A History of Theatre: Through Industry and War and on to Today

And so, we reach the final curtain of this series…

By the end of the eighteenth century most cities had their own theatres. However as the nineteenth century began, it appeared that the heyday of the theatre could be over. Success suddenly brought failure. It was as a result of so many theatres being in competition with each other, that there were now not enough actors or production companies to go around, and standards began to fall. Coinciding with this came a decline in the country’s economy, and theatre attendances dropped. As a result, the patronage by the upper and middle classes that theatres relied on also began to fall. Many were forced to close their doors.

It wasn’t just the city theatres that were going into decline. With the Industrial Revolution taking so many people from the country into the cities, rural theatres began to fall in disuse. But, by contrast, as urban centres became more populated and people worked hard for long hours, they needed entertainment more than ever. In these districts there was a significant increase in non-legitimate theatre building. The number of these new theatres was so great that in 1843, the Theatres Act removed the patent monopoly and allowed all theatres to present drama.

One of the most significant changes to the theatre at this time was that, for the first time, alcohol was allowed to be consumed within the theatre. This led to the growth of variety entertainment, which became known as music hall. Supper rooms were built onto public houses which could sell alcohol and serve meals during these productions, which showed a number of acts during the evening, rather than one play.

The music hall was so popular that new theatres were built with boxes, in which the rich would pay to sit away from the lower classes. By the middle of the nineteenth century theatre building was once again becoming popular, and they were being constructed on a grander scale than ever, with bars, restaurants, and more luxurious social areas. It was hoped to make theatre respectable again, after the commonality of the musical halls.

So that everyone could afford to go to the theatre however, they had to divide the seating in the theatre into different price brackets for the different classes. This was achieved by having separate entrances for the well off, with richly decorated seating areas, while the middle classes bought cheaper seats which were set at the side or towards the rear with less grand staircases and public areas. Then, the lower classes had a benched pit at the very back of the theatre, often high up, in the area often referred to as the “Gods.”

In the larger towns and cities the theatres of the Victorian period, a number of innovations impacted upon theatre design even further. With technology advancing all the time, the opportunity to have better and safer lighting came, and candles were replaced with gas lamps, and then later with electric lights. Electricity provided more artistic opportunities, and by the end of the period, lighting was being used for theatrical effect for the first time.

With the risk of fire in public places becoming more of a concern throughout the country, new laws were passed to make sure that theatres were redesigned using far less wood, and with more space between seats to make it easier to evacuate them quickly in the event of fire. This law was badly needed, for in the 1880’s the average life of theatres was just twenty years, owing to their risk of burning down.

During the First and Second World Wars, theatres were largely left un-used, except when shows were put on to keep morale high, and assist the war effort. By the 1950’s however, the theatre was as popular as it had been in the Victorian era.

In the modern age, going to the theatre remains extremely popular. The option to enjoy plays, musicals and variety acts increases every year. From its early beginnings in Ancient Greece, when productions were held in a few amphitheatres and temples, the theatre has survived, developed and grown, so that now, in the twenty-first century, we not only have theatres, regional theatres, and touring groups, but also school, college and university drama groups, as well as amateur dramatic societies.




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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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