Theatre History I: Antiquity to Naturalism

Course Description

"The stage that Pedro Caldéron de la Barca saw as a microcosm of 'The Great Theatre of the World' gives us only a dreamlike glimpse, but a highly privileged one, of the larger world that it evokes and reframes. To connect these fugitive impressions of performance to the reality of that larger but still transitory world is what many of us mean by 'research in our field'. Locating the frame between theatre and the world, wherever that boundary may be discovered, allows us to feel as if we might be in more than one place at the same time. We can certainly be in more than one mood at the same time, grammatically as well as emotionally speaking: even while we remain tethered to the solidity of the indicative and imperative utterances of our workaday usage, we wander magically into the subjective. Wrapped in the theatre's cloak of a thousand colors, we fabricate gossamer conditions contrary to fact, but each one of them is made out of real stuff—wood or flesh, fabric or sweat, paint or tears."
–Joseph Roach, Changing the Subject.

"…all plays in general might be called Ghosts."
–Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage

This conference is a rigorous investigation into the study and practice of theatre history. It is essential for theatre artists and scholars—from designers to playwrights, from dramaturgs to actors—to have a deep understanding of the origins and developing practices of the craft and profession of theatre, and the evolving arts of playwriting and playmaking throughout history. This course provides that foundation by researching and questioning the act of making theatre from the ancient Greek period through the late 1800s, when today's dominant styles of realism and naturalism began to emerge.

This conference is organized as a survey, to introduce relevant concepts, terms, and movements in many different periods, countries, and genres. Through a variety of readings for each period we study, we will examine each historical moment and its theatre, and then move on with greater understanding to the next golden moment of theatre history. As this course proposes a broad examination of several key moments, there are significant gaps in the material covered here. This conference chooses to focus on theatre history moments and texts less represented elsewhere in the College, with particular emphasis on East and South Asian classical theatre. Topics courses in the Theatre department and elsewhere (on Gender and Theatre, Race and American Performance, Shakespeare, and more) address some of the subjects currently outside the scope of this syllabus. In the first month of the class, on the occasion of Porland's Time Based Art Festival, we will pause in our investigation to interact with our own theatre historical moment.

Throughout this conference, we will ask ourselves several key questions of each period we examine:

  • Who was making theatre?
  • Who was in the audience?
  • What was the status of theatre in society?
  • What did the physical theatres look like?
  • What was the status of directing; design of costumes, sets, lights, sound; what was the acting style, and how did acting work as a process? Who were the actors?

As we navigate through theatre history, we will pay particular attention to constructions of race, class, and gender, as well as the status of theatre people in different historical moments, the history of theatre riots, and the strain of what Jonas Barish calls "the anti-theatrical prejudice." Our primary texts will include plays, essays, eyewitness accounts, and historical documents.


This conference teaches script analysis, how to read historical documents, how to read a play against a piece of theatre criticism, the rough chronology of theatre history, and basic theatre vocabulary. This conference teaches you the skills of communication and collaboration, group work, research skills, and an introduction to basic production skills in the Theatre department.

This conference provides the foundation for upper level conferences in literature and history in the Theatre department, as well as introduces many of the concepts that will be key to the successful completion of the junior qualifying examination in the Theatre department.

This conference is equally compelling for non-majors, as it offers a deep investigation into how today's theatre came to be. A passionate and exuberant study of theatre history provides a window into political, social, cultural, religious, and art histories as well. Through theatre history we become better theatre practitioners, scholars, and artists. Through theatre, we will learn more about our world as it was, it is, and may be.