- A building, room, or outdoor structure for the presentation of plays, films, or other dramatic performances.
- A room with tiers of seats used for lectures or demonstrations: an operating theater at a medical school.
- Dramatic literature or its performance; drama: the theater of Shakespeare and Marlowe.
- The milieu of actors and playwrights.
- The quality or effectiveness of a theatrical production: good theater; awful theater.
- Dramatic material or the use of such material: “His summation was a great piece of courtroom theater” (Ron Rosenbaum).
- The audience assembled for a dramatic performance.
- A place that is the setting for dramatic events.
- A large geographic area in which military operations are coordinated: the European theater during World War II.
[Middle English theatre, from Old French, from Latin theātrum, from Greek theātron, from theāsthai, to watch, from theā, a viewing.]
WORD HISTORY Theories about the development of the theater in the West generally begin with Greek drama; this is etymologically appropriate as well as historically correct, since the words theory and theater are related through their Greek sources. The Greek ancestor of theater is theātron, “a place for seeing, especially for dramatic representation, theater.” Theātron is derived from the verb theāsthai, “to gaze at, contemplate, view as spectators, especially in the theater,” from theā, “a viewing.” The Greek ancestor of theory is theōriā, which meant among other things “the sending of theōroi (state ambassadors sent to consult oracles or attend games),” “the act of being a spectator at the theater or games,” “viewing,” “contemplation by the mind,” and “theory or speculation.” The source of theōriā is theōros, “an envoy sent to consult an oracle, spectator,” a compound of theā, “viewing,” and –oros, “seeing.” It is thus fitting to elaborate theories about culture while seeing a play in a theater.
Building or space in which performances are given before an audience. It contains an auditorium and stage. In ancient Greece, where Western theatre began (5th century BC), theatres were constructed in natural hollows between hills. The audience sat in a tiered semicircle facing the orchestra, a flat circular space where the action took place. Behind the orchestra was the skene. The theatres of Elizabethan England were open to the sky, with the audience looking on from tiered galleries or a courtyard. During this period the main innovation was the rectangular thrust stage, surrounded on three sides by spectators. The first permanent indoor theatre was Andrea Palladio‘s Olimpico Theatre in Vicenza, Italy (1585). The Farnese Theatre in Parma (1618) was designed with a horseshoe-shaped auditorium and the first permanent proscenium arch. Baroque European court theatres followed this arrangement, elaborating on the interior with tiered boxes for royalty. Richard Wagner‘s Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Ger. (1876), with its fan-shaped seating plan, deep orchestra pit, and darkened auditorium, departed from the Baroque stratified auditorium and reintroduced Classical principles that are still in use. The proscenium theatre prevailed in the 17th–20th centuries; though still popular in the 20th century, it was supplemented by other types of theatre, such as the thrust stage and theatre-in-the-round. In Asia, stage arrangements have remained simple, with the audience usually grouped informally around an open space; notable exceptions are the no drama and kabuki of Japan. See also amphitheatre; odeum.
Film and Theatre
Live performance of dramatic actions in order to tell a story or create a spectacle. The word derives from the Greek theatron (“place of seeing”). Theatre is one of the oldest and most important art forms in cultures worldwide. While the script is the basic element of theatrical performance, it also relies in varying degrees on acting, singing, and dancing, as well as on technical aspects of production such as stage design. Theatre is thought to have its earliest origins in religious ritual; it often enacts myths or stories central to the belief structure of a culture or creates comedy through travesty of such narratives. In Western civilization, theatre began in ancient Greece and was adapted in Roman times; it was revived in the medieval liturgical dramas and flourished in the Renaissance with the Italian commedia dell’arte and in the 17th–18th centuries with established companies such as the Comédie-Française. Varying theatrical forms may evolve to suit the tastes of different audiences (e.g., in Japan, the kabuki of the townspeople and the no theatre of the court). In Europe and the U.S. in th
e 19th and early 20th centuries theatre was a major source of entertainment for all social classes, with forms ranging from burlesque shows and vaudeville to serious dramas performed in the style of the Moscow Art Theatre. Though the musicals of Broadway and the farces of London’s West End retain their popular appeal, the rise of television and movies has eroded audiences for live theatre and has tended to limit its spectators to an educated elite. See also little theatre.