When and where theater first originated is unknown, but its impact on culture is evident throughout history. It is thought that the first theatrical performances arose from rituals and religious ceremonies. These ceremonies were coupled with myths or stories. Over time, the myths themselves separated from the ritual aspect and soon were performed for the primary purpose of telling a story. The earliest example of theater is thought to have occurred in ancient Egypt. Ancient cultures in Greece, India, and China also had early forms of theatrical performance.

greek and roman theatres


Western theater history traces its origins back to the theater of the ancient Greeks. Surviving Greek tragedies and comedies are still performed by theaters across the world today, translated into many different languages or in some cases adapted to suit contemporary audiences. Ancient Greek drama was originally performed in an outdoor amphitheater. The stage, or orchestra, was a circle where the action took place. Behind the orchestra was a skene, or a tent or building in which the costumes and masks were stored. The audience sat in the theatron, or seats that rose up and around the orchestra area.

The rules of Greek drama were strict. There were three actors who played all the roles in a play as well as a chorus. All violent acts took place offstage and were vividly described to the characters and audience by a messenger. Tragedies followed a specific structure. Each tragedy began with a prolog and ended with an exodus. After the prolog, the chorus would sing and dance. The body of the plays consisted of episodes, in which the chorus and characters speak, and stasimon’s, or choral songs.


In Japan, there are two forms of theater that survive today. The first is Noh theater, which is the oldest form. The second is Kabuki theater, which began in the 1600s, during the Edo period. Noh theater is generally considered to be aristocratic. The actors wear masks and elaborate costumes. A key part of a Noh performance is the specific, stylized choreography of the main character. Zeami was one of the most well-known and celebrated Noh playwright and performer.

Compared to Noh, Kabuki has much more humble origins. The first Kabuki performance was danced by a woman, Okuni. In the 1600s, Kabuki theater was typically performed in the red light district and featured themes Japanese Kabuki actor that were considerably less refined than those of Noh theater. Both forms are still enjoyed in contemporary Japan and around the world.

chinese geisha

Theater has a long history in other countries around the world. In China, theater was a popular form of entertainment during the Yuan Dynasty. Chinese theater featured stunning tricks such as acrobatics and mime. During the Song Dynasty, opera became a popular form of theater in China. In India, Sanskrit theater, which dates back to the 8th century BCE, was a very stylized form of theater.

opera house

In the west, theater flourished in countries such as France and England during the middle ages. French playwrights such as Corneille and Moliere caused a stir with plays that were considered controversial at the time. Corneille’s Le Cid broke the rules of verisimilitude and the unities, angering many. Moliere’s Tartuffe , a play about a hypocrite, got him in trouble with the Roman Catholic church. In England, the playwright William Shakespeare is still lauded today for masterworks of comedy, tragedy and history. Commedia dell’Arte was a form of comedy that thrived in Italy and also influenced some playwrights in France, such as Moliere. The form relied on stock characters and mask work.


Theater remains an important art form for understanding a culture and society. Modern playwrights use theater to express opinions about current events, whether those events are cultural or political. Performing in a play or helping build sets for a production allows people, young or old, to express their creativity and learn new skills. Theater is useful for instruction as well. It helps students learn to read and think critically.

Throughout time, theater has played an important role in societies all over the world. The theater helped societies develop their religions and myths and played a key role in influencing thought. Some societies, such as Ancient Greece, are remembered primarily for their contributions to the theater. Theater helps connect people who otherwise have little in common.


  1. Origins of Theater – An article discussing the history and origin of theater and what factors contributed to the emergence of the art form.
  2. Ancient Egyptian Theater – Overview of theater in ancient Egypt. Includes a description of the religious aspects of the performance.
  3. Greek Theater – Essay on the various aspects of the Greek theater, from the structure of the theater itself to the structure of the plays.
  4. Structure of the Greek Theater – Article on the physical theater in Ancient Greece. Includes images of surviving theaters.
  5. Ancient Greek Theater – Online course outlining the Greek Theater. Includes a list of plays and a discussion of the forms and acting styles.
  6. Tragedy: The Basics – Discusses the origins of tragedy. Includes an excerpt from Aristotle’s Poetics.
  7. Classical Greek Theater Festival – Information on the Classical Greek Theater, to promote appreciation for Greek theater.
  8. The Words of Zeami: His Dramatic Life – A brief biography of the playwright and actor Zeami.
  9. Overview of Noh and Kyogen – Introduction to the two oldest forms of performance in Japan, Noh theater and Kyogen farce.
  10. Noh Drama – History and staging of Noh theater.
  11. Kabuki Theater – A short description of Kabuki theater.
  12. Kabuki: A Brief History – History of Kabuki from its origins in 1603 to the modern-day.
  13. Chinese Opera: A Brief History – Discusses the development of the Chinese opera from the Song Dynasty to its modern form.
  14. The Mongols in World History – An overview of the Mongol rule in China, including mention of the importance of theater.
  15. Early Theater: Asian Theater – An overview of early theater in Asia. Focuses mostly on Kabuki and Noh theater in Japan.
  16. Sanskrit Theater – A list of facts and information about Sanskrit theater.
  17. Moliere – (PDF) Introduction to the time Moliere lived in as well as an assessment of his life and plays.
  18. The Rules of Comedy: Moliere and the Art of Depiction – Essay on Moliere’s use of real life events to inspire his plays.
  19. Shakespeare’s Theater – An introduction to English theater in the 16th century, overview of Shakespeare’s works and advice on reading his plays.
  20. Discover Shakespeare – Details on Shakespeare’s life, work and theater from the Folger Shakespeare Library.
  21. Commedia dell’Arte (Italian Comedy) – Simple overview of Commedia dell’Arte.
  22. The Importance of the Visual and Performing Arts – Article arguing for the importance of the arts in education.
  23. The Art In Everyday Life – Essay discussing the use of theater to help people express themselves.
  24. Palestinian Theater as Resistance – An article discussing the use of theater to resist political oppression.
  25. 5 Questions on Theater’s Role In Democracy – Interview with Peter Burian, professor of classical studies and theater studies at Duke University, on the connection between theater and a democratic society.
  26. Women In Theater – Article discussing women’s role in theater through time.
  27. Role of Theater Apartheid/Post Apartheid – Post discussing theater’s role in apartheid South Africa and after apartheid.
  28. Ten Reasons Why Theatre is Still Important in the Twenty-First Century – Discusses the reasons why theater continues to exist in an era of recorded information and media.
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