In Time: Evolution of Entertainment and Society

Entertainment has existed for centuries through storytelling, music, drama, dance and different kinds of performances that exists in all cultures, were supported by the royal court, developed into sophisticated forms and over time made available to the general public. People have different preferences as far as entertainment, but most forms are recognizable and familiar. Entertainment simply defined is something that holds the attention and interest of an audience or gives pleasure or delights. It can be an idea or task, but its more likely to be one of the activities or events developed over thousands of years for the purpose of keeping an audience’s attention, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The process has exponentially gotten shorter due to the modern day entertainment industry selling and recording entertainment products which provide a wide array of different products for private viewing to banquets adapted for two to any size or type of party with music and dance to performances for thousands and even a global audience. The experience of being entertainment is synonymous with amusement thus the universal understanding of entertainment is the idea of fun and laughter, however not all entertainment serves this same purpose as some takes the forms of ceremony, celebration, religious festival, or satire. Therefore, there is a possibility that what appears as entertainment can also serve as a means of achieving insight or intellectual growth. Some activities once considered entertainment such as public punishment have been removed from the public arena, while others like fencing or archery which at some point were necessary have become serious sports or professions for participants developing an appeal to bigger audiences. Another profession and necessary skill, cooking, has developed into a performance art for professional on a global stage in the form of competition and broadcast for entertainment. What has become entertainment for some, may be work for another.

An important aspect to take into consideration is the audience who turned a private recreation or leisure activity into entertainment. The audience takes on two types of roles in the grand scheme of things: a passive role such as a person watching a play, opera, television show or film and an active role when playing games where the participant and audience roles may reverse frequently. Entertainment can be public or private with a formal, scripted performances found in a theater or concerts, but in the same token can be unscripted and spontaneous like a children’s game. Most forms of entertainment have endured for many centuries and evolving  due to changes in culture, technology and fashion as is the case with films and video games which are new forms of media that continue to tell stories, present drama and play music. Festivals entertain audiences over a number of consecutive days in the form of music, film or dance. Psychologists believe the main function of media entertainment is gratification as no other results or measurable benefits are expected. However, the distinction becomes blurred between entertainment, marketing and education when education seeks to be more entertaining and entertainment or marketing seeks to be more educational, often called edutainment  or infotainment. The psychology of entertainment and learning has been applied to all fields combining the best features of both. Some entertainment goes beyond gratification asking universal philosophical questions of its audiences that drive the narratives and dramas in the form of  story, film, play, poem, book, dance, comic, or game. As the Wikipedia article on Entertainment points out:

“Dramatic examples include Shakespeare’s influential play Hamlet, whose hero articulates these concerns in poetry; and films, such as The Matrix, which explores the nature of knowledge. Novels give great scope for investigating these themes while they entertain their readers. An example of a creative work that considers philosophical questions so entertainingly that it has been presented in a very wide range of forms is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Originally a radio comedy, this story became so popular that it has also appeared as a novel, film, television series, stage show, comic, audiobook, LP record, adventure game and online game and has been translated into many languages. Its themes encompass the meaning of life, as well as ‘the ethics of entertainment, artificial intelligence, multiple worlds, God, and philosophical methods.”

The earliest form of entertainment, storytelling, played an important role in most forms of entertainment as a way for people to pass on their cultural values and traditions even history from one generation to another. Even today, stories are still told in the early forms such as around the fire while camping or listening to stories of another culture as a tourist. As Richard Francis Kuhns, Decameron and the Philosophy of Storytelling: Author as Midwife and Pimp, explains:  “The earliest storytelling sequences we possess, now of course, committed to writing, were undoubtedly originally a speaking from mouth to ear and their force as entertainment derived from the very same elements we today enjoy in films and novels.” Storytelling has evolved since its earlier form and developed into a variety of different styles, but remains familiar especially music and drama and only differs in personal preferences and cultural expression. Many types of entertainment are blended or supported by other forms, according to Spike Carlsen,  A Splintered History of Wood, and Wikipedia:

“For example, drama, stories and banqueting (or dining) are commonly enhanced by music; sport and games are incorporated into other activities to increase appeal. Some may have evolved from serious or necessary activities (such as running and jumping) into competition and then become entertainment. It is said, for example, that pole vaulting ‘may have originated in the Netherlands, where people used long poles to vault over wide canals rather than wear out their clogs walking miles to the nearest bridge. Others maintain that pole vaulting was used in warfare to vault over fortress walls during battle.’ The equipment for such sports has become increasingly sophisticated. Vaulting poles, for example, were originally made from woods such as ash, hickory or hazel; in the 19th century bamboo was used and in the 21st century poles can be made of carbon fiber. Other activities, such as walking on stilts, are still seen in circus performances in the 21st century. Gladiatorial combats, also known as ‘gladiatorial games’, popular during Roman times, provide a good example of an activity that is a combination of sport, punishment, and entertainment.”


The shift in cultural and historical events has caused changed in entertainment as well. Hunting wild animals was introduced to the Roman Empire by Carthage and became a popular form of public entertainment and spectacle supporting the international trade in wild animals. Social upheaval like wars  and revolutions has led to changes in entertainment such as the case with the Chinese Cultural Revolution where the Revolutionary opera became sanctioned by the Communist party, while World War I, the Great Depression and the Russian revolution also had a great impact. The venue and form of entertainment has continued to change according to period, fashion, culture, technology and economic. For example, a dramatic story can be presented in an open air theater, music hall, movie theater, a multiplex or using technology such as a tablet computer or other personal electronic device. Entertainment also takes place in purpose built structures like theaters, auditoriums or stadiums for mass audiences e.g. the Colosseum dedicated in AD80 where many fought and died in the games and many audiences enjoyed the spectacle. Other public entertainment events included spectacles, competitions, races and sports. As a more sophisticated global audience began to find the appeal of such entertainment, new stadiums were built to suit them.

Imperial and royal courts helped to support and provide training for professional entertainers as different cultures used palaces, castles and forts in different ways eventually moving entertainment from the court to general use among commoners. Court entertainment crossed culture. as well like the durbar introduced to India by the Mughals and then passed onto the British Empire and the Korean court entertainment dance which was originally performed in the palace for court banquets. Anne Walthall’s research, Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History, revealed in the Mayan city states “spectacles often took place in large plazas in front of palaces; the crowds gathered either there or in designated places from which they could watch at a distance.” Judy Van Zile, Perspectives on Korean Dance, reveals that the masked dance dramas in Korea originated “in conjunction with village shaman rituals and eventually became largely an entertainment form for commoners”. Nautch dancers in the Mughal Empire performed in Indian courts and palaces. Much like courtly entertainment moving to common practice, religious ritual shifted to secular entertainment like the Goryeo dynasty and the Narye festival which was solely religious added in a secular component at the end. Former court entertainment such as jousting became part of children’s games. In some courts like those during the Byzantine Empire, the genders were separated in the upper class before the period of the Komnenoi (1081-1185) where men were separated from women at ceremonies with an entertainment component such as receptions and banquets. Court ceremonies, palace banquets and spectacles were used to entertain and distinguish the wealthy and powerful from those without either. Some ceremonies still hold strong to this traditional court belief as the Hong Kong handover ceremony in 1997 demonstrated with an array of entertainments including a banquet, parade, fireworks, a festival performance and art spectacle highlighting a change in political power. Court entertainment traditionally was meant for royals, courtiers and the local or visiting dignitaries. In addition, the royal court in Korea supported traditional dances and in Sudan the musical instruments like the slit or talking drum became part of the court orchestra of a powerful chief utilizing it for music, speaking at ceremonies, marking community events, sending long distance messages and to call men to hunt or war. In the court at the Palace of Versailles, according to Walthall’s Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History, “thousands of courtiers, including men and women who inhabited its apartments, acted as both performers and spectators in daily rituals that reinforced the status hierarchy”. Royal occasions like coronations and weddings also called for entertaining the people and the aristocracy e.g. the 1595 Accession Day celebration of Queen Elizabeth I offered tournaments and jousting and other events performed not just for the court, but for thousands of Londoners who were eager to be entertained with entry at the Tiltyard in Whitehall set at 12d, according to Peter Holbrook and David Bevington’s he Politics of the Stuart Court Masque.

Live performances before the invention of audio and video recording constituted a major form of entertainment ranging in form from theater to music to drama. In the 16th and 17th centuries, European royal courts presented masques which involved singing, acting and dancing. Opera remains a popular form of entertainment as it encompasses all three forms demanding high level of musical and dramatic skill, collaboration and production expertise. Audiences reward the performers with applause or in some cases with brutal direct honesty when the performers fail to hold their attention.

“‘Of course you all ought to know that while singing a good song or, or giving a good recitation … helps to arrest the company’s attention … Such at least was the case with me – the publican devised a plan to bring my entertainment to an end abruptly, and the plan was, he told the waiter to throw a wet towel at me, which, of course, the waiter did … and I received the wet towel, full force, in the face, which staggered me … and had the desired effect of putting an end to me giving any more entertainments in the house.'” William McGonagall (Performance artist and poet)“Reminiscences” in Collected Poems.


Theater performances, dramatic or musical mostly, have occurred throughout history going as far back as Hellenistic times when leading musicians and actors performer in poetry competitions at places like Delphi, Delos and Ehpesus, according to Wikipedia. Aristotle and his teacher Plato both wrote about the theory and purpose of theater as Aristotle posed many questions such as the function of the arts in shaping character, the participation level of the audience which was the ruling class and the availability of entertainment to the general public. McDonal and Walton, The Cambridge companion to Greek and Roman theater, reveal that the “Ptolemys in Egypt, the Seleucids in Pergamum” had a strong theatrical tradition leading to the wealthy patrons in Rome staging more lavish productions. Expectations about these performances and their engagements changed over time. In England during the 18th century and in Europe generally, the prejudice against actresses faded as it became more socially acceptable to go to the theater and a respectable pastime for the middle class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the variety of popular entertainment increased. Operetta and music halls became widely available and new drama theaters like the Moscow Art Theater and the Suvorin Theater in Russia opened around this time, while commercial newspapers started to include theater columns and reviews helping the theaters to become a subject of intellectual debate thus join the general discussion about art and culture. According to the Wikipedia article on Entertainment, the audiences began to gather to “appreciate creative achievement, to marvel at, and be entertained by, the prominent ‘stars’.” At the same time, Vaudeville and music halls became popular in the United States, England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Plays, musicals, monologues, pantomimes and performance poetry also remained a large part of the theater throughout history even stand up comedy. In the 20th century, radio and television added to the theatrical tradition allowing the long tradition of the theater to continue to exist. All types of stages, indoor and outdoor, are used with different types of seating for audiences such as impromptu or improvised, the temporary, the elaborate or traditional and permanent. The experience relies on the audience’s expectations, the stagecraft (those who manage, organize and prepare the stage), the type of stage and the type and standard of seating provided.

Today, films have become a major source of entertainment with some films like documentaries having other purposes besides just entertainment as they aim to create a record or inform. According to Michael Paris, The First World War and popular Cinema, the film became a global business from its inception: “The Lumière brothers were the first to send cameramen throughout the world, instructing them to film everything which could be of interest for the public…In the first decade of the [20th] century cinematic programs combined, at random, fictions and news films.” In 1908, Pathe launched and distributed newsreels and by World War I films were meeting an enormous need for mass entertainment. Film from the beginning became part of the entertainment industry as the techniques used in film improved and continually delighted and entertained audiences. The Americans might have come up with the “illusion of motion through successive images”, but the French were able to take scientific principle and make it lucrative. Animation involving rapid movement of art work became a technique that appealed to younger audiences as explained by Stephen Cavalier, The world history of animation. Film also allowed for the re-imagination of books, plays, and stories into new entertainment as The Story of Film demonstrates giving a survey of global achievement and innovation in film which changed the concept of film making.

Sporting competitions have provided entertainment for centuries starting with development in stadiums and auditorium design as well as recording and broadcast technology that allowed the size of the audience to grow larger and popular as more off-site spectators can now watch or listen. Two more popular sports globally are association football and cricket whose ultimate international competition is the World Cup and test cricket which are broadcast worldwide. Besides the large number of players, both sports provide a major source of entertainment for millions of non-players globally. The entertainment value of the sport itself is determined by the culture and country it is played in such as baseball and basketball in the United States, archery in Bhutan, freestyle wrestling in Iran and sumo wrestling in Japan which has a long history and ritual elements. The evolution of an activity into a sport then entertainment is affected by the local climate and conditions like the modern sport of surfing associated with Hawaii and snow-skiing which is believe to have evolved in Scandinavia. While the sports have spread globally, the originators of the sports have remained well known for their skills. The climate allows some to adapt a sport to their region such as ice hockey in Canada which is a national pastime.

Technological developments in the 20th century has led to entertainment being produced independent of the audience, packaged and sold by the entertainment industry on a commercial basis. Referred to as show business by many, the industry relies on a business model to produce, market, broadcast or distribute many of its traditional forms as well as performances of all types. Due to the immense success of the industry, its economics has led to a separate area of academic study. The film industry is one part of the entertainment industry with several homes around the world including Hollywood, Bollywood, cinema of the United Kingdom and all cinemas of Europe including France, Germany, Spain, Italy and others. The sex industry is another component of the entertainment industry which applies many of the same forms and media to development, marketing and sale of sex product on a commercial basis as well. Amusement parks entertain paying guests with rides, events and associated attraction. A consequence of the development of the entertainment industry is the creation of new types of employment where writers, musicians and composers are employed by a company rather than a patron or individual as they have been in the past. New jobs like gaffer or special effects supervisor in the film industry and  attendants in amusement park have appeared. Prestigious awards are now given by the industry for excellence in various types of entertainment such as for music, games, comics, comedy, theater, television, film, dance, magic and sporting awards.

Three events has led to the spread and boom of digital and traditional entertainment which are globalization, obsolescence and convergence. The second half of the 20th century with the development of electronic media has made it possible the delivery of entertainment products to mass audiences globally. The technology has enabled people to see, hear and participate in familiar forms of entertainment such as stories, theater, dance and music wherever they live. The rapid development of such technology contributed to the improvements in data storage devices and increasing miniaturization, while computer and barcodes has led to easier and faster ticketing globally. In the 1940s, radio was the electronic media for entertainment and news, however in the 1950s, television became the new medium that rapidly became the go to medium for entertainment and news as it brought visual entertainment to the masses. The 1970s saw the dawn of electronic games where hand held devices provided mobile entertainment by the last decade of the 20th century. Due to the rapid rise in new and better technology, many former recording and storage methods became obsolete.  The progression of television as a medium for standardized entertainment went from unknown, to novel, to ubiquitous and finally superseded its predecessors. The “digital revolution” has led to an increasingly transnational marketplace making it more difficult for governments to regulate, business, industries and individuals to keep up. By the second decade of the 21st century, digital recording has replaced analogue recording leading to a convergence of all forms of electronic entertainment.  Convergence has affected the film industry as the opening weekend of a movie is no longer the only factor to determine success as now the digital aspect factors in greatly in order maximize profits. The industry has had to evolve as new and better technology is released to the general public such as DVDs to pay per view to fiber optic video on demand to now video hosting services. Media convergence is more than just technology, it’s cultural as well. Globalization and cultural imperialism are two of the cultural consequences of convergence and the result of deliberate efforts to protect business interests, policy institutions and other groups.  Fandom and interactive storytelling has led to the distribution and impact of a wide range of delivery methods.  The introduction of television has altered the availability, cost, variety and quality of entertainment products for the public and the convergence of online entertainment is having a similar effect e,g, individuals and corporations use video hosting services to broadcast content the public sees as legitimate entertainment. Although the method of delivery has changed, the forms have remained the same as centuries ago.

One thought on “In Time: Evolution of Entertainment and Society

Tell me what you think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s