The most common and widely used meaning of the word theatre is (from The Free Dictionary):

a building designed for the performance of plays, operas, etc

Why then can it also mean (as one of its other meanings):

a major area of military activity

(as in "the European theatre of WW2")

War is in no way an act or performance (performing surgery in an operating theatre still fits) so why is "theatre" used in a military sense?

The etymology is:

from Latin theātrum, from Greek theatron place for viewing, from theasthai to look at; related to Greek thauma miracle

This fits the performance theatre definition but does not help with the military meaning.

  • 2
    It's a metaphor. Once you've mastered the literal vocabulary of a language, there remains a host of figurative meanings. The "theatre" of war is the region in which it is fought - or played, if you like. The medical sense of operating "theatre" is more literal, referring to the theatron or public seating in an ancient Greek performance space. An operatory became an operating theatre when surgeons invited colleagues and students to watch and learn from their work.
    – Rob_Ster
    Dec 12, 2017 at 18:52
  • 1
    @Rob_Ster Avoid giving answers in comments. They are used to suggest improvements to the post or to ask the writer for more information.
    – MetaEd
    Dec 12, 2017 at 18:58
  • There's also the theatre table in the operating room where surgeons perform operations, ....
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 12, 2017 at 19:22
  • 1
    How exactly is war not “an act or performance”? It’s not actors reading out lines, but it certainly is something countries perform against one another, with the world as spectators. Dec 12, 2017 at 20:03

2 Answers 2


Theatre is from French and mainly refers to a place where plays (comedies, tragedies etc.) take place:

late 14c., "open air place in ancient times for viewing spectacles and plays," from Old French theatre.

By extension, the sense of a place where something happens:

Generic sense of "place of action" is from 1580s; especially "region where war is being fought" (1914).


Theater of war:

the entire land, sea, and air area that is or may become involved directly in war operations.

According to Merrian-Webster the expression in front the late 19th century.

Actually theater of war is an expression which has been used at least from the 17th century as shown by Google Books.


Remember that in the days of pitched battles, generals liked to view (and direct) the combat from the safety of a convenient hill. They did not expect to blunt their swords or get their boots dirty. So, yes, a battle was something of a theatrical performance for them, albeit one with possibly a dire outcome.

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