To what extent has the purpose of theatre changed since its origins in Ancient Greece.

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 1344

Theatre has been around since the 5th Century BC, and its origins comes from Athens in Ancient Greece. Since then, theatre has become an “living, ever-changing art” (O’Connor, 1968, p.37). New styles and genres have been introduced and continue to gain popularity, while also more people are able to take part and get involved. What started off as a competition in a festival, is now enjoyed by millions every year. Now in the modern day, there is a vast range of different kinds of theatre. The purpose of this essay is to figure out if there is something that connects all styles of theatre together. Has the purpose of theatre changed from where it started back in Ancient Greece?

The actual word ‘theatre’ “origins in the Greek word Theatron, a place for viewing or seeing” (Allain and Harvie, 2014, p.250). It’s known that Ancient Greece is “regarded as the birthplace of the drama”(Arnott, 1959, p.15). During festivals, Athenians would watch both comedies and tragedies. Tragedies were in inspired by Greek Mythology and featured stories about the gods. Performances would take place in an open-air theatre with a limited number of actors on stage. A chorus would be present to help tell the story, while masks were worn by actors. As a result, Greek Theatre has “inspire modern theatre audiences with their timeless examination of universal themes” (Cartwright, 2016), because we still use a lot of the same techniques. Thus, Greek Theatre’s purpose was to tell/retell stories which would involve the gods and entertain the Greek people.

Theatre has changed a lot since Ancient Greece, but we have taken elements and carried on using them. Masks are still used today and songs, which were key elements of an Ancient Greek performance. There have been new styles of theatre introduced like immersive, ritual, and physical, to name a few. However, “styles, setting, acting and production vary from year to year, and from generation to generation” (Arnott, 1959, p.1).  Classic texts are still brought to life, but in new ways to keep the audience interested. All these different styles are trying to tell their stories but in different ways.

Classic texts are still enjoyed today by modern audiences. Like Ancient Greek theatre, Shakespeare has been a huge influence on theatre. It is worth noting that “Shakespeare’s plays are performed more widely around the world, and more often, than those of any other dramatist, alive or dead, is itself a phenomenon” (Elsom, 1989, p.7). Some companies still perform Shakespeare in the way it was performed in the Elizabethan era. While other companies have made their performances more modern by using modern equipment. The purpose behind Shakespeare’s work was to entertain the public. He wrote about ” life and death, youth versus age, love and hate, fate and free will” (Celtic English Academy, 2017). These themes are still relatable today, which is why his kind of theatre is still enjoyed. For Shakespeare and many other practitioners, theatre is about entertaining the audience. Panto is enjoyed all over the world every year. Even though we know the stories they are telling, it is an entertaining show that we know will make us laugh and be enjoyed.

Theatre has always been about going to watch a performance and enjoying it. For Ancient Greek and Shakespearean Theatre, theatre was about entertainment. However, there are now practitioners that don’t want to create work for us to enjoy but to make us think and question. For example, Bertold Brecht, created work for the audience to “judge and argue over what they had seen, and to consider its political and social relevance to their own lives” (Bradley, 2016, p.1029). Brecht’s, Epic Theatre wants the audience to question what they have seen and apply it to their own lives. Compared to the theatre we have already explored; this kind of theatre’s purpose is to make us think. It wants us to question the work we are seeing and the world that we live in. You go to watch a performance because you want to enjoy it, but Brecht’s first aim isn’t enjoyment but to make us think.

Like Brecht, Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed aimed “offer tools for liberation by using theatre methods to examine social injustice, power relations and oppression” (Osterlind, 2008, p.72). For Boal, the meaning of theatre was to put a spotlight on important issues for the audience to think about. While also giving possible answers on how to fight it. His theatre tried to question and “engage with real issues and situations and attempt to resolve them” (Allain and Harvie, 2014, p33). Both Brecht and Boal had a different idea of the meaning behind theatre, compared to where it started. They saw it as a way to question society and offer ideas on issues that needed help/change. But you could argue that you still enjoy this type of performance, because it makes you think about things in a different way. Otherwise, if you don’t enjoy it, then can you really understand what is being presented to you. Yet for Brecht that wouldn’t matter.

Another purpose of theatre could be to transport the audience into the world of the story being told. Punchdrunk’s meaning of theatre is to immerse the audience and take them on an adventure. The artistic director of Punchdrunk, Felix Barrett has said if you become immersed you will experience “a specific, limited set of emotions” (Biggin, 2017, p.4) during one of their shows. Hence the purpose of immersive theatre is viewing the story in a more personal way, by being transported to a different place. With the advancements of technology, like projected images and lighting effects, this helps immerse the audience even more. Immersive performances rely heavily upon the space they are performed in. They are considered an exciting and enjoyable experience because you get to be so close to the action. Therefore, immersive theatre’s purpose is to transport you first, and then entertain you afterwards.

Theatre has gained many different meanings since its origins in Ancient Greece. Its purpose can be to entertain us, to make us question, to transport us and to educate us.  Theatre is a very complex thing, which is in a constant state of flux. It has to keep changing to keep the interest of audiences, so they will keep coming back. There is no one purpose to theatre, but something all theatre’s share is that they tell stories. It now helps tell unheard stories and makes us think about the world in which we live in. You can argue that theatre’s purpose is to entertain by putting on a spectacle, which leads to us questioning or being transported. It depends on the style of performance we are watching, which determines what to expect and the purpose. The purpose of theatre will always change and will always be a complicated answer.

Reference List:

Allain, P. and Harvie, J. (2014) The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Performance. Routledge: New York.

Arnott, P. (1959) The Introduction to the Greek Theatre. MacMillan Press LTD: London.

Biggin, R. (2017) Immersive Theatre and Audience Experience: Space, Game and Story in the work of Punchdrunk. Palgrave Macmillan: London.

Bradley, L. (2016) ‘Training the Audience: Brecht and the Art of Spectatorship’. The Modern Language Review. 111(4). pp. 1029-1048.

Cartwright, M. (2016) Ancient Greek Theatre. Available at: (Accessed: 27th August 2021).

Celtic English Academy. (2017) Why is Shakespeare Still Important Today. Available at: (Accessed: 27th August 2021).

Elsom, J. (ed). (1989) Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary?. Routledge: New York.

O’Connor, P. (1968) ‘Theatre: Priests at the Theatre’. The Furrow. 19(1). pp. 37-39.

Osterlind, E. (2008) ‘Acting out of habits – can Theatre of the Oppressed promote change? Boal’s theatre methods in relation to Bourdieu’s concept of habitus’. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance. 13(1). pp. 71-82.


Punchdrunk. (No date) Punchdrunk. Available at: (Accessed: 27th August 2021).

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