Word of the week: theatre

Talking to EF English Live students I am often reminded of how connected a world we live in. If I mention a writer from Japan, a Brazilian student will have heard of him; or if I talk about the latest French film, students in Russia will have seen it. But what about ‘theatre’? Is theatre similarly global?

According to Shakespeare, arguably the most famous English speaking playwright in history, “The plays the thing.” But is he right? How often do you go the theatre and would you go to see a ‘play’ in English?

The Western tradition of drama started in Greece, which is where the word ‘theatre‘ came from. There it was considered a civic duty to perform or watch plays. They mainly enjoyed ‘tragedies’ and ‘comedies’. Over 2000 yeas later comedies by Aristophanes are still popular and are surprisingly current.

The Romans helped spread Greek dramas, but when the Roman Empire collapsed, theatricals declined, and instead religious plays such as ‘Mystery Plays’ performed by local people became popular.

It was only in the late middle ages that paid professional ‘actors’ started to appear. When religious dramas were banned, playwrights like Shakespeare were free to write about a new range of subjects, and theatre grew in popularity as an art form for everyone.

However, Europe is not the only part of the world with strong theatrical traditions. Theatre flourished in India as far back at 1st CE. Partly religious Sanskrit theatre featured dance, music and recitation by both female and male performers. Similar elements were found in pre European Latin American theatre.

Theatre in China is even earlier in origin than in India. ‘Puppets’ are an important element of Chinese drama, they also featured in medieval Islamic theatre. Another key aspect of Chinese theatre is acrobatics and music. Dance and music is also a key feature of traditional Japanese theatre – Noh, Banraku and Kabuki. Kabuki, for instance, features amazing costumes and sword fights performed in a very stylized way, while huge puppets feature in Banraku.

So although the forms and traditions of theatre may differ across the world, going to see a ‘performance’ still remains a rewarding experience in this multi-media age.