking the known beginning of a long relationship between theatre and religion.

Medieval Islamic Theatre

The most popular forms of theater in the medieval Islamic world were puppet theatre (which included hand puppets, shadow plays and marionette productions) and live passion plays known as ta'ziya, where actors re-enact episodes from Muslim history. In particular, Shia Islamic plays revolved around the shaheed (martyrdom) of Ali's sons Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali. Live secular plays were known as akhraja, recorded in medieval adab literature, though they were less common than puppetry and ta'ziya theater.

Western Theatre History

Greek Theatre

The earliest days of western theatre remain obscure, but the oldest surviving plays come from ancient Greece. Most philologists agree that Greek theatre evolved from staged religious choral performances, during celebrations to Dionysus the Greek god of wine and fertility (Dithyrambs). There are, however, findings suggesting the possible existence of theatre-like performances much earlier, such as the famous "Blind Steps" of the Minoan Palace at Knossos: a broad stone stairway descending to a flat stone courtyard that leads nowhere - an arrangement strongly suggesting that the courtyard was used for a staged spectacle and the stairway was in fact used as seating.

The vast majority of Ancient Greek theatrical texts have not survived intact. A small number of works from four Greek playwrights writing during the fifth century B.C. remain fully intact.

The above-mentioned playwrights are regarded as the most influential by critics of subsequent eras including (Aristotle). The tragic and sartyr plays were always performed at the festival (City Dionysia) where they were part of a series of four performances (a "tetralogy"): the first, second and third plays were a dramatic trilogy based on related or unrelated mythological events, and the culminating fourth performance was a satyr play, a play on a lighter note, with enhanced celebratory and dance elements. Performances lasted several hours and were held during daytime.

The dramas rarely had more than three actors (all male), who played the different roles using masks. There was a chorus on the stage most of the time which sang songs and sometimes spoke in unison. As far as we know, most dramas were staged just a single time, at the traditional drama contest. Such contests were always held in the context of major religious festivals, most notably those in honor of the god Dionysos, and competed for an honorific prize (such as a tripod and a sum of money) awarded by a panel of judges - usually these were the sacerdotal and civil officers presiding over the particular religious festival. The prize was awarded jointly to the producer, who had financed the staging, and the poet, who was at the same time the author, composer, choreographer and director of the plays.

The actors wore large masks, which were very colourful. These masks depicted two things: the age of the character, and their mood. They also amplified sound in the same way that cupping your hands over your mouth does. Actors also wore thick, padded clothing, and shoes with thick soles. This made them seem larger, so the audience could see them better when seated in the uppermost rows of the amphitheatre.

Roman Theatre

The theatre of ancient Rome was heavily influenced by the Greek tradition, and as with many other literary genres Roman dramatists tended to adapt and translate from the Greek. For example, Seneca's Phaedra was based on the Hippolytus of Euripides, and many of the comedies of Plautus and Terence, the most famous Roman comic playwrights, were direct re-elaborations of works by Menander.

When comparing and contrasting ancient Roman theatre to that of Greece it can easily be said that Roman theatre was less influenced by religion. Also, Roman theatre was more for aesthetic appeal. In Roman theatre war was a more common thing to appear on stage as opposed to the Greek theatre where wars were more commonly spoken about. This was no doubt a reflection of Roman culture and habits.

The audience was often loud and rude, rarely applauding the actors, but always shouting insults and booing. Because the audience was so loud, much of the plays were mimed and repetitive. The actors developed a kind of code that would tell the audience about the characters just by looking at them.

  • A black wig meant the character was a young man.
  • A gray wig meant the character was an old man.
  • A red wig meant the character was a slave.
  • A white robe meant the character was an old man.
  • A purple robe meant the character was a young man.
  • A yellow robe meant the character was a woman. (Needed in early Roman theatre, as originally female characters were played by men, however as the Roman theatre progressed, women slaves took the roles of women in plays.)
  • A yellow tassel meant the character was a god.

Plays lasted for two hours, and were usually comedies. Most comedies involved mistaken identity (such as gods disguised as humans).

Medieval European Theatre

In the Middle Ages, after the fall of Roman civilization, cities were abandoned, southern and western Europe became increasingly more agricultural. After several hundred years, towns re-emerged. The Roman Catholic church dominated religion, education and often politics. What remained of the theatre was based on the Greek and Roman performing arts: mimes, minstrels and traveling jugglers.

Theatre was reborn as liturgical dramas, written in Latin and dealing with Bible stories and performed by priests or church members. Then came vernacular drama spoken in the vulgate (i.e the language of the people as opposed to Church Latin); this was a more elaborate series of one-act dramas enacted in town squares or other parts of the city. There were three types of vernacular dramas. Mystery or cycle plays, like the York Mystery Plays or Wakefield Cycle were series of short dramas based on the Old and New Testaments organized into historical cycles. Miracle plays dealt with the lives of saints. Morality plays taught a lesson through allegorical characters representing virtues or faults. Secular plays in this period existed, but medieval religious drama is most remembered today.

Plays were set up in individual scenic units called mansions or in wagon stages which were platforms mounted on wheels used to move scenery. Often providing their own costumes, amateur performers in England were only men, but other countries had female performers. The platform stage allowed for abrupt changes in location which was an unidentified space and not a specific locale.

Among the more notable religious plays were "The Summoning of Everyman" (an allegory designed to teach the faithful that acts of Christian charity are necessary for entry into heaven), passion plays (such as the later Oberammergau Passion Play, which is still performed every ten years), and the great cycle plays (massive, festive wagon-mounted processions involving hundreds of actors, and drawing pilgrims, tourists, and entrepreneurs) York Corpus Christi Play Simulator The morality play and mystery play (as they are known in English) were two distinct genres.

Since many of the more theatrically successful medieval religious plays were designed to teach Catholic doctrine, the Protestant Reformation targeted the theatre, especially in England, in an effort to stamp out allegiance to Rome.

Whereas most churches carefully watched over the scripts of their dogmatic plays, in order to ensure that the faithful were being taught the accepted doctrine, by the end of the 1500s Queen Elizabeth was controlling the stage just as effectively through a system of patronage, licensing, and censorship. Hamlet's reference to a frenetic performance that "out-Herods Herod" refers to the tradition of presenting King Herod as a bombastic figure, suggesting that Shakespeare expected his audience to be familiar with this particular medieval tradition, long after the religious landscape in England had changed.

Puritan opposition to the stage – informed by the arguments of the early Church Fathers who had written screeds against the decadent and violent entertainments of the Romans – argued not only that the stage in general was pagan, but that any play that represented a religious figure was inherently idolatrous. In 1642, the Protestant authorities banned the performance of all plays within the city limits of London. A sweeping assault against the alleged immoralities of the theatre crushed whatever remained in England of the Medieval dramatic tradition.

Commedia dell'Arte

Commedia dell'Arte troupes performed lively improvisational playlets across Europe for centuries. It originated in Italy in the 1560s, and differed from conventional theatre in that it was neither professional nor open to the public. Commedia dell'Arte required only actors at its heart, no scene and very few props were considered absolutely essential. Plays did not originate from scripts but scenarios, which were loose frameworks of productions providing only the situations, complications, and outcome of the work. The actors improvised most dialogue and comedic interludes(called lazzi). The plays were based around a few stock characters, which could be divided into three groups: the lovers, masters, and servants. The lovers had different names and characteristics in most plays and often were the children of the master's character. The role of master was normally based on one of three stereotypes: Pantalone, an eldery Venetian merchant who wore his pajamas most often; Dottore, Pantalone's friend or rival, a doctor or lawyer who acted far more intelligent than he really was; and Capitano, who was once a lover's character, but evolved into a man who bragged about his exploits in love and war, but was often terrifically unskilled in both. He normally carried a sword and wore a cape and feathered headdress. The servant character type (called zanni) had only one recurring role: Arlecchino (also called Harlequin). He was both cunning and ignorant, but an accomplished dancer. He typically carried a wooden stick with a split in the middle so it made a loud noise when striking something. This "weapon" gave us the term "slapstick." A troupe typically consisted of 13 to 14 members. No women were allowed to act in theater at this time. So there were absolutely no female performers. Most actors were paid by taking a share of the play's profits roughly equivalent to the size of their role was in its peak from 1575-1650, but even after that time new scenarios were written and performed. Carlo Goldoni wrote a few scenarios starting in 1734, but since he considered the genre too vulgar, he refined the topics of his own to be more sophisticated. He also wrote several true plays starring Commedia characters. By 1775, however, the genre of Commedia dell'Arte had lost public interest and died out. Improvisation today is very close to the Commedia.

Renaissance Theatre

Spanish Golden Age Laws on Female Actors In Spain theatre thrived during its Golden Age, a period from about 1550 to 1700. Three types of drama were popular: the religious one acts called autos sacramentales, the secular full- length comedias nuevas, and also the musical zarzuelas (Wilson 211-21). The writers of the comedias nuevas frequently called for female characters to cross-dress as men. In Spain women were first allowed to act in religious plays and later became present in secular performances (Wilson 221). Prior to this men and boys played women onstage. The Catholic Church at the time was against theatre and especially the presence of female performers (Wilson 221). They believed female actors were prostitutes (Shergold 523). The Spanish government passed many laws concerning gender and theatrical performance. In 1587 a law was enacted that made it legal for women to act while simultaneously making it illegal for boys to play women, many attempts to legislate the stage followed this (Heise 385). In 1596 female actors were banned again and shortly after in 1598 the theatres were shut down only to be brought back in 1599, along with women being allowed back onstage (Heise 358). In 1600 the Council of Castile created a document of recommendations to the King that stated women could be onstage, but again boys could not play women, nor could they wear make-up. It was also stipulated that all female actors must be married and have their husband or father with them at the theatre (Heise 359). In the years following 1600 ordinances were put forth which regulated the types of dancing women were allowed to do onstage as well as how they were to dress (Shergold 519). In 1653 a law said that when the script required women to cross-dress, they could only do it on the upper half of their body (Shergold 520).

References: Heise K, Ursula. “Transvestism and the Stage Controversy in Spain and England, 1580- 1680.” Theatre Journal 44.3 (1992): 357-74. Shergold, N.D. A History of the Spanish Stage: From Medieval Times Until the End of the Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1967. Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre: A History. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2000.

Restoration comedy

Restoration spectacular

Neoclassical Theatre

Neoclassicism was the dominant form of theatre in the eighteenth century. It demanded decorum and rigorous adherence to the classical unities. Neoclassical theatre as well as the time period is characterized by its grandiosity. The costumes and scenery were intricate and elaborate. The acting is characterized by large gestures and melodrama. Theatres of the early 18th century – sexual farces of the Restoration were superseded by politically satirical comedies, 1737 Parliament passed the Stage Licensing Act which introduced state censorship of public performances and limited the number of theatres in London to just two.

Late Modern Theatre

Late Modern, and especially twentieth century theatre, often continues the project of realism. However, there has also been a great deal of experimental theatre that rejects the conventions of realism and earlier forms. Examples include: Epic theatre, absurdist theatre, and postmodern theatre. Key figures of the century include: Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, Konstantin Stanislavski, Harold Pinter, Eugene O'Neill, Samuel Beckett, and Tony Kushner.

A number of aesthetic movements emerged in the 20th century, including:


  • Pierre Sauzeau: La tradition créatrice du théâtre antique. - I. En Grèce ancienne. Textes réunis par Pierre Sauzeau avec la collaboration de Jean-moenet Turpin Cahiers du GITA nº 11, Montpellier: Publications de l’Université Paul Valéry, 1999, 218 p.
  • Pierre Sauzeau: La tradition créatrice du théâtre antique. - II. De Rome à nos jours. Textes réunis par Pierre Sauzeau avec la collaboration de Jean-Claude Turpin Cahiers du GITA nº 12, Montpellier: Publications de l’Université Paul Valéry, 1999, 314 p.

See also


  • Freund, Philip, The Birth of Theatre, London : Peter Owen, 2003. ISBN 0720611709
  • Freund, Philip, Oriental theatre : drama, opera, dance and puppetry in the Far East, London, Peter Owen, 2005. ISBN 072061208X
  • Wilson, Edwin. Goldfarb, Alvin. Theater: The Lively Art. Publisher: McGraw-Hill; 4 edition (June 21, 2001). ISBN 0-07-246281-7


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