The earliest forms of theatre in Britain were the religious ritual performances of the native Britons.
The first theatre in Britain that we may recognize as such was that of the Romans. While we know a great deal about the Roman theatre its effect on Britain seems to have been limited – theatres were small and not particularly numerous (and may have been used for sports, gladiatorial contests and other mass spectacle entertainments more than for classical theatre). The ruins of a Roman Theatre in St. Albans still remain as a tourist attraction in Britain today.
After the Roman pull out the chief performances in Britain came from travelling bards, or Scops, who provided entertainment to crowds at feasts, at events, or in nobles’ courts, usually in the form of epic poetry. Caedmon’s Hymn and the saga of Beowulf are two of the very few surviving stories that were performed during that time. Organized theatrical performance would soon supplant the Scops, thanks in large part to the spread of Christianity and the rise of the trade guilds in British towns.
In the churches the liturgy was increasingly dramatized throughout the Middle Ages, with the architecture of the Churches themselves being used to great effect, with choirs of “angels” being flown in from the lofts and other spectacular special effects. Soon plays like “Everyman” were being written by anonymous priests who recognized the power theatre had to convey the Church’s teachings to the masses.
And though the church dramas played an important role in nurturing mediaeval drama (and a very important role in developing the playwriting talents of the clergy) a much more immediate and visceral theatre was being forged outside of the churches in the mediaeval towns, in the form of the Cycle Plays.
The Cycle Plays were given at the feast of Corpus Christi, and were performed on wagons that could be pulled to several different stations throughout a town. Over 40 individual plays could make up a cycle, with the shows beginning early in the morning and ending as darkness fell. The plays were anonymously written (probably by clergymen) and were dramatizations of the major events of the Bible. After the Cycle Plays waned in the later Middle Ages the wagon-based performances remained, with troupes of actors travelling from town to town performing in courtyards, taverns and wherever else they could secure a paying audience.These travelling players were likely the first taste of live theatre for a young boy from Stratford-upon-Avon named William Shakespeare.
The years between Shakespeare arriving in London up until the closing of the theatres in 1642 can easily be called the Golden Age of British drama, for Shakespeare and his contemporaries composed a body of work during that time unequalled in British (and arguable world) theatrical tradition.
The plays of the English Renaissance are unrivalled in their rhetorical might. They are, at their best, compelling stories of individual struggle and grand national narratives.
But in 1642 the Puritans banned all theatrical performances in the heat of misguided religious fundamentalism. Until the Restoration in 1660 theatre went underground, performed in secret and devolving into less sophisticated entertainments.
There is comparatively little written about the British theatre of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries for good reason – next to the Renaissance what came after is of vastly inferior quality, almost always concerned with financial success more than any artistic, aesthetic or literary merit. There are exceptions – Sheridan was a playwright of some note, and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera a seminal moment in the birth of British musical theatre. But no one could even come close to rivalling Shakespeare until the last years of the 19th century, with the arrival of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. His plays are too polemical to...