Greek theatre took place in large amphitheaters. The actors were a chorus and their leader. There was not multiple characters as we now have today. The leader was the main and only character. At this time the lines were more chanted than spoken. Masks were worn to represent characters and high-soled boots worn to add height to actors.
Greek drama was dominated by the works and innovations of five playwrights for over 200 years. The first three of these wrote tragedies. In these ancient tragedies many new innovations came to light that are still used today in theatre. One was the concept of a second actor, expanding the possibilities for plot and interactions with characters. Then came the third actor which expanded this even more. The role of the chorus in Greek drama shrunk so that the characters could more develop.
The last two Greek playwrights focused on comedies. Throughout the history of theatre, comedies, made up of current standards for humor, have not survived the ages as well as tragedy. The popularity of these first comedies and the diminishing appeal of tragedy to the audiences of the time, can also be seen as a comment on the role which theatre plays in society at large. Tragedy was at its height in Greek society when that society was at its height. Comedy was most popular during the decline of Greek government
The Romans took much from Greek theatre. Although Roman theatre may not be held in the same high esteem as that of the Greeks, we have inherited much from the influence of the Roman Theatre. One odd example is the word “play” itself, which came from Latin translation of the word ludus, which means recreation or play. Roman theatre had two parts: Fabula Palliata and Fabula Togata. Fabula Palliata consisted of mostly translations of Greek plays into Latin. It was here that the idea of subplot was introduced. This helped plays contrast the reactions of different sets of characters to the same events or circumstances.
The Fabula Togata were more about broadly absurd situations and humor of a physical nature. Rome theatre consisted primarily of Fabula. Plays of a more serious literary nature continued to be written, but these were not intended to be performed. They were more to be read or recited. The influence of the Roman world on the form of the stage is one which had a more lasting effect. The greatest impact Rome may have had on the theatre was to lower it in the esteem of the Church, an impact that would slow the growth of the dramatic arts for several centuries.
The inclination toward low comedy combined with its association and the entertainment of the arena contributed to its disfavor by officials of the early Christian Church. Plays were associated with either comedy of a coarse nature, or with pagan rituals and holidays. It was the latter that accounts for the survival of theatre through the Middle Ages.
It was written that theatre died following the fall of the Roman Empire, and its memory was kept alive only in the performances of roving bands of street players, jugglers, acrobats and animal trainers. However, while such groups did help to maintain certain aspects of theatrical art, the Church was a major contributor to the preservation of theatre.
It is ironic that the Church, which caused theatres to be outlawed as the Roman Empire declined, was one of the primary means of keeping theatre alive through the Middle Ages. This resulted from the Church’s need to establish itself in the community. The Church began to use dramatic form to illustrate the stories underlying holidays so as to reinforce their religious origins and to better communicate the stories to an illiterate congregation.
At first the parts played in these simple religious re-enactments were acted out by priests in the sanctuary of the church. The members of the congregation clearly enjoyed and were moved by these presentations. The dramas continued to grow, moving out of the sanctuary and into the open air in front of the Church. Ultimately, the members of town began to contribute to these dramas. Which continued to grow more elaborate with time. Known as passion plays, miracle plays and morality plays, they continued their close connection with the Church and church holidays, but began to introduce elements of characters that were more contemporary in nature.