It's not all about Shakespeare when it comes to English theater – you can even get to see some excellent plays that have nothing to do with Shakespeare at all. England is a paradise for lovers of theater. You can see small plays in small, lovely theaters, or you can go for the huge stage productions (in London you can basically find anything – and if you are lucky, you might even get to see some very famous names like Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage in a play). So, what does England have on offer for people who are interested in theater? Let's have a look at some developments in the English theater scene.
The early beginnings of theater came to England with the Romans who introduced their auditoriums to Britain. Up to the Medieval times, English theater was not that exciting (but it surely was for the people of that time). It mainly consisted of mummer's plays and things like Morris dances, i.e. dances that were performed by groups with swords. It was still a long road to Shakespeare and modern theater.
From around 1350, theater became more and more popular in England. This mainly had to do with the fact that the church took quite an interest in using theater plays as a way to spread their message. Theater was seen as a great way to teach the more ordinary people something about the church and some important events in church history. People took to it well, after all it was a nice break from their everyday life, and many of the plays were actually quite entertaining. You see, “edutainment” is not exactly a modern thing. The church knew how to do it in the middle ages!
During the time of Henry VIII (who reigned over England from 1509 to 1547) theater also became more important as entertainment for the court. Religious plays, on the other hand, suffered quite a bit because of the Reformation. Secular drama became dominant, and while plays in the past had often been performed in mobile wagons or in big halls in the homes of the rich and royal, the 16th century saw the emergence of the first proper playhouses in England. The first playhouse was built outside the city walls of London as London was not that keen on public performances yet.
The late 16th century is often seen as a vital period for English theater. It was the time of playwrights like Shakespeare and Marlowe, who were required to produce new plays on a very regular bases as the theater companies were performing up to 40 new plays each year. Theater companies were serious rivals, and the main actors also had shares in the theaters – so the more popular their plays were, the more they also earned. Minor actors were only paid on a weekly base while there were also the boys, needed to play female roles, who received only little money as they were only seen as apprentices.
In 1599, the famous Globe Theater was erected. Up to three thousand people could see the plays in this new theater, and today it is mainly well known because some of Shakespeare's most famous and most popular plays were written for this theater. Don't confuse the the 1990 reconstruction of the Globe with the original though.
Shakespeare died in 1616, and unlike many of his contemporary writers, he lived a life with relatively little scandals. He might have been too busy focusing on his writing – or he might just have been better at keeping his secrets secret. Who knows?
During the civil war, theaters were closed for eighteen years, as it was feared that theaters could be places for civil unrest. During the restoration, theater in England changed once more – one very notable change was that female playwrights were finally also accepted. In the following centuries, theaters became even more popular, more and more proper theaters were built, and quite a few people could make a living with being actors or playwrights alone.
One might assume that theater does not play such an important role in modern England anymore – after all there is a lot of competition for theaters in the form of movie theaters, TV movies, concerts, and computer games. However, when you pick up any copy of magazines in London that tell you “What's up in London” (or any other bigger city in England), you will always see that theater plays still hold a vital role in the entertainment scene in England.
There are small plays of not very well known writers with little known actors (though sometimes you can find a movie actor playing in those plays, but there usually isn't much fuss made about it), and there are big productions of new and old plays (Shakespeare will most likely always be a favorite).