A History of Theatre (2): A Rise and Fall of the Curtain


When Britain was engulfed by the Roman Empire, the Romans bought many elements of their culture with them, including the theatre. Therefore the first buildings used for theatrical performances in Britain were Roman amphitheatres.

When the Romans left Britain, their amphitheatres slowly feel into disuse, but a love of stories never went away. Balladeers and mummers, actors who travelled from town to town acting out myths, legends and Bible stories, continued to work throughout the Dark Ages.

In the Medieval period, the theatre made a slow resurgence. Although they did not build permanent theatres, when plays were being presented, great halls, barns and open courtyards would be elaborately decorated for the purpose.

The popularity of storytelling with actors continued to grow throughout the middle ages and on into the Tudor period. King Henry VIII’s love of theatrical performances is well documented, and he occasionally acted within courtly plays himself. It wasn’t until Queen Elizabeth I took the throne however, that more permanent theatres began to appear across the country. These timber-framed open-air theatres, such as the Globe in London, were multi-sided buildings, with a covered platform stage against one side. The audience could sit or stand in covered galleries around the remaining sides or in the open courtyard.

Alongside the appearance of solid theatrical buildings came a growth in the number of playwrights, who’d provide work for actors to perform. Going to the theatre became popular very quickly once theatres became permanent structures, so new plays were in constant demand. It was in this environment that William Shakespeare (above) made his name as the foremost playwright in England.

With numbers of skilled men acting out both the male and female roles and the quality of the plays improving, there came a move away from religious tales and traditional folk stories, and interest in theatre increased even further during the Stuart period. Like the Ancient Greeks hundreds of years before them, many rich Stuart courtiers and aristocrats sponsored plays, and some hosted touring theatrical productions in their homes.

In 1642, however, going to the theatre became impossible. After the execution of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell controlled England, and banned all theatrical performances, fearing they would encourage civil unrest. Every theatre closed and many were demolished. It wouldn’t be until the Restoration of the monarchy that the theatre would return.

To be continued…

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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