For centuries, theatre has been one of the public’s favourite and most popular forms of entertainment. Whether a play provides escapism, humour or catharsis, the theatre is an exciting and thought-provoking space in which one can explore alternative ideas and perspectives. There is nothing quite like the immersive, theatrical experience of seeing a play live on stage.
The theatre is also an integral part of any country or civilisation's culture and history. In the UK, a country steeped in theatrical history, the most iconic and famous theatre district is London’s West End. From huge, critically acclaimed plays such as War Horse or Touching The Void, to immersive, terrifying performances such as Ghost Stories or The Woman in Black, Best-tickets.com is currently offering a wide range of shows in London. Join over 7,000,000 other users and compare the prices of the most cutting edge shows in the West End today.
In the West, the idea of theatre evolved over centuries, yet, as far as we know, its origins lie in Ancient Greece. From the 6th century BCE in Athens, religious festivals took place to honour Dionysus, the God of wine and fertility, who is now sometimes referred to as the God of theatre. The first play which derived from the Ancient Greeks was the tragedy play, yet the exact origins of this has been subject to scholarly debate. However, it has been suggested that the tragedy is rooted in the rituals formed in worship for Dionysos, whereby actors would wear masks and sing ritual songs.
Early tragedies in Ancient Greece started with one actor wearing a mask and then developed into longer plays performed in huge, open air theatres which were called ‘Theatrons’. Plot lines were often based on Greek mythology and associated with Greek religion. Another important genre in Ancient Greek theatre was the comedy and although there are no exact traces of its origin, the plays derived from imitation.
When the Romans expanded into Greek territories (509-27 BC), a period known as Greece in the Roman era, they encountered Greek theatre and adapted Greek tragedy and comedy for Roman audiences. However, Roman theatre was more varied, extensive and sophisticated; it included a range of theatrical performances such as huge festivals, nude dancing, acrobatics and extremely elaborate tragedies. Inspired by the Ancient Greeks, plays were performed in huge amphitheaters, often in a semicircular shape as well as smaller wooden structures.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Medieval theatre emerged as a form of entertainment for people in the middle ages. However, the theatre was mainly dominated by the church and used as a vehicle to spread religious ideas. In Britain during this period, theatre was extremely religiously oriented. Yet gradually, theatre became more secular and the religious influence dissipated during the 1200s; theatre productions were held outdoors and staged by trade guilds.
During the 16th century, theatre flourished in what is commonly known as the Renaissance period; a cultural movement of ‘rebirth’ which started in Italy and swept through Europe and presenting new ways of thinking in art, literature, philosophy as well as the theatre. While the Tragedy, Comedy and Pastoral genres became dominant forms of Renaissance drama, Opera was born in Florence towards the latter part of the 16th century.
The 16th century in Britain is widely known as the Elizabethan era as it marked Queen Elizabeth’s reign from 1558 to 1603. With regards to theatre, it was one of the most significant and famous periods in history and in many ways, it has hugely shaped theatre today. After centuries of theatre being dominated by religion, Henry VIII, who set up his own church, banned all religious performances in order to prevent any plays about Catholicism. Consequently, this led to more freedom in theatre which encouraged new ways of thinking.
There is no doubt that the most famous and memorable playwright in this period is the notorious William Shakespeare, who has written some of the greatest plays in world literature. An actor, playwright and business partner in a major business company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare became extremely famous in the London theatre world during the Elizabethan period. Premiering some of his most acclaimed plays at the Globe Theatre, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, the famous theatre on Southbank is often referred to as ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’. While the Globe can be visited as a tourist attraction today, the original building burned down in 1614, during Shakespeare’s performance of Henry VII, and was rebuilt in 1644, to be destroyed again in order to make room for housing. Today, you can visit a recreation of it which still has Elizabethan style architecture.
Yet Shakespeare was not the only successful playwright of the time; his contemporaries include Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, Ben Jonson and Thomas Dekker who have also produced extremely famous and well-studied plays. While Marlowe began writing plays before Shakespeare, Ben Jonson (Volpone), was considered his main rival. Compared to previous centuries, plays by these writers were much more complex and profound which, in the case of Shakespare, often explore the human condition and that is why his plays are so timeless and still resonate with audiences today.
Evidently, the theatre industry in the Elizabethan era was thriving and considered the most dominant art form at the time. People from all social classes and sexes (although sometimes women had to hide their identity) attended plays in Elizabethan Britain; it became the most popular form of entertainment and a chance to socialise. However, there were still some plays which were only intended for the educated upper classes.
Following the significant developments made in theatre during the 16th century, in Britain, public stage performances were banned in 1642 after the English Civil War broke out and Charles 1, who promoted theatre, lost to the puritans. Under the puritan rule, led by Oliver Cromwell, theatre was considered too frivolous and unacceptable. The ban was lifted in 1660 after the restoration of the monarchy and Charles 11 came into power. This period saw ‘restoration drama’; theatre became much more spectacular with elaborate scenery and theatre building designs. In other European countries such as France, the 17th century saw timeless playwrights such as Moliere emerge and in Japan,
, Japan’s popular form of theatre, became a favourite leisure activity.
During the 18th century, hundreds more theatres were built across Europe. For example in Paris, at the beginning of the century, the city had three theatres but by 1791 there were 51. While London theatres were restricted by Lord Chamberlain, Britain saw a rise in theatres in provincial towns where young actors were trained. This is where David Garrick, arguably the century’s greatest actor, was trained up and the quality of acting became important in the theatre world. In France, there was the development of the ‘middle class drama’; plays which focused on more middle class storylines since the theatre was no longer restricted to the aristocracy.
In the West during the nineteenth century, a wide range of theatrical and artistic movements emerged such as Romanticism, melodrama, the problem plays of Naturalism and Realism, Wagner’s operatic Gesamtukunstwerk and the well-made places of Scribe and sadrou. In terms of technical advancements, the first gas lighting and electrical lights were introduced in Britain as well as the first elevator stage in Budapest. During the 1890s in the UK, comedies by Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw became extremely popular.
While realism and naturalism were popular forms of theatre in the 19th century, in the 20th century theatre became much more experimental and there was a marked reaction against realism. Indeed, this reaction was across a variety of art forms; more avant garde, experimental forms of theatre were rejecting the political upheaval and World Wars. For example, following the Russian revolution, theatre directors such as Yevgeny Bagrationovich Vajhtangov introduced more colourful, experimental productions during the 1920s (these stopped once Stalin came into power), France enjoyed the avant-garde movement and German expressionism became popular in reaction to World War 1.
Now we are in the 21st century and this long, complex history of theatre which has taken fascinating twists and turns has greatly shaped the type of theatre we enjoy today. One can enjoy a typical production of Shakespeare or go to see an extremely experimental, avant-garde play; so far theatre in the 21st century enjoys an era of pluralism. Clearly, the historical and political situation can have a huge impact on the progression of theatre. Political and issues of a particular time can be reflected in theatre.
21st century: how will digital technology impact the theatre industry?
However, it has been noted that the number of people attending the theatre has declined massively and much of this can be accredited to other forms of entertainment taking over in the digital age; it is difficult for the theatre to compete with other modern forms of technology such as the cinema, radio, television. Unfortunately, people no longer feel the need to watch something live on stage when they can see it on Netflix at home.
At the same time the digital age has the potential to bring new and exciting possibilities to theatre. For example, new technology could create immersive and participative theatre for audiences; powerful shows exist today which combine technology and theatre. It could be argued therefore, that the digital technology has the capacity to connect audiences better to the subject matter, as well as allowing them to experience the performance, not just see it. After all, the magic of theatre is about experiencing the performance, feeling the characters emotions live on stage - could digital technology simply enhance the experience?
London’s West End
Located in the capital, London’s West End is a vibrant and legendary theatre district which people travel to from all over the world. Showcasing some of the cutting edge plays, it is on a par with New York’s Broadway in representing the highest level of commercial theatre. From budget musicals to critically acclaimed plays starring celebrities, there is something for everyone at the West End.
After the theatre ban was lifted in 1660, the theatre industry in London came alive; the oldest West End theatre is the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which opened in 1663 and is still showing performances today. Following this, many other theatres were established, such as the Theatre Royal Haymarket and the Adeplhi in 1806. This small group of theatres were the beginnings of the bright lights we know today as the West End. It was not until 1846, when the laws on theatre relaxed, that the West End really became the thriving metropolis it is today.
London’s West End now boasts approximately 40 different venues which range greatly in size and the type of theatre they show. The biggest theatre in the West End, The English National Opera’s Coliseum seats an astonishing 2,359, and other enormous theatres, such as the London Palladium, has a capacity of 2,286 seats. However, there are also smaller, more intimate theatres, such as the Arts Theatres, which seats 250 people and Trafalgar Studios which only has a capacity of 380.
Primarily spanning over Charing Cross, Leicester Square, Picadilly Circus and Covent Garden, the West End or the area commonly known as ‘Theatreland’ also includes other forms of entertainment, such as eating out and shopping. A trip to the West End can therefore be a full night out!
Theatre across the UK
While the legendary West End is undoubtedly regarded the epicentre of theatrical scene in the UK, the theatre industry is also booming in other major UK cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Edinbrugh, Glasgow, Cardiff, Bristol, Liverpool and Chichester. From the beautiful Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, to the amazingly well preserved Bristol Old Vic, these cities showcase West End performances. Many of these cities also have their own National Theatre companies, such as the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and The National Theatre of Scotland. This just goes that there is more to British theatre culture than the West End!
Yet perhaps one of the most vibrant and significant theatre events is the infamous Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Taking over the beautiful and historical city of Edinburgh over the whole month of August, the Edinburgh Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world, showcasing over 50,000 performances, 3,000 shows, in 299 venues across the city. A place where innovative, alternative performances can make their debut, the Edinbrugh fringe is a vital platform to showcase new theatrical talent; it is a place to ‘make it’ in the theatre world before moving to the West End.
Awards in the theatre industry
In order to celebrate excellence in Theatre, there are several awards available in the UK theatre industry. Perhaps some of the most prestigious and valued awards, which really marks the success of a show or individual, is the prestigious Laurence Olivier Awards. Taking place in the capital, these awards are presented annually by the Society of London Theatre and celebrate the world-class status of London theatre.
Other significant awards in the theatre industry include The Evening Standard Theatre Awards, the oldest theatrical awards ceremony in the UK which was first established in 1955, The London Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards and the WhatsOnStage Awards. All of these awards allow theatre productions to be internationally recognised for their excellence and are highly regarded in Britain.
Evidently, the extraordinary art of theatre has developed over centuries, enjoying huge advancements and today, we can enjoy expansive ‘theatre lands’ such as the West End which are rich in history. As we trace back the act of theatre as early as the Ancient Greeks, it is clear that humankind is fascinated by the concept of theatre, of being a spectator in a new world on stage and exploring what makes us, as humans tick. From the Shakesperian dramas acted out at the globe, to immersive shows using technology, the development of theatre illustrates that perhaps, what entertains us, moves us, makes us feel connected, is not that different to our ancestors.