Why should we study theatre history?...or any other history for that matter....Why is it important to study depictions of or ideas of another time?  Is it even relevent to how we live today? ...

Why should we study theatre history?

...or any other history for that matter....Why is it important to study depictions of or ideas of another time?  Is it even relevent to how we live today?  Does it add to our society today other than as a diversion or escape? Help.

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Just as one traces one's ancestors and one's genetic history in order to know more about oneself, any one involved with the fine arts should have a background so that he/she can better understand the style and content of artists, writers, and dramatists.  So often, contemporary artists of all genres themselves, having studied the masters of their art, imitate, borrow, alter, extend, and improve upon the standards set by them. For instance, both George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Miller were heavily influenced by the naturalist drama of Henrik Ibsen.  Thus, a comprehension of Miller's works includes an understanding of those by Ibsen.

In literature, a modern writer such as John Steinbeck, whose magnum opus is The Grapes of Wrath, incorporates into the narrative the philosophy of the Oversoul, which he gleaned from readings by the Colonial Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  So, in order to better understand Steinbeck's novel, a reader should be familiar with Emerson as well as knowledgeable of the Great Depression and the Communist movement generated by the failure of capitalism in the 1930s.  Certainly,too, modern poets use and modify old forms such as the sonnet, ode, etc. for their poems.  For example, the Welsh poet of the 20th century, Dylan Thomas, wrote his famous "Do Not Go Gentle Into the Night" as a vilanelle, a free-form of the Renaissance which usually expressed idyllic sentiments.  Of course, Thomas's poem tells his father to "rage, rage" against death, so the impact of the poem is strengthened if the reader recognizes this form. Likewise, in art so many movements generated from those prior to them.  Clearly, an understanding of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism comes from a comprehension of the influences of Impressionism and other movements. How, for instance, can the musician or lover of music truly appreciate the improvisational style of jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk if he/she knows nothing of traditional jazz?

In short, everything in the arts is connected in some way to styles and movements prior to them, just as much of what happens in modern history is influenced by actions and wars among countries prior to modern times as well as during modern times.  Therefore, in order to know the present conditions and elements of art, of life itself, people absolutely must know the history of the arts and of the people who created these arts.