20 August 2008



Drama is a work of storytelling in which actors represent the characters. It is a work of literature which delineates life and human activity. Drama is designed for performance purpose and is addressed not to the readers but to the spectators; although there are some dramas that are destined to be read more often than they are acted. Such a play is sometimes called a closet drama – “closet” meaning a small, private room. It is perhaps too rich in talk to please an audience or too sparse in opportunities for actors to use their bodies. One example of closet drama is The Cenci’s Percy Bysshe Shelly (1819).

The word drama originates from the Greek word dran which meant “deed, to do or act”. We use drama as a synonym for plays, but the word has several meanings. Sometimes it refers to one play (“a stirring drama”); or to the work of a playwright, or dramatist (Ibsen’s drama”); or perhaps to a body of plays written in a particular time or place (“Elizabethan drama”). In yet another familiar sense, drama often means events that elicit high excitement: “A real-life drama”.

Dramatic works differ from novels and short stories in a number of significant ways. Plays do not have narrators to tell the audience what a character is thinking or what happened to a character in the past. Drama develops primarily by means of dialogue, the lines spoken by the characters. Makeup, costumes, scenery, lighting, and gestures may enhance a dramatic performance. Actors and directors can apply their creative instincts to the script, interpreting the dialogue and stage directions in various ways and even changing the dialogue and stage performance. People can say whether a particular drama is good or not only after it is performed on stage.

In watching a play, audiences have to understand certain things. They have to imagine along with the actors. If several years passed between one act and the next while the curtain has been lowered for only five minutes, the audiences must meet the playwright halfway and accept the passing of time. Just as they must accept the ease with which each location of the play may switch in a matter of seconds from Venice to Cyprus (as in Othello) or from Rome to Alexandria (as in Anthony and Cleopatra). The audiences must also accept the fact that when one character “whispers” to another, it must be loud enough for anyone in the theatre to hear; while it should be noted that so-called “asides” which the other characters are not supposed to hear are obviously delivered in loud enough voices for them to hear.

On Reading a Play
There are no rules about how one should read a play. Nevertheless, some observations may be helpful to those for whom play reading is still a new experience. First, one must accept that the ability to read imaginatively and perceptively is a basic skill needed by all persons who seek to become educated, for without it much of human experience is forever lost, and intellectually we remain children suffering from historical and cultural amnesia.
Since all writers do not express themselves in the same form, all written works cannot be read in the same way. Each form has its own characteristics, and each makes distinctive demands on the readers. Thus, we cannot read a play in the same way we do an historical treatise, an essay, a biography, a novel, or a poem. To read a play adequately, we must first adjust our minds to the dramatic form so that its contents may be perceived. A play is distinctive in part because it is a form made up primarily of dialogue that must be constructed with great care in order to convey its intentions precisely while at the same time creating the sense of being the spontaneous oral utterances of characters involved in a developing action. Thus, it is a once a highly formal structure and a simulated spontaneous reflection of human experience.
Drama requires the reader to contribute more than any other form does. Not only must the reader see and understand what is explicitly said and done, but he must also be aware of all that is merely implied or left unsaid. While the dramatist may use stage directions to clarify setting, situations, or tone, for the most part he conveys his intentions through dialogue. Therefore in reading a play we should assume that the writer has set down precisely what he wishes to say, but that, because he must convey his intentions through a likeness of conversation, we must be sensitive – as in real life – to the implications, unspoken feelings, and even deliberate deceptions typical of human interaction. Therefore, the reader must be alert to the nuances and shadings of each word and phrase. Although inwardly and imaginatively seeing and hearing a script is not a simple undertaking, it can be done adequately if we cultivate the imagination and develop the understanding appropriate to the task. Perhaps the best place to begin it with a look at how plays are constructed.

The basic elements of drama may be combined and varied in almost infinite ways. Certain basic patterns have nevertheless recurred often enough to permit us to divide plays into a limited number of dramatic forms. An almost endless number of forms and subforms has been suggested by critics, but all the labels they use can be related to one of the three qualities: the serious, the comic, and the seriocomic. These three qualities are epitomized in three forms: tragedy, comedy, and melodrama.
Tragedy. A tragedy presents a genuinely serious action and maintains a serious mood throughout. It raises questions about the meaning of man’s existence, his moral nature, and his social or psychological relationships. Most tragedies written before the 18th century show the interaction between superhuman and human forces. Many tragedies (such as Oedipus the King) imply that the protagonist has violated a moral order which must be vindicated and reestablished. Because superhuman forces are involved, the outcome often seems inevitable and predetermined.
In the 18th century, the supernatural element began to decline as social and psychological forces were given more emphasis and as human conflicts were emphasized. The conflicts were restricted among human desires, laws, and institutions. Since strictly human problems may be more readily solved, happy resolutions became more probable. Because this later drama has often been concerned with everyday situations and deems less profound than earlier works, some critics have refused to call it tragedy and have substituted the term drama.
The protagonist or leading character of tragedy is usually a person who arouses our sympathy and admiration, but there are exceptions to this rule. Normally, the protagonist is ethically superior but sufficiently imperfect to be believably human. Often the tragic protagonist encounters disaster through his pursuit of some aim, worthy in itself, which conflicts with another claim. A recurring motif in serious drama is the imposition of a duty which, being performed, will lead to loss of life, love, or reputation.
The emotional effect of tragedy is usually described as the ‘arousal of pity and fear,’ but these basic emotions include a wide range of other responses: compassion, admiration, foreboding, dread, awe, and terror. Pity and fear are rooted in teo instinctive human reactions: fear out of the desire for sef-preservation and pity out of concerns the welfare of others. In addition to arousing pity and fear, tragedy also calms or purges these emotions. Rather than leaving us emotionally unsettled, the ending of a tragedy releases the tensions that have been aroused and brings us back to a state of equilibrium.

Comedy. The action of comedy is based on some deviation from normality in action, character, thought, or speech. The deviation must not pose a serious threat and an ‘in fun’ mood is usually maintained. There is no subject, however trivial or important, that cannot be treated in comedy provided it is placed in the right framework.
Comedy also demands that an audience view the character or situation objectively. Henri Bergson, in Laughter, states that comedy requires an ‘anesthesia of the heart,’ since it is difficult to laugh at anything about which we feel deeply. We might find it funny to see a man slip on a banana peel, but if we discover that he has just undergone a serious operation, our concern will destroy the laughter.
Unlike tragedy, comedy seldom raises deep moral questions. Rather, it builds on normative human responses and opposes deviations which threaten to destroy what is valuable. Since ideas about normal behavior vary from one period to another, so too the scope of comedy changes.

Melodrama. Melodrama deals with a serous action. Its seriousness, however, is often temporary and is usually caused by the maliciousness of an unsympathetic character. A happy resolution is achieved by destroying the power of the villain.
The characters in melodrama are usually divided into those who are almost completely sympathetic and those who are almost completely antipathetic. There may also be one or more simple-minded or uninhibited characters who provide comic relief. The action of melodrama usually develops a powerful threat to the well-being of an innocent protagonist. Melodrama usually has a double ending, in which the good characters are rescued and rewarded and the evil are detected and punished. Thus it is related to tragedy through its serious action and to comedy through its happy ending. It has a popular form throughout history, for its assures audiences that good triumphs over evil.

The Basic Elements of Drama
According to Aristotle there are six parts of drama: plot, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle.

Plot is often considered merely the summary of a play’s incidents, but – though it includes the story line – it also refers to the organization of all the elements into a meaningful pattern. Plot is thus the overall structure of a play.
The Beginning. The beginning of a play involves exposition, or the setting forth of information – about earlier events, the identity of the characters, and the present situation. The amount of exposition required is partly determined by the point of attack, the moment at which the story is taken up. Shakespeare uses an early point of attack (that is, he begins the play near the beginning of the story and tells it chronologically). Thus he needs little exposition. Greek tragic dramatists, on the other hand, use later points, which require that many previous events be summarized for the audience’s benefit. They thus actually show only the final parts of their stories.
The Middle. The middle of a play is normally composed of a series of complications. A complication is any new element which changes the direction of the action – the discovery of new information, for example, or the arrival of a character. The substance of most complications is discovery (any occurrence of sufficient importance to alter the direction of action). Discoveries may involve objects (a wife discovers in her husband’s pocket a weapon of the kind used in a murder), persons (a young man discovers that his rival in love is his mother), facts (a young man about to leave home discovers that his mother has cancer), values (a woman discovers that self-esteem is more important than marriage), or self (a man discovers that he has been acting from purely selfish motivates when he thought he was acting out of love for his children). Means other than discoveries may be used to precipitate complications. Natural disasters are sometimes used. Each complication normally has a beginning, middle, and end – its own development, climax, and resolution. The series of complications culminates in the crisis, or turning point of the action
The End. The final portion of a play, often called the resolution or dénouement (unraveling or untying), extends from the crisis to the final curtain. It varies in length. It serves to tie off the various strands of action and to answer the questions raised earlier. It brings the situation back to a state of balance and satisfies audience expectations.

Character is the primary material from which plots are created, for incidents are developed through the speech and behavior of dramatic personages. Characterization is the playwright’s means of differentiating one personage from another.
The first level of characterization is physical and concerns such basic facts as sex, age, size, and color. Sometimes a dramatist does not supply all of this information, but it is present whenever the play is produced, since actors necessarily give concrete form to the characters. The second level is social. It includes a character’s economic status, profession or trade, religion, family relationship – all those factors that place him in his environment. The next level is psychological. It reveals a character’s habitual responses, desires, motivations, likes and dislikes – the inner workings of the mind. Since drama most often arises from conflicting desires, the psychological is the most essential level of characterization. The fourth level is moral. It is most often used in serious plays, especially tragedies. Moral decisions cause a characters more fully than any other type, since such decisions cause a character to examine his own motives, in the process of which his true nature is revealed both to himself and to the audience.
A playwright can emphasize one or more of these levels and may assign many of few traits, depending on how the character functions in the play. For example, the audience needs to know very little about a maid who appears only to announce dinner. The principal characters, on the other hand, should be drawn in considerable depth.
A character is revealed in several ways: through description in stage direction, prefaces, or other explanatory material not part of the dialogue; through what the character says; through what others say about him; and, most important, through what he does.

The third basic element of a play is thought. It includes the themes, arguments, and over-all meaning of the action. It is present in all plays, even the most light-hearted farce: a playwright cannot avoid expressing some ideas, since events and characterization always imply some view of human behavior. Thought is also one of the main sources of unity in drama; action – as in much recent drama – may be organized around a central idea, motif, or concern.
The significance or meaning of a play is normally implied rather than stated directly. It is to be discovered in the relationships among characters, the ideas associated with unsympathetic and sympathetic characters, the conflicts and their resolution, and such devices as spectacle, music, and song. Sometimes, however, the author’s intention is clearly stated in the script, as when characters advocate a certain line of action, point of view, or specific social reform.
Dramatists in different periods have used various devices to project ideas. Greek playwrights made extensive use of the chorus (a group of about 12 actors, often led by a leader – choragus – who sang and danced in the orchestra, an area at the foot of the amphitheater), just as those of later periods employed such devices as soliloquies (a speech delivered by a character who is alone on the stage), asides (a short speech that a character delivers in an undertone directly to the audience and that is not heard by other actors onstage), and other forms of direct statement. Still other tools for projecting meaning are allegory and symbol. In allegory, characters are personifications of abstract qualities (mercy, greed, and so on). A symbol is a concrete object or event which, while meaningful in itself, also suggests a concept or set of relationships. The symbol has been a favorite device with modern writers because it allows them to suggest deeper meanings even within a realistic framework.

Plot, character, and thought are the basic ingredients of drama. To convey these to an audience, the playwright has at his disposal only two means – sound and spectacle. Sound includes language, music, and other aural effects; spectacles refers to all the visual elements of a production (physical movement and dance, costumes, scenery, properties, and lighting). Language is the playwright’s primary means of expression. When a play is performed, other expressive means (primarily music, sound effects, and spectacles) may be added, but to convey his intentions to others the dramatist depends almost entirely on dialogue and stage directions. Thus language (diction) is the playwright’s primary tool. Diction serves many purposes. It is used to impact information, to characterize, to direct attention to important plot elements, to reveal the themes and ideas of a play, to establish tone or mood and level of probability, and to establish tempo and rhythm.

Music, as we ordinarily understand to term, does not occur in every play. But, if the term is extended to include all patterned sound, it is an important ingredient in every production, except those wholly silent. A written script, like a musical score, is not fully realized until the performers – through the elements of pitch, stress, volume, tempo, duration, and quality – transform print into sound. It is though these elements that meaning is conveyed. Though the words of a sentence may remain constant, its meaning can be varied by manipulating emphasis or tone(“You say he told her?” or “You say he told her?”).
In addition to the sound of the actors’ voices, a play may also use music in the form of incidental songs or – as in musical comedy and opera – it may utilize song and instrumental accompaniment as integral structural means.

Spectacle means simply all the visual elements of a production: the movement and spatial relations of characters, the lighting, settings, costumes, and properties. Many playwrights seldom describe the spectacle precisely. The reader of a script then must try to envision the spectacle of he may not grasp a play’s full power.
Spectacle has several functions. It gives information (establishing where and when the action occurs), it aids characterization, it helps establish the level of probability (an abstract setting suggests one level of reality, while a realistic one suggests another), and it establishes mood and atmosphere.


No one really knows how the theatre began; it probably evolved from religious rituals, storytelling, and other activities of primitive man. There certainly were many semi-dramatic rituals in ancient Egypt and the Near East, but theatre as we know it seems to have emerged first in ancient Greece.

The Beginning Of Drama In Greece
For several centuries, Greece drama was presented exclusively at festivals honoring Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. Supposedly the son of Zeus (the greatest of Greek gods) and Semele (a mortal), Dionysus was killed, dismembered, and then resurrected. The myths that arose about him were closely related to the life cycle and to seasonal changes: birth, growth, decay, death, and rebirth; spring, summer, fall, and winter. His worship was designed in part to insure the return of spring and fertility, but as the god of wine he also represented many of the world’s irrational forces, and his worship was a recognition of man’s elemental passions.
The first definite record of drama in Greece is found in 534 B.C., when the City Dionysia was reorganized and a contest for the best tragedy was instituted. The only dramatist of this period whose name has survived is Thespis, who won the first contest. Since he is also the first known actor, performers are still often called thespians. The drama of Thespis was relatively simple, since it involved only one actor and a chorus. This does not mean that there was only one speaking character, but rather all characters were played by the same actor. This single actor used masks in shifting his identity; when he left the stage to change roles, the chorus filled the intervals with singing and dancing. The chorus, therefore, was the principal unifying force in this early drama.

The fifth century
Although drama was written and performed in Greece for many centuries, plays by only five writers – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Menander – now exist. Out of the vast number of plays written, only forty-five survive – thirty-two tragedies, twelve comedies, and one satyr play.
Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) is the earliest dramatist whose plays have survived. His major innovation was the introduction of a second actor, which allowed face-to-face conflict for the first time. The subsequent increase in emphasis on the actor reduced the importance of the chorus, though it remained a dominant force.
Sophocles (496-406) is frequently called the greatest of the Greek tragedians. His introduction of a third actor encouraged greater dramatic complexity than had been possible with two actors. He was much concerned with human relationship than with the religious and philosophical issues which had interested Aeschylus.
Euripides (480-406) was the last of the great Greek tragedians. He reduced the role the chorus until its connection with the rest of the play was often vague. He was a skeptic who questioned many Athenian ideals; even the gods did not escape examination, and in his plays they were frequently made to appear petty and ineffectual. He also turned toward melodrama and frequently resorted to contrived endings. With his death, the great era of Greek tragedy came to an end.
The Greek theatre was set up in the form of a large football stadium. Some historians claim that masks were used like megaphones so that the large audiences, about 17,000 people, seated in the stadium could hear the actors. A recent research proved that the acoustic of the stadium was so perfect that an audience seated at the top of it could even hear an actor whispering on the stage.
All actors in Greek tragedy wore masks constructed of lightweight linen, cork, or wood. There were several reasons for this practice: each actor played a number of roles; all the actors were male though many of the characters were female; the range of age and character types played by a single actor was great. Although the mouths were open, the features were not exaggerated to any marked degree.
A variety of clothing was used for stage purposes. A long-sleeved, ankle-length, heavily embroidered tunic, or chiton, was worn by certain characters, and some historians have argued that it was used for all the principal roles of tragedy. As for footwear, the tragic actor usually wore a soft, flexible, high-topped boot in common use at that time.
Ancient Greek tragedies typically consist of five parts. First the prologue in which an actor gave the background or explanations that the audience needed to follow the rest of the drama. The second is parodose, in which the chorus entered and commented on the events presented in the prologue. Following this was episodia. In which characters spoke to one another and developed the central conflict, finally came the exodus, the final scene of the play, in which the conflict was resolved and the actors left the stage.

The satyr play
During the 5th century B.B., each writer was required to present a satyr play whenever he competed in the festivals. A satyr play was comic in tone and used a chorus of satyrs. Following the three tragedies, it formed a kind of afterpiece, for it was short and sent the audience home in a happy frame of mind. Since the actors and choruses were the same for both tragedies and satyr play, the conventions of acting, costuming, and scenery were probably similar for both forms, although they were given a marked satirical turn in the satyr plays.

Greek comedy developed later than did tragedy. It was not officially recognized as a part of the festivals until about 487 B.C., when it became a regular feature of the City Dionysia in Athens. There were fewer restrictions on the number of actors in comedy than in tragedy. Although most comedies could be performed by three actors, occasionally as many as five were required. The acting style was probably based upon everyday behavior but exaggerated for comic effect. Principally, however, comedy differed from tragedy in its subject matter. Most typically it was concerned with contemporary matters of politics or art, with questions of peace or war, with persons or practices disliked by the comic writer. Occasionally the playwright used mythological material as a framework for his satire, but usually he invented his own plots and often referred to contemporary persons or situations.

The Rise Of Rome
The first regular dramas were performed in Rome in 240 B.B., having been imported from the Greek colonies in Sicily and southern Italy. These plays were by Livius Andronicus, who is often considered the originator of Roman literature. Thereafter drama was a recognized part of Roman life. Unfortunately, out of the vast number of Roman plays written, works by only three dramatists survive: twenty-one comedies by Plautus, six comedies by Terence, and nine tragedies by Seneca.

Roman festivals
The ludi, or festivals, in Rome at which plays were performed were not associated with the worship of Dyonysus, but were of various types. Most were official religious celebrations, but some were financed by wealthy citizens for special occasions, such as the funeral of a distinguished figure or the triumphal entry of a victorious army.
The accomplishment of the Roman theatre is not great when compared with the Greek , but it did produce three playwrights of importance – Plautus, Terence, and Seneca. Furthermore, its drama and theatre were to be major influences on Renaissance writers and theatre artists and consequently helped to shape the European theatre of later times.


Although it is sometimes claimed that theatrical activities were completely suppressed during the centuries that followed the fall of Rome, numerous contemporary plays continued to be performed. Regardless of the type and extent of these entertainments, the theatre could not expand extensively until the church began to make use of dramatic interludes in its own services. These innovations, begun in the 10th century, were the first step in restoring the theatre to a respected place in society after a lapse of four hundred years.

It is not clear why the church began to use dramatized episodes, but the most likely answer is that it wished to make its lessons more graphic. Furthermore, since the majority of persons could not understand Latin (the language of the church), spectacle had long been an important means of vivifying church doctrine, and dramatic interludes were merely a further development of this tendency.
The length and complexity in many parts differed considerably, some being only a few lines and dealing with a single episode, others much longer and including a number of related events.
For two hundred years religious plays were to remain within the church; not until after 1200 did they begin to be performed outside.

It is difficult to determine why performances began to be given out of doors. It has been suggested that t he plays had begun to interfere with the liturgy and that drama had developed as far as it could within the restricted confines of church services. Regardless of the motives, around 1200 plays began to be performed outside as well as inside churches.
A number of significant changes had occurred in religious drama by 1400. Outdoor plays had come to be staged primarily during the spring and summer months, in large part because of favourable weather. Another important change was the abandonment of Latin in favour of the vernacular tongues. This change not only led to the substitution of spoken for chanted dialogue, it also made possible the use of laymen as actors.
With the vernacular drama came secular control over most aspects of production. In some areas, trade guilds became the principal producers of plays; on others, municipal authorities assumed control; in still others, special societies were formed to present religious dramas. While the church participated less and less in the actual process of production, its approval nevertheless continued to be necessary.
Under this arrangement, the medieval theatre flourished. From about 1350 to 1550 it steadily grew in complexity and technical proficiency.

Regardless of the type of stage, the basic approach to production was the same everywhere. First, the scenic conventions were those inherited from the church – a series of mansions abutting on a generalized acting area. Second, the script was composed of a series of playlets, each more or less complete in itself and connected with the others only because all were taken from the Bible or some other religious course; the order in which the playlets were performed was determined by the original source rather than by any causal relationship among them. Third, almost every production involved three planes of being – Heaven, Earth, and Hell – and all were frequently represented scenically. Fourth, the greatest attention was devoted to special effects, which were made convincingly realistic, perhaps out of fear of raising doubts about the miraculous events described in the Bible.
Costumes had to distinguish between the inhabitants of Heaven, Earth, and Hell. God, the angels, the saints, and certain biblical characters wore church garments, often with added accessories. Each of the saints and important biblical personages was also associated with a specific symbol. Since the audience was familiar with such visual symbolism, the mere display of an emblem served to identify the character. Secular, earthly characters wore the contemporary medieval garments appropriate to their ranks. The greatest imagination went into consuming the devils, who were usually fancifully conceived with wings, claws, beaks, horns, or tails.

For the medieval mind, earthly time and place were relatively unimportant. The historical period or geographical location of an event was insignificant when set against the framework of eternity. Consequently, no sense of history is found in medieval plays. Audiences were not offended when ancient Israelites were dressed in medieval garment, or when Old Testament characters referred to Christian saints.
The fluidity of time is also reflected in the structure of medieval cycles, in which a series of short plays dramatized biblical material, beginning with Creation and concluding with the Las Judgment. Seldom was any causal relationship established among plays or even among the incidents of a single day. For the medieval mind, Providence played a large part in human affairs, and events were thought to happen simply because God willed them.

Thus far, only church drama (often called liturgical drama) and cycle (or mystery) plays have been discussed. Actually, however, there are many kinds of medieval drama.
Morality plays flourished between 1400 and 1550. They are historically significant, whereas mystery plays treat biblical or saintly characters. The plays are allegories about the moral temptations that beset all men. The protagonist (usually called Mankind or Everyman) is advised and cajoled by personifications of good and evil, and is surrounded by such characters as Mercy, Good Deeds, Knowledge, Mischief, and Death.
During the 16th century the morality play was gradually securalized, and its former subjects were replaced by such new ones as the proper training of rules and the content of good education. Such changes moved the morality play increasingly toward a drama with completely secular subject matter and human characters. Since morality plays came to be performed by small professional troupes, they pointed toward the establishment of a secular and professional stage.

In addition to religious and didactic plays, there were a number of secular dramatic forms in the Middle Ages, of which the farce is probably the most interesting and important. It was especially well developed in France, although it also had important exponent in England. The farce is lacking in religious or didactic elements, and shows, rather, the ridiculous depravity of man.
Another dramatic form is the secular interlude, a nonreligious serious or comic play. It began to appear near the end of the 15th century, and was performed by travelling players or by troupes employed by noblemen. Such plays were probably called interludes because they were performed between the parts of a celebration. In the 16th century, the secular interlude was not always distinguished from the morality play or the farce. All eventually merged in Renaissance drama.

Many factors account for the decline of medieval drama. First, the increasing interest in classical learning introduced many new concepts which affected in the next staging plays. Second, changes in the social structure gradually destroyed the feudal and corporate life which had encouraged such community projects as the presentation of cycle plays. Third, and perhaps most decisive, dissension within the church led to the prohibition of religious plays both in England and on the Continent. Religious strife caused Elizabeth I to forbid religious plays when she came to the throne in 1558, and after this date they were gradually suppressed. As a result, the drama of the Middle Ages had by the late 16th century ceased to be a vital force.
In the long run, perhaps the most significant change is to be seen in the relationship between the theatre and society, in Greece, Rome, and Medieval Europe the theatre enjoyed the active support of governmental and religious groups. Essentially it had been a community offering used to celebrate special events considered significant to all. Beginning in the 16th century, however, the theatre ceased to have religious and civic function, and henceforth it had to justify itself on purely commercial or artistic groups. Thus, at the end of the medieval period, the theatre began a new phase of its existence.


Even before the medieval theatre had ceased to be productive, the impact of the Renaissance had begun to transform dramatic practice in Western Europe. Although the Renaissance was felt earliest and most fully in Italy, developments in England will be treated first because the English theatre between 1550 and 1650 drew more extensively on the medieval than on the Renaissance heritage and consequently mark a transition away from rather than – as in Italy – a sharp break with the past. During this time, England reached a peak of creativity unmatched in the history of the theatre.

Although by the 15th century there were wandering players in England, actors (if they had no other profession) were, according to the laws of the time, vagrants and rogues. Those troupes attached to the households of nobles were exempted from this category because they were classified as servants rather than actors.
Acting was first recognized as a legal profession in England in the 1570s when the Master of Revels (a court official) was assigned the duties of examining all plays and licensing all acting companies, thus placing the English theatre directly under the control of the central government. To receive a license under this arrangement, a troupe had to be under the patronage of a nobleman, equipped with this protection and a license from the Master of Revels, a company had a clear legal right to perform.
Unlike the aristocracy, who encouraged it, the merchant class viewed the theatre with distrust. Many believed that it took people away from their jobs and thereby interfered with honest pursuits and that plays encouraged immorality. The powerful town councils, largely composed of middle-class tradesmen, were for the most part opposed to professional theatrical activities of any kind. It was in London, where the theatre was centered, that local officials raised the most strenuous objections. Consequently, when theatres were built (first in 1576), their owners located them just outside the city limits in order to escape the jurisdiction of the London council. Despite all opposition, by the1580s there were always at least two companies playing in or around London as frequently more.

The drama that emerged in the late 1580s may be traced to many influences, among them schools and universities, the Inns of Court, and the popular theatre.
The revival of interest in classical learning that had begun in Italy in the 15th century soon reached England, where by the early 16th century plays were being studied and produced in schools and universities. Some of the best early plays of the English Renaissance were written and produced in the schools.
The Inns of Court – combined residence and training centers for lawyers – were a second influence to the development of Elizabethan drama. Like the schools, the Inns of Court produced plays for themselves and important guests. But Elizabethan drama probably owes its greatest debt to medieval drama and to the interludes produced by professional troupes in the 16th century. The latter plays were a bizarre mixture of elements drawn from earlier native drama and often from the new classical learning as well. It was out of these combined influences that a new drama emerged between 1585 and 1642.

Before considering how the dramatists of Shakespeare’s age built on the work of their predecessors, it will be helpful to examine the physical theatre and staging conventions in use between 1585 and 1642.
Two kinds of theatre buildings – open-air structures and indoor hall – were in use during Shakespeare’s career. The former are often referres to as ‘public’ and the latter as ‘rpivate.’ In actuality, bith were public in the sense that they were open to anyone willing to pay admission, but ‘private’ were smaller , charged higher admission fees, and played to a more select audience.
At least nine public-playhouses were built before 1615. Of these, the most important were The Theatre (1576), The Globe (1599), and The Fortune (1600). All were built outside the city limits, either in the northern suburbs or on the south bank of the Thames River. The theatres varied in size, but the most elaborate seated from two to three thousand spectators. They were of differing shapes: round, square, octagonal. Typically, they were laid out in this manner: a large central unroofed space, called the pit or yard, was enclosed by three tiers of roofed galleries. At the entrance to the theatre each person paid the same admission price. This entitled him to stand in the yard; if he wished to sit, he paid an additional fee and was admitted to the galleries. At least one gallery had some private boxes, or ‘Lords’ rooms,’ the use of which required still another fee.
In basic features, the private theatres differ little from the public ones. Roofed and restricted in size, their seating capacities were only about one-fourth to one-half of that of the outdoor theatres. All spectators were seated – in the pit, galleries, or in private boxes.

By the time Shakespeare began to write for the stage around 1590, several competent and successful dramatists had appeared. Thomas Kyd (1558-1594), after studying Roman drama as a student, won unprecedented fame with the The Spanish Tragedy (c.1587), the most popular play of the age. Kyd’s drama shows the influence of Seneca in its sensational subject, the motive of revenge, and the use of ghosts. Perhaps most important, Kyd showed his successors how to construct striking situations, startling reversals, and suspenseful plots.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), educated at Cambridge University, is noted especially for Doctor Faustus and Edward II. His principal contributions to Elizabethan playwriting are the perfection of blank verse and the organization of plays around one strong character whose motives are explored thoroughly. Marlowe also helped to develop the history play.
John Lyly (1554-1606) is noted principally for his prose comedies, written in an elegant and sophisticated style on themes taken from mythology. The plays have pastoral settings – a kind of ‘never-never land’ where everything is delicate and graceful.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is generally conceded to be the greatest of Elizabethan dramatists. Little is known of his early life, but by 1590 he seems to have been established in London, and by 1595 was a shareholder and actor in the Lord Chamberlain’s company (later the King’s Men).
Shakespeare began writing plays around 1590 and completed about 38. Like most of his contemporaries, Shakespeare borrowed much from novels, older plays, history, mythology, and other sources. His plays have been divided into three groups: histories, comedies, and tragedies. In the first he dealt with the English past, especially the period of the Wars of the Roses. The histories show his skill at reducing large masses of material to the demands of the stage. His comedies represent a wide range of types. The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Merry wives of Windsor emphasize farce; A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A You Like It, and Twelfth Night are romantic comedies; All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida are plays so nearly serious that they are frequently termed dark comedies. But it was in tragedy that Shakespeare displayed his greatest genius.

Although the theatre was a thriving institution and was encouraged by the royal family, Puritan opposition to it grew throughout the first part of the 17th century. In 1642, civil war was used as an excuse for closing all theatres. They were not to be reopened until Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. Although there were surreptitious performances during the Commonwealth, the English theatre was virtually nonexistent during these years. When it was revived in 1660, it bore little resemblance to the theatre of Shakespeare, for it then embraced Italian staging ideals and the neoclassical mode


During the 18th century, the theatre extended and consolidated the trends that had begun during the Renaissance. Throughout this century, the neoclassical ideal remained dominant, although its authority was challenged by a number of innovations and minor forms. The theatre also continued to gain in prestige and to expand into new territories. Overall, the primary goal apparently was to maintain the standards and conventions that had developed during the preceding century.

Charles II was restored to the throne of England in 1660 and with him the theatre regained its place in English life. At that time it was made illegal for anyone to produce plays without a patent from the government. In the early 1660s, the king issued two patents and these remained in effect thereafter.
During the first part of the 18th century many attempts were made to circumvent the patents, and eventually the violations, coupled with numerous satirical productions about government officials, provoked the passage of the Licensing Act of 1737. This law reconfirmed the patents and further provided that, prior to production, each play had to be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain (a government official), who thus became the censor of all works intended for the stage. From 1737 until 1843 only two theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, were permitted to produce regular drama throughout the year. The patents were finally rescinded in 1843, but the provisions for licensing plays continued until 1968.

Soon after the English theatre reopened in 1660 new playhouses, incorporating Italianate features, were built. The major difference between English and continental theatres involved the apron (or forestage); continental theatres had aprons but not proscenium doors (that is, doors opening onto the apron). In England during the late 17th century, there were two proscenium doors on each side of the stage. This permitted great flexibility in staging, for an actor might exist through one door and reenter immediately at another door on the same side, thus indicating a change in place or lapse of time.
During the 18th century, the number of doors on either side was reduced to one and the depth of the apron gradually diminished, but both features were retained well into the 19th century. Because in the 18th century much of the action took place on the apron, the setting was principally a background rather than an environment for the actor, who performed, for the most part, forward of the proscenium where he could more easily establish rapport with the audience.
Scenery in the English theatre between 1660 and 1800 differed in no important respect from that then being used in Italy and France. Scenes were painted in perspective on wings, borders, and backdrops. Since settings were generalized in accordance with the neoclassical demand for universality, a large number was not needed, and the same setting was used for many different plays. Pantomimes, operas, and a few plays, however, demanded more detailed scenery and elaborate special effects. In these cases, new scenery was specially designed and widely advertised.
Typically, in the English theatre of the 18th century an actor was hired for one or two years at a specified salary with the additional guarantee of a ‘benefit.’ While a benefit usually brought the actor additional income, it also offered the manager an excuse for paying him a relatively small salary during the rest of the year. Each actor or actress (actresses were introduced to the English stage in the 1660s and were accepted throughout Europe after that time) was usually employed for a line of business (that is, a limited range of parts). An actor learned through experience. As a beginner, he explored lines of business while playing supernumerary roles and after a few years he had usually found his line, which was the one he followed for the rest of his career. Each actor also possessed parts. This meant that once he was assigned a role, it remained his until he left the company. An actor might posses up to a hundred roles, any one of which he could be expected to perform on twenty-four hours’ notice.
Actors often played more than one role on the same evening because the program was so long and complex. After 1720, a typical evening’s bill was arranged as follows: first, there was orchestral music; then came the prologue, followed by a full-length play; the intervals between the acts were filled with variety entertainment; following the main piece, and afterpiece (a pantomime, farce, or comic opera) was performed; the evening usually concluded with a song and dance. An actor often appeared in both the main piece and the afterpiece, and he might present one of the variety acts as well.

The actor’s position was more secure than that of the playwright. In the Restoration, writers might be employed by companies on a fixed salary, but this practice was soon replaced by benefits. Under this system, the author received the receipts of the third performance. If a play were especially popular he might also receive benefits on each additional third night of the initial run, although he was fortunate to receive one benefit. After the initial run, the play belonged to the company and the author received no further payment.
The period from 1660 to 1700 is noted particularly for heroic tragedy and the comedy of manners. The heroic play, written in rhymed couplets, usually concerned the necessity of choosing between love and honor and abounded in violent action and startling reversals.

During the 18th century the most important dramatic types were to be sentimental comedy and domestic tragedy. The term sentimental indicates an overemphasis on arousing sympathetic response to misfortune. Even comedy became preoccupied with the ordeals of sympathetic characters, and humorous scenes were reserved for minor characters, usually servants. Many plays could be called comedies only because they ended happily. The express aim of the dramatist was to draw forth a smile and a tear, or, as one writer put it, to produce ‘a pleasure too exquisite for laughter.’
Sentimental comedy had its serious counterpart in domestic tragedy, which deliberately avoided the kings and nobility of traditional tragedy and chose its characters principally from the merchant class. It usually painted the horrible outcome of giving in to sin, just as sentimental comedy showed the rewards of resisting sin.
Sentimental comedy and domestic tragedy are indicative of the weakening of neoclassical standards. Each represents a considerable departure from the ‘pure’ dramatic forms demanded by critics, for they mingled elements formerly associated wholly with comedy or tragedy.

The theatre first gained a foothold in America during the time it was still a collection of English colonies. Therefore, the American theatre began as an extension of the English, from which practically all of its personnel came. Although there had been sporadic theatrical activity in America during the 17th century, it was not until 1752, when Lewis Hallam brought a company of actors to the colonies, that the professional theatre began to make an impact. Playing first in Virginia, Hallam’s company went on to perform up and down the Atlantic seaboard.
During the Revolutionary War theatrical activities were suspended but were revived in the 1780s; by the end of the century they were well established from Charleston, South Caroline, to Boston. Despite its newly won independence, however, the American theatre continues to take its standards from England and it would be many years before a strong native tradition would emerge.


By the beginning of the nineteenth century, a number of forces were combining to break the hold of neoclassicism and to create what is now called romanticism, a movement that flourished between 1800 and 1850. The 19th century also saw melodrama emerge as the most popular dramatic form and spectacle become ever more realistic. During this period, the theatre was the major source of popular entertainment for all classes throughout the Western World.

Most of the ideas that shaped romanticism had come to the fore during the 18th century as faith in reason, which undergirded neoclassicism, was gradually replaced by trust in natural instinct. In addition the rise of the middle class prompted a reconsideration of the class structure under which the majority of subservient to the nobility.
Equally important, the earlier belief that truth is to be defined in terms of ‘norms’ gradually gave way to the conviction that truth can only be discovered in the infinite variety of creation. According to the romanticists, the universe has been created by God out of himself to that he may contemplate himself. Therefore, everything in existence has a common origin and is a part of everything else. To know ultimate truth, then, one must include as much of creation as possible.
Since all creation has a common origin, however, a thorough and perceptive examination of any part may provide insight into the whole. Thus nature (forests, mountains, and so on) reflects something of man, just as man reflects nature. This view helps to explain why romantic writers show a marked preference for poetry about nature and for drama about unspoiled man living in primitive times or in rebellion against the restraints imposed by society.
With the coming of romanticism, the neoclassical doctrine of verisimilitude was firmly rejected. Whereas neoclassicism had sought to eliminate everything that could not logically happen in real life, romanticism tended to emphasize the supernatural and mysterious as essential parts of existence. Thus ghosts and witches, prophecies and curses, coincidence and Providence abound in dramas. Subjects also were chosen from many sources previously ignored, and Greek myths gave way to medieval tales, national or local legends, and stories about folk heroes or rebellious against social or moral codes. There were used to embody themes showing man’s attempts to achieve freedom, to find peace of mind or the secret of all being. This fusion of new forms, subjects, themes, and techniques create drama quite unlike that of the neoclassical age.

Even as romantic drama was developing, melodrama was also emerging; it was eventually to become to most popular form of the 19th century and to hold the stage long after Romantic Movement had ended. The term melodrama means a combination of music and drama, and throughout the 19th century a musical score accompanied the action as it does today in movies.
Until the 1820s, the majority of melodramas were rather exotic, either because they were set in some remote time or place or because they featured the supernatural or unusual. In the 1820a, the form took a new turn, however, with the increased use of familiar backgrounds and subject matter. In the 1830s, melodrama began to acquire a more elevated tone. By 1840, melodrama was attracting playgoers of all ranks and had clearly become the most popular of all dramatic forms. The most popular melodrama of the 19th century was the American play Uncle Tom’s Cabin, based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel published in 1852.

The 18th century had seen the middle classes flock to the theatre, and to this group the 19th century added the lower classes. A number of factors – among them the industrial revolution (with greatly enlarged the urban population), the expansion of public education, the belief in democracy and equality – served to bring into the theatre many persons who had not previously attended.
The increased demand for theatrical entertainment was met in several ways. First, the number of theatres grew significantly. Second, theatre auditoriums were enlarged to hold more spectators. Third, most theatres enlarged the range of entertainment so as to appeal to as wide range of tastes as possible. Sometimes two full-length plays, plus numerous variety acts, were offered during the same evening on a program that lasted 5 to 6 hours.
After mid-century, the situation began to change. First, regular drama and variety acts were separated and theatres came so specialize in one kind of entertainment. Second, as theatres began to specialize, the evening’s bill became less complex. Theatres offering drama turned more and more to a single play as the sole attraction and the length of performances changed correspondingly to no more than 2 to 3 hours. Third, changes in programming led to alterations in the auditorium. After 1860 there was a trend toward smaller houses. Seating patterns were also altered as the orchestra (rather than the boxes) became the favorite place to sit. This change was brought about by 2 factors: an increase in democratic sentiment, which made the mingling of classes more acceptable than when the box, pit, and gallery had originated; and the trend toward homogeneity within each audience, which was encouraged by programming that limited each audience to those with similar tastes.

The 19th century brought great improvements in the playwright’s financial position, and the royalty system of paying authors had been adopted almost universally by the last quarter of the century. The first copyright law designed to give the dramatist control over the production of his plays was passed in France in 1791. in England, a similar law was enacted in 1833. Such laws, however, could not insure the dramatist’s rights beyond the boundaries of his own country. Thus, an American might produce a French play without paying its author any fee, or he might translate it and claim it as his own. More effective protection came after 1887, when under the provisions of an international copyright agreement all countries subscribing to it promised to protect the rights of foreign as well as native authors. With rare exceptions, playwrights throughout the world had been accorded legal protection by 1900.
Typically, the culmination of one trend signals the beginning of another. And so it was in the 19th century, for romantic drama, melodrama, and illusionistic spectacle laid the groundwork for realism, a movement usually said to mark the beginning of the modern theatre.

[1] The neoclassic dramatists were primary concerned with a number of basic issues: verisimilitude (or the appearance of truth with 3 basic concepts: reality, morality, and generality or abstraction); purity of dramatic types (tragic and comedy); the five-act form; decorum (it is most easily seen at the work in characterization. Each age group, rank, profession, and sex was thought to have its own essence, and the dramatist was expected to remain true to these norms in creating each of his characters); the purposes of drama (to teach and to please); and the three unities (action, time, and place).

Compiled from:
The Essential Theatre by Oscar G. Brockett

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