When looking at ancient Greece (the birthplace of ‘modern’ theatre as we know it), it’s obvious that plays, performances and productions were there to entertain. With the use of masks prominent in Greek theatre it’s clear that this form of display is used to entertain audiences with its direct depiction of comedy and tragedy. Along with insanely exciting stories of Gods, Heros and mythical monsters, which are apparent in Greek literature, it is obvious that the ancient audiences went to their sweeping amphitheatres to be entertained.
But going back to ancient literature we see stories of duelling Gods, meddling villains and moral dilemmas (these stories would have certainly been translated onto stage because despite Greece’s advanced civilization many still could not read). All these things are part of the ancient Greek religion, these things placed on a stage teach religion, they teach enlightenment. Thus, two and a half, even three thousand years ago we can see theatre being used in a rather rudimentary way to insight belief, raise social questions and encourage freedom of thought from everyday drudgery.
In ancient Greece enlightenment through theatre was not the major source of soul affirming influence, this is where religion entered, myths and legends depicting triumphant Gods and gruesome Titans would out do anything that could be done on stage; the temples and not the amphitheatres were where ancient audiences went to find inner peace and external questioning. Going forwards many centuries to European Dark Age society at least, theatre played a more sidelined role, allowing religion to take centre stage (ironically).
The age of theatre (or amphitheatre) had past. None were wealthy enough to afford a visit to a theatre, theatres which did not physically exist, and anyone with enough money would invest in the church or a war, not a building that was a shrine to the sin of entertainment. Theatre itself was no more; entertainment went to the audience rather than visa versa. Feral performers, jesters and minstrels went to the wealthy to show off their art, and in return hope for a few gold sovereigns to be thrown their way.
The stories these entertainers (which is the key word here, enlightenment came from the Almighty, not travelling muse-acts) told we’re simple and connected directly with their audiences, crusades, bloody battles and maidens in distress were all standard, although the occasional yet appropriate Biblical morality story may pop up here and there. A typical plot line would have been ‘siege upon city waged, city burned to the ground by brave soldier, brave soldier wounded but still manages to destroy enemy single-handed, brave soldier takes enemies wife as is own’.
This story may not seem at all moral to you and I but the times we live in are not those of rape, pillage and plunder. These stories would have been told to commanding Lords, Dukes and their armies, they built morale and confidence, the idea of a soldier, a lone man, becoming triumphant over a hoard of evil sinners had to be a confidence boost. These stories encouraged perseverance, which is a virtue; therefore in a rather roundabout way enlightenment did come through in Dark Age entertainment, but less as spiritual guidance and more as moral encouragement.
These morals depicted in the shows would ultimately have been chosen and censored buy the Lord of the Manor and the soldiers commander, these morals would have always included the undisputed loyalty to the fight that was being fought. In every society there is always a factor controlling peoples motivation and movement, war, religion, money, but this factor is not always challenged and individual thought against it encouraged.
As the Dark Ages moved into the Renaissance direct religious depiction in theatre was extinct; with state run religion in England now holding the people in a tight grip, the idea of someone playing God, His son or His spirit on a stage would have been a carnal sin and blasphemous beyond belief. Unlike in Greece, religion and theatre were never to meet, entertainment is indulgence and indulgence is a sin.
Therefore to get a moral view across to an audience a performer had to become cleverer in his thinking and approach to this challenge, and thus large groups of touring players appeared which lead to domesticated theatre, as we know it. If, as a playwright (who took over from the individual performer when creating stories as individual performers simply did not exist any more), one had to evoke thought in oneself; could that thought not also be evoked in an audience? This caused theatre to be considered, at last, as a directly communicational medium.
A playwright was getting his story across to an audience via a stage, and his story could be whatever he chose. It is here we start to see the emergence of theatre being thought about in a way to cause a reaction in an audience, but still a play kept in its entertaining roots (who would pay half a weeks wage to watch a dull play? ). A prime example comes in the play-within-a-play that exists in Hamlet; this piece of theatre conveniently shows the use of theatre to evoke a reaction in an audience.
This proves that theatre had progressed from silly hats to real emotion and real feelings of real people and that playwrights were consciously and directly thinking about the effect their plays have on society around them. It is the evolution of this mode of thought that produced the political satirical works of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, religion was dieing, with the appearance of partial democracy, faith in a divine monarch who controlled the land was irrelevant and politics was the new religion.
A religion the people (or at least the very privileged of those) could choose the doctrine for, and due to people being different agreement was never unanimous. Satire was used to sway people’s political beliefs, to encourage people to think with whom their politics lay. But above all it was funny, it was entertaining to see key figures in society mocked and ridiculed, some members of the audience would have thought “What can be done about this figure? ” but most would have simply enjoyed the show.
Eventually it was considered that theatre could be used not just to ask ‘What should be done about society’, but ‘Why should it be done and how? ‘ which progressed to: ‘What can I do about society’, ‘Why should I do it and how’. It was Brecht who decided that it wasn’t good enough merely letting an audience be entertained by observations of their society, the audience had to react to their society, it wasn’t good enough to appreciate a show for it’s story but take its story with you when you leave your seat.
Brecht wanted his audiences to think about what they were witnessing. In the past they had watched a performance and liked it. The Greek theatregoers learned, the writers of the Renaissance thought but entertained, the audiences of Satire were intrigued but Brechtian audiences were to be inspired and moved to stamp their feet and cause a fuss, Brechtian audiences were to be moved into action. Over the ages it is apparent that theatre has been there to entertain, it is a distraction from reality to entertain an audience.
Entertainment has always been theatres goal. But within this entertainment, learning, encouragement and enlightenment have been present in several forms. But what is enlightenment? It is merely the interpretation of a stimulus to add to the audiences belief of how life, the universe and everything works… this could mean anything! The only true definition of enlightenment is for an observer to connect on some level to a stimulus. That is theatres true purpose, to connect with its audience.