Classical Theater – Meaning, Concept, Characteristics and More


What is Classical theater?

According to Aristotle, the Athenians developed tragedy first, with comedy following a generation later. This assessment being essentially correct, it is believed that comic drama as opposed to comedy itself, the theater of humor versus the formal genre of comedy, seem to have evolved along with its tragic counterpart, perhaps even earlier.

Thus the theater of Satire, in particular, featured a chorus of satyrs (half-human half-animal desert spirits known for their lust and gluttony), irreverent, loud-mouthed, who emerged early in the Greek theater tradition. The historical sources for theatrical performances in the classical age, however, focus largely on tragedy as the center of early dramatic activity.

Definition of Classical Theater

The Classical Theater is a set of literary works, most of them from a certain period (from the III to the XVI centuries) that reached a great influence and managed to transcend in time, enriching the culture of all these times. Therefore, with this genre, there are different types of classical theater since its origin.

In a broad sense, classical theater is made up of plays of a certain antiquity that are still being performed for their artistic value. Likewise, classical theater is considered to represent the highest theatrical manifestation, therefore, the staging is performed by great directors and actors.

The highest classical theatrical representation is the Drama. Drama is a specific mode of performance fiction. The term comes from a Greek word meaning “action” (classical Greek drama), which is derived from the verb “to do” or “to act” (classical Greek). The enactment of drama in the theater, was performed by actors on a stage before an audience, and involves collaborative modes of production and a collective form of reception.

How did the Classical Theater develop?

Three authors of tragedies emerge from the fifth century B.C. as the main practitioners of classical Greek tragic drama: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. First and foremost, Aeschylus lived a generation before the other two so that his work offers a first glimpse into Greek drama. If to modern viewers his plays seem static and slow, there can be little doubt that they were exciting and controversial in their day.

Likewise, Sophocles is often seen as the best drama of the three; in the general estimation of many in the academic community, Sophocles remains the finest exponent of the tragic art, no doubt the dramas were polished and highly respected in the classical age, as they have been for the most part ever since.

The Greek tragedies of the 5th century A.C.

Only a small number of tragedies survive as complete texts from the annual competitions in Athens, but they include works by three playwrights of genius. The earliest is Aeschylus. Aeschylus adds a second actor, increasing the drama’s potential. He first wins the tragedy prize in 484 BC. He is known to have written some 80 plays, of which only seven survive.

One of his innovations was to write three tragedies of the day on the same theme, as a trilogy. Fortunately three of his seven plays are such a trilogy, which remains one of the great masterpieces of the theater, the Orestiad, celebrating the achievement of Athens in replacing the chaos of earlier times with the rule of law.

Sophocles wins his first victory in 468 B.C., defeating Aeschylus. He is credited with adding a third actor, expanding the dramatic possibilities of a scene. While Aeschylus tends to deal with large public issues, Sophocles’ tragic dilemmas are elaborated on a more personal level. Plots become more complex characterizations of the more subtle personal interaction between characters more focused on drama.

History of Classical Theater

The origin of classical theater is found in Greek theater which began with the ceremonies of the followers of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine. In keeping with the interests of this god, the ceremonies of his cult were exciting. His female devotees, in particular, danced in a frenzied state with long phallic symbols known as thyrsus, tearing and devouring the raw flesh of animals for sacrifice.  But the Dionysians also developed a more structured form of drama. They dance and sing, in the form of chorales, the stories of Greek myth.

In the 6th century B.C. a priest of Dionysus, by the name of Thespis, introduces a new element that can validly be seen as the birth of theater. This priest adds a dialogue with the chorus and becomes, in effect, the first actor.  According to a Greek chronicle of the 3rd century BC, Thespis is also the first winner of a theatrical prize. He takes the prize in the tragedy contest, held in Athens in 534 A.C.

In this connection, theatrical contests become a regular feature of the annual festival in honor of Dionysus, held for four days each spring and known as the city Dionysia. Four playwrights are chosen to compete. Each must write and perform three tragedies and one satyr (a lewd farce, featuring the sexually rampant satyrs, half-man and half-animal, who form Dionysus’ entourage).

The time of the performances by each author takes a full day, in front of a large number of citizens in the vacation mood, settled on an Athenian hillside. The main feature of the stage is a circular space where the choir dances and sings. Behind it a temporary wooden structure makes possible a suggestion of the landscape. At the end of the festival a winner was chosen.

History of Classical Theater

What are the stages of classical theater?

The maximum representations of classical theater are comedy and tragedy, hence the symbol of the theater of the sad and happy mask. The following is an exposition of each stage.

The Roman Comedy of the II and III Century A.C.

In Rome the most cultural aspect is influenced by Greece, and this is particularly true of the theater. Two Roman writers of comedy, Plautus and Terence, achieve lasting fame in the decades before and after 200 A.C. Plautus for a solid form of entertainment about farce, Terence for a more subtle comedy of manners. But neither writer invents a unique plot.

All are taken from Greek drama, and each play of Terence is set in Athens. The misfortune of Plautus and Terence is that their audiences are much less attentive than in Athens. And the reason is that the Roman plays are presented as part of a larger event, the Roman games.

The Greek Theater of the 4th century A.C.

A uniquely Greek contribution to history that relates more to stage architecture is the raked Auditorium for viewing theatrical performances (appropriately, since the Greeks are also the inventors of theater as a literary form). The masterpieces of Greek drama date back to the 5th century A.C.

At that time, in Athens, the audience sits on the bare hillside to watch performances on a temporary wooden stage. However, in the 4th century a stone auditorium was built on the site, and a theater still exists there today, the theater of Dionysus. However it is a Roman reconstruction from the time of Nero. So the shape of the stage is a semicircle.

The beginning of Greek Comedy

It occurs in the 5th century A.C., in the year 486 A.C., with an annual competition for comedies in Athens. It was held as part of the Lenaea, a three-day festival in January. Only one comic playwright’s work has survived from the fifth century. The first three tragedies, of the genre were cast great brilliance. He is Aristophanes, a frequent winner of the first prize at the Lenaea (on the first occasion, in 425 A.C., with the Acarnians).

Eleven of his plays survive, out of a total of perhaps forty spanning roughly the period 425-390 A.C. They rely primarily on a device that becomes central to the tradition of comedy, such as satirizing contemporary foibles by placing them in an unexpected context, either through a fantastic plot or through the antics of ridiculous characters.

What is the Legacy of Classical Theater?

Classical theater leaves as its legacy the principles that govern comedy and drama almost to this day. Also the principles of theater are carried over into the liturgy of the Catholic and Orthodox church where the process of the mass, has abundant theatrical principles. Below are some details of this legacy.

types of Classical Theater

What are the types of Classical Theater?

The Mystery Theater

Emerging from around 1170, in the 11th century, it was performed by priests somewhere in France on a platform outside their church. One of its main plays was the mystery of Adam, in which some characters very popular in the medieval imagination are introduced, the so-called evil devils, who could be enacted live in the street but not inside the church.

The performance ends with the devils coming to bind Adam and Eve even with chains, before dragging them away, making a great noise of pots and kettles. They and their victims disappear into a hole from which smoke belches out.

Gradually the performances become longer and the productions more elaborate. In some places the performance lasts an hour a day spread over a month, in others the biblical cycle is enacted in a dusk-to-dawn parade lasting three days.

Most theaters are performed in Europe, outdoor platforms are set, usually along a square, with few houses or mini-stages for different scenes. A famous example of such a stage that survives time was the Valenciennes in 1547. But in some places, a completely different style of performance evolves, with the actors forming a slow and prolonged procession.

The Liturgical Drama of the 10th Century

During the centuries of turmoil in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, theater has no part in life. But with the approach of the first millennium, at the end of the 10th century, the Christian churches introduce dramatic effects into the Holy Week liturgy to enliven the theme of the resurrection. The Gospels describe Mary Magdalene and two other women visiting Jesus’ tomb to find it empty.

In the 970s, after Christ the Bishop of Winchester, anxious to emphasize this important moment, introduces a custom already in use (he says) in certain French monasteries. In this regard, during Easter morning a service was given with scenes and performances by the monks of Winchester to enact the resurrection and ascension of jesus christ, all in the form of a Te Deum.

The Processional Theater of the 14th century

It is performed in parts of Europe, particularly in Spain. Actors perform on carts, each with its own scenery, moving through the city before a succession of audiences. It is an ingenious way of bringing drama to more spectators than can be collected in one place. These acts in Spanish are known as actos sacramentales, ‘eucharistic acts’.

The English Mystery Theater

The English mystery theater occurred in four cycles (linked to the cities of Chester and York, Coventry, Wakefield).  They are also of this type, the theater performed during the Corpus Christi festivities by different guilds, often with a direct link between the scene and their art. The costumes were usually made of fig leaves to make aprons.

The London Theater of 1599

In this theater, the audience of Shakespeare’s range is reflected in the performances, which range from vulgar comedy to the heights of tragic poetry. Occasional performances at Athenian theater festivals must have had something of this effect, that much of the community in a shared artistic experience, which in Elizabethan and Jacobean times in London occurs almost nightly. E

This primary English theater is acted today in the courtyards of several London hotels, with the audience standing in the garden or in the galleries open through the courtyard to the upper rooms.

Who are the main representatives of this theater?

Aristotle is considered the great representative of classical theater. Likewise, Plautus, was an important Latin comediographer (254 – 184 B.C.), noted for his work Amphitrite.  From the Roman Theater, Terencio stands out: Author of several comedies in the course of the Roman Republic, among which The Eunuch stands out.

From the Spanish theater, we mention Lope de Rueda, who in addition to being a great playwright was one of the first professional actors in Spain. Author of the comedies Eufemia, Armelina, Los Engañados, Medora y Discordia and Cuestión de Amor.   Another great theater actor was Lope de Vega, an important representative of the productive period known as the Spanish Golden Age and one of the most prolific writers in the history of world literature.

Likewise, Lope de Vega (1562 – 1635 A.D.) created a way of making theater that was later applied for years by several of his followers where the number of acts, the place, the time, the time, the action and the language of the characters are modified. His wide literary repertoire in the field of theater stands out for works such as Fuente Ovejuna, El Mejor Alcalde del Rey, El Caballero de Olmedo, among others.

On the other hand, Tirso de Molina, Spanish narrator, playwright and poet (1579-1648), whose literary gallery stands out in the theatrical field, with works such as the well-known Don Juan, El Burlador de Sevilla and Convidado de Piedra.

Calderón de la Barca: Remarkable figure of the Spanish Baroque (1600 – 1681 A.D.) whose contribution to theater was one of his greatest achievements. Some of his plays are qualified as “comedias de enredo” and are considered masterpieces of the genre, such as: Casa de Dos Puertas, La Dama Duende, El Galán Fantasma and Mala es de Guardar.