just like the other genres, has undergone significant changes in its
historical development. This is partly attributable to the fact that
stage types have also changed and have thus required different forms
of acting. Let us have a look at the various stage forms throughout
history (based on Pfister 2001: 41-45):
Plays in ancient Greece were staged in amphitheatres, which were marked by a round stage about three quarters surrounded by the audience. Since amphitheatres were very large and could hold great masses of people (up to 25,000), the actors could hardly be seen from far back, and for this reason, acting included speaking in a loud, declamatory voice, wearing masks and symbolical costumes and acting with large gestures.
chorus was a vital part of ancient
drama. It had the function of commenting on the play as well as giving
warning and advice to characters. The stage scenery was neutral and
was accompanied by the real landscape surrounding the amphitheatre.
Plays were performed in broad daylight, which also made it impossible,
at least for night scenes, to create an illusion of ‘real life’
on stage. That was not intended anyway. Ancient Greek drama was originally
performed on special occasions like religious ceremonies, and it thus
had a more ritual, symbolic and also didactic purpose. Another interesting
fact to know is that the audience in ancient Greece consisted only of
free men, i.e., slaves and women were excluded.
Medieval pageant in the market place
plays were primarily performed during religious festivities (mystery
plays, morality plays). They were staged on
wagons (pageants), which stopped somewhere in the market place and were
entirely surrounded by the audience. The close vicinity between actors
and audience has to account for a way of acting which combined serious
renditions of the topic in question with stand-up comedy and funny or
bawdy scenes, depending on the taste of the audience. Actors took into
account the everyday experiences of their viewers and there was much
more interaction between audience and actors than than nowadays. The
lack of clear boundaries again impeded the creation of a realistic illusion,
which was also not intended.
The Elizabethan stage was typically found in public theatres, i.e., plays were no longer performed outside. However, it was still an open-air theatre as the lack of artificial lighting made daylight necessary for performances. An exception was the Blackfriar's theatre which was indoors and lit by candlelight. Theatre groups were now professional and mainly sponsored by wealthy aristocrats. Groups which were not under anybody's patronage were considered disreputable vagabonds.
most common stage form in Renaissance England was the apron
stage which was surrounded by the audience on three sides and
there was still a close vicinity between audience and actors. This meant
that actors could not possibly ignore their viewers, and theatrical
devices such as asides and monologues ad spectatores
were an integral part of the communication system. The stage set was
reasonably barren while costumes could be very elaborate. Since performances
took place in broad daylight, the audience had to imagine scenes set
at night, for example, and respective information had to be conveyed
rhetorically in the characters’ speeches (word scenery).
As there was barely any scenery, scenes could change very quickly with
people entering and exiting. The three unities were
thus frequently not strictly adhered to in Elizabethan drama. The Elizabethan
theatre could hold up to 2,000 people, and the audience was rather heterogeneous,
consisting of people from different social backgrounds. Plays of that
period thus typically combine various subject matters and modes (e.g.,
tragic and comical) because they attempted to appeal to as wide an audience
of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were considerably smaller
than the Elizabethan theatre (they held around 500 people), and performances
took place in closed rooms with artificial lighting. In contrast to
modern theatres where the audience sits in the dark, the audience in
the Restoration period was seated in a fully illuminated room. One must
bear in mind that people of the higher social class were also interested
in presenting themselves in public, and attending a play offered just
such an opportunity. Because of the lighting arrangements, the division
between audience and actors was thus not as clear-cut as today. Plays
had the status of a cultural event, and the audience was more homogeneous
than in earlier periods, belonging primarily to higher social classes.
While the stage was closed in by a decorative frame and the distance
between audience and actors was thus enlarged, there was still room
for interaction by means of a minor stage jutting out into the auditorium.
Furthermore, there was no curtain so that changes of scene had to take
place on stage in front of the audience. Restoration plays thus still
did not aim at creating a sense of realism but they presented an idealised,
highly stylised image of scenery, characters, language and subject matter.
The stage of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is called proscenium stage or picture frame stage because it is shaped in such a way that the audience watches the play as it would regard a picture: The ramp clearly separates actors and audience, and the curtain underlines this division. Furthermore, while the stage is illuminated during the performance, the auditorium remains dark, which also turns the audience into an anonymous mass. Since the audience is thus not disturbed from watching the play and can fully concentrate on the action on stage, it becomes easier to create an illusion of real life in plays. Furthermore, the scenery is now often elaborate and as true-to-life as possible thanks to new technologies and more detailed stage props.
many modern plays aim at creating the illusion of a story-world ‘as
it could be in real life’ and acting conventions follow this dictum
accordingly, there have also been a great number of theatrical movements
which counter exactly this realism. However, the modern stage form has
not been able to fully accommodate to the needs of more experimental
plays (e.g., the epic theatre), nor to older plays
such as those of ancient Greece or the Elizabethan Age simply because
the overall stage conventions diverge too much. For this reason, we
find nowadays a wide range of different types of stage alongside the
proscenium stage of conventional theatres.