As well-known as Broadway is to American Theater, the West End is the heart of London’s vibrant drama scene. On the other side of the Thames River, you can find the recreated Shakespeare’s Globe that pays homage to the city’s history with the creative arts. And while a place such as the Globe honors London theater today, it also calls to mind that theater was not always welcome within the city limits. Read on as we briefly cover the history of London theater from its early days to the present and its sometimes-rocky path to becoming beloved.
British Drama got its starts during the Middle Ages as a way to bring Biblical stories to the illiterate masses. These “miracle” and “mystery” plays brought to life events from the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, and the lives of the saints, either within the church itself or by small companies that toured from town to town. This way of life for England’s earliest actors during the Tudor Period when King Henry VIII made it law requiring performers to possess a royal license or be associated with a noble family. Thus, many lords and royals became patrons, and while some companies such as Leicester’s Men (for the Earl of Leicester) still toured, others took root as the first purpose-built theaters were constructed.
James Burbage built the first permanent theater in 1575 in Shoreditch. Known simply as “The Theater,” it came to be after the City of London barred all performers from the city as a response to the Plague. Other theaters built around the same time due to this banishment included the Newington Butts Theater and The Curtain Theater. Burbage’s Theater became the first permanent home of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and, as such, saw the first plays by William Shakespeare. They would eventually move to The Globe after its construction in 1599.
When The Globe burned down in 1613, it was an ill omen for London theater in the 17th Century. Following the execution of King Charles I and the rise of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, Parliament banned all theaters in 1642. Theater returned with the monarchy in 1660, and King Charles II issued the first Letters Patent. This act led to the construction of a new group of theaters, including the Theater Royal, the current building designed by Christopher Wren in 1674. It was followed by a host of other new theaters as the public’s love of theater grew.
About the time that the Royal Opera House was finished in 1732, new satire plays met with such distaste from Prime Minister Robert Walpole that he passed the Licensing Act 1737. This piece of legislation had a devastating effect on London theater by restricting what plays could be performed, especially banning satire directed at the government. Restrictive laws limited not only what could be performed but where it could be performed, and most plays were regulated to the Theater Royal Drury Lane and Theater Royal Covent Garden, which focused almost entirely on the classics.
Despite the restrictions that continued into the 20th Century, new theaters and plays hit London during the Victorian period, including the Lyric Theater, Garrick Theater, and the Apollo Theater. In some parts of the city, melodrama and burlesque grew in popularity due to flying under the radar of the Licensing Act, with the act’s restrictions being heavily scaled back by the Theaters Act 1843. In 1896 ushered in a new era for London theater with the first performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
The growth of theater into the 20th Century was limited first by the Great Depression and then World War II. In the postwar era, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap opened at St. Martin’s Theater and became the longest-running production in London’s history, beginning in 1952 and running non-stop until the COVID-19 pandemic closed theaters in 2020. Today, the West End and other theaters throughout London are getting back on their feet in the midst of this most recent setback and are ready to bring plays, musicals, and other performances back to the lives of Londoners and tourists alike.