A History of British Theater – Part 1

A History of British Theater – Part 1


There is a certain jealousy among actors to those that have been classically taught. This jealousy often comes from the actors of Hollywood who have been selected for their roles because of physical attributes or beauty.

The term classically trained normally refers to those British actors that have attended RADA and undergone years of drama school to learn how to act. British theater has a rich history, able to boast with famous actors, like Laurence Olivier, and renowned playwrights, dating back as far as William Shakespeare.

Many people love an evening out at the theater, as it challenges and entertains. Seeing actors performing live is an art form, and no two performances are ever the same. The audience on one night will witness a unique performance that the audience the next night will not.

Theater in Britain today is for the everyday man, anybody can enjoy plays and live entertainment, but it was not always this way. In the beginning, theater was used by royalty and the church to spread ideas and policies to the populace.

Theater and Religion

Britain in the Middle Ages was a complex and rather disturbed place, there was much political upheaval and the church saw the opportunity of theater to distract a restless populace and a means of how to control them. So, theater back then was a form of religious spin doctoring.

The plays were in the form of miracle stories or mysteries, which were basically stories from the bible that were dramatized. Miracle plays were slightly different as they told tales of the lives of saints, these stories were related to lay down moral lessons to society.

The Monarchy and Theater

It was Henry VIII who decided to call it a day for religious theater and banned the church plays, he was afraid that they were inspiring the nation to turn towards the catholic religion. Having just set up his own religion, The Church of England, he was opposed to anything that challenged it.

As a result of this, a new post reformation type of theater was beginning to form in Britain that were directed at the nobility, foreign VIP’s and diplomats, and the wealthy. And in 1576 the first purpose-built playhouse was opened in London called The Theater.

The Globe

Even into Elizabethan times, the theater was under the control of the monarchy, and playwrights had to follow a strict set of rules with their plays in order not to over step the mark. Certain political subject matter was virtually banned and imprisonment was the fine.

In 1599 even through strict controls were still in place, the iconic Globe theater opened its doors. Built by the Lord Chamberlain’s company which included William Shakespeare. Some of his most famous plays were written for the Globe, including Hamlet; the subject matter of his choice turned away from religious themes and focused more on the human condition which made them timeless.

In part two of our series on the history of British theater we see that more royal restrictions were soon on their way and the budding growth of censorship loomed on the horizon.