Theatre and Set Design from 1500-1700

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Theatre and Set Design from 1500-1700


The main theme of this research project is analysis of major characteristics of theatre and set design from 1500-1700. The work includes discussion of a significant impact of Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Classicism on the theatrical art. The topic was chosen because it is relevant and interesting to explore. To complete the study, only scholarly historical resources were used in order to provide clear and reliable information. The aim of the research is to define the major changes of theatre and set design from 1500 to 1700. Comparative analysis and cognitive synthesis have helped to divide the material into several units and distinguish its general characteristics. Consequently, it enabled to determine the general transformations and innovations of the theatre and set design of the period.

Keywords: theatre, set design, performance.


The revival of theatrical art in Europe began in the 15th and 16th centuries (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). Before the rise of Renaissance, the theatre existed in three elements, namely in mystery, miracle, and liturgical drama. However, these scenic activities were not similar to the real theatre scenes. The performances were unprofessional and did not reveal the inner world of the characters. At the beginning of the 16th century, each type of theatre performance had its characteristics and purpose (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). For example, a mystery was a theatre production in which religious subjects only slightly diluted comic and genre scenes. There was also a liturgical drama with exclusively individual episodes from the Gospel. These representations were organized during the Easter and Christmas services. A miracle was a drama with religious and didactic content; an incredible event performed by the Virgin Mary or other saints served as its basis (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). Miracle and mystery enjoyed great popularity among the people and gathered huge audiences. In essence, amateur artists organized these concepts in the streets, squares, and markets (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). Besides, actors always visited different cities, as they did not have the troupe and special facilities. Consequently, the beginning of the 16th century demonstrated only amateur theatre features.

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The Changes of the Renaissance Period

For a long time, European actors were badly organized and had mediocre acting skills. Despite this, there were some special groups of actors that were interested in the development of their skills. These people began to form a particular layer of professional artists. For the second half of the 16th century, theatres in Europe have undergone professionalization (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). As a result, the theatre began to demand an appropriate clearance and permanent premises for performances. For example, the first theatre in France was erected in 1548 in Paris and was called “Hotel de Bourgogne” (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). However, an old view on performance no longer satisfied the audience, and they demanded something fresh and innovative. Apart from special buildings, a theatre started to update repertoire and apply the new stage equipment and set design (Baugh, 2014). Therefore, people created drama and began to write works for a specific stage troupe based on director’ and actors’ skills. In the middle of the 16th century, people started to mix several theatre genres like a tragedy, a farce, a tragicomedy, etc. Consequently, development of performing arts occurred at a very fast pace and was transformed to a more aesthetic and perfect form.

The essential historical peculiarities and changes of theatrical art brought some specific features to European countries. For example, stage activities in Spain during the 16th century acquired a great distinctive character (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). In fact, the performance called Loa opened almost every theatrical production. This required a prologue that was highly popular in Spain during the Renaissance. The main actor or a director of the troupe went up on stage to praise all nobles and to read Loa (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). Apart from this, people mentioned the author of the play and its story. After some time, the prologue was modified and became a comic, lyrical, or heroic story. At some point, it was a parody of some actor’s representations and even a kind of mockery of the plot. Gradually, Loa became a farce to the accompaniment of songs and dances. However, its main role was to win the attention of the audience before the main presentation (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). Therefore, the development of professional theatre began to spread throughout Europe.

At the end of the 16th century, dramatic art became more popular, and theatre started its general transformation (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). One of the most important factors in the theatre development was the buildings construction. In reality, people began to create and implement innovative types of theatre buildings. For example, the tiered theatre construction style became the basis for the European countries (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). These innovations gave the theatre arts great opportunities and led to the emergence and rapid development of classical opera as a new theatrical form. Specialization of theatre buildings in musical performances led to the evolution of ballet (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). Moreover, the new concept of theatre interpreted stage and auditorium as a single unit. As a result, theatrical set design received impetus for progress (Baugh, 2014). The new principles such as the creation of beautiful scenery with the prospect became the basis for the theatre performances (Baugh, 2014). Moreover, a new stage genre of opera, which emphasized entertainment activities, necessitated frequent changes of set design (Baugh, 2014). Furthermore, people developed special equipments for the curtain mechanism and transformed stage machinery. The advent of indoor theatre buildings solved multiple technical and lighting problems. Additionally, new technological trends required their practical implementation. This situation resulted in the emergence of new theatrical professions (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014). Remarkably, such active development and construction of theatres fueled intense competition among the theatres. This process led to a variety of genres and types of theatrical art for different audiences (Fumerton & Hunt, 2014).

The Changes of the Enlightenment Period

The Age of Enlightenment was a period of new discoveries in the theatre art. The main line of this period was the struggle against feudalism in Europe, since European society wanted changes and opposed the ideology and lifestyle of feudal lords (Wolf, 2012). Besides, this desire for improvement was the main motto of the Enlightenment as it stated that humanity is imperfect but should strive to be perfect. The Age of Enlightenment has greatly influenced the development of theatre art. Its effect was aimed at liberating the human minds from outdated prejudices and suggesting new ideas and true morality (Wolf, 2012). In contrast to earlier periods when theatre was just the means of people’s entertainment, the theatre during this period played a huge role in the life of society and had a powerful influence on people’s minds. Theatre became a real school that taught morality and virtue. The main purpose of this type of art in the age of Enlightenment was to show ordinary people the injustice of a European government with the help of the action on stage. Most importantly, the theatre handled this difficult task. The main tool of influence on society in the theatre was the prologue which was changed after the period of Renaissance (Wolf, 2012). As a matter of fact, these changes were focused on formation of an educational but not an entertaining character of performance. Thus, prolog existed as an instructive conversation of a dramatic philosopher with the public. Furthermore, with the development of performing arts, prologue has changed and became a theoretical manifesto that showed the injustice of the world. Moreover, the form of the performances organization has also changed, and the elements of loud displays of emotions became rare (Wolf, 2012). Both the aristocratic social stratum and commoners took places on the comfortable benches and had an opportunity to evaluate the performance. Regarding the theatre construction, a proscenium stage became the most common type. It was caused by the goal to provide the most suitable environment for perception (Wolf, 2012). Apart from this, the new educational features of theoretical art contributed to the creation of comedy of manners ¬ one of the most essential genres of the Enlightenment period (Wolf, 2012). Concerning the part of set design, people created a hand-drawn scenery and theatrical machinery for spectacular flights and disappearances (Baugh, 2014). These changes were brought by the new progressive ideas of Enlightenment (Baugh, 2014). The main task of the theatre was the closest approach to the real and simple way of life as well as the formation of the main character from an image of an ordinary man. One of the most important changes of the Enlightenment was the emergence of woman’s right to participate in theatrical productions (Wolf, 2012). The theatre in the Enlightenment period was a very powerful tool of the people’s control and the formation of the correct worldview. Consequently, all transformations were influenced by specific ideas of Enlightenment.

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The Changes of the Classicism Period

The end of the 17th century became the beginning of a golden age for the theatre. During this period, the performing arts were rapidly transformed (Schneider, 2014). In the late 17th century, theatres adopted baroque and classicism as two common styles (Schneider, 2014). Moreover, authors often mixed them in the performances. The Age of Classicism made some essential changes in the theatrical arts. Initially, there was the unity of place. This requirement demonstrated a common space for all the events of the play. For example, the location for the comedy was a square, and the location for the tragedy was the hall in the palace. In this case, the actors frequently did not use any decorations in their performances. The second change was the unity of time (Schneider, 2014). All events in the play happened in the same time interval. Besides, performance did not last longer than a day. The last transformation was the unity of activities, which, in essence, was the most complex requirement. The performance in the classical period had only one storyline and consistent character (Schneider, 2014). In addition to this, a classic actor played only one role without impersonations. In contrast to other eras, directors started to choose individual actors to play the specific hero (Schneider, 2014). Furthermore, this period brought the changes in the performing arts. Performances were solemn and static and contained euphonious poetry. Thus, the artists created a new style of play with elements of psychological expressiveness and brilliance (Schneider, 2014). People termed this style as art of recitation, because the poems were very harmonious. This style was also harmoniously combined with plastic gestures and movements. Regarding set design, people started to paint idealized scenery but still with real motives (Baugh, 2014). Besides, innovative naturalistic and romantic scenery was discovered during this period (Baugh, 2014). These changes were made with an aim of combining the old style with the classic features. Furthermore, a work organization in theatre during Classicism reached a high professionalism in comparison with the past eras. Consequently, the period of Classicism brought many essential changes to the theatrical art.



Theatrical art and set design in the period between 1500 and 1700 reached a great development and mastered almost all possible genres, types, and trends. However, at the beginning of the 16th century, the theatre was amateurish and undeveloped. The Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Classicism became the periods that marked the way of essential transformations and innovations in theatrical arts. Renaissance period contributed to the creation of first individual genres, construction of theatres, and innovative beautiful scenery. Enlightenment period brought the new types of educational performances, proscenium stage, and hand-drawn scenery. Classicism brought the creation of recitation and innovative naturalistic and romantic scenery. Therefore, the period of 1500-1700 had a fundamental impact on the theatrical art and set design development.