The World of Entertainment
The beginnings of popular entertainment go back to primitive societies, when dance and music, magic, and storytelling were created to celebrate the societies’ rituals and gods. At first, men tried to gain control of their world through the magic of imitation. They believed that if they could create the sound of rain falling, real rain would fall. This belief in the magic of imitation graudally led to the arts of acting, theater, and popular entertainment.
The traditions of Western entertainment began in Greece over 2500 years ago wtih the development of Greek drama. Festivals were held to worship Dionysus (Bacchus), the Greek god of wine and new life, with song and dance. By the seventh century B.C., poets began to write stories for a large group of performers, known as a chorus, and a lead actor to recite. By 500 B.C., Aeschylus added a second actor, making possible dialogue between characters. Within 50 years yet another character was added.
Even now, the plays that were written for ancient Greek theater are among the most powerful known. There were two main forms of classical Greek drama-tragedy and comedy. Tragedy tells the story of a great man who by the end of the story is detroyed by flaw in his own character. Comedies made fun of the shortcomings of individuals and society.
There were other kinds of entertainment too. “Mimus” presented scenes from common life using stock comic characters who would act out familiar situations by improvising. The humor was often rough and crude. This form of popular entertainment appears again and again throughtout history.
The Romans continued the traditions of Greece and developed other forms of entertainment as well. The beginnings of the circus appeared when conquering generals brought to Rome rare animals and strangely dressed captives from the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire. Chariot races were held and gladiators fought to the death in public arenas.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, entertainment and drama was considered pagan and sinful by the Christian church. For hundreds of years, there is little evidence of public entertainment of any kind, but by the 1200’s drama reappeared. On special occasions the church added dialogues to its service. Gradually these dialogues became more complex and theatrical. They became so popular that they began to interrupt the rest of the service, so these performances were moved out onto the steps of the church.
Trade unions or guilds took on the responsibility of producing these dramas. The themes were always religious. The stories based on the life of Christ were known as mysteries. Miracle plays told of the lives of saints. Morality plays emphasized the error of wicked ways and the triumph of virtue.
In theater, the Renaissance began in the 1500’s. The theater became less religious. Interest in long lost comedies and tragedies of classical Greek and Roman theater were rediscovered and the nobles used them as models for courtly entertainments. But for popular entertainment, nothing could equal the comedia dell’arte, a refinement of the early Greek Mimus. The commedia dell’arte was performed by a traveling group of actors, each of whom played the same standard character throughout his career. The costume of each character was traditional so that the audiences could easily pick out the familiar types. There were about twelve stock characters in all, including a clown, a beggar, a vain young man, a merchant deceived by his wife, and one cruel and mean-spirited. There were no script for the actors, only a rough outline of what was to happen-and how the story was to end. The dialogue was made up as the actors performed, filling the story with traditional jokes, speeches, and stories. As long as each actor stayed within the limits of his character, anything was allowed. The commedia was improvished, fast-paced, and unpredictable. The actors usually performed from wooden platforms raised above the street for the general public, but the nobility also built special theaters for private performances.
Before the late 1500’s in England, there were small bands of actors who traveled from town to town performing in the courtyards of inns and taverns. These actors offered entertainments, which included plays, songs, and dances, that became so popular that by the 1580’s, special theaters resembling inn courtyards were built in London. The building of these theaters were the beginning of the golden age of Elizabethan theater. Among the writers for this theater was William Shakespeare, probably the greatest dramatist in any language. His plays were written for the general public, most of whom were neither cultivated nor learned but wildly enthusiastic nevertheless. Shakespeare created a great dramatic literature, but at the same time he provided his audience with popular entertainment of wide and lasting appeal.
In Spain and France, the 1600’s also became a golden age of theater. Thousands of plays were written and performed for both the nobility and the general public. There were fewer tragedies and more comedies, satires, melodramas, and farces. Theater became a main source of diversion for the middle class and a truly popular entertainment while at the same time entering the great tradition of Western literature.
Theater and entertainment were not well regarded in the early years of colonial America. Professional actors were looked upon with suspicion and mistrust and play acting was considered immoral. In New England theater was banned, bu the Southern colonies were more tolerant. By 1716 the first theater in America was built in Williamsburg, Virginia. There are few records of theatrical productions before the Revolutionary War. What theater there was, was dominated by English producers and actors. At the outbreak of the war, Congress ordered that the theaters be closed because they were controlled by the English. Some states kept these anti-theatrical laws for many years after the war was over.
During the 1800’s, new forms of popular entertainment grew rapidly. Every decade, thousands of immigrants arrived from different countries, each bringing his own ideas about entertainment. Scenes from Shakespearean plays were popular as well as melodramas and sentimental plays such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Plays about firemen and Indians were in vogue during the 1840’s and 1850’s. Operas were brought from Italy and circuses began to tour from town to town. Variety shows featured comedy skits, singing, and dancing. Stars brought from Europe were in great demand. They included actors and actresses, opera singers, and variety performers.
The advent of railroads allowed troupes of actors and muscicians to easily travel from place to place, bringing entertainment to more and more people. Productions became larger and more elaborate. At the same time, many prosperous towns built theaters where these entertainments could be performed. In towns that were too small to build a theater, the entertainers would set up a tent outside of town. The traveling entertainers offered music, skits, and comedy routines and often full plays. In the middle of the performance or at the end, a “doctor” or an “Indian” would come on stage and sell patent medicine that was promised to cure almost anything. The shows that came to be called medicine shows were a major source of entertainment in small-town America.
The circus also started to move across the country by train. There were lion tamers and elephants, high-wire artists and clowns, acrobats and magicians, music, parades, cotton candy, and sideshows. By the end of the 1800’s the circus had become big business and a circus train often had 20 cars or more. The Wild West Show was an American variation of the circus, it featured trick riding, shooting exhibitions, and Indians. The most famous of these shows was the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Shows. Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull often traveled with the show.
The minstrel show was a new kind of variety show that made use of music and dance that had been brought to America by black slaves. The performers were all white at first, and much of the humor was at the expense of blacks. The singers and dancers appeared on stage in black-face, dressed in tuxedos and top hats. The central character and comic was called “Mr. Interlocutor.” On either sde of the stage were the “endmen,” who were given standard names like Mr. Bones or Sambo. The comedy routines centered on the dialogue among these three characters. behind them was the chorus. Minstrel shows reached their height of popularity in the 1880’s, when some of the larger shows employed over 100 performers to tap dance and sing, joke, and fiddle. Some late minstrel shows were made up of all-black performers.
Before the Civil War, a new kind of variety show was developed for all-male audiences. After 1865, these shows opened their doors to women and children and began to emphasize wholesome family entertainment. Dishes and sewing patterns were offered as door prizes to encourage ladies to attend. This new form came to be known as vaudeville. It consisted of many short acts introduced by a master of ceremonies, and usually included comedy skits, dancing bears, acrobats, black-face entertainers, and music. Almost anything that would keep the audience’s attention was allowed on stage, no matter how silly.
Burlesque developed in the late 1860’s, when vaudeville became family entertainment. Many familiar forms of American performance prospered in vaudeville, including tap dancing, the soft shoe, and the two-man comedy team. Vaudeville disappeared in the 1930’s owing to the popularity of motion pictures. But some great vaudeville performers are still remembered for their later performances in radio, television, or the movies. They include George Burns and Gracie Allen, W.C.Fields, Mae West, and Jack Benny.