Prehistory


Dance and music

It is unlikely that any human society (at any rate until the invention of puritanism) has denied itself the excitement and pleasure of dancing. Like Cave painting, the first purpose of dance is probably ritual - appeasing a nature spirit or accompanying a rite of passage. But losing oneself in rhythmic movement with other people is an easy form of intoxication. Pleasure can never have been far away.

Rhythm, indispensable in dancing, is also a basic element of music. It is natural to beat out the rhythm of the dance with sticks. It is natural to accompany the movement of the dance with rhythmic chanting. Dance and music begin as partners in the service of ritual.

Music lurks in the corners of everyday life. Hollow objects make notes when struck. Reeds and bamboos and shells whistle and moan when one blows into them (and sometimes even when the wind does). Anything stretched tight goes twang when plucked - an increasingly familiar sound once hunters have bows and arrows (from about 15,000 years ago). And the human voice has a delightful ability to go up and down at will.

Music is a game waiting to be played.

Drama of a kind is present in the rituals of primitive tribes. While musical instruments provide a compulsive rhythm, and members of the tribe join in a communal dance, there is often also a dramatic figure who is the centre of attention. In mask and costume, strikingly fierce or mysterious, an unseen actor impersonates a spirit which either threatens or secures the fortunes of the tribe.

While such an encounter is undoubtedly dramatic, it does not involve theatre in the conventional sense. Theatre requires the addition of a sung or spoken text - a development which first occurs, like so many others, in ancient Greece.

Greece and Rome


Greek theatre: from the 6th century BC

The origins of Greek theatre lie in the revels of the followers of Dionysus, a god of fertility and wine. In keeping with the god's special interests, his cult ceremonies are exciting occasions. His female devotees, in particular, dance themselves into a state of frenzy. Carrying long phallic symbols, known as thyrsoi, they tear to pieces and devour the raw flesh of sacrificial animals.

But the Dionysians also develop a more structured form of drama. They dance and sing, in choral form, the stories of Greek myth.

In the 6th century BC a priest of Dionysus, by the name of Thespis, introduces a new element which can validly be seen as the birth of theatre. He engages in a dialogue with the chorus. He becomes, in effect, the first actor. Actors in the west, ever since, have been proud to call themselves Thespians.

According to a Greek chronicle of the 3rd century BC, Thespis is also the first winner of a theatrical award. He takes the prize in the first competition for tragedy, held in Athens in 534 BC.

Theatrical contests become a regular feature of the annual festival in honour of Dionysus, held over four days each spring and known as the City Dionysia. Four authors are chosen to compete. Each must write three tragedies and one satyr play (a lascivious farce, featuring the sexually rampant satyrs, half-man and half-animal, who form the retinue of Dionysus).

The performance of the plays by each author takes a full day, in front of a large number of citizens in holiday mood, seated on the slope of an Athenian hillside. The main feature of the stage is a circular space on which the chorus dance and sing. Behind it a temporary wooden structure makes possible a suggestion of scenery. At the end of the festival a winner is chosen.

The Greek tragedians: 5th century BC

Only a small number of tragedies survive as full texts from the annual competitions in Athens, but they include work by three dramatists of genius. The earliest is the heavyweight of the trio, Aeschylus.

Aeschylus adds a second actor, increasing the potential for drama. He first wins the prize for tragedy in 484 BC. He is known to have written about eighty plays, of which only seven survive. One of his innovations is to write the day's three tragedies on a single theme, as a trilogy. By good fortune three of his seven plays are one such trilogy, which remains one of the theatre's great masterpieces - the Oresteia, celebrating the achievement of Athens in replacing the chaos of earlier times with the rule of law.

Sophocles gains his first victory in 468 BC, defeating Aeschylus. He is credited with adding a third actor, further extending the dramatic possibilities of a scene. Whereas Aeschylus tends to deal with great public themes, the tragic dilemmas in Sophocles are worked out at a more personal level. Plots become more complex, characterization more subtle, and the personal interaction between characters more central to the drama.

Although Sophocles in a very long life writes more plays than Aeschylus (perhaps about 120), again only seven survive intact. Of these Oedipus the King is generally considered to be his masterpiece.

The youngest of the three great Greek tragedians is Euripides. More of his plays survive (19 as opposed to 7 for each of the others), but he has fewer victories than his rivals in the City Dionysia - in which he first competes in 454 BC.

Euripides introduces a more unconventional view of Greek myth, seeing it from new angles or viewing mythological characters in terms of their human frailties. His vision is extremely influential in later schools of tragic drama. Racine, for example, derives Andromaque and Phèdre from the Andromache and Hippolytus of Euripides.

The beginning of Greek comedy: 5th century BC

From 486 BC there is an annual competitition for comedies at Athens - held as part of the Lenaea, a three-day festival in January. Only one comic author's work has survived from the 5th century. Like the first three tragedians, he launches the genre with great brilliance. He is Aristophanes, a frequent winner of the first prize in the Lenaea (on the first occasion, in 425 BC, with the Acharnians).

Eleven of his plays survive, out of a total of perhaps forty spanning approximately the period 425-390 BC. They rely mainly on a device which becomes central to the tradition of comedy. They satirize contemporary foibles by placing them in an unexpected context, whether by means of a fantastic plot or through the antics of ridiculous characters.

A good example is The Frogs, a literary satire at the expense of Euripides. After the death of the great man, Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back his favourite tragedian. A competition held down there enables Aristophanes to parody the style of Euripides. As a result Dionysus comes back to earth with Aeschylus instead.

In The Wasps the Athenian love of litigation is ridiculed in the form of an old man who sets up a law court in his home, to try his dog for stealing cheese. In Lysistrata the horrors of war are discussed in a circumstance of extreme social crisis; the women of Greece refuse to make love until their men agree to make peace.

The Greek theatre: 4th century BC

An exclusively Greek contribution to architectural history is the raked auditorium for watching theatrical performances (appropriately, since the Greeks are also the inventors of theatre as a literary form).

The masterpieces of Greek drama date from the 5th century BC. At that time, in Athens, the audience sit on the bare hillside to watch performances on a temporary wooden stage. In the 4th century a stone auditorium is built on the site, and there is still a theatre there today - the theatre of Dionysus. However this is a Roman reconstruction from the time of Nero. By then the shape of the stage is a semi-circle.

In the first Greek theatres the stage is a full circle, in keeping with the circular dance - the choros - from which the theatrical performance has evolved. This stage is called the orchestra (orchester, a dancer), because it is the place where the chorus sing and dance.

Epidaurus, built in about 340 BC, provides the best example of a classical Greek theatre. In the centre of the orchestra is the stone base on which an altar stood, reflecting the religious aspect of theatre in Greece. The rising tiers of seats, separated by aisles, provide the pattern for the closest part of the auditorium to the stage in nearly all subsequent theatres - where these seats are still sometimes called the orchestra stalls.

Roman comedy: 3rd - 2nd century BC

In most cultural matters Rome is greatly influenced by Greece, and this is particularly true of theatre. Two Roman writers of comedy, Plautus and Terence, achieve lasting fame in the decades before and after 200 BC - Plautus for a robust form of entertainment close to farce, Terence for a more subtle comedy of manners. But neither writer invents a single plot. All are borrowed from Greek drama, and every play of Terence's is set in Athens.

The misfortune of Plautus and Terence is that their audience is very much less attentive than in Athens. And the reason is that Roman plays are presented as part of a broader event, the Roman games.

The games, held every September, are originally a harvest festival. Taking place between the Palatine and Aventine hills in Rome, in an area known as the Circus Maximus, the main events are sporting contests - chariot races or boxing matches. Clowns soon become one of the side shows, to be joined from 240 BC by plays - enjoying much the same status. A play of Terence's, in 165, fails to attract much attention because it is going on at the same time as a rope dancer and a boxing match.

Since 264 BC gladiatorial contests have also been part of Rome's entertainments. In popular terms make-believe drama proves no match for the excitement of real death. The Roman circus is more famous than Roman theatre (see the Roman circus and gladiators).

Middle Ages


Liturgical drama: 10th century AD

During the centuries of upheaval in Europe, after the collapse of the Roman empire, theatre plays no part in life. But with the approach of the first millennium, in the late 10th century, Christian churches introduce dramatic effects in the Easter liturgy to enliven the theme of resurrection.

The gospels describe Mary Magdalene and two other women visiting the tomb of Jesus and finding it empty. In about 970 the bishop of Winchester, eager to emphasize this important moment, introduces a custom which is already in use (he says) in certain French monasteries.

During the Easter morning service in Winchester three monks enact the arrival at the tomb of the three women, while another (as the angel in the story) sits beside the high altar (the holy sepulchre). The angel, intoning in Latin, asks the women whom they are seeking? Jesus of Nazareth, they chant in reply. He says Jesus is not here, he has Risen, go and tell the people. The three turn to the choir with a joyous Alleluia! resurrexit Dominus ('the Lord is Risen'), and the choir launches into the Te Deum.

From these small beginnings there develops the great tradition of medieval Christian drama. More and more scenes are enacted during church services, some quite boisterous. Herod, in particular, tends to make a lot of noise.

Mystery plays: 12th - 16th century AD

In about 1170, priests somewhere in France decide to move a performance to a platform outside their church and to give it in the language of the people. Their French play, the Mystère d'Adam ('Mystery of Adam'), introduces some very popular characters in medieval imagination - the wicked devils, who can be vividly enacted in the street but not inside the church. The play ends with devils arriving to tie Adam and Eve up in chains, before dragging them off with a great clatter of pots and kettles. They and their victims vanish into a hole from which smoke belches forth.

The flaming mouth of Hell is set to become a standard and increasingly spectacular element in the mystery plays.

Over the centuries the narrative of such plays extends from Adam and Eve to encompass the entire Bible story, from the Creation to the Last Judgement. The lives of saints are also much performed, in what are known as miracle plays. The torments suffered by saints in their martyrdom give these stories a special appeal for medieval audiences.

St Apollonia is a popular subject (tortured by having all her teeth pulled out). In a Danish 16th-century play about St Dorothy, the saint has already been whipped, partially burnt at the stake and stretched with tongs before the executioner lists the real torments which he has in store for her.

Gradually the plays become longer and the productions more elaborate. In some places the performance lasts for an hour a day spread over a month, in others the entire biblical cycle is enacted in a dusk-to-dawn pageant lasting three days.

In most of Europe the plays are done on fixed open-air platforms, usually along one side of a square, with little 'houses' or mini-stages set up for different scenes. A famous illustration of one such stage survives from Valenciennes in 1547. But in some places an entirely different style of performance evolves, with the players forming a long slow procession.

Processional plays: 14th - 17th century AD

In parts of Europe, particularly Spain, the players perform on carts, each with its own scenery, moving through the town to appear before a succession of audiences. It is an ingenious way of bringing drama to more spectators than can be gathered in one place. These Spanish plays are known as autos sacramentales, 'eucharistic plays'.

The four English mystery cycles (linked with the cities of Chester, Coventry, Wakefield and York) are also of this kind. The plays are performed during the Corpus Christi festivities by different guilds, often with a direct link between their scene and their craft. The tailors are usually entrusted with Adam and Eve - who sew fig leaves to make themselves aprons.

The mystery plays go out of fashion in the 16th century. In Protestant europe their broad humour and bawdiness offend the reformers. But this vigorous popular entertainment also seems unduly frivolous to solemn Humanists of the Renaissance. Performance of the plays is banned in Paris in 1548. Many other places follow suit.

The exceptions are the strongholds of the Catholic reformation, where the church recognizes the power of drama if doctrinally correct. The autos sacramentales still flourish in Spain in the late 17th century (many of them written by Calderon, a dramatist turned priest). Europe's best-known surviving cycle of plays, at Oberammergau, dates from 1634.

Noh theatre: from the 14th century AD

A father and his 11-year-old son, Kanami and Zeami Motokiyo, perform in 1374 before the Shogun, Yoshimitsu, at the Imakumano shrine in Kyoto. Kanami has made innovations in a traditional form of theatre, deriving originally from China and known as sarugaku-noh. The Shogun likes what he sees, and particularly likes the performance of the talented young Zeami. He takes the family into his service.

With the name reduced to the more simple noh, this is the beginning of the Noh theatre of Japan - and the beginning of some five centuries of patronage by the shoguns of this most refined of theatrical styles.

The style of Noh production and performance, and almost the entire repertoire of Noh plays, is established within a few decades of that day in 1374. Kanami is the author of the first plays in the new style; Zeami writes the bulk of those which survive; a few more are the work of Zeami's son-in-law, Zenchiku. Only a small number of Noh plays have been written since Zenchiku's death in the 15th century.

In Noh the all-male actors, accompanied by a small chorus and orchestra, sing and dance scenes from legend with an immense slowness and solemnity which can nevertheless imply great passion. The dimensions of the cypress-wood stage, and the placing of certain scenic props, are invariable.

This is a form of art so exquisite that it almost seems to begin life as a classic, a rare national treasure. In fact, in its first two or three centuries, it does reach a reasonably wide audience. But then, in the 17th century, an offshoot of Noh adopts a more popular style.

Known as Kabuki, this new departure soon becomes the vigorous mainstream of Japanese theatre. The earlier form of Noh, fossilized in its perfection, is henceforth the preserve of the court and nobility.

16th - 18th century


Roman revivals and intermezzi: 16th century AD

In the spirit of the Renaissance, Roman plays are performed on festive occasions at the courts of Italian princes. Perhaps they prove a little heavy going for some of the guests. It becomes the custom to have rather more lavish musical entertainments (intermezzi, or intermediate pieces) between the acts, with spectacular stage effects, beautiful costumes and much singing and dancing.

Isabella d'Este, in the audience for a performance of Plautus in Ferrara in 1502, much prefers the intermezzi in which satyrs chase wild beasts in time to a musical clock, Swiss soldiers engage in a dance of war, and a golden ball melts away to reveal four Virtues who sing a quartet.

The first intermezzi to be preserved in detail for posterity (because they are the first to be published as etchings) are performed to celebrate a wedding at the Medici court in Florence in 1589.

The scenes are now close to those which will become familiar to opera audiences over the next two centuries - they include a heaven made up of clouds (in which the characters can sit and sing), a delightful garden, a rocky cave guarded by a dragon, and a sea scene with mermaids, dolphins and a ship. This combination of music and spectacle is now so popular with courtly audiences that it leads to a new development in Florence in 1597.

Commedia dell'arte: 16th - 18th century AD

Italy in the 16th century, home to the first stirrings of Opera, also launches Europe's most vigorous tradition of popular theatre. The phrase commedia dell'arte (comedy of the trade) merely implies professional actors. There is a record of such a company performing in Italy as early as 1545.

Normally this is street theatre, though a company will use indoor premises if available. The traditional commedia dell'arte troupe arrives in a town, sets up a temporary stage and begins performing to the passers-by. Since it is essential to attract attention, slapstick plays a large part in the routine. So does improvisation, adapting the comic sketch to suit the audience's responses.

Though each company performs its own material, certain characters become widely established - and the use of masks makes them immediately recognizable. Pantalone is a pompous old man, good for playing tricks on. The tricks are liable to be perpetrated by comic servants, of whom Arlecchino (proud possessor of a costume of bright patches) and Pulcinella become the best known.

A Spanish soldier, Il Capitano, provides plenty of comedy in bragging about his bravery and then proving an arrant coward at the first hint of danger. He is known as Scaramouche in France, where the commedia dell'arte becomes an almost permanent attraction in Paris as the Comédie Italienne.

The Italian comedians are popular throughout Europe. Frequently they feature in fairs as an attraction to entice the public, who are then coaxed into buying fake medical potions - a trade which gives the name ciarlatini (clowns) its other meaning as charlatans.

Each country builds its own popular traditions on the Italian example. In England Pulcinella evolves into Punch, the beak-nosed wife-beater of the seaside puppet shows. And the young lovers of the Italian comedy have a longer life in Britain than anywhere else. They survive well into the 19th century as the Harlequin and Columbine of the traditional English pantomime.

The original Italian form of the commedia dell'arte loses its vigour during the 18th century. There are attempts to revive it by replacing improvisation, now grown somewhat weary and hackneyed, with scripted texts using the spirit of the commedia dell'arte in more sophisticated comedies of character.

Goldoni has a great success with plays of this kind in 18th-century Venice. But he is only giving artificial respiration to a popular comic tradition which has delighted Europe for more than two centuries and has now run its course.

London's theatres: AD 1576-1599

The theatres built in London in the quarter century from 1576 are a notable example of a contribution made by architecture to literature. In previous decades there have been performances of primitive and rumbustious English plays in the courtyards of various London inns, with the audience standing in the yard itself or on the open galleries around the yard giving on to the upper rooms. These are ramshackle settings for what are no doubt fairly ramshackle performances.

In 1576 an actor, James Burbage, builds a permanent playhouse in Shoreditch - just outside the city of London to the north, so as not to require the permission of the puritanical city magistrates.

Burbage gives his building the obvious name, so long as it is the only one of its kind. He calls it the Theatre. It follows the architectural form of an inn yard, with galleries enclosing a yard open to the sky. At one end a stage projects beneath a pavilion-like roof.

In such a setting, custom-built, writers, actors and audience can begin to concentrate on dramatic pleasures. A second playhouse, the Curtain, rises close to the Theatre in 1577. A third, the Rose, opens in 1587 on the south bank of the Thames in the area known as Bankside. In that year one of these three theatres puts on a play which reveals how far English playwrights have progressed in a very short while - Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe.

In about 1594 a fourth theatre, the Swan, is built close to the Hope. There are now two theatres to the north of the city and two south of the river. But soon the balance shifts decisively to Bankside.

James Burbage, builder of the original Theatre, dies in 1597. Two years later his two sons dismantle the building and carry the timber over the river to Bankside, where they use it as the basis for a theatre with a new name - the Globe. This name resounds in English theatrical history for two good reasons. It is where Richard, one of the Burbage brothers, develops into one of the first great actors of the English stage. And it is where many of Shakespeare's plays are first presented.

The structure of the Globe and the other London theatres has a significant influence on English drama at its greatest period, because of the audiences which these buildings accomodate. Ordinary Londoners, the groundlings, stand in the open pit to watch plays for a penny. Others pay a second penny to climb to a hard seat in the upper gallery. A third penny gives access to the two lower galleries and a seat with a cushion. A few places in the first gallery, to left and right of the stage, are reserved for gentlemen who can afford a shilling, or twelve pennies.

This is a cross-section of nearly all the people of London, and the audience is vast - with four theatres giving regular performances in a small city.

It has been calculated that during Shakespeare's time one Londoner in eight goes to the theatre each week. A city of 160,000 people is providing a weekly audience of about 21,000. There is only one comparable example of such a high level of attendance at places of entertainment - in cinemas in the 1930s.

The range of Shakespeare's audience is reflected in the plays, which can accomodate vulgar comedy and the heights of tragic poetry. The occasional performances in the Athenian drama festivals must have had something of this efffect, involving much of the community in a shared artistic experience. In Elizabethan and Jacobean London it happens almost every night.

Marlowe: AD 1587-1593

The year 1564 sees the birth of two poets, Marlowe and Shakespeare, who between them launch the English theatre into the three decades of its greatest glory. Marlowe makes his mark first, in a meteoric six years (from 1587) in which his life and his writings are equally dramatic.

From his time as a student at Cambridge Marlowe seems to have been involved in the Elizabethan secret service. This dangerous work, combined with a fiery disposition, brings him into frequent clashes with the authorities. He is in prison in 1589 after a street fight. He is deported from the Netherlands in 1592 for the possession of forged gold coins. He is arrested for some unknown reason in London in 1593. And twelve days later he is murdered.

Marlowe is killed in a Deptford tavern by one of a group of colleagues with whom he has spent the day. The official explanation is a row over the tavern bill, but it is possible that the event relates to his secret service activities. What is certain is that when he dies, short of his thirtieth birthday, he is already an extremely popular playwright with the London audience.

Marlowe's first play, acted with great success in 1587, is an event of profound significance in the story of English theatre. Tamburlaine the Great introduces the supple and swaggering strain of blank verse which becomes the medium for all the glories of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.

Marlowe's Tamburlaine is a character who revels in the power which his conquests bring him, and the verse conveys brilliantly his sense of excitement. Rich words trip off his tongue, relished for their own sakes, in a manner which becomes characteristic of much English poetry. When Tamburlaine defeats the emperor of Persia, and imagines his moment of triumph, even the strange names of his three colleagues are pressed into service to add to the rich brew:

  'Is it not passing brave to be a king, Techelles?
  Usumcasane and Theridamas,
  Is it not passing brave to be a king,
  And ride in triumph through Persepolis?'

Tamburlaine is so popular that Marlowe adds a second part, staged in 1588. In the remaining five years of his life his plays include The Jew of Malta (a melodrama of revenge, in which the Jew indulges in an orgy of killing after his money has been confiscated), Doctor Faustus (inspired by a recent biography of Faust, and setting the pattern for later treatments of the subject) and Edward II (the first play to dramatise English history as a conflict between real characters, and the predecessor of Shakespeare's great achievements in this genre).

In the first three of these plays the title role is taken by Edward Alleyn, Marlowe's leading actor and the great rival of Shakespeare's Burbage.

The dates of the plays after Tamburlaine are uncertain, and the texts of Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta have reached us in very corrupted versions because they are first printed years after Marlowe's death.

What is certain is that when Shakespeare arrives in London, in about 1590, the London stage belongs above all to Marlowe. By the time of Marlowe's death three years later only one of Shakespeare's undeniable masterpieces, Richard III, has been produced (with Burbage as the villainous hero). It would be hard to predict at this stage which of the two talented 29-year-olds is the greater genius.

Shakespeare


The life of Shakespeare: AD 1564-1616

The mysterious death of Marlowe, the Cambridge graduate, and the brilliant subsequent career of Shakespeare, the grammar-school boy from Stratford, have caused some to speculate that his secret service activities make it prudent for Marlowe to vanish from the scene - and that he uses the name of a lesser man, Shakespeare, to continue his stage career. Others, similarly inclined to conspiracy theories, have convinced themselves that Shakespeare's plays are the work of the statesman and essayist Francis Bacon.

Snobbery rather than scholarship seems to underpin such arguments. Their proponents find it hard to accept that the unknown boy from Stratford should have created the crowning achievement of English literature.

The truth is that William Shakespeare is not such an unknown figure, and the education provided in England's grammar schools of the time is among the best available. Shakespeare's baptism is recorded in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564 (this is only three days after St George's Day, making possible the tradition that England's national poet is born, most fortunately, on England's national saint's day).

Shakespeare's father, John, is a leading citizen of the town and for a while a justice of the peace. It is a safe assumption (though there is no evidence) that Shakespeare is educated at Stratford's grammar school.

In 1582, at the age of eighteen, Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway. Their first child, Susanna, is baptized in 1583, followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585.

There is then a gap of several years in the documentary record of Shakespeare's life, but he is involved in the London theatre - as an actor trying his hand also as a playwright - by at least 1592, when he is attacked as an 'upstart crow' in a polemical pamphlet by Robert Greeene. In 1593 he publishes a poem, Venus and Adonis, following it in 1594 with The Rape of Lucrece. Meanwhile he has had performed the three parts of Henry VI and, probably in the winter of 1592, Richard III.

The London theatres are closed for fear of the plague during 1592 and 1593 apart from brief midwinter seasons, but in 1594 things return to normal and Shakespeare's career accelerates. He is now a leading member of London's most successful company, run by the Burbage family at The theatre. Patronage at court gives them at first the title of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. On the accession of James I in 1603 they are granted direct royal favour, after which they are known as the King's Men.

Shakespeare's share in the profits of this company, operating from The globe on Bankside from 1599, makes him a wealthy man. Most of the subsequent documentary references relate to purchases in his home town of Stratford.

In 1597 Shakespeare pays £60 for a large house and garden, New Place in Chapel Street. By 1602 he has enough money to purchase an estate of 107 acres just outside Stratford, and he continues over the next few years to make investments in and around the town. In about 1610 he begins to spend less time in London and more in New Place, where he dies in 1616. He is buried in the chancel of the Stratford parish church.

Shakespeare has shown little interest in publishing his plays, for like others of his time he probably regards them as scripts for performance rather than literature. After his death two of his colleagues, John Heminge and Henry Condell, gather the texts of thirty-six plays which they publish in 1623 in the edition known now as the First Folio.

The plays before AD 1601

By 1600 Shakespeare has conclusively demonstrated his genius in every kind of play except tragedy. In dramatizing English history he has progressed from the fumbling beginnings of the three parts of Henry VI (1590-92) to the magnificent melodrama of Richard III (1592), the subtle character study of Richard II (1595), the jingoistic glories of Henry V (1600) and, most successful of all, the superb pair of plays about Henry IV and his wayward son Prince Hal.

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (1597-8) present a rich panorama of English life, from court and battlefield to tavern and rustic retreat. They also introduce, in Falstaff, the most rounded and unforgettable comic character in English literature.

Meanwhile Shakespeare has developed a sweet and delicate strain of romantic poetry, seen first in the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet (1595) and then in the comic romances A Midsummer Night's Dream (1596) and As You Like It (1599). And he has shown his skill in a more knock-about vein of comedy, with The Taming of the Shrew (1593) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600).

All these dates are approximate, to within a year or two, because there is in most cases no firm evidence of the date of first production.

After 1600 there is one more play which combines broad comedy (in the antics of Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek) and enchantingly romantic poetry (as in the very first line, 'If music be the food of love, play on'). This is Twelfth Night, and its first production possibly occurs less than a week into 1601. There is evidence that Shakespeare probably writes it as part of the festivities for Twelfth Night (or January 6) at Elizabeth's court in this particular year.

In general, though, Shakespeare's palette darkens with the new century. The next few years see some much less sunny comedies and his four great tragedies.

Tragedies and dark comedies: AD 1601-1608

Shakespeare's first attempt at full-scale tragedy, in 1601, brings to the stage a character, Hamlet, whose nature and weaknesses have prompted more discussion than any other Shakespearean creation. His prevailing characteristics of self-doubt and self-dramatization hardly seem promising material for a tragic hero, but Shakespeare uses them to create an intensely personal drama. Each opportunity for action prompts the young prince to indulge in another soul-searching soliloquy, each missed opportunity makes disaster more inevitable.

Othello is the next of the major tragedies, in about 1603, with the 'green-eyed monster' jealousy now the driving force on the path to destruction.

King Lear, in about 1605, is the most elemental of the tragedies, with the old king's sanity buffeted by storms upon an open heath as much as by his treatment at the hands of his unfeeling daughters. Macbeth, a year or so later, makes guilt itself the stuff of tragedy after ruthless ambition has set events upon their course.

These plays are tragic in that each has a central character whose actions drive the events and whose flaws make the conclusion unavoidable. Others written during these years may not be tragedies in this fullest sense, but they have a bitter flavour far removed from comedy. An example is Troilus and Cressida (1602), with its caustic view of the world enunciated by Thersites.

Even the plays of this period which are literally comedies, in the simple sense that they end happily, are in mood closer to tragedy. Examples are All's Well that Ends Well (1603) and Measure for Measure (1604).

In the years after Macbeth Shakespeare tackles two Roman themes. In Antony and Cleopatra (1607) the facts of history carry his two famous lovers to their tragic fates. In Coriolanus (1608) it is the arrogance of the central character which creates the drama - resolved only when his duty as a son, in response to the pleading of his aged mother, results in his own death.

The last plays: AD 1608-1611

Shakespeare's last four plays, beginning with Pericles, Prince of Tyre in about 1608, share a pattern of rupture, retirement, renewal and reconciliation. Rather like the natural rhythm of winter, followed by hibernation and emergence into spring, the plots begin with violently evil deeds. The good characters somehow escape to safety and a new life, often with a new identity. Years pass and children grow up, until eventually all is resolved.

In Pericles the events supposedly occur in ancient Tyre. In Cymbeline (1609) the tormented family is that of the historic Cunobelin, king of a Celtic British tribe. The Winter's Tale (1611), set in undefined classical times, takes place in the kingdoms of Sicily and Bohemia.

The Tempest (also 1611) is set in a much more suitable context for any story of this kind, half real and half magic: 'The scene, an uninhabited island'. For the past twelve years the island has been home to a victim of political skulduggery - Prospero, duke of Milan, accompanied by his young daughter Miranda. They share the place with a subhuman inhabitant, Caliban, and a spirit who has been trapped here, Ariel.

Since this is an island, and Prospero has magic powers, shipwreck provides an easy way of delivering the evil characters who were responsible for Prospero's exile.

With their arrival, the ingredients are in place for a fantasy playing on many of life's most significant contrasts. The ways of the world, both good and bad, are seen in a fresh light through the innocent eyes of Miranda, to whom everything is new. The benevolent wisdom of Prospero outwits the scheming wiles of his opponents. Drunken crew members have a natural affinity with the discontented Caliban. And the island, as a magical place, can spring its own surprises.

At the end of the play, when Prospero has brought the main characters together in reconciliation, he renounces his magic powers in a farewell epilogue.

Prospero's final speech has often been seen as Shakespeare's own farewell to his theatrical career, relinquishing the magic with which he has conjured so many stories and characters into life on the stage.

It may be so. But he is part author of one more play, Henry VIII (1613), and an event during one of its performances certainly puts the seal on his retirement. A spark from a stage cannon sets fire to the thatched roof of the Globe, which burns to the ground. The theatre is rebuilt, reopening in 1614 with a tiled roof. But the event is likely to confirm Shakespeare in his full-time withdrawal to his properties in Stratford, where he dies in 1616.

17th century


Ben Jonson: AD 1606-1616

Ben Jonson, almost as prolific in his works for the stage as Shakespeare, achieves his most distinctive voice in two satirical comedies based on an interplay of characters seen as types. In the earlier of the two, Volpone (1606), the characters are even given the Italian names of animals to point up their supposed natures.

Volpone (the fox) pretends to be dying so as to extract gifts from people expecting an inheritance. Mosca (the fly) acts as his accomplice. A lawyer, Voltore (the vulture), hovers around the supposed death bed. A feeble old man, Corbaccio (the crow), is willing to disinherit his son for his own benefit. And a self-righteous Corvino (the raven) offers his wife to satisfy Volpone's lust.

Tricks played on the gullible also provide the comedy in The Alchemist (1610). Subtle, a confidence trickster pretending to be an alchemist, promises his victims whatever they most desire.

A grossly self-indulgent hedonist, Sir Epicure Mammon, and two fanatical puritans, Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome, turn out to share the same longing - to possess the philosopher's stone, with which they will turn base metal into gold. By contrast a simple tobacconist, Drugger, wants nothing more than a design for his shop that will bring in customers. Kastril, an oaf up from the country, is mainly interested in discovering the fashionable way of being quarrelsome.

These two plays succeed partly because of the farcical opportunities available as the tricksters struggle to keep their various victims separate and happy. But they also benefit from the vividly realistic detail which gives life to Jonson's verse.

His sharp eye for the everyday scene, and for the amusing quirks of people's behaviour, even enables him to make a viable play out of Bartholomew Fair (1614). It has little to hold it together except the context of the famous fair itself. The plot consists only of the adventures and mishaps which befall different groups of visitors.

While writing his comedies for the public theatres, Jonson also provides Masques for amateur performance at the court of James I. His first, The Masque of Blackness in 1605, is specifically written to accomodate the longing of James's queen, Anne of Denmark, to appear in the role of a black African.

A quarrelsome and touchy man, frequently in trouble with the authorities, Jonson is unusual for his time in insisting on the dignity of the craft of playwright. Whereas Shakespeare shows little interest in the survival of the text of his plays, Jonson arranges for his own works to be published in a splendid folio edition of 1616. Three years later, as if taking the point, Oxford university honours him with a degree as master of arts.

The Italian stage and scenery: 17th - 18th century AD

Italy, home of spectacular court entertainments and the birthplace of Opera, also provides the system of stage and scenery which becomes the standard arrangement in European theatres.

It is soon realized that the attractive scenery provided for princely intermezzi will look even better if viewed within an attractive frame (behind which candles and lamps needed for the lighting can be concealed), and that the scenes will be more impressive if they can be rapidly changed. The breakthrough in both respects is credited to the architect Giovanni Battista Aleotti, who builds the Teatro Farnese in Parma in 1618.

The Teatro Farnese is the first theatre to be equpped with a permanent proscenium arch, separating the audience from the scenery. Aleotti's other profoundly influential innovation, dating from some time early in the 17th century, is the painting of scenery on a succession of parallel wings receding from the audience on either side of the stage.

Perspective skills enable scene painters to create a convincing three-dimensional illusion on these flat canvases. Admittedly the illusion is only perfect from a single viewing point. But the system is introduced first in court theatres. That single perfect place is where the prince sits. There is no problem.

Flat wings make possible a rapid change of scenery. The wings for an entirely different setting can be placed just behind the ones at present jutting forward into sight. When the change of scenery is called for, the front wings are pulled out and the rear ones pushed in - achieving an immediate and magical transformation.

Each wing at first has its own stage hand, until the public theatres in Venice discover a solution for this costly overmanning. When the Teatro Novissimo ('very newest theatre') opens in 1741, it lives up to its name. Slots are cut in the stage so that the flats can rest on linked trolleys below. When a counterweight is released, every pair of wings moves in or out in perfect unison.

This miraculous effect is the invention of one of Italy's greatest stage designers, Giacomo Torelli. His skill with machinery (causing rumours in his own time that he is in league with the devil) inspires similar ingenuity and ever more spectacular effects in Europe's theatres during the next two centuries.

The marvels of this kind of stage effect, with all the necessary equipment still in working order, can be seen in a remarkable survival - the 18th-century court theatre at Drottningholm in Sweden. By the time this theatre is built, in the 1760s, the Italian example has prevailed everywhere.

Spread of the Italian style: 17th - 18th century AD

Italian designers are much in demand in foreign courts, once word spreads of the magic they can achieve with their stage perspective and machinery. Torelli himself spends seventeen years in Paris. Corneille writes spectacular scenes in his play Andromède in 1650 specifically to show off what the Italian magician can achieve in terms of stage effects.

But the Italian style is also carried abroad by foreign enthusiasts bringing it back to their own countries. One such is Inigo Jones. His two visits to Italy not only introduce the Palladian style to British architecture. They also bring Italian scenery, through Jones's designs for the court masques of James I.

Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson together provide masques for the court from 1605. Jones makes his own experiments within the Italian style, and to some extent finds his own way forward. By the late 1630s (before the innovation of flats descending through the stage in Venice) Jones has evolved an effective system of wings sliding in grooves set in the stage floor. This remains, until the 19th century, the standard system in ordinary English theatres.

Lavish Italian spectacle soon becomes restricted to opera rather than straight theatre. The inevitable clash between stage effects and words leads to a famous rift between Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, whom Jonson accuses of 'making painting and carpentry the soul of masque'.

Corneille and Racine: AD 1637-1677

In a remarkable forty years, from 1637 to 1677, the French theatre enjoys a succession of powerful tragedies from two playwrights, Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. Both write within tight restrictions which are considered an essential part of the dignity of their art.

The three Unities of action, time and place are carefully observed (the plot must have a logical consistency and must be completed within a span of twenty-four hours in a single location). The text is entirely in rhyming couplets of twelve-syllable alexandrines, and there are other clearly defined rules. Violent events can only happen offstage. The vocabulary is limited, with frequently repeated poetic phrases - and definitely no vulgarity.

The first play in this style to be a huge success with the Parisian public is Corneille's Le Cid in 1637. The dramatic conflict concerns the love between Chimène, a high-born Spanish lady, and the youthful El cid of legendary fame. Unfortunately a social slight offered by Chimène's father to El cid's father makes El cid honour-bound to seek satisfaction. He challenges Chimène's father and kills him.

The rest of the play, developing a theme characteristic of all Corneille's subsequent tragedies, hinges on the conflict between duty and love. Chimène's duty to her father demands El cid's death. Her love makes her yearn for him to live.

The ending of Le Cid is ambiguous. Our hero is called away to fight the Moors and there is a hope that time may solve the conflict. Usually in Corneille honour wins more convincingly, making his plays less sympathetic to modern audiences than those of his younger rival Racine.

Racine's first runaway success, Andromaque, follows thirty years after Le Cid, in 1667. The framework and the rules of tragedy are still the same, but the ingredients have drastically altered. In Andromaque honour and duty hardly feature. Instead there is an insoluble quadrangle of unrequited love in the aftermath of the Trojan War.

Orestes loves Hermione who loves Pyrrhus who loves Andromaque, whose only concern is the safety of her young son whom Orestes is attempting to take into captivity and to almost certain death.

This tangle offers as much opportunity for emotional bargain and blackmail as any late 20th-century play of sexual intrigue. Racine guides the relationships towards a tragic outcome in a series of brilliantly developed confrontations, often just between two characters - one of whose positions has usually shifted since the previous encounter.

Over the next ten years Racine produces a succession of powerful tragedies, often with female central characters who are overwhelmed by their emotions. This is true above all of the last of the series, Phèdre (1677), in which the heroine is consumed with lust for her stepson, Hippolyte.

The raw drama of Phèdre, albeit within the classical convention, is too much for some in Racine's audience. But the mixed response to the play is probably not the reason for his retirement at this time from the theatre. More likely it is due to his marriage in 1677 and a new appointment as the king's official historian. But his ten main years as a playwright have produced an extraordinarily intense and finely honed body of work.

Molière: AD 1658-1673

One October afternoon in 1658 a small theatre company, headed by Molière, performs a Corneille tragedy for the 20-year-old Louis xiv and his brother Philippe, two years younger. The players follow the tragedy with a farce, written by Molière, about an amorous doctor. It greatly appeals to the two young men. The company is granted the patronage of Philippe, who two years later becomes the duke of Orlèans.

This is a turning point in Molière's career. For the past thirteen years he and his company have led a difficult existence touring the provinces. But the experiences of those years enable Molière, as both actor-manager and author, to make the most of the new opportunities in Paris.

Until his death Moliére writes on average two or three plays each year for his company, with leading roles for himself. Since his central theme is ridicule of the pretensions and falsities of contemporary society, the plays involve him in almost permanent controversy.

The first play to cause both delight and offence (a promising blend in any period) is Les Précieuses Ridicules in 1659. A modern translation of the title might be 'Ridiculous Trendies'. The play makes fun of two provincial ladies, arriving in Paris, who are so delighted by the affected manners of the capital that they lose all sense of reality.

Tartuffe (1664) is even more controversial, featuring a religious hypocrite who by an oily display of mock piety persuades a nobleman to entrust him with both his daughter and his property. The play is first performed before the king at Versailles, but opposition from the establishment delays the first public performance by several years.

To some extent Molière's comedy depends on breathing new life into stock comic characters such as L'Avare ('The Miser', 1668, based on a play of Plautus) or Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670) about a man so eager to climh in society that he falls prey to every charlatan offering to help him. But Molière's dramatic skill makes the character, Monsieur Jourdain, sympathetic as well as ridiculous.

From 1666 Molière becomes increasingly ill, and his experience of doctors provides him with a new vein of comedy. In that year Le médicin malgré lui ('The doctor in spite of himself') features a character who is forced by the plot to masquerade as a doctor and then finds that he likes the role.

Sganarelle, the amateur medic, has perhaps the most famous line in the whole of Molière. Holding forth about the heart, and its position on the right side of a patient's body, he receives a mild note of dissent from someone who thought it was supposed to be on the left. 'Yes,' he replies, 'but we've changed all that'.

In February 1673 Molière plays the central role in the first performance of Le malade imaginaire. Because Argan imagines himself to be ill, he is willing to submit to all the outrageous treatments proposed by his doctors - providing ample scope for satire on the medical profession. But during the fourth performance, a week later, illusion and reality become tragically blurred. Molière falls ill on the stage and dies later that night.

All his life Molière has written words to be acted rather than read. He shows little concern for the publication of his plays. But their texts (some in prose, some in verse) guarantee him a place, with Corneille and Racine, in France's great trio of classic dramatists.

Kabuki: from the 17th century AD

The origins of kabuki, Japan's popular theatre, lie in the ukiyo-e or floating world of the cities. In about 1600 a young Shinto priestess, O-Kuni, forms a troupe in Kyoto to perform dances and mimes. She is so successful that the city's courtesans follow her example, as a way of displaying themselves to potential customers. Their performances are indiscreet, and the response of their admirers violently enthusiastic. As a result a decree, in about 1629, bans all female performers from the stage.

The prohibition lasts more than two centuries, until the Meiji period. But male performers, adopting the No tradition of taking the female parts themselves, step in to satisfy the new audience's appetite for theatre.

During the 17th and 18th centuries kabuki (from ka singing, bu dancing, ki art) develops into an immensely successful form of café entertainment. Actors perform in spectacular costumes, among stylized scraps of scenery, on a stage surrounded on three sides by a convivial audience. The spectators sit in small box-like compartments where food and drink can be served.

The new form of theatre at first borrows plots and scripts from Japan's already thriving puppet theatre (known as 'joruri'). But soon plays are being specially written for the kabuki theatre. Many become lasting favourites, continually in demand from audiences through the centuries.

An outstanding example is Chushingura, a play of 1748 based on a dramatic real-life incident of some forty years earlier. Forty-seven loyal retainers (or ronin) are outraged when their lord is slighted by another. They plot a careful revenge which ends in the offending noble's death. The shogun sympathises with this honourable vendetta, but in 1703 orders all forty-seven to commit hara-kiri. The event causes a sensation in Japan, and the actors have the skill to make it sensational on their stages.

The kabuki actors acquire devoted fans. And Japan has the printing skills to satisfy the demand for coloured images of the stars in their roles.

18th century


Sections missing

Sections are as yet missing at this point

Sturm und Drang: AD 1771-1782

The phrase Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) is the title of a wild and extravagant drama by Friedrich Klinger, first performed in 1776. Its mood is typical of a fashion among young writers in Germany during the 1770s. Critics have subsequently adopted the title as the ideal name for the entire school. Storm and stress are the ingredients with which these writers challenge the calm certainties of 18th-century Rationalism.

The first significant success in the new style is the play which brings Goethe fame throughout Germany - Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (Götz von Berlichingen with the iron hand), written between 1771 and 1773 and first performed in Berlin in 1774.

Based on the buccaneering autobiography of a real character of the 16th century, Goethe's play presents Götz as a hero fighting for natural rights against the repressive and corrupt bishop of Bamberg. His last words, as he dies, are Freiheit! Freiheit! (Freedom, Freedom).

Three years later, in 1777, the 18-year-old Friedrich Schiller, a resentful student in a military academy, begins writing an even wilder play, Die Ra:uber (The Robbers), which can be seen as the final fling of Sturm und Drang. Schiller borrows money to publish the play privately in 1781. It causes a sensation when it is performed at Mannheim in 1782.

Die Räuber tells the story of two sons of a nobleman. The evil younger son schemes to disinherit his brother and then systematically torments his father. The good son, reacting against unjust rejection by his father, joins a robber band and is implicated in appalling crimes. When his brother is finally unmasked, and his father found naked in a dungeon, the good son's evil deeds prevent his returning to normal life.

This family triangle is a more extreme version of Gloucester and his sons in king lear, and Shakespeare is one of the strong influences on the Sturm und Drang generation. The first collection of his plays in German is published in 1762-6.

Another powerful influence also comes from Britain. It is the forged poems, attributed to the Celtic bard Ossian, which are published in 1760-63 and are widely greeted as an inspiring glimpse of the authentic spirit of the Middle Ages. The revival of Interest in gothic architecture also plays its part. Goethe, when a student in Strasbourg in 1770-71, is particularly impressed by the beauty of the city's cathedral.

Finally, there is a revolutionary voice from France which inspires these young German poets in their reaction against convention and conformity. They instinctively respond to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's message that the heart is wiser than the head, and the man of feeling superior to the man of intellect.

Beaumarchais: AD 1775-1784

One of the theatre's most engaging characters bursts upon the stage in 1775 in a light comedy which is immediately a great success. Figaro, or Le Barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville), is witty and street-wise in a manner very similar to his creator, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

Beaumarchais' life begins with ingenuity and intrigue. At the age of nineteen, in 1751, he invents a new escapement for watches (watch-making being his father's trade). Another watchmaker attempts to steal the new idea. Beaumarchais' skilful conduct in the resulting litigation brings him the attention and patronage of the court.

For the rest of his life, until his death in 1799, Beaumarchais leads a dramatic and often dangerous existence as an entrepreneur and then as a secret agent on behalf of the French government. He is so busy with his schemes that his main love, the theatre, seems almost a sideline. But with the first appearance of Figaro, in 1775, he suddenly becomes France's leading dramatist.

Figaro uses his manipulative skills in The Barber of Seville to help the count Almaviva in his amorous pursuit of Rosine. The comic opportunities derive from the frantic efforts of Rosine's guardian, Bartholo (a crusty old doctor with designs on her himself), to keep the girl away from the attentions of any possible rival.

The success of these characters' first light-hearted appearance before the public prompts Beaumarchais to revisit them in a much darker comedy. By the time of Le Mariage de Figaro the count and Rosine have been married a few years. The count is tired of her and is intent on seducing her maid, Suzanne. But Suzanne is engaged to Figaro, now in the count's employment.

The clash of interest between Figaro and his master is developed on the suface in the traditions of light comedy or even farce, with much use of hasty concealment and mistaken identity. But underlying the fun is a more threatening theme. The count behaves with the arrogance of the old Feudal world. Figaro protests with the vigour of something new.

In a long soliloquy in the final act Figaro muses about his rival the count and finds him a man of little worth, apart from the benefit of the silver spoon in his mouth when he was born. Not surprisingly, when the play is first scheduled for production in 1781, the king bans it. He relents in 1784, when it is performed with great and immediate success - just five years before the outbreak of the French Revolution. Napoleon later describes the play as 'the revolution in action'.

Beaumarchais is fortunate that his two great comedies are transformed, by Rossini and Mozart, into two superb operas. Figaro would have lived in prose alone. But with such arias to his name, he has proved irrepressible.

This History is as yet incomplete.

Schiller's last years: AD 1797-1805

In 1797, when Europe is in the turmoil caused by the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, Goethe - with his power to guarantee a production in the Weimar court theatre - persuades Schiller to return to the role of dramatist. The result is seven plays in as many years, written in verse on broadly classical principles. They place Germany in the forefront of contemporary theatre.

The first plays in this group, performed on the Weimar stage in 1798 and 1799, are a trilogy about Wallenstein, a larger-than-life character in another great European conflict. Wallensteins Lager, Die Piccolomini and Wallensteins Tod dramatize the rise and fall of the brilliant but flawed commander in the Thirty Years' War.

The subsequent plays, several of them made famous by operatic adaptations, are Maria Stuart (1801, about the last days of Mary Queen of Scots), Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801, about Joan of Arc), Die Braut von Messina (1803, an invented story set in medieval Sicily and the most deliberately classical in its use of a chorus) and Wilhelm Tell (1804).

While Goethe encourages this final flowering of Schiller's theatrical talent, there is influence in the other direction too. It is largely on Schiller's urging that Goethe returns in 1797 to an early work on Faust and begins to revise it in keeping with the new classical principles of Weimar.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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