The Smell of the Greasepaint Through the Ages: A History of Western Theater/Part I

An ancient Greek theater in Delphi that was destroyed in 1992 during a bloody riot at a John Tesh concert.

The Greeks

All theater as we know it today is derived from the dithyramb, a ritual dance performed at festivals honoring the god Dionysus in Ancient Greece. The origins of the dithyramb, which roughly translated means “drunken goat dance,” are obscure, but scholars believe it may have evolved from the ritual sacrifice of a goat.

Early priests used the goats’ entrails for divining future events, particularly athletic competitions, and festival goers laid wagers based on the holy men’s predictions. Some priests, goaded by the huge crowds and their own consumption of wine, became increasingly flamboyant in making their prognostications, much like modern day umpires in baseball, and some may have turned their routine into a “drunken goat dance.”

Groups of besotted revelers imitated the priests and soon, performances by bands of dithyrambists were regular features of the celebrations. The bands of dithyrambists over time evolved into the Greek Chorus, and a man named Thespus conceived the idea of having an actor portraying a god or legendary figure act out the tale the chorus told.

Later Aeschylus, the first great tragedian, came up with the innovation of putting a chair on-stage with the actor, but the opportunities for dramatic conflict were limited. Indeed, Aeschylus’ first attempt at tragedy, Agamemnon’s Chair, which explored the fabled king’s ill-fated relationship with his recliner, drew a cool reception. Aeschylus promptly replaced the chair with a second actor, and, after a botched performance in which one actor repeatedly tried to sit on the other, drama as we know it was born.

The Romans

When Greek Civilization ended, the Romans decided to have one. Roman plays were very similar to Greek ones. In fact many Roman plays appear to be Greek manuscripts with the authors’ names scratched out and Roman writers’ names scribbled in. References to gods and places were also altered, but some of the less fastidious Roman playwrights did not bother to work through the whole script. Consequently, in some Roman plays, Jupiter becomes Zeus and Rome becomes Athens midway through the second act. Fortunately for the authors, most Roman playgoers went to the vomitorium or a gladiatorial match by intermission, so only a few overzealous critics noticed.

The Dark Ages

The term “Dark Ages” is something of a misnomer. Although the period so-called was rife with plagues, wars, peasant revolts, religious and racial persecutions, witch burnings, Machiavellian Papal intrigues, assassinations and tyranny, great advances were made in goat husbandry, alchemy and theater.

Graphic portrayals of saints’ martyrdom at Catholic Church festivals proved to be so popular that many parishioners would only listen to the mass if they got to see a saint martyred at some point in the service. Churches vied with one another in achieving new levels of verisimilitude and soon fake blood, severed heads, and pull-away limbs with blood spurting tubes were regular features of church productions. Church officials grew concerned when peasants throughout Europe enthusiastically tried to help executioners carry out the grisly killings of the saints during the spectacles, but there was little they could do beyond assigning more “Hail Marys” at confession.

The Elizabethan Era

Queen Elizabeth ushered in a golden era that saw England rise to world dominance in literature, naval power, and collar size. Theater also flourished under Elizabeth, as did goat husbandry and alchemy. The Elizabethan theater reached its ultimate fruition in the works of William Shakespeare, a man who had struck out in the fields of goat husbandry and alchemy before discovering his genius for play writing in 1584 while recovering from a long bout with foot fungus.

When Shakespeare, who was married and had three children, informed his wife of his newfound genius and his intention of becoming a playwright, she immediately locked up all the alcohol in the house and demanded that he look for another job in goat husbandry. Undaunted, he slipped off to his favorite pub in Stratford-upon-Avon, “Ye Olde Double Vision,” and wrote Richard III on a cocktail napkin. The tragedy told the story of the Duke of York, whose bitterness over his tenacious foot fungus transformed him into a murderous tyrant. One of the Bard’s drinking buddies suggested making the Duke a hunchback instead of a foot fungus sufferer, and Shakespeare never looked back.

Shakespeare immediately went to London, got himself an agent, and began seeking work as an actor. His first few gigs were in the pre-play commercials of the day, and he first became familiar to London audiences as the giant infected toenail in the popular Wiggins Anti-Fungal Ointment ads. It was in this period that he met the other leading lights of the London theater scene, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Francis Beaumont.

Marlowe wrote four superb blank verse tragedies before being stabbed to death in a tavern brawl by a drunk who loathed blank verse. Jonson, who wrote scholarly works with annoying titles like Every Man in His Humour and Eastward Ho, narrowly escaped several attempted knifings in taverns by people who had sat through his plays. Beaumont, whose tragicomedy Love Lies-a-Bleeding received a tepid reception in London, was chased out of one tavern and sought refuge in another, where he was stabbed, beaten, drowned in a barrel of ale, and impaled on a stake behind the bar as a warning to other playwrights. Shakespeare avoided taverns altogether, and thus was able to survive to create his remarkable oeuvre.

Restoration Theater

After Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans defeated and beheaded King Charles in 1649, they quickly pushed through Parliament a series of laws that would become known as the “Everyone’s Miserable Laws.” These laws shut down the theaters, but sparked a resurgence in the fields of goat husbandry and alchemy. After more than a decade, however, the “Everyone’s Miserable Laws” inexplicably declined in popularity along with Puritan rule, and in 1660, the debauched son of the decapitated king was brought back from France to restore the monarchy to England.

Charles II was a great lover of ribaldry, and the new theater companies that flourished under his reign catered to his vulgar tastes. Restoration comedies such as My Throbbing Loins Beseech Thee and The Strumpet’s Goat Went Thither delighted audiences with their bawdy language, adulterous amours, voluptuous actresses and crude references to goat husbandry. The appearance of women for the first time on the English stage created a sensation although some complained that the costumes they wore had been stretched too much by the men who had worn them previously.

End of Part I

Copyright, Bill Burman 2020