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What Is Baroque Theatre?

Baroque Theatre, an artistic spectacle born in 17th-century Europe, is renowned for its opulent design, elaborate costumes, and dramatic storytelling. It's where grandeur meets performance, captivating audiences with its ornate scenery and powerful emotions. Dive into the world of Baroque Theatre, where every show is a feast for the senses. Ready to explore its timeless allure?
R. Stamm
R. Stamm

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.

Playwrights of Baroque theatre included William Shakespeare.
Playwrights of Baroque theatre included William Shakespeare.

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.

Moliere was a playwright of baroque theater.
Moliere was a playwright of baroque theater.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines Baroque theatre and how does it differ from other theatrical styles?

Baroque theatre, which flourished from the late 16th to the mid-18th century, is characterized by its grandiose and ornate aesthetic, emphasizing spectacle and the use of elaborate machinery for stage effects. Unlike the more austere and text-focused Elizabethan theatre, Baroque theatre integrated music, dance, and opulent costumes to create a total work of art. It often featured proscenium arches and moveable scenery, which were innovations of the time, enhancing the illusion of depth and perspective.

What are some of the most notable features of Baroque theatre architecture?

Baroque theatre architecture is renowned for its intricate design and technological advancements. Notable features include the proscenium arch, which framed the stage and separated the audience from the performers, and the use of perspective painting to create the illusion of depth in stage sets. Additionally, hidden machinery allowed for dramatic scene changes and special effects, such as flying actors or changing backdrops, which were integral to the Baroque emphasis on visual splendor.

Who were some prominent playwrights and composers associated with Baroque theatre?

Prominent figures in Baroque theatre include playwrights such as Jean-Baptiste Molière, who is known for his comedic satires, and composers like Claudio Monteverdi, whose opera "L'Orfeo" is considered a masterpiece of the early Baroque period. Other notable contributors include Jean-Philippe Rameau and George Frideric Handel, whose operas and oratorios contributed significantly to the musical landscape of the Baroque era.

How did Baroque theatre influence the development of opera and ballet?

Baroque theatre played a pivotal role in the evolution of opera and ballet. The integration of music, dance, and drama in Baroque spectacles laid the groundwork for opera, which emerged as a distinct genre during this period. The first public opera house opened in Venice in 1637, signaling the growing popularity of this art form. Ballet also benefited from the theatrical innovations of the Baroque, with the era's emphasis on elaborate costumes and stagecraft enhancing the visual appeal of dance performances.

Can you still see Baroque theatre performances today, and where are they typically held?

Yes, Baroque theatre performances are still staged today, often as part of historical or cultural festivals. These performances are typically held in historic theatres that have been preserved or restored, such as the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy, or in modern venues equipped to replicate Baroque stagecraft. Opera houses around the world also regularly perform Baroque operas, allowing contemporary audiences to experience the grandeur and intricacy of this theatrical style.

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Discussion Comments


@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.


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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    • Playwrights of Baroque theatre included William Shakespeare.
      By: Claudio Divizia
      Playwrights of Baroque theatre included William Shakespeare.
    • Moliere was a playwright of baroque theater.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      Moliere was a playwright of baroque theater.