People have enjoyed going to see plays as a form of entertainment since the earliest times. In ancient Greece and Rome, performances were given in great open-air arenas. In ancient Japan, the Noh plays were popular forms of entertainment. During the Middle Ages, sacred stories and plays with Christian themes, called morality plays, were performed in or near churches. By the time of the Renaissance, special buildings were built for dramatic performances. These buildings came to be known as theaters. Perhaps the most famous theater in history was the Globe. An octagon-shaped theater was built in the late 1500s on the south bank of the Thames River, across from London.
Most of William Shakespeare’s plays had their earliest performances in the Globe. A reconstructed Globe Theater now stands near the site of the original theater. Londoners flocked to see the latest comedies and tragedies of writers such as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson. Often drawing on the models of classical Greece and Rome, these writers created dramas beyond mere morality plays; they were works full of romance, humor, violence, and despair. Plays were performed in the daytime, when there was enough natural light to illuminate the stage. The center of the theater was open to the sky.
Ordinary tradespeople sat or stood in this open area, ready to be rained upon if the weather turned bad. Nobles and rich merchants sat in boxes around the sides of the theater. The stage itself was covered by an overhanging roof. The human emotions explored by the plays of the Elizabethan and Restoration periods are so universal that many of the plays continue to be performed. Love, ambition, madness, and revenge have been themes of drama since ancient times. The same themes are still used by modern playwrights. Our enjoyment of the theatre is one way in which we are linked with our ancestors.