A History of British Theater – Part 2

A History of British Theater – Part 2


The second part of our article concludes the history of British theater and relays how in the mid-1600’s that the theater was still under the control of the monarchy and the restrictions the reign of Charles II imposed on English playwrights.

More Royal Interference

The 1600’s in England saw great upheaval and political unrest, and from 1642 to 1651 a bloody civil war raged in Britain. The period after the war when Charles II wrestled control back from the Cromwell was still a very delicate time in terms of politics.

The king saw the opportunity of once more controlling his subjects with the medium of theater, it was an idea he brought from his exile in France. He saw how Louis XIV had total control over the French theater and copied him. He gave just two royal patents out in London, and restricted the portraying of serious drama just to two theaters, all the others could just show melodrama.

The Tide Turned

It was not until the mid-1700’s that theater in Britain was free of the shackles of censorship and royal control. A person called David Garrick started to bring in radical innovations to theater in Britain and soon writers, playwrights, actors and other important theater persons started to take control.

Garrick who was an actor himself, brought revolutionary new techniques to acting. His performances introduced more realism and emotions into his roles, which were completely different to the previous almost comedic exaggerated acting that had gone before.

Victorian Theater

In 1843 the strict patent system for theater was abandoned and the popularity of theater had never been higher. TW Robertson saw his opportunity and grabbed it. The stage was now filled with elaborate sets, mood lighting, props, and he presented plays with everyday themes so audiences could have empathy with them.

These plays were called cup and saucer dramas, and one of his most famous plays was called Caste which, as the title suggests, touched on social class and rank. Playwrights popular at the time were Robertson and Oscar Wilde who depicted life of the privileged man.

Kitchen Sink Dramas

Post war Britain in the late 40’s needed cheering up, and audiences wanted to see life as they knew and lived it. This was the era of the working class play that depicted true life in Britain as it was at the time. John Osborne and Shelagh Delaney were popular writers of the time.

The Importance of the Director

The 20th Century heralded the era of the director, rather than the writer or actors controlling proceedings, the director was now the key creative force. One of the most celebrated British directors of all time is Peter Hall and his role developing the Royal Shakespeare Theater was pivotal to the future of theater in Britain as it is today.

Nowadays, contemporary theater is all the rage, but it is not without its problems. There is a fine balance between censorship and freedom of speech, a fraction one way or the other can be oppressive and damaging. British theater is still respected all over the world, it has evolved through crisis and wars, battled religious and royal oppressors and still came out on top.