This time of year is famous for pantomimes and performances of the Nutcracker, so we thought we would take a dive into the history of British theatre, which has been a staple in entertainment since the medieval era.

Did you know the earliest theatres were churches?

While some of us might consider a trip to the theatre to be a religious experience, you probably didn’t consider enjoying the same sort of entertainment in a church. Well, in Britain, theatre originated in the middle ages which was a period heavily influenced by religion and as such, churches at the time would put on plays of the bible stories in order to teach them to their parishioners. At the time, the public were largely illiterate and the bible was only published in Latin, while the plays were performed in English, allowing them to be accessed by as many people as possible. Some churches would even take the show on the road and perform in tours that travelled around the parish! It would take 200 years before the first recognisable theatre would be built!

The Reformation

During the Reformation, religious plays were suppressed but the public had grown to enjoy them so more secular performances started becoming more popular and acting became a real profession for the first time. This was the time when theatre as we know it now really began, though there were some very strict rules in place, for instance, only men were allowed to act professionally and young boys were employed to play any female roles. Other rules included all actors having to be part of a company and each company had to be sponsored by a nobleman. Only with these in place could actors be given a licence to rehearse and perform.

The first Theatre

The first purpose built theatre was rather creatively titled The Theatre (no mistaking what it could be with a name like that we suppose) in 1576 by the Leicester’s Men. The Leicester’s Man were a theatre company patronised by the Earl of Leicester. While you might have expected their theatre to be in Leicester, it was actually built in London.

Outside performances

In the years after The Theatre was built, seventeen public theatres were created and all of them followed the same general style – a circle with an open courtyard. The audience would then surround the stage on three sides to mimic the way they would have done during early outdoor performances. During this time, plays would be staged in the afternoon to make use of the natural light. Sadly, all these original theatres have been lost to time, but to see what they once looked like, visit Shakespeare’s Globe in London, which was recreated in the original Tudor style.

Performances for the poor, Masques for the monarch

While modern theatre was designed for commoners to enjoy, there obviously had to be a way that royals could enjoy theatre without feeling like they were going below their station. To this end, Court Masques were invented and became popular throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries purely for the rich and noble folk. Places like Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace were specifically built for the monarchy.

Did you know the civil war saw a theatre shut down?

The English Civil War broke out in 1642 and saw the abolition of the monarchy, a plan to ban Christmas and the closure of all theatres. Theatres remained closed for eighteen years and performances were considered to be illegal. Public theatres were destroyed and it wasn’t until the Restoration that it returned to everyday life.

After Charles II became king, women were finally free to work in the industry and both actresses and female playwrights began working. Despite theatres being reopened, a royal patent was required to do so, which led to just two theatre makers dominating London. One of them, Thomas Killigrew founded the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane which is London’s oldest surviving theatre.

Later, Prime Minister Robert Walpole would pass an act restriction the production of plays to the theatres at Drury Lane and Covent Garden and each play had to be vetted by the Lord Chamberlain before it was allowed to be performed, due to an increase in satire that painted royalty and politicians in a bad light.

Do you know the Theatre Royal? The one on Drury Lane?

As London’s oldest surviving theatre, the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane is one of the most fascinating places to watch a performance. When it was first built, the entire building was the size of the stage today. Some of the most famous actors of the Restoration period performed there including Thomas Betterton who played the role of Hamlet pretty much for his entire life. Another fascinating story from the Theatre Royal’s history is that it was the site of a murder – the actor Charles Macklin murdered his co-star Thomas Hallam in the theatre’s green room! The pair were appearing in a farce called Trick for Trick and apparently, Hallam put on Macklin’s wig resulting in an altercation. Macklin jabbed Hallam with a walking stick which went through his eye and damaged his brain! Macklin was convicted of manslaughter and received a brand on the hand as punishment, it didn’t stop his acting career though, he continued to be one of the most popular actors of his generation and lived until he was 97!

The Prime Minister couldn’t stop the theatre

As we mentioned above, Robert Walpole brought in an act during his tenure as prime minister which limited play production and ensured that every performance was vetted. However, this act only applied to patented theatres, so non patent theatres started creating a new type of performance to take advantage of a loophole in the law. For instance, they would intersperse drama performances with musical interludes which they could then advertise as concerts instead.

The Licensing Act was dropped in 1843 but the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship remained until 1968.

Did you know, the oldest scenery can be found in London?

One of the joys of the theatre is how the stage is dressed to transport you to the scene. The oldest set of scenery remaining in Britain can be found at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, which dates back to 1818.
In the 1800s, theatre became less about the performances and more about the stage design which influenced the rise of special effects that can be seen in modern theatre.
By the early 20th century, trends had changed with theatres instead showcasing uncomfortable topics like class divides and social mobility. Social reformers started producing plays that challenged the mostly middle class and aristocratic audiences. In fact, the theatre had such a class divide in the early 20th century that there were separate doors for those who were occupying the cheap seats.

Access for all

The accessibility of theatre started to return in the late 20th century. A number of social groups like the Workers’ Theatre Movement started to campaign to make the theatre available to people of all social classes. One way that they did this was by promoting street theatre where performances could be viewed for free by ordinary people.

One of the most influential people in this movement was Lilian Baylis who believed that art should be for everyone and fundraised to rebuild Sadler’s Wells Theatre so that the people of North London could have the same access to those in the wealthier South London. Sadler’s Wells Theatre is now considered to be the home of dance in the UK, thanks to her. It is a reputation it has had since the 1930s when it started dedicating 8 months of the year to dance and ballet performances.

Wartime popularity

British theatre had a bit of a resurgence during WWII. It was at this point when the arts started to be viewed as an essential part of society. Soldiers would be treated to travelling performances and civilians would use performances to escape the drudgery of wartime life. The government established the Arts Council was established in 1946.

So now you know a little more about the history of the theatre, you can shout with gusto when you watch this year’s pantomime!




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