Introduction to drama

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Drama is a literary form involving parts written for actors to perform; it is a Greek word which means action. [1] The origin of Western theatre is supposed to be found in Ancient Greece. Drama probably developed in Ancient Greece from the festivals, honouring Dionysus, the Greek god of fertility and wine. In the Middle Ages, drama in Europe dealt with religious characterizations. The plays were mainly Biblical, thus had substantial relevance to Christian elements. Although the Christian church did much to suppress the performance of plays, it is actually in the church that medieval drama began. Mystery plays, the most famous of which is The Second Shepherd's Play, depicted Biblical episodes from the Creation to Judgment Day. Another important type that developed from church liturgy [2] was the miracle play, based on the lives of saints rather than on Bible. The miracle play reached its peak in France and the mystery play in England. However, both types gradually became secularized. The Second Shepherds' Play, despite its religious seriousness, is most notable for its elements of realism and farce, while the miracle plays in France often emphasize comedy and adventure. A third type of religious drama is the morality play. The morality plays, which were mainly religious allegories, appeared early in the 15th century, the most famous being Everyman.

Drama has always been a target of the government and society. The reason why drama was criticized in Middle Ages was probably because actors were considered to be persons who were taking on other people's personalities, and were therefore thought either to be insane or possibly possessed by evil spirits. A second reason why drama was so often criticized might have been because theatre was considered immoral, blasphemous or subversive - we must note that theatrical performances were sometimes used as criticism of the government, able to awaken people. A third reason might have been religious since many of the medieval dramas were based on Christian church. Many of the plays were Biblical and were applicable to the Church.

Drama in England reached its peak during Queen Elizabeth's reign. Elizabethan drama ". . . has been called a great national utterance because in it spoke the spirit of England, despite all its imitations and borrowings from alien sources" and ". . . there has never been an age which so immediately responded to an artistic appeal" (Schelling xiii). We should notice the fact that ". . . [n]o plays closely resembling those of the great Elizabethans appeared before the last quarter of the sixteenth century, before the tragedies of Kyd and Marlowe and the comedies of Lyly and Greene" The public theatres were being built in 1576; and "the first powerful plays appeared about 1587" (Wells 4).

Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. In 1642 The English Civil War broke out between the Parliamentarians (Puritans) and the Royalists in England and theatres were closed to prevent public disorder. In 1644 The Globe Theatre was demolished by the Puritans. From 1642 onward for eighteen years, the theatres of England remained closed. They probably illegally performed plays but those performances were given in secrecy. [3] Neither actors nor spectators were safe during those days of the Puritan rule. The dramatists were not allowed to be inspired during this time. The Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell opposed theatrical performances. "Puritanism declared [theatre] an ungodly and frivolous thing and decreed that it should be no more" (Schelling 274). In 1649, the English Civil War resulted in the execution of King CharlesI and the establishment of a commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. Finally in 1660 the Stuart dynasty was restored to the throne of England and the theatres were reopened.

Charles's death marked the beginning of the eleven-year Interregnum in which Oliver Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector. After Cromwell's death, England turned to Charles's son and acknowledged him as Charles II. The exhumed heads of Cromwell, his son-in law, and the High Court's President were placed on public display atop Westminster Hall. The anniversary of Charles's execution became a date of commemoration on the liturgical calendar of the Anglican Church. (Sirico 51)

Charles II, the king, had been in France and he naturally brought with him some French fashions. That French influence was felt particularly in the theatre since "Charles returned from his exile with a very definite love of the drama and of literature in general (Nicoll 8). The drama of the Restoration, Thorndike states, ". . . was separated from the earlier periods by sixteen years of closed theatres and a virtual cessation of all dramatic composition;" ". . . the Restoration brought not only a revival but also a revolution - new fashions, new models, new foreign influence, a new age, and a changed society" (Thorndike 243).

Although the Puritans had lost their authority in political power, they had not lost courage in abusing the stage. The most violent attack was made by Jeremy Collier, a clergyman, in 1698, in a pamphlet called A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, Collier's attack on drama has three points: the so-called obscenity of the plays, the frequent references to the Bible and biblical characters, and the criticism, "slander and abuse flung from the stage upon the clergy". He criticized Shakespeare's Desdemona showing her love and chastity; he was opposed to any reference to anything connected to the Church or religion; and he was against any portrayal of the clergy. Collier even accused playwrights of glorifying all the sins, passions which they portrayed in their characters. [4]

The Puritan Revolution was fought not only against the King, but also against theatre; but the theatre was never so finally and roundly defeated as the King. The skirmishes and battles were equally protracted and bitter, but the growth of the Elizabethan--Jacobean drama was so hardy and so dear to so many Englishmen that it never completely died. Ordinance after ordinance was passed against stage plays, but there was hardly a year in London from 1842 to 1660 when plays were not being given. The records are full of recurrent raids by the soldiers of Parliament, the seizure of players and their goods, the ransacking of playhouses and their forcible demolition, and the jailing of theatre people. But these very records show that the Puritans had not succeeded in destroying theatrical activity. (Roberts 228)

With the accession of Queen Anne in 1702, drama was again a target of criticism since Queen Anne "was completely disinterested in the arts, literature, and theatre" (Roberts 250). The beginning of the reign of Queen Anne in 1702 ". . . marked the final withdrawal of court interest in drama" Thus English theatre was no longer for the court but "the property of citizens (Roberts 252). The Age of Reason valued science, logic, and rationality; denied emotionalism and wanted an ordered society. In the area of literature, authors declared their independence of patrons, and writing became a form of earning one's living. Prices for theatres were higher than today, and considerably higher than under Elizabeth I. Since drama became a commercial field, there had been innovations on the theatre buildings as well as stage props and costumes of the actors.

In the political turmoil of the nineteenth century in Europe, drama was sometimes abused. The ruling classes tended to use theatre as a propaganda instrument during the French Revolution (Roberts 350). In the twentieth century, on the other hand, drama consisted of realist settings true to life. The growing popularity of the motion picture affected drama. Soon radio and television increased in popularity, which foreshadowed the possible end of live theatre; yet it did not end.

Despite all the attacks and difficulties, theatre has always been alive. It has survived since the fifth century B.C. In its long history, theatre has always had rivals. However it has never been defeated; on the contrary, it has accomplished glorification. Theatre is not only an important part of a particular society that is depicted in plays; it is also the most human form of art that has ever existed.


  • Nicoll, Allardyce. A History of Restoration Drama 1660-1700. England, Cambridge University Pres: 1923.
  • Roberts, Vera Mowry. On Stage a History of Theatre. New York, Harper & Row: 1962.
  • Schelling, Felix E. Elizabethan Drama, 1558-1642: A History of the Drama in England from the Acession of Queen Elizabeth to the Closing of the Theaters. Volume II. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company: 1908.
  • Sirico Jr, Louis J. "The Trial of Charles I: A Sesquitricentennial Reflection." Constitutional Commentary. Volume: 16: 1999.
  • Thorndike, Ashley H. Tragedy. Boston, Houghton Mifflin: 1908.
  • Wells, Henry W. Elizabethan and Jacobean Playwrights. New York, Columbia University Press: 1939.
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  2. A Christian sacrament immortalizing the Last Supper by giving bread and wine