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The Italians were masters of adapting art forms from other cultures and turning them into their own. When it comes to theater, they did the same, but also gave the world some quite important developments.
Rome was a center of culture and entertainment very early – and the first theater performance in Italy is usually traced back to a performance some time in 364 B.C. At that stage in time, the Romans had taken the influences from Greece and the Etruscan culture and combined them into their own type of theater. It is notable that the Romans had more interest in comedies than in tragedies, which is one of the reasons why theater in Rome developed differently than the theaters in Greece.
Nobody is sure about where the Romans really got their ideas for their first permanent theaters from. All that is known is that they were dedicated to the Goddess Venus (who is the Greek Goddess Aphrodite with a different name), and were quite splendid and fit for their purpose.
The most famous of all ancient Roman playwrights was Titius Maccius Plautus, who unlike many other playwrights, started his career as a playwright rather late in life when he found himself penniless (and maybe even hopeless). He started with his career by translating works of the Greek playwright Menander, who was famous for his comedies. However, it needs to be noted, that Plautus did more than just translating the plays, he also adapted them and put his own life experience into the plays. It is said he had produced more than 120 plays during his time, however, to this day only 21 of those have survived.
Terence, who was originally from North Africa, was brought to Rome as a slave. However, his master was not a bad one. Terence received an education and was later on set free. He turned out to be a talented writer, and all of his six plays have made it to our modern time. His writing was often seen as more sophisticated as the writing of Plautus. You could say “Quality over quantity” would be quite a good description when it comes to the difference between Plautus and Terence.
The name Seneca is more often connected with the philosophy school of Stoicism. Seneca, however, was not only a brilliant thinker but also produced a few great theater plays. Unfortunately for him, the Romans at his time still had more love for comedies, and Seneca produced tragedies. His life, later on, also turned into a tragedy and he was forced to commit suicide (but nobody can say for sure whether he had committed the actual crime of treason or not). His plays include: Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, and Troades.
The world of theater in general in Europe during the Middle Ages was rather turbulent. After the Roman Empire had fallen, theaters were often on the move, i.e. you had groups of actors wandering around, performing where they could. The church sometimes was for and sometimes against theater. Basically you could apply the rule: if it was a dramatization of a bible story or something that made the church look good, then the church could not have loved Italian theater more. Anything else was either frowned upon or even banned at times.
During the 16th century, the Italians developed the “Commedia dell’arte”, which soon became popular in other European countries. The Commedia dell’arte is characterized by the wearing of masks. The characters in those plays are usually based on stereotypes, and the masks and outfits immediately made the spectators aware of what the character was about. The performances were based on improvising, so there was only a loose plot.
The commedia erudita was the counterpart of the commedia dell'arte – the pieces in this type of theater were written by professional writers, and then performed accordingly. The texts of the plays were commonly based on the works of ancient playwrights, sometimes in Latin, sometimes in “vulgar” Italian. These plays were often seen as too difficult to understand for normal people, so they were usually just for the enjoyment of the nobility.
Today, you can find a good mix of theater plays in bigger cities in Italy. Rome has a very active theater scene with a vibrant community. The Italians still seem to have a bigger love for comedies than tragedies though. Some things never change. The best contemporary Italian playwright is Luigi Pirandello – and he died in 1936. While Italian playwrights can produce good plays, modern Italian theater does not yet rival what the Italians achieved in the past.