History of british theatre

Theatre in British history as an integral part of the cultural heritage. Stages of professional development of the theater from the first theater and the trivial to the most modern experimental projects. Famous people of British theater for centuries.

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Key words: theatre, drama, playhouse, comedy, dramatists, West End

Object: theatre world of Great Britain

Subject: British theatre activity throughout the centuries

Methods of research: study and analysis of literature on the questions of British theatre history; study of web-resources with the object of learning about the contemporary state of theatres in UK

Purpose: to study the main aspects of the stages of development of the theatre, understand its role and direction in the modern society of the United Kingdom

Objectives: to study the major steps in the growth of British drama influence; to describe main aspects of its work; to find out the role it plays nowadays, its cultural and social meaning in the life of the country

Results: the history of the British theatre and its development have been described; main directions of its activity have been discovered; the state of drama nowadays has been revealed

Recommendations: the results of the research can be used in British Studies




1.1 Early British theatres

1.2 Elizabethan theatre

1.3 British theatre of the 19th century

1.4 Modern British theatre





The history of British theatre has a very rich and fascinating history. Its birth belongs to ancient times and since that time it has undergone essential transformations, it shone with popularity and recognition as well as it suffered hard times. Nevertheless theatre in Great Britain makes an integral part of its great history and cultural heritage of the past centuries.

It was introduced to England from Europe by the Romans, and auditoriums were constructed across the country for this purpose. By the medieval period, the mummers' plays had developed, a form of early street theatre associated with the Morris dance, concentrating on themes such as Saint George and the Dragon and Robin Hood. These were folk tales re-telling old stories, and the actors travelled from town to town performing these for their audiences in return for money and hospitality. The medieval mystery plays and morality plays, which dealt with Christian themes, were performed at religious festivals. The period known as the English Renaissance, approximately 1500--1660, saw a flowering of the drama and all the arts. During the reign of Elizabeth I in the late 16th and early 17th century, a London-centered culture that was both courtly and popular produced great poetry and drama. Perhaps the most famous playwright in the world, William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote plays that are still performed in theatres across the world to this day. He was himself an actor and deeply involved in the running of the theatre company that performed his plays. Other important playwrights of this period include Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and John Webster. Various types of plays were popular. The three types that seem most often studied today are the histories, the comedies, and the tragedies. Most playwrights tended to specialize in one or another of these, but Shakespeare is remarkable in that he produced all three types. His 38 plays include tragedies such as Hamlet (1603), Othello (1604), and King Lear (1605); comedies such as A Midsummer Night's Dream (1594--96) and Twelfth Night (1602); and history plays such as Henry IV. Some have hypothesized that the English Renaissance paved the way for the sudden dominance of drama in English society, arguing that the questioning mode popular during this time was best served by the competing characters in the plays of the Elizabethan dramatists.

During the Interregnum 1649--1660, English theatres were kept closed by the Puritans for religious and ideological reasons. When the London theatres opened again with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, they flourished under the personal interest and support of Charles II. Wide and socially mixed audiences were attracted by topical writing and by the introduction of the first professional actresses (in Shakespeare's time, all female roles had been played by boys). New genres of the Restoration were heroic drama, pathetic drama, and Restoration comedy. This period saw the first professional woman playwright, Aphra Behn, author of many comedies including The Rover (1677). Restoration comedy is famous or notorious for its sexual explicitness, a quality encouraged by Charles II (1660-1685) personally and by the rakish aristocratic ethos of his court.

In the 18th century, the highbrow and provocative Restoration comedy lost favor, to be replaced by sentimental comedy, domestic tragedy

Popular entertainment became more dominant in this period than ever before. Fair-booth burlesque and musical entertainment, the ancestors of the English music hall, flourished at the expense of legitimate English drama. By the early 19th century, few English dramas were being written, except for closet drama, plays intended to be presented privately rather than on stage.

A change came in the Victorian era with a profusion on the London stage of farces, musical burlesques, extravaganzas and comic operas that competed with Shakespeare productions and serious drama. In 1855, the German Reed Entertainments began a process of elevating the level of (formerly risqu) musical theatre in Britain that culminated in the famous series of comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan and were followed by the 1890s with the first Edwardian musical comedies. W.S. Gilbert and Oscar Wilde were leading poets and dramatists of the late Victorian period. Wilde's plays, in particular, stand apart from the many now forgotten plays of Victorian times and have a much closer relationship to those of the Edwardian dramatists such as Irishman George Bernard Shaw and Norwegian Henrik Ibsen.

The length of runs in the theatre changed rapidly during the Victorian period. As transportation improved, poverty in London diminished, and street lighting made for safer travel at night, the number of potential patrons for the growing number of theatres increased enormously. Plays could run longer and still draw in the audiences, leading to better profits and improved production values. The first play to achieve 500 consecutive performances was the London comedy Our Boys, opening in 1875.

Edwardian musical comedy held the London stage (together with foreign operetta imports) until World War I and was then supplanted by increasingly popular American musical theatre and comedies and their contemporaries. The motion picture mounted a challenge to the stage. At first, films were silent and presented only a limited challenge to theatre. But by the end of the 1920s, films like The Jazz Singer could be presented with synchronized sound, and critics wondered if the cinema would replace live theatre altogether. Some dramatists wrote for the new medium, but playwriting continued.

Postmodernism had a profound effect on English drama in the latter half of the 20th Century. This can be seen particularly in the work of Samuel Beckett (most notably in Waiting for Godot), who in turn influenced writers such as Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard.

Today the West End of London has a large number of theatres, particularly centered around Shaftesbury Avenue. A prolific writer of music for musicals of the 20th century, Andrew Lloyd Webber, has dominated the West End for a number of years, and his works have travelled to Broadway in New York and around the world, as well as being turned into film.

theatre cultural projects british


1.1 Early British theatres

The dawn of the English drama. In the dramas of Greece and Rome the unities of action, time, and place controlled the unfolding of plot. There was one main action to which every minor part must contribute; the incidents of the play should naturally happen within twenty-four hours; and the entire action should occur, naturally, in one place. These rules of the ancient drama are known as "the dramatic unities." The early play-writers of other European countries were limited by these rules; but to Spain and England belongs the distinction of creating new types of dramatic literature. From the first, nearly all English dramatists ignored the unities. In representing character and passion their succeeding scenes transplanted one over impracticable distances, their time might include a long life, and subordinate parts of a play were unified only by the author's method of delineating passion or character.

The miracle plays and mysteries The dawning of the English dramatic literature can be traced to a period soon after the Norman Conquest, when the Church began to popularize in England the mysteries with which she supplanted the Roman mimes. To these the names of Miracle plays and Mysteries were indiscriminately given in England. The earliest "miracle" of English record is the Play of Saint Catherine. It was represented at Dunstable about 1110, was written in French, and was in all probability a rude representation of the miracles and martyrdom of the saint. These performances were encouraged by the clergy, since they gave religious instruction to the people and strengthened the influence of the Church. At first the plays were composed and acted by monks, and were performed in the cathedral close. The ecclesiastical stage was a platform in three divisions, representing Heaven, Earth, and Hell rising one over the other. The costumes were furnished from the vestry of the church. The dramatists boldly exhibited supernatural beings, angels, devils, saints, martyrs, even the persons of the Trinity. It was necessary that some comic element should be introduced to enliven the graver scenes; and this was supplied by representing the wicked personages of the drama placed in ludicrous situations. The Devil usually played the part of the clown or jester, and was exhibited in a light half terrific and half farcical. The modern puppet-play of Punch is a reminiscence of these ancient miracles, in which the Evil One was alternately the conqueror and the victim of the human buffoon, jester, or vice, as he was called. The times did not condemn the use of vulgar or profane language, or scenes [1, p. 45].

Some idea of those religious dramas may be formed from their titles. The Creation of the World, the Fall of man, the story of Cain and Abel, the Crucifixion of Our Lord, the Massacre of the Innocents, The Play of the Blessed Sacrament, the Deluge, are in the list, besides an infinite multitude of subjects taken from the lives and miracles of the saints. The plays though abounding in absurdities, contain passages of simple and natural pathos, and scenes of genuine humor. In the Deluge, a comic scene is produced by the refusal of Noah's wife to enter the Ark, and by the beating which terminates her noisy resistance; while, on the other hand, a Mystery entitled the Sacrifice of Isaac contains a pathetic dialogue between Abraham and his son. The oldest manuscript of a Miracle play in English is that of the Harrowing of Hell, i.e., the conquering of Hell by Christ, believed to have been written about 1350.

A curious revival of these Miracles or Passion plays began in 1633 at Ammergau, near the southern frontier of Bavaria, and is continued till the present time. It is notable in keeping both the reverence and the dramatic skill of the devoutest age of such representations.

The moralities. The Miracle plays and Mysteries continued to be popular from the eleventh to the end of the fourteenth century, when they were supplanted by the Moralities. These new dramas were simply an adaptation to dramatic use of the allegory which had been universally popular for two centuries [16, p.38]. The persons who figure in the Moralities are, Every Man, a general type of humanity; Lusty Juventus, who represents the follies and weakness of youth; Good Counsel, Repentance, Gluttony, Pride, Avarice, and the like. The Devil was retained, and his hard blows and scoldings with the Vice, furnished many "a fit of mirth." The oldest English Morality now extant is The Castle of Perseverance, which was written about 1450. It is a dramatic allegory of human life, representing the many conflicting influences that surround Man in his way through the world. Lusty Juventus contains a vivid and humorous picture of the extravagance and debauchery of a young heir surrounded by the Virtues and Vices, and ends with a demonstration of the misery which follows a departure from the path of virtue and religion [3, p.20].

The interludes. Springing from the Moralities, and making an approach to the regular drama, are the Interludes, much shorter in extent and more merry and farcical. Here typical personages are substituted for allegorical characters. They were generally played in the intervals of a festival, and were exceedingly popular. The most noted author of these merry pieces was John Heywood, a man of learning and accomplishments, who seems to have performed the duties of entertainer at the court of Henry VIII. His Four P's is a good specimen of this phase of drama. It turns upon a dispute between a Peddler, a Pardoner, a Palmer and a Poticary, in which each tries to tell the greatest lie. They tax their powers, until at last, by chance, the Palmer says that he never saw a woman out of temper; whereupon the others acknowledge him the victor.

The pageants. The national taste for dramatic entertainments was still further fostered by pageants intended to gratify the vanity of citizens or to compliment an illustrious visitor. On some lofty platform, in the porch or church-yard of a cathedral, in the town hall or over the city gate, one or more figures, suitably dressed, declaimed in verse and represented Cupid, Muses, and other classical personages. Such spectacles were frequently exhibited at the universities, where the Latin tongue was used and Latin plays were imitated. These dramas, however, do not appear to have exercised any appreciable influence on the growth of the English stage.

The first regular tragedy and comedy. The earliest composition in our language possessing all the requisites of a regular tragedy, and the first in blank verse, is the play of Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex, written by Thomas Sackville (the principal writer in the Mirror for Magistrates), and acted in 1562 for the entertainment of Queen Elizabeth. Its subject is borrowed from the old half-mythological Chronicles of Britain. Its dialogue is regularly and carefully constructed; but the sentences almost invariably terminate with the line, and the effect of the whole is tedious. The action is oppressively tragic, being a dismal succession of slaughters, ending with the desolation of an entire kingdom.

The first English comedy was Ralph Royster Doyster, acted in 1551, and written by Nicholas Udall, master of Eton College. This was followed, about fifteen years later, by Gammer Gurton's Needle, composed by John Still, afterward bishop of Bath and Wells, who had previously been master of Saint John's and Trinity Colleges in Cambridge. This play was probably acted by the students of those colleges. The action of Ralph Royster Doyster takes place in London. The principal characters are a rich and pretty widow, her lover, and an irrepressible suitor, who gives the title to the play. This ridiculous pretender to gayety and love is betrayed into all sorts of absurd and humiliating scrapes. The piece ends with the return of the favored lover from a voyage which he had undertaken in a momentary pique. The manners represented are those of the middle class of the period; and the picture given of life in London in the sixteenth century is animated and natural. The movement and utterance are rudely comic.

Gammer Gurton's Needle is a composition of a more farcical order. The scene is laid in the humblest rustic life, and all the dramatis personae belong to the uneducated class. The principal action of the comedy is the sudden loss of a needle with which Gammer (Good Mother) Gurton has been mending a garment of her man Hodge, a loss comparatively serious when needles were rare and costly. The whole intrigue consists in the search instituted after this unfortunate little implement, which is at last discovered by Hodge himself, on suddenly sitting down, sticking in the garment which Gammer Gurton had been repairing [14, p.34]

The early English theatres. In the year 1576, under the powerful patronage of the Earl of Leicester, James Burbage built the first English theatre [Appendix A]. The venture proved so successful, that twelve theatres were soon furnishing entertainment to the citizens of London. Of these the most celebrated was "The Globe." It was so named because its sign bore the effigy of Atlas supporting the globe, with the motto, "Totus Mundus agit Histrionem." Many of the early London theatres were on the southern or Surrey bank of the Thames, out of the jurisdiction of the City, whose officers and magistrates, under the influence of Puritanism, carried on a constant war against the players and the play-houses. Some of these theatres were cock-pits (the name of "the pit" still suggesting that fact); some were arenas for bull-baiting and bear-baiting. Compared with the magnificent theatres of the present day, all were poor and squalid, retaining in their form and arrangements many traces of the old model -- the inn-yard. Most of them were entirely uncovered, except for a thatched roof over the stage which protected the actors and privileged spectators from the weather. The audience was exposed to sunshine and to storm. Plays were acted only in the daytime. The boxes, or "rooms," as they were styled, were arranged nearly as in the present day; but the musicians, instead of being placed in the orchestra, were in a lofty gallery over the stage.

In early English theatres there was a total absence of painted or movable scenery, and the parts for women were performed by men or boys, actresses being as yet unknown. A few screens of cloth or tapestry gave the actors the opportunity of making their exits and entrances; a placard, bearing the name of Rome, Athens, London, or Florence, as the case might be, indicated to the audience the scene of the action. Certain typical articles of furniture were used. A bed on the stage suggested a bedroom; a table covered with tankards, a tavern; a gilded chair surmounted by a canopy, and called "a state," a palace; an altar, a church; and so on. A permanent wooden structure like a scaffold, erected at the back of the stage, represented objects according to the requirements of the piece, such as the wall of a castle or a besieged city, the outside of a house, or a position enabling one of the actors to overhear others without being seen himself.

The poverty of the theatre was among the conditions of excellence which stimulated the Elizabethan dramatist. He could not depend upon the painter of scenes for interpretation of the play, and therefore was constrained to make his thought vigorous and his language vivid. The performance began early in the afternoon, and was announced by flourishes of a trumpet. Black drapery hung around the stage was the symbol of tragedy; and rushes strewn on the stage enabled the best patrons of the company to sit upon the floor. Dancing and singing took place between the acts; and, as a rule, a comic ballad, sung by a clown with accompaniment of tabor and pipe and farcical dancing closed the entertainment.

Notwithstanding the social discredit attached to the actor, the drama reached some popularity, and the profession was so lucrative, that it soon became the common resort of literary genius in search of employment. This department of our literature passed from infancy to maturity in a single generation. Twenty years after the appearance of the first rude tragedy, the English theatre entered upon a period of splendor without parallel in the literature of any other country. This was mainly the work of a small band of poets, whose careers began at about the same time. This sudden development of the drama was largely due to the pecuniary success of the new and popular amusement. The generous compensation for such literary work tempted authors to write dramas.

1.2 Elizabethan theatre

Elizabethan playhouses, actors, and audiences. The theatre as a public amusement was an innovation in the social life of the Elizabethans, and it immediately took the general fancy. Like that of Greece or Spain, it developed with amazing rapidity. London's first theatre was built when Shakespeare was about twelve years old; and the whole system of the Elizabethan theatrical world came into being during his lifetime. The great popularity of plays of all sorts led to the building of playhouses both public and private, to the organization of innumerable companies of players both amateur and professional, and to countless difficulties connected with the authorship and licensing of plays. Companies of actors were kept at the big baronial estates of Lord Oxford, Lord Buckingham and others. Many strolling troupes went about the country playing wherever they could find welcome. They commonly consisted of three, or at most four men and a boy, the latter to take the women's parts. They gave their plays in pageants, in the open squares of the town, in the halls of noblemen and other gentry, or in the courtyards of inns.

Regulation and licensing of plays. The control of these various companies soon became a problem to the community. Some of the troupes, which had the impudence to call themselves "Servants" of this or that lord, were composed of low characters, little better than vagabonds, causing much trouble to worthy citizens. The sovereign attempted to regulate matters by granting licenses to the aristocracy for the maintenance of troupes of players, who might at any time be required to show their credentials. For a time it was also a rule that these performers should appear only in the halls of their patrons; but this requirement, together with many other regulations, was constantly ignored. The playwrights of both the Roman and the Protestant faith uses the stage as a sort of forum for the dissemination of their opinions; and it was natural that such practices should often result in quarrels and disturbances. During the reign of Mary, the rules were strict, especially those relating to the production of such plays as The Four P's, on the ground that they encouraged too much freedom of thought and criticism of public affairs. On the other hand, during this period the performance of the mysteries was urged, as being one of the means of teaching true religion.

Elizabeth granted the first royal patent to the Servants of the Earl of Leicester in 1574. These "Servants" were James Burbage and four partners; and they were empowered to play "comedies, tragedies, interludes, stage-plays and other such-like" in London and in all other towns and boroughs in the realm of England; except that no representation could be given during the time for Common Prayer, or during a time of "great and common Plague in our said city of London." Under Elizabeth political and religious subjects were forbidden on the stage.

Objections to playhouses. In the meantime, respectable people and officers of the Church frequently made complaint of the growing number of play-actors and shows. They said that the plays were often lewd and profane, that play-actors were mostly vagrant, irresponsible, and immoral people; that taverns and disreputable houses were always found in the neighborhood of the theatres, and that the theatre itself was a public danger in the way of spreading disease. The streets were overcrowded after performances; beggars and loafers infested the theatre section, crimes occurred in the crowd, and 'prentices played truant in order to go to the play. These and other charges were constantly being renewed, and in a measure they were all justly founded. Elizabeth's policy was to compromise. She regulated the abuses, but allowed the players to thrive. One order for the year 1576 prohibited all theatrical performances within the city boundaries; but it was not strictly enforced. The London Corporation generally stood against the players; but the favor of the queen and nobility, added to the popular taste, in the end proved too much for the Corporation. Players were forbidden to establish themselves in the city, but could not be prevented from building their playhouses just across the river, outside the jurisdiction of the Corporation and yet within easy reach of the play-going public [8, pp.101-113]

This compromise, however, did not end the criticism of the public. Regulations and restrictions were constantly being imposed or renewed; and, no doubt, as constantly broken. In the end this intermittent hostility to the theatre acted as a sort of beneficent censorship. The more unprincipled of the actors and playwrights were held in check by the fear of losing what privileges they had, while the men of ability and genius found no real hindrance to their activity. Whatever the reason, the English stage was far purer and more wholesome than either the French or Italian stage in the corresponding era of development. However much in practice the laws were evaded or broken, the drama maintained a comparatively manly and decent standard. There was no Calandra, no Aretino or Machiavelli of the Elizabethan stage.

Companies of actors. In 1578 six companies were granted permission by special order of the queen to perform plays. They were the Children of the Chapel Royal, Children of Saint Paul's, the Servants of the Lord Chamberlain, Servants of Lords Warwick, Leicester, and Essex. The building of the playhouses outside the city had already begun in 1576. One of the popular catches of the day runs:

List unto my ditty!

Alas, the more the pity,

From Troynovant's old city

The Aldermen and Mayor

Have driven each poor player.

This banishment was not a misfortune, but one of the causes of immediate growth. There was room for as many theatres as the people desired; a healthy rivalry was possible. In Shoreditch were built the Theatre and the Curtain. At Blackfriars the Servants of Lord Leicester had their house, modeled roughly after the courtyard of an inn, and built of wood. Twenty years later it was rebuilt by a company which numbered Shakespeare among its members. In the meantime, the professional actor gained something in the public esteem, and occasionally became a recognized and solid member of society. Theatrical companies were gradually transformed from irregular associations of men dependent on the favor of a lord, to stable business organizations; and in time the professional actor and the organized company triumphed completely over the stroller and the amateur [6, pp. 207-213].

Playhouses and performances. The number of playhouses steadily increased. Besides the three already mentioned, there were in Southwark the Hope, the Rose, the Swan, and Newington Butts, on whose stage The Jew of Malta, the first Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, and Tamburlaine had their premieres. At the Red Bull some of John Heywood's plays appeared. Most famous of all were the Globe, built in 1598 by Richard Burbage, and the Fortune, built in 1599. The Globe was hexagonal without, circular within, a roof extending over the stage only. The audience stood in the yard, or pit, or sat in the boxes built around the walls. Sometimes the young gallants sat on the stage. The first Globe was burned in 1613 and rebuilt by King James and some of his noblemen. It was this theatre which, in the latter part of their career, was used by Shakespeare and Burbage in summer. In winter they used the Blackfriars in the city. At the end of the reign of Elizabeth there were eleven theatres in London, including public and private houses. Various members of the royal family were the ostensible patrons of the new companies. The boys of the choirs and Church schools were trained in acting; and sometimes they did better than their elders.

Public performances generally took place in the afternoon, beginning about three o'clock and lasting perhaps two hours. Candles were used when daylight began to fade. The beginning of the play was announced by the hoisting of a flag and the blowing of a trumpet. There were playbills, those for tragedy being printed in red. Often after a serious piece a short farce was also given; and at the close of the play the actors, on their knees, recited an address to the king or queen. The price of entrance varied with the theatre, the play, and the actors; but it was roughly a penny to sixpence for the pit, up to half a crown for a box. A three-legged stool on the stage at first cost sixpence extra; but this price was later doubled [13, pp. 203-204].

The house itself was not unlike a circus, with a good deal of noise and dirt. Servants, grooms, 'prentices and mechanics jostled each other in the pit, while more or less gay companies filled the boxes. Women of respectability were few, yet sometimes they did attend; and if they were very careful of their reputations they wore masks. On the stage, which ran far out into the auditorium, would be seated a few of the early gallants, playing cards, smoking, waited upon by their pages; and sometimes eating nuts or apples and throwing things out among the crowd. At first there was little music, but soon players of instruments were added to the company. The stage was covered with straw or rushes. There may have been a painted wall with trees and hedges, or a castle interior with practicable furniture. A placard announced the scene. Stage machinery seems never to have been out of use, though in the early Elizabethan days it was probably primitive. The audience was near and could view the stage from three sides, so that no "picture" was possible, as in the tennis-court stage of Paris. Whatever effects were gained were the result of the gorgeous and costly costumes of the actors, together with the art and skill with which they were able to invest their rles. The inn-court type of stage required a bold, declamatory method in acting and speaking; and these requirements were no doubt speedily reflected in the style of the playwrights. England was the last of the European countries to accept women on the stage. In the year 1629 a visiting company of French players gave performances at Blackfriars, with actresses. An English writer of the time called these women "monsters"; and the audience would have none of them. They were hissed and "pippin-pelted" from the stage. Boy actors were immensely popular, and the schools were actually the training ground for many well known comedians and tragedians. The stigma of dishonor rested, however, upon the whole profession, playwrights, players, and on the theatre itself. The company in the pit was rough, likely to smell of garlic and to indulge in rude jests. The plays were often coarse and boisterous, closely associated with bear-baiting and cock-fighting. Playwrights and actors belonged to a bohemian, half-lawless class. The gallants who frequented the play led fast lives, and were constantly charged with the corruption of innocence.

Comparison between an Elizabethan and an Athenian performance affords interesting contrasts and similarities. The Athenian festival was part of an important religious service, for which men of affairs gave their time and money. Every sort of government support was at its disposal, and manuscripts were piously preserved. All this was contrary to the practice of the Elizabethans, who tried to suppress the shows, lost many of their most precious manuscripts, and banished the plays to a place outside the city walls. In both countries, however, the audiences were made up of all classes of people who freely expressed their liking or disapproval. In each country the period of dramatic activity followed close upon the heels of great military and naval victories; and the plays of both countries reflect the civil and national pride.

Condemnation of the Elizabethan theatre. We come again to a period when the influence of the Church was arrayed against the theatre; and this time its efforts towards its suppression were markedly successful. It is perhaps unnecessary to recall that the London Corporation, during the greater part of the sixteenth century, had been in a chronic state of resentment on account of play-actors and playhouses. The reasons for their complaints were, for the most part, sound enough: opportunities for lawlessness and violence, congestion of traffic, encouragement of disreputable taverns, and danger of the spread of the plague. As time went on, other arguments, somewhat less reasonable, came to light. Some people contended that it was sacrilegious for men to dress up in clothes belonging to the other sex. (No women were as yet on the English stage. Women's parts were taken by boys.) One clergyman, not a Puritan but a Churchman, issued a pamphlet in which he stated that the stage was the cause of the visitations of the plague: when it was not present the ungodliness of the plays brought it on as a curse from heaven; and when it was present, the gathering in the playhouse caused it to spread.

About the time Shakespeare arrived in London there was an outbreak against the theatre which was especially violent. An earthquake had occurred in 1580, and in the following year there was a recurrence of the plague. At a bear-baiting show, given on a Sunday, a wooden scaffolding had given way, killing several people and injuring others. A few years later, a brawl outside the theatre caused serious disturbance. To many of the good people of London, all these things were signs of the wrath of heaven against the play-acting profession, and arguments for its extermination. When it was recognized that play-acting, not long before, had been utilized as a means of teaching the lessons of the Church, the argument against it was that it was popish. At the very time when England was making the greatest single contribution that any modern nation has ever made to the literature of the stage, preachers both Puritan and Anglican, pamphleteers, and politicians were loud in their denunciations.

Royal protection. Fortunately, the stage had a powerful friend in Queen Elizabeth. Since companies of actors "belonged" to the queen and were under the protection of the highest nobles of the land, the fight over the theatres resolved itself mainly into a struggle on the part of the queen's agents, or counsel, to outwit the decrees of the city Corporation. One method was to regard the giving of a play as a "rehearsal" for a royal production. Of course these "rehearsals" could be as numerous as the manager wished; and the public could be, and was, admitted. This practice brought on a bitter quarrel in which professors of Oxford and Cambridge were involved. One wise man at Oxford condemned the public plays, but defended those of the universities. "As an occasional recreation for learned gentlemen, acting received its highest praise; as a regular means of livelihood, it was regarded with scorn." In all this contention, however, the astute Elizabeth managed to have her own way. The stage and its players were kept alive [4, pp. 80-84].

After the death of Elizabeth the condition of playing companies was changed. The privilege of licensing and protecting them was gradually withdrawn from the nobles and taken over by the king. The London theatre was thereby strengthened, but dramatic activity in general received a blow. It became more fashionable to attend public performances; and the court masques brought to the city many people of talent -- painters, musicians, designers, actors and playwrights. Plays became more polished, less coarse, but often more indecent. Protected by the play-loving monarchs, actors were less apprehensive of the law, and did not scruple to ridicule their enemies. As the seventeenth century wore on, no doubt politics had as much to do with the feeling against the theatres as religion; for playwrights and actors inevitably were classed among the supporters of the crown. The scandal was increased by the licentiousness of the court, where so many attractive theatre people found protection, and by the extravagances connected with the masques. Actors grew bold and began to insult the pious-minded, especially the Puritans. As the difficulties between the crown and Parliament increased, there were circulated numerous pamphlets and petitions in which the stage was attacked for its immorality, indecency and extravagance. All the old arguments, which had preceded the building of the playhouses in the sixteenth century, were revived. The annual attacks of the plague in the years following 1630 were exceptionally violent. In 1642 Parliament issued an ordinance suppressing all stage plays; and five years later even a stricter law was passed. Finally, in 1648 all playhouses were ordered to be pulled down, all players to be seized and whipped, and every one caught attending a play to be fined five shillings. Of course, no such ordinance, in such a city as London, could be completely enforced; but the playhouses, in effect, were practically closed from 1642 until the Restoration in 1660.

1.3 British theatre of the 19th century

Nature of Restoration comedy. Restoration comedy refers to English comedies written and performed in the Restoration period from 1660 to 1710. In almost every important respect, Restoration drama was far inferior to the Elizabethan. Where the earlier playwrights created powerful and original characters, the Restoration writers were content to portray repeatedly a few artificial types; where the former were imaginative, the latter were clever and ingenious. The Elizabethan dramatists were steeped in poetry, the later ones in the sophistication of the fashionable world.

The heroes of the Restoration comedies were lively gentlemen of the city, profligates and loose livers, with a strong tendency to make love to their neighbors' wives. Husbands and fathers were dull, stupid creatures. The heroines, for the most part, were lovely and pert, too frail for any purpose beyond the glittering tinsel in which they were clothed. Their companions were busybodies and gossips, amorous widows or jealous wives. The intrigues which occupy them are not, on the whole, of so low a nature as those depicted in the Italian court comedies; but still they are sufficiently coarse. Over all the action is the gloss of superficial good breeding and social ease. Only rarely do these creatures betray the traits of sympathy, faithfulness, kindness, honesty, or loyalty. They follow a life of pleasure, bored, but yawning behind a delicate fan or a kerchief of lace

Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries drama. In the 18th century, the highbrow and provocative Restoration comedy lost favor, to be replaced by sentimental comedy, domestic tragedy such as George Lillo's The London Merchant (1731), and by an overwhelming interest in Italian opera. Popular entertainment became more dominant in this period than ever before. Fair-booth burlesque and musical entertainment, the ancestors of the English music hall, flourished at the expense of legitimate English drama. By the early 19th century, few English dramas were being written, except for closet drama1), plays intended to be presented privately rather than on stage.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the outstanding movement in the dramatic field was that of romanticism as against the classicism of most earlier European drama.

En England a literary or "closet" drama, entirely unsuited to stage production, sprang up. It listed in its annals such names as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Swinburne, Browning, and Tennyson. It was not until the latter part of the century that the English stage again showed signs of life with the advent of Henry Arthur Jones, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, and Oscar Wilde. A change came in the Victorian era with a profusion on the London stage of farces, musical burlesques, extravaganzas and comic operas

W.S. Gilbert and Oscar Wilde were leading poets and dramatists of the late Victorian period. Wilde's plays, in particular, stand apart from the many now forgotten plays of Victorian times and have a much closer relationship to those of the Edwardian dramatists such as Irishman George Bernard Shaw and Norwegian Henrik Ibsen.

Edwardian musical comedy. Edwardian musical comedy began in the last decade of the Victorian era and captured the optimism, energy and good humor of the new century and the Edwardian era, as well as providing comfort during World War I. [6, pp. 246-259]

The Gaiety Theatre's well-loved but racy burlesques were coming to an end, and so was the run of phenomenally successful family-friendly Gilbert and Sullivan operas. These two genres had dominated the musical stage since the 1870s. A few lighter, more romantic comic operas, beginning with Dorothy (1886) found success and showed that audiences were ready for something new.

The father of the Edwardian musical was George 'The Guv'nor' Edwardes. He took over the Gaiety Theatre in the 1880s and, at first, improved the quality of the old Gaiety Theatre burlesques. Perceiving that their time had passed, he experimented with a modern-dress, family-friendly musical theatre style, with breezy, popular songs, snappy, romantic banter, and stylish spectacle. These drew on the traditions of Savoy opera and also used elements of burlesque. Their plots were simple, they included elaborate displays of contemporary fashion and scenery, and light parody of social convention and topical issues. He replaced the bawdy women of burlesque with his "respectable" corps of dancing, singing Gaiety Girls who wore the latest fashions, and also showed off their bodies in chorus lines and bathing attire, as well as singing, to complete the musical and visual fun. These shows were immediately widely copied at other London theatres and then in America.

The first Edwardian musical comedy was In Town in 1892. Its success, together with the even greater sensation of A Gaiety Girl in 1893, confirmed Edwardes on the path he was taking. These "musical comedies", as he called them, revolutionized the London stage and set the tone for the next three decades.

According to musical theatre writer Andrew Lamb, "The British Empire and America began to fall for the appeal of the [Edwardian] musical comedy from the time when A Gaiety Girl was taken on a world tour in 1894." Edwardes' early Gaiety hits included a series of light, romantic "poor maiden loves aristocrat and wins him against all odds" shows, usually with the word "Girl" in the title. After A Gaiety Girl came The Shop Girl (1894), The Circus Girl (1896) and A Runaway Girl (1898). The heroines were independent young women who often earned their own livings. The stories followed a familiar plot line - a chorus girl breaks into high society, a shop girl makes a good marriage. There was always a misunderstanding during act one and an engagement at the end. In the words of a contemporary review, Edwardes' musicals were "Light, bright and enjoyable."

The length of runs in the theatre changed rapidly during the Victorian period. As transportation improved, poverty in London diminished, and street lighting made for safer travel at night, the number of potential patrons for the growing number of theatres increased enormously. Plays could run longer and still draw in the audiences, leading to better profits and improved production values.

1.4 Modern British theatre

The new theatre: the influence of Ibsen and Shaw. There was another kind of theatre developing whose relative lack of popularity at the time belied its significance. The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts came to London in 1888 and scandalized critics and public alike [11, pp. 34-45]

The theme of the play - syphilis - struck at the heart o the revered institution of the family and the brooding seriousness of the tone was at the opposite extreme to the entertainment that the conventional theatregoers expected. A Doll's House (1879) put the central dilemmas of women's freedom in a stifling and corrupt bourgeois setting. Ibsen's plays represented the beginnings of modern European drama. His influence in establishing a serious drama based on moral and social issues hung over what has been called the minority theatre represented by the playwrights who did not write for the audiences of the popular West End theatres. He had completely rewritten the rules of drama with realism. From Ibsen forward, challenging assumptions and directly speaking about issues has been considered one of the factors that makes a play art rather than entertainment.

Ibsen's champion in England was George Bernard Shaw and it was through his plays that Ibsen's influence on the British stage was most clearly felt. Shaw's biting wit and experience as a man of the theatre helped him to make the minority theatre a commercial and popular success.

The new drama demanded a new simpler staging and a new kind of theatre. The Court Theatre under the directorship of Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946) became the leading avant-garde theatre in London. The Court established some of the approaches which were to influence the theatre in the 20th century. The convention of the long run was replaced by a repertory system. This allowed a much more daring approach as a play that failed could be deleted from the repertoire without great difficulty or financial loss. There was also introduced an idea of a director who had overall control of the production. The repertory movement became unstoppable and was closely linked with regional and provincial theatre. Most notable was the founding of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The repertory movement came to Glasgow in 1909 and in Liverpool in 1910; in 1913 the Birmingham Repertory Theatre opened [18, p. 75].

What happened in the theatre in the early years of the XX century was an outburst of dramatic energy. In many ways the Edwardian stage acted as a prologue to the themes of the century: the division between the commercial theatre and the smaller, poorer but ultimately much more important theatre.

The twentieth century. The 20th Century has witnessed the two greatest wars in history and social upheaval without parallel. The political movements of the "proletariat" were manifested in theatre by such movements as realism, naturalism, symbolism, impressionism and, ultimately, highly stylized anti-realism -- particularly in the early 20th Century -- as society battled to determine the ultimate goals and meaning of political philosophy in the life of the average person.

At the same time, commercial theatre advanced full force, manifesting itself in the development of vastly popular forms of drama such as major musicals beginning with Ziegfield's Follies and developing into full-blown musical plays such as Oklahoma!, Porgy and Bess, and Showboat. Ever greater technological advances permitted spectacular shows such as The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon to offer competition to another new innovation: film. Ultimately, the cost of producing major shows such as these, combined with the organization of actors and technical persons in theatre, have limited what a theatre can do in competing with Hollywood.

Serious drama also advanced in the works of Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) in his trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra and in The Iceman Cometh; Arthur Miller (1915- ), in The Crucible and Death of a Salesman; and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), whose Glass Menagerie, produced immediately after World War II, arguably changed the manner in which tragic drama is presented. Serious drama was accompanied by serious acting in the form of the Actor's Studio, founded in 1947 by Elia Kazan and others, later including Lee Strasberg. The art of writing comedy was brought to a level of near-perfection (and commercial success) by Neil Simon (1927- ), whose plays such as Rumors, The Odd Couple, and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, are among the favorites for production by community theatres [12, pp. 10-11]

Britain's theatrical strength continued in the second half of the twentieth century with the talent of its many important playwrights. John Osborne, Peter Shaffer, Edward Bond, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, David Storey, and David Hare are some of the writers who have helped make Britain a center of theatrical creativity.

British post-war theatre. English drama experienced many of its most emphatic innovations in the late 1950's. By the end of the decade the first plays of John Arden, Harold Pinter and Peter Shafter were establishing a marked tone for the development of English drama.

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