The origin of theater remains shrouded in secrecy. Archaeologists have uncovered sparse information regarding the origin of theater. The little information uncovered comes from ancient artifacts, wall paintings, decorations, and hieroglyphics. All of these ancient recordings tell of successful hunts, life cycles, seasonal changes, and myths about the gods. These historical findings explain how ancient peoples passed along their experiences through the art of storytelling and dramatizing events. Oral tradition provided future generations a life plan.
Ancient theater emerged from myths, rituals, and ceremonies dedicated to the gods. Early societies perceived a direct connection between the actions of a group or its leaders and its impact on the whole society. In order to preserve the society, these same groups and leaders acted from habit to form a tradition that would cultivate unique ceremonies and rituals. The repetition of these ceremonies and rituals laid the groundwork for theater.
According to esteemed mythologist Joseph Campbell, societies performed rituals and ceremonies out of a sense of duty, and to receive power and pleasure. In fact, these same societies carried out these rituals as a means to influence and control events, such as guaranteeing a plentiful harvest. Other times, societies performed rituals out of religious duty. As societies developed into full-blown civilizations, rituals became more elaborate by incorporating costumes and masks. Many rituals brought entertainment and pleasure, especially those intended to glorify victories, heroes, supernatural powers, and the gods.
Many of these rituals are accompanied by myths. Myths entered the storytelling tradition, which gave rise beyond the original rites. As a result, myths evolved towards entertainment and the aesthetic. Eventually, societies performed these stories on their own accord. This became the first steps towards theater. Leaders, mainly elders and priests, or actors emerged from these rituals. In addition, societies reserved acting spaces to enact their rituals. These acting spaces eventually led to the development of auditoriums for more elaborate rituals.
The Ancient Egyptians herald as one of the oldest civilizations to start the transition from ritual to theater. Archaeological evidence dating from 2,800 to 2,400 B.C. describes dramas that sent the pharaoh off to the underworld. These same dramas also depicted the continuous cycle of life and the pharaoh's power in the afterlife. Other Egyptian dramas include the drama recounting the life and death of the god Osiris.
The Greeks also held many festivals to honor their many gods, particularly Dionysus. These festivals usually involved drunken men dressed in goat skins to symbolize sexual potency. The earliest festivals only had one person playing all roles. Later, three actors were used on-stage. Due to the limited amount of actors allowed on stage, the chorus became an active part of Greek theater. Greek theater took on my forms; however, the tragedies written during this time resonate well with contemporary audiences. Greek tragedies are based on history and mythology. Many of the stories centered on a character's search for the meaning of life and the quest to understand the nature of the gods.
The Romans modeled their dramatization based off the Greek and other cultural influences. Roman theater incorporated stock characters, costumes, and masks. Roman theater based its dramatization on domestic life and mythology. Dramas were held in large amphitheaters. Other cultures continued the trend of honoring the gods and depicting life in drama. In fact, the mythological influence in theater continued into medieval times, when acting began to flourish. It is still depicted today in some playwrights and performances.