When we hear the word ‘theatre’ today, we may think of a building before we think of the art form itself. We probably have an image of an auditorium, tiered seating, curtains, and a stage, but this has not always been the case. British theatre originated in the medieval era, with a strongly religious influence. The Church used mystery plays, which told biblical stories, to teach the largely illiterate public about religion.
While the Bible was exclusively available in Latin, mystery plays were performed in the common tongue, allowing ordinary people to access the tales. To reach as many as possible, the plays would take place on a wagon that travelled the city, taking the stories to the people; it would be over two centuries before the first ‘playhouse’ was built.
Early Modern origins
Theatre as we know it was born from the Reformation. Religious theatre was suppressed, and secular plays rose to take its place. Acting became a viable profession for the first time, though there were tight restrictions:
- Only men could act professionally, with boys taking the female roles
- They had to be part of a company, or troupe, of theatre makers
- The company had to be sponsored by a nobleman, e.g. the Admiral’s Men
If these conditions were met, the company would be given licence to rehearse and perform. One such troupe was Leicester’s Men, patronised by the Earl of Leicester; in 1576, they built Britain’s first purpose-built playhouse, imaginatively named ‘The Theatre’, in London.
Over the next 16 years, 17 public theatres sprung up. Playhouses were circular with an open courtyard, the audience surrounding the stage on three sides. The in-the-round design mimicked the conditions actors were used to when performing in marketplaces, surrounded by spectators.
Plays would be staged in the afternoon, making use of the daylight streaming into the courtyard, a far cry from the dimly-lit evening entertainments we know today. None of these structures survive, but Shakespeare’s Globe is a reconstruction of an original Tudor playhouse.
While medieval and early modern theatre was designed for the common man, royalty, too, had a taste for the stage. Court masques were popular throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, performed behind closed doors for society’s elite.
Playwright Ben Jonson collaborated with designer Inigo Jones to produce elaborate masques for James I and Charles I, designed to personify the virtues of the court, featuring figures like King Arthur and Oberon, king of the fairies. So important were masques that a Banqueting House specifically for them was built at Whitehall Palace, which still stands today.
Inigo Jones designed both the Banqueting House and the masques themselves. Inspired by his travels on the continent, Jones introduced the proscenium arch and moveable scenery to British theatre. He also used a primitive form of coloured lighting, placing candles behind tinted glass. These intimate, elaborate masques were more refined than public performances, but both provided entertainment and escapism for their audiences.
Closed, Restored, restricted
The next century was a turbulent one for theatre. At the outbreak of Civil War in 1642, the theatres were closed to prevent public disorder, and remained so for 18 years. Illegal performances were scarce, and many public theatres destroyed. It wasn’t until 1660, with the Restoration of Charles II, that the theatres were reopened, but it was a curious mix of freedom and restriction.
Actresses and female playwrights were free to work for the first time, but royal patents allowed just two theatre makers to dominate London: William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew. Killigrew founded the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the oldest theatre in London.
When first built it was only as big as the stage is today, but this small theatre hosted big personalities: from Thomas Betterton, who played Hamlet when he was over 70 years old (Restoration actors had monopoly over a character for their lifetime), to Charles Macklin, who murdered another actor in the Green Room, to legendary manager David Garrick.
After the success of raucous Restoration comedies, many theatres were enlarged and new ones built, such as the Theatre Royal, Margate. As part of the planned expansion of the town, the theatre was built in 1787, vying for attention with the Assembly Rooms and Circulating Library. Though the theatre remains, the other buildings are now demolished; testament to the enduring popularity of the stage.
The satirical comedies of the Restoration seemed set to continue into the 18th century, but in 1737, Prime Minister Robert Walpole passed the Licensing Act of 1737, restricting the production of plays to the two patent theatres at Drury Lane and Covent Garden.
Additionally, each play had to be be vetted by the Lord Chamberlain and his Examiners of Plays before it was allowed onto the stage. Walpole was responding to political satire that he felt undermined him, but the catalyst was undoubtedly The Golden Rump; as farce that suggested the Queen administered enemas to the King.
To work around the Act, non-patent theatres interspersed dramatic scenes with musical interludes; Bristol Old Vic, then known as Bristol New Theatre, advertised productions as ‘a concert with a specimen of rhetorick’ until it obtained its royal patent in 1778. Though the Licensing Act was dropped in 1843, the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship was in place until 1968.
Style and spectacle
Theatre reflects the moment in which it is created; this was especially apparent in the 18th century. After the Licensing Act 1737, melodrama became an especially popular theatre style. Short, dramatic scenes were interspersed with musical accompaniment, a loophole used by many theatres. These simple, moral stories featured stereotypical character types, including the villain, the wronged maiden, and the overblown hero. This genre suited the ‘declamatory’ acting popular at the time, in which performers would strike a dramatic pose and speak their lines formally.
By the mid-19th century, theatre was attracting middle-class audiences. Previously theatregoers would be divided by class barriers; this was the case at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. The more aristocratic patrons would use the main entrance, while those in the cheap seats had to enter through the side.
As the aspirational middle class emerged, archaeology and history became fashionable interests, reflected in the emergence pictorial drama. As the name suggests, pictorial drama emphasised the aesthetic and accuracy of set and costume; the Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, is home to Britain’s oldest set of scenery, ‘The Woodland Scene’, probably painted 1818-36.
Sumptuous sets meant that many plays had to be cut down to accommodate the long scene changes. Aesthetic only became more popular, evolving into the fashion for spectacle and sensation in the later 19th century, in which special effects were the main attraction. Drury Lane was especially famous for these stunning productions thanks to set designer Bruce ‘Sensation’ Smith, who designed a train crash, a chariot race, and a horse race featuring real horses on stage!
Substance and sensitivity
In contrast to the style and spectacle of sensation theatre was so-called ‘cup and saucer’ drama, first introduced by Tom William Robertson in the mid-19th century.
These ‘problem plays’ dealt with serious, sensitive issues like the class divide and social mobility. Everyday language, ordinary situations, and natural performances contrasted drastically with the declamatory melodrama and spectacle popular elsewhere.
This inspired writers into the early 20th century, with the works of social reformer George Bernard Shaw gaining popularity. Tackling uncomfortable topics like religion and prostitution, Shaw’s work challenged the bourgeois audience using satire and humour, though much of his work was censored by the Lord Chamberlain.
Opening the stage door
In the 20th century theatre was adopted by groups like the Workers’ Theatre Movement and the Actresses’ Franchise League to agitate for social change. Taking theatre out of the playhouse, groups returned it to the streets and the people, removing what they deemed to be bourgeois trappings.
Lilian Baylis of London Old Vic believed that great art should be for everyone, not just the wealthy; in 1925, she began fundraising to rebuild Sadler’s Wells Theatre in Clerkenwell, allowing the people of north London the same access to theatre as those in the south. By 1935 it was dedicated to opera and ballet for eight months of the year, and now is considered the home of dance in the UK.
During the Second World War there was a surge of interest in the arts. Civilian and military audiences alike experienced drama, opera, and ballet for the first time, and the arts earned a permanent place in the hearts of the nation.
When Bristol Theatre Royal was put up for sale in 1942, its future uncertain, a public appeal was mounted, and a Trust founded to buy it and preserve its use as a theatre.
When the Arts Council was established by the government in 1946, they arranged for a company from London Old Vic to run Bristol, transforming it forever into Bristol Old Vic.
Whether you’re an early modern purist who wants to see an authentic, all-male Shakespeare, or a tastemaker with a craving for immersive new writing, Britain has a smorgasbord of drama for every palate.
From adding a studio for more experimental work, like the Ustinov Studio at Bath Theatre Royal, to diversifying their programme, like the Grand Theatre, Leeds, now home to Opera North, the way playhouses have adapted and survived to this day proves the enduring attraction of a night at the theatre.
During the pandemic, some of these venues may have been forced to close, but thanks to help from the Culture Recovery Fund they have refused to take their final bow. From mystery plays on a wagon, finding a home in the playhouses, enduring closures due to war and disease, and moving from the stage to an online platform, theatre is consistently evolving, reflecting its environment and providing a light in the darkness.
Header photo – The auditorium at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane seen from the stage, April 1921 © Historic England Archive
- To find out more about the history of theatres, check out our Listing Selection Guide for Culture and Entertainment Buildings.
- Historic England is distributing over £138 million to organisations in England, part of the £1.57 billion rescue package provided by DCMS to safeguard cultural and heritage organisations from the economic impact of COVID-19. Find out more about the Culture Recovery Fund.
- Shakespeare’s Life Through 10 Buildings