Elizabethan Drama

Elizabeth's reign saw a sudden rise in the standards of drama. The number of dramatic works increased along with the quality of the writing. Although contemporaries often found fault with it - Sidney wrote in his Apology For Poetry how the playwrights of his day were blurring the lines between comedy and tragedy to poor effect - it is now considered the golden age of theatre. The greatest innovation of the dramatists was to introduce freer "common" speech into the rigid formulae of Renaissance style. This was despite the fact that conservative trends in popular theatre were so strong the traditional medieval "morality plays" were still being performed up until 1575. Alongside the new work and parochial continuities, classical plays were becoming very popular, especially in the universities. Plays were performed both in theatres and at special performances put on at the court (in which choristers from St Paul's were employed to perform). One of the effects of this was to create an increased need for bands of professional actors. Puritan complaints about drama grew, however, and in the early seventeenth century would lead to an outright ban on theatres.

Generally speaking the Puritans were against this new artistic trend toward the theatrical. They saw stands of paganism, idolatry and other corruptible traits in the costumed world of the theatre, and did not think it morally sound to have boys playing the parts written for females. They were especially disgusted that the court on occasion watched plays on Sundays, this being seen as an out and out contravention of the Sabbath. What must be understood is that the Puritans viewed plays as something akin to prostitution or gambling, and we can only imagine what they made of the court involving choristers in such goings on.

The bands of players which found the most success, not unsurprisingly, were those patronized by the court. The establishing of a troupe of actors was very much the done thing in Elizabeth's court; the earls of Essex, Pembroke, Warwick, Leicester, Oxford and Worcester all had their own bands. Nor was the Queen immune from this trend, acquiring as she did the best players from established troupes. She even went another step better by having her actors raised to the rank of royal servants.

Of the individual actors from these troupes only a few names stand out, but their fame and work could make and break a play. Edward Alleyn is perhaps the most important, making Marlowe's reputation almost single-handedly through his renditions in the Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine Pats I and II, and Dr Faustus. It was the actors of the "Lord Chamberlain's Men", however, who were to become the real stars of Elizabethan drama. Set up in 1594 they acquired the prodigious talents of the actors William Kempe and Richard Burbage. They also signed up the playwright William Shakespeare to make their name immortal. Their fame was so large that even the Queen came to enjoy the fruits of their efforts. She is said to have watched A Comedy of Errors with Essex (obviously in the happier days of their relationship) and been at the first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The major breakthrough in Elizabethan drama, however, came when certain troops were so famous they no longer needed to tour. People would now travel to see them. This made the establishment of theatres a realistic option. This was despite a number of obstacles. The Puritans were, obviously, against the new theatres. As well as their general mistrust of plays per se, they thought theatres would be a place of overcrowding, noise and violence. On a more practical level, the ever-present threat of plague was a major consideration because the close confines of the theatre were perfect for the spread of infectious disease. Despite all this, however, the first playhouse, named simply "The Theatre", was opened in 1577. This led to a spate of building including "The Globe" in 1599. This was specifically designed by actors with the needs of the audience in mind. It was a revolutionary building just as the idea of engineering for entertainment was a revolutionary idea. Its destruction in 1613 by fire after a stage cannon malfunctioned spelt the end of the original theatre and also hastened Shakespeare's retirement. The golden age of drama was already reaching its end. The foundations of modern theatre, though, had now been laid.

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