The first English plays were the medieval Miracle Plays or Mystery Plays. They told religious stories and were performed in open places or in the churches on stage wagons. Other early plays were called Morality Plays. Their characters were allegorical types representing virtues (beauty, strength, chastity, good deeds etc.) and vices (greed, envy etc.).
A well-known morality play is Everyman. Its theme is the summoning of Everyman by Death. Everyman finds out that none of his friends but Good Deeds are willing to accompany him.
After this, the Interludes were created, which were performed at Court or at rich men's houses or gardens. Like the moralities, the interludes had allegorical characters; the new elements that were added were rough humour and comic relief.
In the late 16th century Chronicle plays became widely popular for their stage battles and impressive pageantry. They were based on the historical material of RAPHAEL HOLINSHED'S Chronicles (1577) and consisted of a loosely knit series of events during the reign of an English monarch. There was a rising interest in the English past due to the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE in his Edward II (1592) and WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE in his history plays shaped the historical material into unified drama centring around individual characters.
During the Elizabethan age tragedy and comedy developed. The Renaissance gave rise to a growing interest in man as presented in classical (Greek and Latin) drama, which had examples of both comedy and tragedy. It is the period marking the transition from the medieval to the modern world. Renaissance plays no longer dealt with religious subjects.
The first great English dramatist before SHAKESPEARE to turn away from allegorical types as characters and to focus on the individual was CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE. His tragedies, Tamburlaine the Great and The Jew of Malta, are full of violence; they deal with ambition and the struggle for power. So does The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1604). It is based on the well-known story of a man who sold his soul to the devil in order to gain power and wealth in this life.
The Elizabethan dramatist who added psychological insight and mastery of the plot to MARLOWE'S accomplishment was WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE; who wrote more than 30 plays. Most famous are his tragedies Romeo and Juliet (1594/95), Julius Caesar (1598–1600), Hamlet (1600/01) Othello (1604/05), King Lear and Macbeth (1605-06) and his comedies A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595/96), Measure for Measure (1604–05).
Religious medieval plays were either performed inside or near churches. If the travelling players performed in the open, stage wagons were used as stages. These stages were open to all sides. In SHAKESPEARE'S time performances were given in inn yards; two stage wagons were pushed together forming a stage. In London, in the 1570s the first institutionalized public playhouses, The Rose and The Theatre, were built. SHAKESPEARE, together with some actors, had a playhouse built on the south bank of the Thames: the Globe Theatre, which opened in 1599.
The Globe was a three-tiered building consisting of galleries, surrounding an open-air courtyard. The galleries had a thatched roof, which was probably the reason why the Globe burned down so soon, in 1613. Two thirds of the audience sat on backless wooden benches whilst the “groundlings” stood in the pit around the stage. The platform stage, which protruded into the audience, was visible from three sides. There was neither artificial lighting or sound amplification, or any stage scenery. The actors entered the stage from their dressing-room which was underneath the stage. The costumes were seldom historically accurate. As the Elizabethan plays originally did not have any division into acts or scenes, a rhyming couplet communicated the end of a scene and the change of the scenery to the actors and the audience.
Because of the open platform stage the contact between the audience and the actors was close. Monologues and 'asides' (aside = speech meant to be heard by the audience only, not by the characters present on stage) could be directly addressed to the spectators. The closeness between the actors and the spectators forced the actors to arrest the audience's interest and to carry them away in the most moving scenes. If the actors failed to establish contact with the audience the performance could end up in uproar. The Elizabethan theatre was a public place open to people of all social classes, because everybody could afford the price for standing-room. Consequently, the play had to meet the expectations of all classes; of the educated citizens or noblemen as well as of the illiterate “groundlings”.
The playhouse and the players' companies (of professional actors) were run by shareholding companies. The dramatist sold his play to a company and was paid by the day, according to the play's popularity. The Puritan reaction of the 17th century put an end to the Elizabethan theatre, the popularity of which has never again been repeated.
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