A History of Theatre: Restored to Glory


Under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, theatrical performances had been banned for fear of plays inciting rebellion against the new system. With the Restoration of the monarchy, however, the popularity of the theatre quickly returned. King Charles II himself issued patents to two theatre companies in London, Davenant and Killigrew, and soon further permanent theatres were erected in Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

Influenced by theatres that had been built in Europe, the standard open-air theatre structure that had been favoured in Britain was replaced by roofed buildings with stages for changeable scenery, that could be slid into position using grooves in the floor. Space in the roof was made so that scenery could be raised and lowered onto the stage from above via pulleys, and for the first time actors had rooms in which to change their costumes.

By the eighteenth century, theatre was taken so seriously that in 1737 The Licensing Act tightened censorship of drama, placing it under the control of the Lord Chamberlain. This meant that only patent theatres were able to perform drama. This became known as legitimate theatre. Non-patent theatres outside of this could only perform melodrama, pantomime, ballet, opera and music hall. As these performances were not subject to the Licensing Act, they were much cheaper to attend, and quickly became the entertainment of choice for much of the population, while the legitimate theatre became the reserve of the wealthy.

A series of royal patents were granted by the Lord Chamberlain to cities outside London. These became known as Theatres Royal, such as the Theatre Royal Bath, many of which are still in use today.

In the eighteenth century companies of players came together and began to travel on regular circuits between market towns where, much like their medieval predecessors, they set up their own theatres, which they called playhouses.

These playhouses used basic sets, with foldable scenery which made touring easier. Hundreds of these simple, rectangular playhouses, with the cast performing in the centre of the room and the audience on chairs around them, were erected across Britain to help meet the continually growing demand for public entertainment.

Theatre had risen back to prominence once more. And we will have one last article on its story soon.

 

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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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