The Classical Theatre

For centuries now, the theatre has been responsible for entertaining its citizens all over the world. From plays, to dramas, to Pantomime and even concerts. In the last 300 years, Opera has also been included on the ever growing list of theatrical entertainment.

Today the theatre grows in ever increasing popularity and with equally increasing diversity of entertainment.

“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” Oscar Wilde

The origin of the Classical theatre is unclear, but we do know that it dates back as far as the 4th century BC.

Perhaps one of the earliest examples of theatre, the Athenian Epidaurus theatre in Athens dating back to the 4th century BC


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A 4th century BC roman theatre in Orange France


Source www.freefoto.com

The first plays had just one actor called a (protagonist) and he would tell his story with the help of a support chorus of up to 50 people. So popular was the classical theatre that playwrights would continue to innovate throughout the 5th century BC. Later the playwright Aeschylus added a second speaking role, the antagonist, and reduced the chorus to 12.

Aeschylus’ play ‘The Persians’, was first performed in 472 BC, and is considered to be the oldest surviving of all Greek plays.

A third actor was added by Sophocles, a student of Aeschylus, and further additions were then made by Euripides to introduce the subject of the play, and a deus ex machina. This was a plot device to allow the players a way-out of an awkward ending.

Perhaps one of the most popular of all playwrights, and particularly English ones, was William Shakespeare 1564-1616.   He wrote and performed many plays between 1589 and 1613. In total he wrote 37 plays, categorised into Comedies, Histories and tragedies. However, despite his popularity, drama during the Elizabethan period 1558-1603, was subject to much criticism and censorship from some areas of society.

There were also concerns that overcrowding in these establishments could lead to the spread of disease, and so in order to satisfy the concerns of the Puritans, Queen Elizabeth established rules prohibiting the building of classical theatres and even performances of plays inside the city limits.

The first classical theatre was built in 1576 on London’s South Bank at shoreditch and was called ‘The Theatre’ It was built by James Burbage who had obtained a twenty one year lease on the ground. Previous to this time, plays were performed in Inns or houses of the Nobility, or even on open ground. On expiry of the lease, the landlord Giles Allen who disapproved of theatre, decided to increase the lease to an unaffordable level. Negotiations between himself and the theatre owners broke down, and when the lease expired, they moved to the Curtain theatre.

Giles Allen had planned to pull down the theatre and sell off the materials, but Burbage having got wind of this plan, found a clause in the contract that entitled the players to dismantle the theatre themselves and remove the materials. The players would have worked hard to transport the dismantled theatre across the Thames to Bankside, where it could be rebuilt. The new theatre was built by Peter Smith between 1597-1598 and was named The Globe. It was regarded by Londoners at the time as a truly magnificent theatre. There are conflicting accounts of how many the theatre could hold but some reports estimate the number as high as three thousand.

The original Globe was burnt down in 1613 due to some stray wadding fired from a canon, catching fire to the roof. It was rebuilt within the year but provided this time with a tiled roof.

It was closed down in 1642 under the Puritan administration and demolished in 1644.

His most famous venue for the performances of his plays was the Globe theatre built in 1599.


The Original Globe theatre

Source www.shakespearesglobe.com

At the end of the Elizabethan period , Shakespeare responded to changes in popular tastes, and with the reign of King James(The Jacobean period 1567-1625), Shakespeare responded to shifts in popular tastes, both in Vogue, and subject matter.

With the Execution of Charles I 1649, Cromwell imposed an interregnum (suspension of normal government). During this time the theatre lost much of its popularity when the Puritans, seeing it as sinful, tried to drive it out altogether.

When Charles II 1660, was restored to the throne having spent many years in exile, the classical theatre was once again returned to popularity particularly due to influences from France.

Theatre during the Early 18th century seems to represent a dramatic change in audience behaviour. Theatres such as Drury Lane, Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden, although very popular, were known to be the reluctant hosts of riotous and sometimes violent audiences. A far cry from well behaved audiences of today.

Theatres however were not only used to present plays and dramas but also Operas, the first of which dates back to the 16th Century in Florence Italy with Jacopo Peri’s ‘Dafne’ 1598.

In the 17th century operas spread across Europe, Henry Purcell in England, Heinrich Schutz in Germany, and Jean-Baptiste Lully in France.

In the 18th Century Italian opera dominated most of Europe with the exception of France, and attracted classical composers such as George Frederick Handel, and Christolph Willibald Gluck. Perhaps one of the most popular classical composers of opera in the late 18th century was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791.


Probably one of the most prolific classical composers the world has ever seen, he wrote over 300 pieces of music many of which were operas. The most popular of these were The Marriage of Figaro(Le Nozze Di Figaro), Don Giovanni, Cosi Van Tutti(That’s what women do), The Magic Flute(Die Zauberflote) and The Escape From the Hareem(Die Entfuhrung Aus Dem Serial)

The Early 19th Century saw composers of the bel canto style such as Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. This was a particular style of singing, but its exact meaning is open to interpretation. One suggestion has it that it means “Beautiful singing”, although one ingredient of this style is Chiaroscuro meaning light and dark in its art form.

In the middle to late 19th century , the Librettist WS Gilbert 1836-1911 and the Composer Arthur Sullivan 1842-1900 colluded to compose several light operas or operettas between 1871-1896. These became very popular in the classical theatre.

Perhaps the most memorable of these were The Mikado, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, The Yeoman of the Guard, and the Gondoliers. Many of these operas are still performed today in English speaking countries.

Musicals, as distinct from opera and Pantomime, have been around for centuries, although the accompanying musical instruments have developed dramatically since ancient times.

The 19th century saw the emergence of the modern Western musical with Harrigan and Hart in America and then the Edwardian musical comedies in England.


The development of the musical theatre continued into the 20th century with composers such as George Gershwin 1898-1937. After many rehearsals at various locations and rewrites, his musical Porgy and Bess was eventually performed in 1935 on Broadway.

Composer Richard Rogers 1902-1979 and Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein 1895-1960, also wrote a number of musicals between the 1940s and 50s. Among the most popular musicals of the day were; Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.

Many of these musicals were later put to film for the Big screen and were seen in several countries around the world.

The 20th and 21st century have seen an explosion of musicals with productions from Lyricist Sir Tim Rice 1944, and composer Lord Lloyd Webber 1948, with their musicals; Joseph and the Amazing technicolour Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita.

The Pantomime is another form of musical that has its roots dating back to the 16th century.

Today, the pantomime has taken on a particularly English tradition of musical entertainment. However there are a number of differences that distinguish it from other forms of musical entertainment. Pantomimes are generally designed to cater for the younger generation with themes based on fairy tales or other such fantasy stories. They tend to be humorous and slapstick with gender role reversal among the leading players. Audience participation is also encouraged by joining in with the songs, and of course Pantomime wouldn’t be Pantomime without the little ones and the not so little ones shouting at, and booing at the players.