In the early part of the 6th century BC, a festival took place in the Greek city of Dionysia. The festival was ordered by the ruler, Pisistratus, to honour Dionysus, the God of Wine and Fertility. It became an annual event and comprised of processions of groups called choros who would sing hymns in honour of their favourite God. They were structured performances that told stories from Greek history and then developed into competitions.
In 53BC, a wandering bard called Thespis emerged on a cart and recited the legends in poetic form engaging in a dialogue with the choros becoming, in effect, the first ‘actor’. He won the prize, the first theatrical award, and his name has given us the term ‘Thespian’.
As performances developed, so did the need for a place where an audience could gather. The early theatres were on hillsides. but soon proper stone amphitheatres were built. The stage areas were round to allow the choros to dance; these were called orchestras. The tiers of stone seats may have been uncomfortable for the audience, but they were cleverly designed with sound projection in mind so that performances could be heard clearly.
The expansion of the Roman republic into Grecian territories and the subsequent foundation of the Roman Empire brought theatre to Europe, the Middle East, parts of Asia and northern Africa. Roman theatre was more varied than its Greek predecessor with the demand shifting from drama to broader entertainment which led to the creation of ‘tragedies’ and ‘comedies’. The greatest exponents of these writings were Titus Plautus and Trentius Afer.
Theatre in western Europe practically died out during the Dark Ages but re-appeared during during the Renaissance when the Church created liturgical drama to bring biblical stories to life; the torments and the suffering of saints proved to be particularly popular.
In Iberia, processional plays brought religious performances to a greater audience that could not be entertained in the confines of a theatre. Each scene was performed on an individual cart with its own props that moved through a town, reaching a succession of audiences. These plays were called auto sacramentales and flourished right up to the end of the 17th century.
The dramatist Gil Vicente (1465-1537), who wrote in both Portuguese and Spanish, was considered chief amongst writers of Auto and was sometimes called the Portuguese Plautus and often referred to as the Father of Portuguese Drama.