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What Is Baroque Theatre?

By R. Stamm
Updated May 23, 2024
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Baroque theatre (or theater) is a term which describes the period between the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe when theater became extravagant. This form of theater lacked the elements and direction typically associated with neoclassicism and the era of enlightenment. Themes of plays became less focused on religion and more focused on the interactions or discoveries of humanity. The Baroque style of the theater was unusual for the time, often lively and considered vulgar due to gaudy costume designs, elaborate stage settings, and special effects. In addition, the era produced some of the world’s most respected playwrights and was the basis for modern theater.

Prior to this period, the Church produced most of the plays to enhance the teachings of religion. Productions also served to inform the public of appropriate social behavior. With the discovery of America and technological advancements, playwrights began to focus more on the accomplishments of man. They began to view the entire world as their stage and wrote plays according to their personal beliefs rather than those of the church. Playwrights of Baroque theatre, such as William Shakespeare and Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere, wrote plays about politics, the universe, or the propriety of private life.

As playwrights wrote more detailed plots, settings for the Baroque theatre stage became more elaborate. Thus began the combination of drama with fine art. Prior to Baroque theatre, the backdrops and scene settings were simplistic and did not change. During the Baroque period, stage directors began to employ artists to paint the backdrops for various scenes in their plays.

The Baroque period introduced special effects to the stage along with actual buildings to house theatre productions. The first theater was built in Venice with others to follow throughout Europe. With an actual building for theater groups to perform in, directors were able to add special effects to enhance their productions. Some of those effects included actor appearances from trap doors, effects for flying across the stage, and the introduction of stage lights and foot lights.

The costumes designs of the period were more elaborate, and it became socially acceptable for women to participate in Baroque theatre productions. Characters before the Baroque era often wore simple costumes and were usually played by men. Women could now play the role of Heroines, and they often wore brightly-colored plumes or extra large skirts to set them apart from other characters in the play. Heroes wore costumes decorated with sequins and crystals, which reflected the light and further enhanced their heroic acts on stage.

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Discussion Comments
By Lostnfound — On Feb 04, 2015

@Grivusangel -- So true. I teach ninth grade English, and although I personally prefer the "Romeo and Juliet" with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting from 1968, but my students love the Baz Luhrman version with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. It's good -- very good -- and it brings the story home in a way the pages just don't. The kids love the modern setting. They really get off on the music and cars and the whole thing.

Honestly, Baz Luhrman's production could be called "New Baroque," since it's visually lavish and colorful, with complicated sets and camera work.

By Grivusangel — On Feb 03, 2015

I really think this underlines the necessity for seeing a play from this period, rather than just reading it in a book. There have been some great movie adaptations of Shakespearean plays. One of my favorites is the version of "Richard III" starring Ian McKellan as Richard. It's set in 1930s England, but an England under a Hitler-style ruler. It's one of the best adaptations to a movie, I think.

I also enjoyed "Henry V" with Kenneth Branagh. Whether you're seeing it in a movie or on stage, I think the plays are much, much easier to follow and understand than they are if you just read them in a book.

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