English drama

English drama

Drama 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.

Renaissance and Elizabethan periods

The period known as the English Renaissance, approximately 1500—1660, saw a flowering of the drama and all the arts. The most famous example of the morality play, "Everyman", and the two candidates for the earliest comedy in English Nicholas Udall's "Ralph Roister Doister" and the anonymous "Gammer Gurton's Needle", all belong to the 16th century.

During the reign of Elizabeth I in the late 16th and early 17th century, a London-centred 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. Ben Jonson, for example, was often engaged to write courtly masques, ornate plays where the actors wore masks. The three types that seem most often studied today are the histories, the comedies, and the tragedies. Most playwrights tended to specialise 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, part 1—2". 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.

17th and 18th centuries

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. Notable heroic tragedies of this period include John Dryden's All for Love (1677) and (Aureng-Zebe) (1675), and Thomas Otway's Venice Preserved (1682). The Restoration plays that have best retained the interest of producers and audiences today are the comedies, such as George Etherege's "The Man of Mode" (1676), William Wycherley's "The Country Wife" (1676), John Vanbrugh's "The Relapse" (1696), and William Congreve's "The Way of the World" (1700). 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 favour, 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, which went into a long period of decline. By the early 19th century, the drama was no longer represented by stage plays at all, but by closet drama, plays written to be privately read in a "closet" (a small domestic room).

Victorian era and later

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 by the likes of James Planché and Thomas William Robertson. In 1855, the German Reed Entertainments began a process of elevating the level of (formerly risqué) 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. [Stedman, Jane W. (1996). "W. S. Gilbert, A Classic Victorian & His Theatre". Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816174-3] 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. Its astonishing new record of 1,362 performances was bested in 1892 by "Charley's Aunt". [ [http://www.dgillan.screaming.net/stage/th-longr.html Article on long-runs in the theatre before 1920] ] Several of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas broke the 500-performance barrier, beginning with "H.M.S. Pinafore" in 1878, and Alfred Cellier and B. C. Stephenson's 1886 hit, "Dorothy", ran for 931 performances.

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 by Noel Coward, Ivor Novello 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 centred 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.

The Royal Shakespeare Company operates out of Stratford-upon-Avon, producing mainly but not exclusively Shakespeare's plays.

ee also

* English literature
* Irish theatre
* Mummers Play


External links

* [http://link.library.utoronto.ca/reed Patrons and Performances] , Records of Early English Drama

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