Theatre (from the Greek ‘seeing-place’) has extended from being a reference to the buildings or space within which drama can take place to encompass the range of phenomena which constitute the relationship between an audience and a performance. Theatre is a social institution which operates on social interaction in its production processes. It is also a social activity which includes those involved in the production process as well as with the spectator/spectator and spectator/performance exchange.
The social nature of Western theatre, which derives from the Greek pattern of celebration and demonstration of the ties of a community, has become more complex in contemporary society and, since the Renaissance, has a more economic base in both mainstream and alternative theatres.
The earlier concept that theatre was to entertain or instruct was beginning to be challenged towards the end of the 19th century by the concept that theatre should experiment and analyse. Theatre should no longer have a moralizing or didactic role but should operate as detached scientific investigation. Influenced by Émile Zola's essay ‘Naturalism and the Art of Theatre’ (1880), which was in turn indebted to Darwin's theories of evolution, the theatre should reproduce day-to-day reality exactly and objectively. The idea that environment and heredity condition behaviour initially effected a reformation of the stage environment, action and language and subsequently affected playwriting, notably the work of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, though their illusionistic dramas extended beyond the thesis of scientific naturalism.
The Aristotelian concepts of tragedy and comedy began to be challenged and blurred. The directional and design ideas of Appia, Craig and later Reinhardt, Copeau and Meyerhold, which began to move towards the concept of ‘total theatre’, emerged very soon to counter the stultifying nature of an increasingly narrow illusionism, but it was not until Bertolt Brecht developed his concept of Epic Theatre that the role of the audience was seriously addressed. Epic Theatre focuses rational and objective audience-attention on the social and historical questions embodied in the performance by revealing the illusionistic aspects of theatre which created empathy and thus dulled the critical sense. Brecht used theatrical means such as masks, back-projection, songs and music, visible lights and gestus to distance the audience so that they could more appropriately interrogate the meanings of the performance.
Antonin Artaud rejected the concept that theatre must mirror the surface reality of life by abandoning spoken language and putting in its place the idea of theatre as a ‘double’ (rather than a reflection) of existence. He proposed the use of highly stylized theatre forms, such as the Balinese dance-drama, to provoke in the audiences the profound symbols of consciousness beyond the intellectual, and developed a ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ which influenced a diverse range of later practitioners from Peter Brook to environmental theatre.
The study of theatre has generally started from an empirical and chronological position, recording the material spaces and conditions of theatre, study of the texts or historical investigations of the work of various practitioners, such as theatre directors. Historical or critical approaches to theatre disregarded aspects of performance, and in the UK it was not until Raymond Williams began to investigate the relationship between text and performance in the 1950s that a need was articulated for a critical language for the examination of the whole theatre process, including performance and audience. European practitioners and theorists, such as Artaud and Brecht, had earlier begun to establish their essentially different, but wide-ranging concepts of theatre.
The idea of theatre is approached from a broader base than the traditional literature-grounded perspective, which deals with the drama text, to one which is able to deal with the simultaneity of experiences that constitute the theatrical response. Although predominantly theatre has, through its long history, created meanings verbally, it also uses space, movement, colour and sound which interrelate to create a synaesthetic or multiple medium. Critical approaches deriving initially from semiotics and later from structuralist, post-structuralist and psychoanalytic theories, have enabled the development of an academic study of the network of elements of theatre. These moves are very much in process, but are an attempt to establish a ‘poetics’ of theatre which is discrete yet affiliated to that of drama, together with the development of the understanding of theatre as a cultural institution. The ephemeral nature of the stage spectacle has meant that, historically, the written text has necessarily been prioritized.
Thus a study of theatre, until the mid-20th century, has been seen only as a subsidiary and supportive reference to the study of drama. With new approaches, the theatrical processes are seen to be crucial in the understanding and study of drama, and have developed as an interdependent but discrete discipline. The key to the difference is to do with the relationship of the audience to the drama. This is not to do with questions of the ‘ideal’ audience, which has been hypothesized in some Shakespeare studies, but rather the significant role the spectator plays in the production of meanings in the theatre, both as functionaries and features of performance analysis. Theatre does not take place unless the spectator is actively engaged in meaning-production. In drama, the reader/spectator's concern is with an interpretation of the written text or script through the performance which has to be based on two assumptions: that the text is a constant which can be interpreted or communicated through performance and second, that the audience is a constant. This is impossible when dealing with performance, and can only be reproduced by a single reader of a single text, and even this is arguable as conditions of reading may differ. In theatre, the role of the spectator is more concerned with the communication of meaning in the performance, which is itself mediated through the performers' production of the text and the conditions of performance, such as the physical conditions of theatre architecture and the constituency of the audience. TRG SS
Further reading Artistotle, Poetics; A. Artaud, The Theatre and its Double; , E. Bentley (ed.), Theory of the Modern Stage; , P. Brook, The Empty Space; , R. Williams, Drama in Performance.