Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies: Reading Theatre History

Course Description

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

This conference is an investigation into the study and practice of theatre history. Shakespeare writes that theatre is a "mirror up to nature." Bertolt Brecht is credited with saying, "theatre is not a mirror held up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it." In the field of theatre history, both of these assertions are true. This course asks how theatre reflects—and shapes—what happens beyond the stage. Through a deep reading of plays alongside primary documents, notably manifestos and theoretical essays, we will examine several key moments in theatre history including Ancient Greece, Medieval Europe, Neoclassical France, Naturalism in Scandinavia, and several key moments in the twentieth-century. This course offers a deep investigation into how today's dominant styles of theatre came to be. This study of theatre history provides a window into political, social, cultural, religious, and art histories, as well as an investigation into the many roles that go into making theatre: from playwright to performer to dramaturg to designer. This course researches and questions the act of making theatre throughout history, and helps unpack how and why we make theatre the way we do today. 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.

By no means exhaustive, this conference focuses on several major "golden moments" in theatre history. 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 the various people of making theatre: directors; designers (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 the status of theatre people in different historical moments, the history of theatre upheavals—and in some cases, 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 Our primary texts will include plays, essays, eyewitness accounts, and historical documents.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. It teaches how to read plays as documents for performance, as opposed to only as pieces of literature. This conference teaches you the skills of communication and collaboration, group work, and research skills. This conference teaches the role of theatre in society.