The early history of drama is more difficult to chart accurately even than that of fiction or poetry, not least because there are so few English examples before the ‘mystery plays’ of the Middle Ages and a lack of clear ‘movements’ even after that. Furthermore, during certain periods, theatre has been marginalised or censored which hardly assists continuity. Barren periods in theatre have been more common and lengthy than in any other art form. Acting has been deemed at times to be unchristian, idolatrous and depraved or, worse, boring. Actors themselves have frequently been seen to be one of the humbler classes, and only towards the end of the 19th century did their status start to improve. It is only since the 16th century, in fact, that plays and players have been settled in theatres in England and that drama, as we know it, has taken shape.

Unlike the theatre-based entertainments of the ancient world - where an audience would gather to watch plays looking down from the raised semi-circular viewing platforms of an amphitheatre - English drama was less fixed and grew up on the road. Travelling companies of players would arrive in a town or the court and put on one or more plays: some serious, some light, and often with religious subjects. Moreover, there was clearly much improvisation. For the uninitiated, an interesting and enlightening (albeit fictional) account of the medieval player’s lifestyle and art can be found in Barry Unsworth’s novel, Morality Play (1995).

  By PanEris using Melati.

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