Entertainment is a form of activity that holds the attention and interest of an audience, or gives pleasure and delight. It can be an idea or a task, but is more likely to be one of the activities or events that have developed over thousands of years specifically for the purpose of keeping an audience’s attention. Although people’s attention is held by different things, because individuals have different preferences in entertainment, most forms are recognisable and familiar.
Storytelling, music, drama, dance, and different kinds of performance exist in all cultures, were supported in royal courts, developed into sophisticated forms and over time became available to all citizens. The process has been accelerated in modern times by an entertainment industry that records and sells entertainment products. Entertainment evolves and can be adapted to suit any scale, ranging from an individual who chooses a private entertainment from a now enormous array of pre-recorded products; to a banquet adapted for two; to any size or type of party, with appropriate music and dance; to performances intended for thousands; and even for a global audience.
The experience of being entertained has come to be strongly associated with amusement, so that one common understanding of the idea is fun and laughter, although many entertainments have a serious purpose. This may be the case in the various forms of ceremony, celebration, religious festival, or satire for example. Hence, there is the possibility that what appears as entertainment may also be a means of achieving insight or intellectual growth.
An important aspect of entertainment is the audience, which turns a private recreation or leisure activity into entertainment. The audience may have a passive role, as in the case of persons watching a play, opera, television show, or film; or the audience role may be active, as in the case of games, where the participant/audience roles may be routinely reversed. Entertainment can be public or private, involving formal, scripted performance, as in the case of theatre or concerts; or unscripted and spontaneous, as in the case of children’s games.
Most forms of entertainment have persisted over many centuries, evolving due to changes in culture, technology, and fashion. Films and video games, for example, although they use newer media, continue to tell stories, present drama, and play music. Festivals devoted to music, film, or dance allow audiences to be entertained over a number of consecutive days.
Some activities that were once considered entertaining, particularly public punishments, have been removed from the public arena. Others, such as fencing or archery, once necessary skills for some, have become serious sports and even professions for the participants, at the same time developing into entertainment with wider appeal for bigger audiences.
In the same way, other necessary skills, such as cooking, have developed into performances among professionals, staged as global competitions and then broadcast for entertainment. What entertainment is for one group or individual may be regarded as work by another.
The familiar forms of entertainment have the capacity to cross over different media and have demonstrated a seemingly unlimited potential for creative remix. This has ensured the continuity and longevity of many themes, images, and structures.
Psychology and philosophy
Entertainment can be distinguished from other activities such as education and marketing even though they have learned how to use the appeal of entertainment to achieve their different goals. The importance and impact of entertainment is recognised by scholars and its increasing sophistication has influenced practices in other fields such as museology.
Psychologists say the function of media entertainment is “the attainment of gratification”. No other results or measurable benefit are usually expected from it (except perhaps the final score in a sporting entertainment). This is in contrast to education (which is designed with the purpose of developing understanding or helping people to learn) and marketing (which aims to encourage people to purchase commercial products).
However, the distinctions become blurred when education seeks to be more “entertaining” and entertainment or marketing seek to be more “educational”. Such mixtures are often known by the neologisms “edutainment” or “infotainment”. The psychology of entertainment as well as of learning has been applied to all these fields. Some education-entertainment is a serious attempt to combine the best features of the two. Some people are entertained by others’ pain or the idea of their unhappiness (schadenfreude).
An entertainment might go beyond gratification and produce some insight in its audience. Entertainment may skillfully consider universal philosophical questions such as: “What is the meaning of life?”; “What does it mean to be human?”; “What is the right thing to do?”; or “How do I know what I know?”. Questions such as these drive many narratives and dramas, whether they are presented in the form of a story, film, play, poem, book, dance, comic, or game.
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 and was released world-wide. 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, its ideas became popular references (see Phrases from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) 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 method”.
The “ancient craft of communicating events and experiences, using words, images, sounds and gestures” by telling a story is not only the means by which people passed on their cultural values and traditions and history from one generation to another, it has been an important part of most forms of entertainment ever since the earliest times. Stories are still told in the early forms, for example, around a fire while camping, or when listening to the stories of another culture as a tourist.
“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 is an activity that has evolved and developed “toward variety”. Many entertainments, including storytelling but especially music and drama, remain familiar but have developed into a wide variety of form to suit a very wide range of personal preferences and cultural expression.
Many types are blended or supported by other forms. 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 fibre. 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.[
Changes to what is regarded as entertainment can occur in response to cultural or historical shifts. Hunting wild animals, for example, was introduced into the Roman Empire from Carthage and became a popular public entertainment and spectacle, supporting an international trade in wild animals.
Entertainment also evolved into different forms and expressions as a result of social upheavals such as wars and revolutions. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, for example, Revolutionary opera was sanctioned by the Communist party and World War I, the Great Depression and the Russian revolution all affected entertainment.
Relatively minor changes to the form and venue of an entertainment continue to come and go as they are affected by the period, fashion, culture, technology, and economics. For example, a story told in dramatic form can be presented in an open-air theatre, a music hall, a movie theatre, a multiplex, or as technological possibilities advanced, via a personal electronic device such as a tablet computer.
Entertainment is provided for mass audiences in purpose-built structures such as a theatre, auditorium, or stadium. One of the most famous venues in the Western world, the Colosseum, “dedicated AD 80 with a hundred days of games, held fifty thousand spectators,” and in it audiences “enjoyed “blood sport with the trappings of stage shows”.Spectacles, competitions, races, and sports were once presented in this purpose-built arena as public entertainment. New stadia continue to be built to suit the ever more sophisticated requirements of global audiences.
Imperial and royal courts have provided training grounds and support for professional entertainers, with different cultures using palaces, castles and forts in different ways. In the Maya city states, for example, “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.” Court entertainments also crossed cultures.
For example, the durbar was introduced to India by the Mughals, and passed onto the British Empire, which then followed Indian tradition: “institutions, titles, customs, ceremonies by which a Maharaja or Nawab were installed … the exchange of official presents … the order of precedence”, for example, were “all inherited from … the Emperors of Delhi”. In Korea, the “court entertainment dance” was “originally performed in the palace for entertainment at court banquets.”
Court entertainment often moved from being associated with the court to more general use among commoners. This was the case with “masked dance-dramas” in Korea, which “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.
Another evolution, similar to that from courtly entertainment to common practice, was the transition from religious ritual to secular entertainment, such as happened during the Goryeo dynasty with the Narye festival. Originally “solely religious or ritualistic, a secular component was added at the conclusion”. Former courtly entertainments, such as jousting, often also survived in children’s games.
In some courts, such as those during the Byzantine Empire, the genders were segregated among the upper classes, so that “at least before the period of the Komnenoi” (1081–1185) men were separated from women at ceremonies where there was entertainment such as receptions and banquets.
Court ceremonies, palace banquets and the spectacles associated with them, have been used not only to entertain but also to demonstrate wealth and power. Such events reinforce the relationship between ruler and ruled; between those with power and those without, serving to “dramatise the differences between ordinary families and that of the ruler”.
This is the case as much as for traditional courts as it is for contemporary ceremonials, such as the Hong Kong handover ceremony in 1997, at which an array of entertainments (including a banquet, a parade, fireworks, a festival performance and an art spectacle) were put to the service of highlighting a change in political power. Court entertainments were typically performed for royalty and courtiers as well as “for the pleasure of local and visiting dignitaries”.
Royal courts, such as the Korean one, also supported traditional dances. In Sudan, musical instruments such as the so-called “slit” or “talking” drums, once “part of the court orchestra of a powerful chief”, had multiple purposes: they were used to make music; “speak” at ceremonies; mark community events; send long-distance messages; and call men to hunt or war.
Courtly entertainments also demonstrate the complex relationship between entertainer and spectator: individuals may be either an entertainer or part of the audience, or they may swap roles even during the course of one entertainment. In the court at the Palace of Versailles, “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”.
Like court entertainment, royal occasions such as coronations and weddings provided opportunities to entertain both the aristocracy and the people. For example, the splendid 1595 Accession Day celebrations of Queen Elizabeth I offered tournaments and jousting and other events performed “not only before the assembled court, in all their finery, but also before thousands of Londoners eager for a good day’s entertainment. Entry for the day’s events at the Tiltyard in Whitehall was set at 12d”.
Games are played for entertainment—sometimes purely for entertainment, sometimes for achievement or reward as well. They can be played alone, in teams, or online; by amateurs or by professionals. The players may have an audience of non-players, such as when people are entertained by watching a chess championship. On the other hand, players in a game may constitute their own audience as they take their turn to play. Often, part of the entertainment for children playing a game is deciding who is part of their audience and who is a player.
Equipment varies with the game. Board games, such as Go, Monopoly or backgammon need a board and markers. One of the oldest known board games is Senet, a game played in Ancient Egypt, enjoyed by the pharaoh Tutankhamun.Card games, such as whist, poker and Bridge have long been played as evening entertainment among friends. For these games, all that is needed is a deck of playing cards. Other games, such as bingo, played with numerous strangers, have been organised to involve the participation of non-players via gambling.
Many are geared for children, and can be played outdoors, including hopscotch, hide and seek, or Blind man’s bluff. The list of ball games is quite extensive. It includes, for example, croquet, lawn bowling and paintball as well as many sports using various forms of balls. The options cater to a wide range of skill and fitness levels. Physical games can develop agility and competence in motor skills. Number games such as Sudoku and puzzle games like the Rubik’s cube can develop mental prowess.
Video games are played using a controller to create results on a screen. They can also be played online with participants joining in remotely. In the second half of the 20th century and in the 21st century the number of such games increased enormously, providing a wide variety of entertainment to players around the world. Video games are popular in East Asian countries such as South Korea.
Comedy is both a genre of entertainment and a component of it, providing laughter and amusement, whether the comedy is the sole purpose or used as a form of contrast in an otherwise serious piece. It is a valued contributor to many forms of entertainment, including in literature, theatre, opera, film and games. In royal courts, such as in the Byzantine court, and presumably, also in its wealthy households, “mimes were the focus of orchestrated humour, expected or obliged to make fun of all at court, not even excepting the emperor and members of the imperial family.
This highly structured role of jester consisted of verbal humour, including teasing, jests, insult, ridicule, and obscenity and non-verbal humour such as slapstick and horseplay in the presence of an audience.” In medieval times, all comic types – the buffoon, jester, hunchback, dwarf, jokester, were all “considered to be essentially of one comic type: the fool”, who while not necessarily funny, represented “the shortcomings of the individual”.
Shakespeare wrote seventeen comedies that incorporate many techniques still used by performers and writers of comedy—such as jokes, puns, parody, wit, observational humor, or the unexpected effect of irony. One-liner jokes and satire are also used to comedic effect in literature. In farce, the comedy is a primary purpose.
The meaning of the word “comedy” and the audience’s expectations of it have changed over time and vary according to culture. Simple physical comedy such as slapstick is entertaining to a broad range of people of all ages. However, as cultures become more sophisticated, national nuances appear in the style and references so that what is amusing in one culture may be unintelligible in another.
Theatre performances, typically dramatic or musical, are presented on a stage for an audience and have a history that goes back to Hellenistic times when “leading musicians and actors” performed widely at “poetical competitions”, for example at “Delphi, Delos, Ephesus”. Aristotle and his teacher Plato both wrote on the theory and purpose of theatre.
Aristotle posed questions such as “What is the function of the arts in shaping character? Should a member of the ruling class merely watch performances or be a participant and perform? What kind of entertainment should be provided for those who do not belong to the elite?” The “Ptolemys in Egypt, the Seleucids in Pergamum” also had a strong theatrical tradition and later, wealthy patrons in Rome staged “far more lavish productions”.
Expectations about the performance and their engagement with it have changed over time . For example, in England during the 18th century, “the prejudice against actresses had faded” and in Europe generally, going to the theatre, once a socially dubious activity, became “a more respectable middle-class pastime” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the variety of popular entertainments increased.
Operetta and music halls became available, and new drama theatres such as the Moscow Art Theatre and the Suvorin Theatre in Russia opened. At the same time, commercial newspapers “began to carry theatre columns and reviews” that helped make theatre “a legitimate subject of intellectual debate” in general discussions about art and culture. Audiences began to gather to “appreciate creative achievement, to marvel at, and be entertained by, the prominent ‘stars’.” Vaudeville and music halls, popular at this time in the United States, England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, were themselves eventually superseded.
Plays, musicals, monologues, pantomimes, and performance poetry are part of the very long history of theatre, which is also the venue for the type of performance known as stand-up comedy. In the 20th century, radio and television, often broadcast live, extended the theatrical tradition that continued to exist alongside the new forms.
Cinema and film
Films are a major form of entertainment, although not all films have entertainment as their primary purpose: documentary film, for example, aims to create a record or inform, although the two purposes often work together. The medium was a global business from the beginning: “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.”