If theatre is to be defined as involving the art of acting a part on stage, it begins with Thespis. He won the play competition in honor of the Greek god Dionysus, in 534 B.C. And it is his name with which the dramatic arts are associated in the 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.) is most famous for his tragic trilogy the Oresteia. Sophocles is most famous for his trilogy Oedipus Rex. Euripides (480-406 B.C.) foreshadowed the ultimate form of drama as we know it -- employing a far more naturalistic or human approach in his works. 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. 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.
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, much has been inherited 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. Plays of a more serious literary nature continued to be written in Roman times, but these were not intended to be performed so much as read or recited. Although there are few works by Roman playwrights surviving 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 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 Church, which caused theatres to be outlawed as the Roman Empire declined and then fell, was one of the primary means of keeping theatre alive through the Middle Ages. This resulted from the Church's need to establish itself in the community. The Church ultimately linked its own religious holidays with the seasonal festivals and began to use dramatic form to illustrate the stories underlying these holidays so as to reinforce their religious connotation and to better communicate the stories to an illiterate congregation. At first the parts played in these simple religious re-enactments of the nativity and adoration of the Magi were played by priests in the sanctuary of the church. The dramas, however, continued to grow, moving out of the sanctuary and into the open air in front of the Church. Ultimately, the members of town guilds began to contribute to these dramas, which continued...