Introduction to Theatre
Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Last revision date for this page: December 11, 2007


The Origins of Theatre

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:

some of the theories about the origins of theatre,

the relationship between theatre and ritual,

some of the terms involved in discussions of theatre's origins.



Theatre appears to exist and have existed in all societies in some form.

Some things have theatrical elements (parades, gameshows, sports, dances, religious services, political campaigns), but they are different from theatre, the art form.

Theatre as an Institution:

Origins of Theatre -- Theories:

No clear evidence, so all theories are conjecture.

Aristotle suggested that mimesis (imitation) is innate in humans; theatre probably came from the dithyramb, a hymn sung or chanted before religious rituals in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine, rebirth, and fertility. The word "tragedy' seems to have come from the Greek words for "goat" and "song"--so tragedy was a goat-song (whether sung to, by, or for the goat is anyone's guess).

1. Storytelling -- pleasurable and natural, a narrator elaborates by impersonating.

2. Movement / Dance -- imitating physical behavior of animals and humans, donning skins as garments -- eventually talking was added.

3. Judicial System -- necessity to speak in court required expansion, desire to perform and see performances.

4. Supreme act of an unidentified artist (Perhaps Thespis, perhaps Aeschylus) -- a revolutionary discovery -- to synthesize many other already existing elements.

5. Ritual Theory --This is the most pervasive and accepted of theories, but much questioned.

--From primitive religious rituals usually connected with spring and the seasonal cycle, drama evolved--

--Few say that theatre came directly from ritual, but that ritual influenced theatrical forms--

--Sir James Frazer's theory (late 19th century) -- primitive cultures with no written language performed rituals to win the favor of natural forces, then it is formalized, then stories grew up to explain the rituals -- people were impersonating gods, beings, or forces-- and there resulted a developing dramatic sense--

--Eventually, rituals were abandoned or modified, but myths / stories remain as oral tradition. A big step toward drama occurs when these are acted out in simple drama.

--Aesthetic gradually overtakes the religious or utilitarian aims of ritual.


Against ritual theory -- functionalists -- 1915 --

--Suggest the possibility that cultures develop differently from one society to another-- they argue against the "cultural Darwinism" which holds that all human institutions have developed similarly-- and suggest that perhaps that not the case.

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Post WW II structuralists -- Claude Levi Strauss

Two ways of thinking: scientific and mythical/magical
      • In primitive societies they are integrated; in ours, fragmented.


Theories tend to have the same beliefs in common:

Ritual and Myth seem to be important in all societies.
Ritual is one source of theatre, but not all societies develop the same way.


Theatre and Ritual are Similar in the following ways:

Five Functions of Ritual:

1. a form of knowledge

2. didactic

3. influence or control

4. to glorify

5. to entertain and give pleasure

At first, rituals' concerns were religious; then as man's confidence to believe in his own powers increased, it turned more secular -- theatrical elements increased.

Eventually, theatre emerged on its own.

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Western vs. Eastern Theatre



The origins of Western theatre in ancient Athens may have been influenced by eastern rituals and myths, but the Greek developed ritual into theatre, while the Eastern (Egypt, Byzantine, Asian Indian) never went beyond ritual.


Important Terms:



tragedy -- "tragos oide" -- goat song



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You can take short study quizzes based on textbook materials by going to the Student Online Learning Center page for our textbook...
Click here for a short study quiz on this lesson...(unfortunately, the QuizMaker site no longer exists, so you will not be able to get this quiz marked automatically...if you questions whether you got the answers correct or not, please save the page after you've answered them and then send the page to me)...


Next Section: Theories of Theatre


This page and all linked pages in this directory are copyrighted Eric W. Trumbull, 1998-2007.

This page last modified: December 11, 2007 .