By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ‘theatrical’ is a useful one, both for describing things which literally pertain to the world of the theatre, and for describing a person who is prone to more dramatic and stagy behaviour.
The theatre has given us some useful words and phrases which we now employ in regular everyday speech, often without realising that we owe them to the world of the stage: explode, for instance, originally meant ‘to clap or boo an actor off the stage’, while the expression steal my thunder came from an eighteenth-century production of Macbeth, which used a new ‘sound effects’ method pioneered by the playwright John Dennis, without his permission: the theatre company had stolen his technique for generating the sound of storms on stage!
So let’s take a closer look at some of the most useful and practical synonyms for theatrical, along with some of the most prominent and popular antonyms.
Synonyms for the word ‘theatrical’
Let’s start with perhaps the most obvious ‘theatrical’ synonym: DRAMATIC, derived (of course) from the noun drama, which is itself ultimately from an ancient Greek word which means ‘play’ or ‘to act and perform’. No surprises there – and the word dramatic has been employed by English writers since the late sixteenth century.
However, initially it simply denoted something which related to the theatre: the OED gives the example of a dramatic soprano, or a singer who performs in a work of drama. It wasn’t until the early eighteenth century that the adjective took on a slightly broader sense, and came to mean ‘appropriate for a drama’ because of a strikingly theatrical quality.
From this point onwards, dramatic might be used about something found outside of the theatre but which had qualities that reminded one of drama: for instance, a poem might contain action so exciting and thrilling that it was dramatic in this extended sense, rather than in the literal, original sense.
THESPIAN is another popular term for an actor and so can be a useful synonym for ‘theatrical’. The word is derived from Thespis, who is widely regarded as the traditional father of Greek tragedy. He lived in the 6th century BC.
The word thespian is, for this reason, often applied specifically to tragedy, but it’s also more widely applied to all aspects of the dramatic art. It’s been in use since at least 1675, the date of the OED’s first citation. In his gloriously titled Cocker’s Morals, or, the Muses’ Spring-Garden, adorned with many sententious disticks & poems, in alphabetical order. Fitted for the use of all publick and private grammar and writing schools, Edward Cocker wrote:
Nectar, Ambrosia, and the Thespian Spring,
May all avant, for Mony is the Thing.
STAGY (also spelt STAGEY) is more recent: the first instance recorded in the OED is from 1860, in Charles Dickens’s periodical All the Year Round: ‘The foot-light air and stagey look which clings to the person of even the first tenor.’ To be stagy is to be artificially theatrical or dramatic.
OSTENTATIOUS, meanwhile, is from a Latin verb meaning ‘to exhibit or display’ something: it’s the same root as the word ostensibly, meaning ‘on the surface’, as in ‘ostensibly this is a straightforward matter but it’s actually pretty complex’. If somebody’s behaviour or actions are described as ostentatious, then, they’re done for show, to impress others, and are often performed in a pretentious or bragging manner.
The words SHOWY, FLAMBOYANT, and AFFECTED all convey a similar idea of performance, of doing things in order to be seen to be doing them, with full awareness that one is being observed. The word flamboyant (from the French for flame, suggesting bright and eye-catching activity) is often used of performers in a neutral or positive sense, whereas showy and affected are usually more negative in their connotations, as are ARTIFICIAL and FORCED.
A trio of actor-related words which also deserve mention, again usually reserved for criticism rather than praise, are HISTRIONIC, MELODRAMATIC, and HAMMY.
Histrionic has disputed origins. It’s from the Latin histriō meaning ‘actor’, but is also thought to have been specifically used of performers in low-class productions, much like modern-day pantomimes. The historian Livy claimed the word was of Etruscan origin, while Festus argued that histriones were named after the earliest known actors, who hailed from Histria, a peninsula on the Adriatic.
But what’s clear is that the word has been used in English for centuries to refer to someone who is excessively theatrical or stagy.
As for melodramatic, the melo- part is not from the ancient Greek for ‘black’ (as one might assume, given words such as melancholy, melanin, and so on), but from a similar Greek word meaning ‘song’ or ‘melody’, because melodramas were rather emotionally over-the-top productions containing songs. So it’s easy to see how the word melodramatic came to be used more extensively to refer to an actor – or even just any person – whose behaviour was excessive and exaggerated.
And hammy? Well, a ham actor was originally a US term, originating in the late nineteenth century, and a shortening of hamfatter: the term appears to have been jazz slang for a mediocre musician as well, and came to be applied more often to actors. A ham actor whose performance can be described as hammy offers a turn that is OVERDONE or OVERACTED.
Antonyms for the word ‘theatrical’
Most of the best theatrical antonyms are merely the opposites of some of the synonyms offered above, negated with the handy un- prefix. So we have UNDRAMATIC or UNAFFECTED (though this can cause confusion, since it can mean either ‘a performance that is not affected or overly mannered’ or ‘not affected by a particular situation’).
Given that theatre brings in the world of plays, the adjective UNDERPLAYED is also a handy antonym, meaning much the same as RESTRAINED, CONSERVATIVE, MODEST, and DISCREET – all of which go against the performative showmanship (or, often, excessive showiness) that the word theatrical so often conjures.