Ghost Lights: History & Theatre

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  • Ashley Jones

They say that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, but is it always doom? Understandably, the phrase most commonly refers to the parts of history regarding violence, disease, and chaos as doom, but what about the artistic side of history? Often in the classroom, we study the violent conquests and political takeovers of empires all over the world, but our history books often fail to mention the brilliant, lively, and extensive nature of historic culture. This includes visual art, literature, music, fashion, dance, and of course, theatre. It is not only until we pursue higher education in specific fields that we learn about evolutions of the artistic world and its histories. The average college theatre program has some sort of requirement for a course on theatre history in one form or another. From my own personal experience, this course has been one of the most helpful and eye-opening courses of my college experience. While every school may approach this course differently, it is vital to the theatrical education in order to preserve the classical works and inspire new ideas and innovations.

In the modern theatrical world, we see more and more of the same but what happens if we educate theatre fans on what else is out there besides the world of Broadway and musical theatre? Don’t get me wrong I am a huge fan of musical theatre, but there is a whole other world of theatre that is much less mainstream.

Theatre ranges in styles and forms. The earliest forms are debated because nobody has documented the exact origins, but the philosopher and theatre critic Aristotle believed that theatre came from a human instinct to imitate. If we think about it most things in our nature as human beings come from some instinct or another so, it should come as no shock that performance has similar roots, but really think about it for a moment. Do you remember the games you used to play as a child? The ones where you would dress up in some sort of improvisational costume and become a superhero saving yourself from the floor lava, or an astronaut who would explore the voids of space. These games are in a sense a form of theatre, and where our imitation instinct comes into play, we all want to explore the new realms of the world that comes to our minds and form new discoveries from the depths of our imaginations. This is what Aristotle was talking about that childhood instinct to discover worlds we could only imagine and connect them to the one in which we live.

Even in the ancient eras, these instincts were replicated in ritual and ceremonies practiced all over the world. An individual would perform a sequence under a set of given circumstances to carry out their role, whether it is religious or not (in many earlier societies this was the case). Then the Greeks began to experiment from these rituals and ceremonies to create the earliest known plays and performances that turned into a full-fledged theatre festival as it progressed. This is the earliest known evolution of theatre that has grown significantly over the centuries.

Theatre has had its ups and downs but flourished during some of the most prominent times in history and remained strong. Even in dark periods of history among war, disease, destruction, and devastation theatre flourished. Theatre and history go hand in hand, and I had not realized how much until I became a theatre student. In my earlier education I was very interested in the history of the world but seeing the impact history has had on an artistic culture such as theatre is an entirely new experience. It is a new look at the way that the arts thrive in times of struggle.

Of course, the way that these former theatrical practices, plays, ideas, evolutions, and technologies have been utilized and passed down for centuries is quite remarkable and creates many ghosts of time waiting for their moment to step back to the spotlight. It is crucial to give these ghosts a voice to not only inspire new ideas but to keep in touch with where theatre has come from. There is always an element of pure humanity in the theatre, perhaps it is because we are imitating our own responses to the world or simply because we create from what we know or observe. Either way, the more we explore, discuss, and expand from the roots the larger the tree of theatrical innovation can grow larger and stronger branches.

Through time theatre has often taken earlier ideas and evolved into new ideas and plays as well as new methods and practices that all come from learning and discovering what else was out there. Theatre history is so critically important because it teaches us what else is out there besides what we see every day or what we can possibly see again if we revive or rework former traditions and practices. There is much more possibility for creative inspiration by learning our history that it is not a doom to repeat it but a crucial necessity to anyone who cares deeply about the theatre and seeing everything it can unfold.