Theatre and Performance, from the beginning


Students will expand their knowledge of the origins of theatre and dramatic performance by creating a timeline portfolio.


Materials Needed

see lesson


Related Documents

• Ancient Theaters – Lesson2.AncientTheaters
• Everyman – Lesson2.Everyman
• Oedipus Rex – Lesson2.OedipusRex
• Plot Structure Quiz – Lesson2.PlotStructureQuiz
• Timeline Assignment – Lesson2.TimelineAssignment


Lesson Directions


Anticipatory Set/Hook

Aristotle’s plot structure quiz, included



Instruction: Here, we deal with the development of theatre as an art form consisting of works written for the stage and intended to be performed by actors on a stage. And we will be dealing primarily with the history of theatre in the west. We will be taking a separate look at Asian and African Theatre later on in the unit. We will first be looking at theatre as it grew in Greece and Rome. As we study these plays, students will need to take notes in order to complete their history of theatre timelines that will be due at the end of this unit. The timelines will need to be divided up into sections, with plays, time periods and playwrights clearly identified.


Below is a nice history summary, all or parts of this can be used as instruction for the lesson.


Greek Theatre

If theatre is to be defined as involving the art of acting a part on stage, that is the dramatic impersonation of another character than yourself, we begin with Thespis. A figure of whom we know very little, he won the play competition in honor of the greek god Dionysus, in 534 B.C. While it is uncertain whether Thespis was a playwright, an actor or a priest, it is his name with which the dramatic arts are associated in our word “Thespian”.
Greek theatre took place in large (the largest ultimately held twenty thousand people) hillside amphitheatres. The players included a chorus and their leader, and the “lines” were more chanted than spoken. The chorus performed in the “orchestra”, not on a raised stage. The use of masks to represent characters and high-soled boots worn to add height to the players limited the movement of the actors. Indeed, the concept of “actors” themselves was not originally a part of Greek theatre, but was developed as a consequence of certain playwrights of particular genius.
Greek drama was dominated by the works and innovations of five playwrights over the 200 years following Thespis. The first three of these were tragedians. Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.), who is most famous for his tragic trilogy the Oresteia, introduced the concept of a second actor, expanding the possibilities for plot and histrionics through the interaction of two characters in his dramas. While Aeschylus ultimately used a third actor, it was Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) who actually initiated this innovation. Sophocles is most famous for his trilogy Oedipus Rex, and in his works the role of the chorus in Greek drama diminishes in favor of the interplay between characters and the development of character itself. It was Euripides (480-406 B.C.), however, while winning less competitions than Aeschylus or Sophocles, who foreshadowed the ultimate form of drama as we know it — employing a far more naturalistic or human approach in his works, in contrast to the remote scale and formalized conventions used by his contemporaries.
The last two Greek playwrights were the authors of comedies: Aristophanes (448-380 B.C.) and Menander (342-292 B.C.). There was a separate competition for comedy which, while also dedicated to Dionysus, took place at the smaller winter festival, rather than the major spring festival at which the tragedies were presented. As has been true throughout the history of theatre, the comedies, dependent on topical humor and satire for much of their content, have not survived the ages as well as tragedy — which deals with more universal themes. However, the universal popularity accorded these playwrights during their lifetimes attests to the significance which this dramatic form can have. The popularity of their work, and the diminishing appeal of tragedy to the audiences of the time, can also be interpreted as a comment on the role which theatre plays in society at large. Tragedy was at its height in Greek society when that society was at its height, while comedy — an outlet for the frustrations of society as well as a diversion for the masses — was most popular during the decline of Greek government.
History found at:


Modeling: The students will have the opportunity to get up and perform Oedipus Rex in 10 minutes or less. The students will play the parts of the characters, acting out the scenes as the instructor and/or the students read the included summary.


Checking for Understanding: The students will discuss the major points of the play and why it could be considered important. Why do we still have this play after so many years? This was the very play that Aristotle based his plot structure on. He considered it the perfect play and since we consider Aristotle (and Sophocles) a great philosopher, we still study his opinion. According to Aristotle, a tragedy must be an imitation of life in the form of a serious story that is complete in itself; in other words, the story must be realistic and narrow in focus. A good tragedy will evoke pity and fear in its viewers, causing the viewers to experience a feeling of catharsis. Catharsis, in Greek, means “purgation” or “purification”; running through the gamut of these strong emotions will leave viewers feeling elated, in the same way we often claim that “a good cry” will make one feel better.


Transition: So the Greeks refined theatre, they set out the plot structure that we still follow to this day. We still study them in history, in math and science, in theatre. And they greatly influenced the next great playwrights and works that we will look at – the Romans.


Guided Practice: Together the class will take a look at Roman Theatre.
Roman Theatre
The decline of Greek government and society coincided with the rise of the Roman Republic and subsequent empire. The Romans borrowed extensively from Greek theatre. Although Roman theatre may not be held in the same high esteem as that of the Greeks, we have inherited much from the influence of the Roman Theatre, including the word “play” itself, which derives from a literal translation of the Latin word ludus, which means recreation or play. Roman theatre took two forms: Fabula Palliata and Fabula Togata. Fabula Palliata were primarily translations of Greek plays into Latin, although the term is also applied to the original works of Roman playwrights based upon Greek plays. We are familiar with the latter from the works of Terence (190-159 B.C.), who introduced the concept of a subplot, enabling us to contrast the reactions of different sets of characters to the same events or circumstances. The Fabula Togata were of native origin, and were based on more broadly farcical situations and humor of a physical nature. An author of some of the better examples of this type of drama is Plautus (c.250-184 B.C.).
Again, perhaps as a reflection of the society itself, performed drama in Rome consisted primarily of Fabula Togata, as well as the spectacles of the gladiators and chariot races made familiar by modern Hollywood treatment of the Roman Empire. Plays of a more serious literary nature continued to be written, but these were not intended to be performed so much as read or recited. Although we have few works by Roman playwrights surviving to us in forms that would lend themselves to revival, the influence of the Roman world on the form of the stage is one which had more lasting effect. The semi-circular orchestra of the Greek theatre came to be eclipsed by the raised stage and the more vigorous style style of acting employed by the performers. However, the greatest impact Rome may have had on the theatre was to lower it in the esteem of the Church — an impact that was to retard the growth of the dramatic arts for several centuries.
The bent toward low comedy and its mass appeal — coupled with its association with the entertainment of the arena (which involved the martyrdom of early Christians) — almost certainly contributed to its disfavor by officials of the early Christian Church. Plays, or ludii were associated with either comedy of a coarse and scurrilous nature, or with pagan rituals and holidays. It was the latter, however, which may account for the survival of theatre through the Middle Ages.
History found at:


Independent Practice: In groups, the students will write down everything they know about gladiator battles and chariot races. They will (as time permits) share these observations with the class. The teacher will show the transparency of the visuals for Roman theaters and the images she has in her possession. The student will write down observations that they see about the space Roman events were performed in.



Closure and Assessment: In the next class period, we will be moving into medieval theatre, as well as closing out the Greeks and the Romans. In preparation for this, the students need to complete the homework assignment below and the teacher needs to hand out the slips of paper.


Homework: Give each student a slip of paper with their character written on it. They will be divided into two groups to create their own morality play. They are not to share their groups or their character with other students. They are to go home and look up the definition of that characteristic and bring the definition, and start thinking of one costume piece and one prop that will help them to embody their character. This will begin to take shape in the next lesson, but necessarily will take more than one class period to develop.


Author’s Notes

Note: Likely, this lesson will require more than one 80 minute class period. The teacher should be flexible in deciding what parts are most important to share with the students.