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The Show Must Go On: A Brief History of the Theatre in London

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Theatre was introduced in Britain by the Romans and has been a part of British society ever since. Being the capital, London was no exception to the theatre’s involvement in daily life. From the earliest days of traveling troops to the modern West End, theatre has always had a role to play in London. Sure, it has been through dark times, bans, controversy, and more, but one has to wonder what theatre would be like if it wasn’t dramatic. Have a look at the history of the dramatic arts in one of the world’s finest cities.

Romans brought drama to England with them in the 1st Century when they settled the area that became known as Londinium. Their own brand of theatre had been influenced by the Greeks, and so they established an amphitheatre as part of the settlement. These structures had at their base a semi-circular stage with raised bank seating, first made of wood and then stone. However, with the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain the theatre went with it.

However, with the advance of Christianity into Britain and into medieval times, the theatre took on a decidedly Christian emphasis, with many of the performances either mystery plays, morality plays, or miracle plays. Mystery plays acted out scenes from the Bible, including retelling the story of Jesus. Morality plays, meanwhile, were meant to teach moral lessons to the people in an effort to show them how to get to heaven. Miracle plays tended to retell the lives of saints and how they benefitted people through good works. Stages for these productions might be wagons and the players could be members of the local tradesmen guild, each one performing a play related to their profession, such as the carpenters perhaps performing Noah’s Ark while the pinners (nail makers) performing the crucifixion.

The role of the church in theatre largely died out with the rise of King Henry VIII and the English Reformation. However, Henry saw a role in the theatre as a form of entertainment for himself, his courtiers, and visiting dignitaries. With the encouragement of the crown and continuing into Elizabeth I’s reign, theatre troupes became a popular form of entertainment and several performance halls were established within the City of London.

However, theatre of the 16th Century wasn’t exactly as reputable as it was now. Performance halls tended to attract mostly the lower classes and were also used for animal baiting, gambling, and other purposes that the church and upper classes found immoral. The complaints grew until in 1596, officials from the City of London banned the public presentation of plays with the city limits. As such, many of the theatre troupes moved their operations across the river to modern-day Shoreditch and Hackney, outside the reach of local government. Theatres such as the Red Lion, the aptly-named “The Theatre”, and the Globe became prominent.

By 1642, the English Civil War was on and theatres were temporarily closed to prevent public disorder. With the victory of Cromwell and the Puritans, the theatres remained closed and those actors caught putting on performances were subsequently arrested. Following the Restoration, theatres returned to popularity along with other activities that had been banned during Cromwell’s tenure. It was also during the Restoration that the first female professional playwrights and actors began to appear. Prior to this, all writers and actors had been men, often with younger men and teenagers taking on the female roles.

Later, in the 18th Century, Shakespeare received something of a revival in popularity and his works were retooled not only to clean up any issues with uneven verse lines, but editors such as Nicholas Rowe added act and scene divisions as well as entrances and exits for the characters. The first theatre dedicated to Shakespeare was built in his hometown of Stratford-on-Avon.

In the 19th Century, theatres creeped their way back into the city proper first through music halls and after the Theatres Act of 1843, each local authority was able to issue permits for theatres as they saw fit. Playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde rose to prominence in the latter half of the century and theatre was once again a part of daily life and entertainment in London. It was also during this time that many theatres began to open in London’s West End, transforming the area into the entertainment district that it is today.

As we find ourselves firmly in the 21st Century, theatre remains a major centerpiece of London entertainment, with at least forty-eight theatres offering seasonal and year-round productions. Across the Thames, Shakespeare’s Globe has been rebuilt not far from where it stood originally, serving as both a museum for the Bard and a performance house for his plays, offering audiences a chance to experience the theatre as it was during Shakespeare’s life. Whether you choose to see Britain’s longest-running play, Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap”, one of Shakespeare’s famous works, or newer works such as The Book of Morman, you can always find entertainment in London’s theatres.

John Rabon
Author: John Rabon

John is a regular writer for Anglotopia and its sister websites. He is currently engaged in finding a way to move books slightly to the left without the embarrassment of being walked in on by Eddie Izzard. For any comments, questions, or complaints, please contact the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson's haircut.

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  1. Love the theatre in London and in Stratford-upon-Avon! The Globe in London allows the audience to feel the theatre as it was in Shakespeare’s day – an excellent, interactive experience!

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