Theatre History II

THTR 21200 CCNY Fall 2022

This course examines the development of theatre and performance from the early seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century. While many topics covered in this course more or less follow the temporality and itinerary of Western theatre history, we will also study instances of global performance history, and critically reflect on the limits and possibilities of theatre historiography.

Instructor: Cen Liu

Cover: Thomas Rowlandson (artist), Thomas Tegg (publisher), "Pidgeon Hole. A Convent Garden Contrivance to Coop up the Gods," 1811.


This manifold project is the primary learning space for the course. You will access course readings and resources on this site, and annotate all the readings in our Manifold reading group. A major assignment of the course asks you to conduct archival research and collectively build our resource collections.

The "Resource Collection" of this project is created collaboratively by students in the class. Any use of the resources must attribute the author who created the resource.

This project is attributed a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license by the instructor.

Cluster 1: Metatheatricality

Hamlet famously declares the purpose of theatre as “to hold a mirror up to nature”—to its own virtue and vice and that of its time. The complicated relation and the ambiguous boundary between theatre and reality both fascinated and unsettled the seventeenth-century playwrights and audience alike. Are we intact from the revelry of deception and the spectacle of violence that theatre presents to us? Do we also perform to fulfill the demands of family, society and what we believe to be justice? In this cluster, we will tap into Jacobean theatre in England with a particular attention to the philosophical concept and the theatrical device of metatheatre in the play.


Cluster 2: Theatre and the City

With the nascent development of capitalism and the ongoing progress of urbanization in the seventeenth century, theatrical space became increasingly ingrained in the urban landscape. The century saw the burgeoning of permanent performance spaces and the expansion of the public participating in theatergoing and theatrical spectatorship. The taste for entertainment is a vice that specifically associated with the city, along with deception, gluttony, and licentiousness. The new significance of theatre in the society sparked discussions and contention over its forms and functions. In this cluster, we will look at Neoclassical theatre in France and Kabuki theatre in Japan and investigate how the moral discourse on theatre influenced its trajectory of development.

Theatre and the City

Cluster 3: Theatre and Gender

Having involved in the business of theatre for several centuries, women gained greater visibility in theatre in the seventeenth century, as female actresses entered the theatrical stage. Meanwhile, a few female playwrights received wide recognition and have entered the classical repertoire. In this cluster, we will look at two most influential female playwrights in the seventeenth century respectively from England and Mexico and examine how they negotiate their positions in the playhouse, reckon with male-dominated patronage and culture, and interject their own perspectives while working within established theatrical practices. Meanwhile, we will consider the effect of gendering in producing cultural hierarchy for Europe’s colonial enterprise.

Theatre and Gender

Cluster 4: Popular Performance

The anxiety over the subversive potential of theatre led to a series of official licensing acts in the attempt to curtail the influence of theatre. These regulations inversely fostered the flourishment of popular performances in miscellaneous venues. New theatrical genres became prominent all over the Europe, including commedia dell’arte in Italy, opéra comique in France, and ballad opera in England. These popular performances flourished on gags, spectacle, and subversive humor, evading the censorship on dramas by replacing dialogues with satirical lyrics set to music and popular tunes. In this cluster, we will inquire popular theatrical genres by examining their structural formula and commercial rhetoric.

Popular Performance

Cluster 5: Theatre and Secularization

The “scientific revolution,” which characterized the intellectual milieu of the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, brought about a drastic shift in the perception of human subjectivity. Exalting human’s sensorial faculties in producing experiential knowledge, this movement fundamentally destabilized the authority of God in bestowing meanings upon human life. It quickly became clear that science was to be the new ideology that controls individual will and regulates social normalcy. In this cluster, we will consider the ramification of the “Enlightenment”–the claim of objectivity that subtends various acts of marginalization, exclusion, and domination.

Theatre and Secularization

Cluster 6: Theatre and Cosmopolitanism

During the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, Europe forged a new definition of its imperial role in the world. Europeans characterized their colonial expansion as a desire to experience people of different nations, creeds and colors with pleasure, curiosity, and interest, celebrated by a sense of “cosmopolitanism.” In theatre, this new ideology gave rise to a widespread interest in the representations of non-Western people. In the meantime, theatre perpetuated stereotypes of non-Western culture. In this cluster, we will investigate cross-cultural encounters on stage motivated by the idea of cosmopolitanism , exemplified by the imaginary depiction of China in London theatre, with a critical eye to the ways that these representations reinforce the difference between colonial Europe and colonized regions beyond.

Theatre and Cosmopolitanism

Cluster 7: Melodrama and Race

Romanticism, the artistic movement that swept the nineteenth century, elevated human emotion to a new height. Melodramatic theatre offered novel excitement for the audience with spectacles of fires and floods. However, the singular focus on emotional purgation renders invisible the political and racial tension revealed in melodramatic plays. In this cluster, we will examine two melodramatic plays documenting contentious racial issues that might not be evident to the nineteenth-century audience. In the process, we will consider the tension between dramatic form and content and how the materiality of performance complicates the implications of racial representations.

Melodrama and Race

Cluster 8: The Crisis of the Self

The social, political, and cultural turmoil in late nineteenth century bred a new existential anxiety over the self. The growing power that social institutions possess over individual life put human agency into question. Meanwhile, the industrial revolution changed the relation between individual and the environment as well as human subject and the machine. The realization of the impossibility to know the self as well as the world–due to the complexity of human psychology and the limit of human perception–overshadowed the theatre at the end of the century. In this cluster, we will contend with the dawning of the crisis of humanity through two plays and revisit the change in social structure, technology, and values that shaped the modern world.

The Crisis of the Self

Recent Activity

  • Resource Added

    Entry by Jasmeet Kaur: Hedda Gabler, by Ibsen

  • Resource Added

    Entry by Jasmeet Kaur: Mr Ira Aldridge, the celebrated African tragedian

  • Resource Added

    Entry by Ethan Tampus: Alfred Dedreux (1810–1860) as a Child

  • Resource Added

    Entry by Eric Carvente: Portrait of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

  • Resource Added

    Entry by Eric Diaz: Playbill for Barnes and Finley's booth, Smithfield Fair, 1701

  • Resource Added

    Entry by Daysi Perez Mendez: Perpsective View (uki-e) of a Kabuki Theatre, with a Performance of The Crest Patterns of the Soga Brothers and Nagoya Sanza (Mon-zukushi Nagoya Soga)