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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

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

Last revision date for this page: November 16, 2007


Theatre Theory--What is Theatre?

Resource: Wilson/Goldfarb (hereafter abbreviated as "WG), "Introduction," Chapter 1

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:

the nature of art and the arts


Theatre - What is it?
A performing art
A graphic art
A literary art (although sometimes not written down)
A popular art (entertainment) - diversion for a mass audience.


What is Art?

The arts can be divided traditionally into the:

Useful arts: medicine, politics, persuasion can be taught.

Fine arts: literature, politics, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance -- the traditional wisdom says that we cannot really be taught to DO art, but we can be taught to appreciate art.
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What does ART help to do? (according to Cameron and Gillespie)

1) Art helps people understand the world:

It involves a search for meaning.

It can help shape our perceptions (which comes through our emotions, imaginations, and intellect -- in art, experience is presented, not necessarily explained -- the audience can be involved directly; therefore, art is different from history, philosophy, science, etc.).

2) Art gives us a "God's eye view" of experience - a "heightened reality."

We know we are not watching (experiencing) reality, but art.

Art is a distillation of life.

Look at the four verbs of creativity-- select, rearrange, condense, intensify--to examine art's relationship to life.

We have "aesthetic distance" - "the factor which allows us to enter into an imaginative world--even though we are aware that it is separate from everyday reality..."

The separation of audience and artist through art (Cameron and Gillespie)--
We can watch others kill and die and will not stop or help. It is a state in which we view art objectively, at least partially.

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Simultaneously, we must also feel EMPATHY  for the characters on-stage - we are involved, yet also detached.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that literature involves "the willing suspension of disbelief."   We agree to accept non-reality as reality for the duration of the art experience (performance).  The production and all its elements attempt to create an illusion of reality, verisimilitude, and "the audience completes the illusion by accepting as real what it sees and hears." [Cassady, 28.]

3) Art is "safe" -- The artistic self-awareness of the artists and audiences mean that art NEED NOT have any influence on the outside world; MAY have an influence (some say it should, some that it should not, and certainly in many cases it DOES), but it doesn't need to.

4) Art is synthetic -- It is "made" -- it is not natural.

--Elements of life and art are similar, but not the same.

--We can examine it as synthetic object.

--Can break it down and analyze it.

Artist and spectator have artistic self-awareness or intention -

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What is the difference between a real-life knife fight and a staged knife fight?

Real: People and spectator can get hurt. There is no artistic intention or awareness, no intention to create/exhibit art.

Staged (art): People MAY get hurt, but don't have to- there is no specific intention to harm.

(I saw Hamlet  at the Sylvan Theatre in 1966-67, and a foil [sword] broke during a fight scene, flying out to the audience -- who COULD have gotten hurt. I have gotten hurt during performance of a play, though it was not intentional. People have even gotten killed -- actor Vic Morrow and a young Vietnamese girl were accidentally killed on the set of The Twilight Zone  movie, for instance. I was in Romeo and Juliet; Tybalt slipped on the wet outdoor stage and cut himself badly with his knife).

Artist and spectator are AWARE -- that they are creating / experiencing art.

Arts differ in:

1) the nature of their audiences.

2) their means of communication.

3) permanence / recoverability.

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Important Terms:

aesthetic distance


willing suspension of disbelief

four verbs of creativity


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: Theatre as an Art



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

This page last modified: November 16, 2007