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Theatre-Its Origin & History
In the beginning, there was no fixed stage or theatre in England. The Mystery, Miracle and Morality plays were presented on a series of carts that could be drawn easily from one place to another.
Theatre reached its climax in the period of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603). She was a great patron of arts and promoted theatre during her reign. At that time, theatre became the most popular form of information, entertainment and education. As the most realistic and close-to-life art form, the theatre appealed to the common people.
In the beginning, there were strolling plays enacted by travelling theatre groups. They delivered their theatrical performances while travelling the whole country. But these strolling plays did not make money since the audience melted away as the hat went around. The players usually used the courtyards and barns of various inns to enact these plays all over the country.
Later in 1550s London, the spectator had to put his penny in a box at the entrance (hence ‘box-office’) of the inn-yards. Then in 1576, James Burbage built up a permanent theatre in England. He built it for the Earl of Leicester’s players, who had a Royal Patent. This was the first purpose-built permanent public theatre in the history of England. It became the turning point in the history of English theatre.
Commercial Theatre in England
Commercial theatre in the Elizabethan Period thrived immensely, pulling large crowds of people belonging to different classes. The lowest paid were called ‘the groundlings’ since they had to sit on the floor nearest the stage. Those who could pay well could have special seats. Some even had the privilege to sit right on the stage. Sometimes the players also used the court or the aristocratic houses for private performances.
Theatrical companies earned a lot of profit also because most of them were patronized by lords and noblemen. Actors wore liveries of their companies. The medieval reputation of the actors as socially inferior or vagabonds had gone.
William Shakespeare did so well writing for the stage that he is said to have bought a partnership in the Globe Theatre. He also gave so many performances at the Royal court. The commercial theatre became so much popular at that time because the drama was the only form of public entertainment.
The Curtain Theatre was another achievement of this period. It actually started in 1577. Shakespeare enacted most of his plays there and it eventually became the venue for the theatre company of Shakespeare.
The Plays Preserved
At the time of his death in 1616, half of Shakespeare’s plays had not been printed yet. In 1623, two of his fellows somehow brought out a collected edition. This collection consisted of almost thirty-six plays written in a book of nearly nine hundred double-column pages. They were in a large Folio, entitled, Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, only nineteen plays had come out in little Quartos, pirated versions which evoked the players to bring out better quartos. Later on they brought out quartos of much-performed plays.
English literature would have been very different if Shakespeare’s fellow-actors hadn’t brought out the Folio. If his friends had not printed his plays, half of them (including Macbeth and The Tempest) would have been lost; the Folio is his true monument.
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