Class 11

Std. XI- 4.1 History of English Drama

 4.1 History of English Drama


1) Drama is a composition in verse or prose to be acted on the stage, in which a story is related by means of dialogue and action and is represented with, accompanying gesture, costume and scenery as in real life.

2) Drama is a composition designed for performance in the theatre in which actors take the roles of the characters, perform the indicated action and utter the written dialogue

The elements of drama are-

1. plot

2. characterization

3. dialogue

4. settings

5. stage directions

6. conflict

7. theme

(I) Introduction to English Theatre:

Drama has its origins in folk theatre. Drama is a multiple art using words, scenic effects, music, gestures of the actors and the organising talents of a producer. The dramatist must have players, a stage and an audience.

     The beginnings of drama in England are obscure. There is evidence to believe that when the Romans were in England, they established vast amphitheaters for the production of plays but when the Romans departed their theatre departed with them. 

  (Amphitheaters: a circular building without a roof and with rows of seats that rise in steps around an open space. Amphitheaters were used in ancient Greece and Rome.)

Then there were minstrels. (Minstrels: a medieval singer or musician, especially one who sang or recited lyric or heroic poetry to a musical accompaniment for the nobility.) People enjoyed their performances.

Gradually by the 10th century the ritual of the plays that itself had something dramatic in it and had got few features of a play.

Between the 13th and 14th century drama started having themes which were separated from religion. The words themselves were spoken in English, a longer dramatic script came into use, and they were called as Miracle plays. 

(Miracle plays: Miracle plays are among the earliest formally developed plays in medieval Europe. These plays focused on the representation of Bible stories in churches.)

Later, these religious dramas were the Morality plays in which characters were abstract vices and virtues. (Mortality Plays: a kind of allegorical drama having personified abstract qualities as the main characters and presenting a lesson about good conduct and character, popular in the 15th and early 16th centuries.) These were allegories. (Allegory: a story, play, picture, etc. in which each character or event is a symbol representing an idea or a quality, such as truth, evil, death, etc.; the use of such symbols.)

(II) Elizabethan and Restoration Theatre:

The Secular Morality plays have direct links with Elizabethan plays.

Features of the Renaissance Period:

i) They imposed a learned tradition.

ii) They were classical in depth with themes of education.

iii) They presented general moral problems.

iv) They showed secular politics.

v) These plays had nothing to do with religion.

vi) There were examples of both, comedy and tragedy. 

Prime Dramatists:

Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare are the prime dramatists of this era.

It was Kyd who discovered how easily blank verse might be converted into a useful theatrical medium which Shakespeare used brilliantly in all his plays.

     Tragedy developed in the hands of Kyd and Marlowe.

Comedy had also proceeded beyond rustic humour.

By the nineties of the 16th century, the theatre in England was fully established but complicated conditions governed the activities of the dramatist.

The public theatre of the 16th century:

i) It differed in many important ways from the modern theatre.

ii) It was open to sky.

iii) They were without artificial lighting.

iv) The stage was a raised platform with the recess at the back supported by pillars.

v)There was no curtain and the main platform could be surrounded on three sides by the audience.

vi) There were galleries around the theatre.

In the 17th century the enclosed theatre gained importance. There was increasing attention to scenic device as theatre became private.

William Shakespeare:

Shakespearean era came into existence in the 16th century to the public theatre. He wrote for the contemporary theatre, manipulating the Elizabethan stage with great resource and invention. William Shakespeare was an English playwright, poet, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s greatest dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon”.

Ben Johnson:

Ben Johnson was contemporary to William Shakespeare. He was a classicist, a moralist and a reformer of drama. In comedy, Johnson’s genius is found at its best and his influence was considerable. The Restoration dramatists leaned strongly upon him.

Closing of theatres:

Closing of theatres by the Puritans in 1642. The Puritans were English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to purify the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices, maintaining that the Church of England had not been fully reformed and should become more Protestant. With the Civil wars no theatre existed between 1642 to 1660.

The next phase which appeared after the Restoration produced a very different kind of dramatic literature. Dramatists like Chapman, Thomas Middleton, Webster and Dekker were at the forefront.

When Charles II came back with the Restoration of 1660, the theatres were reopened. The Restoration comedy achieved its peculiar excellence. Drama developed into class drama with upper-class ethos. It lasted beyond this period into the first decade of the 18th century.

Comedy in the early 18th century declined into sentimentalism. It became Comedy of Manners. George Etherege was its most important exponent. From such depths the drama was rescued by Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Sheridan.

(III) Modern Theatre:


1) Use of picture frame stage.

2) Actresses taking female parts.

3) Moveable scenery designed to create a visual image for each scene.

4) Use of artificial lights.

5) Irregular spectacle, melodrama and farce.

6) Monopoly held by the two houses, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, for the performance of serious drama.

7) The audiences which gathered to the 19th century theatre had not the intelligence or the imagination of the Elizabethan audience.

8) The danger in the 19th century theatre was that, above all, it was unrelated to the life of the time.

Henrik Ibsen:

    Ibsen was the great Norwegian dramatist of the 19th century. He dominates the modern drama. He developed modernist, realist, social and psychological dramas like The Doll’s house, Ghosts, and An Enemy of the People. They are far more subtle in stagecraft and profound in thought than anything in the modern English theatre.

G. B. Shaw:

    George Bernard Shaw was deeply influenced and affected by Ibsen’s innovative contributions and experimentation. He was the most brilliant playwrights of his times. He alone had understood the greatness of Ibsen and he was determined that his own plays should also be a vehicle for ideas.

The responsibility of elevation of the English drama to the brilliance of the Ibsen, fell with Oscar Wilde and G. B. Shaw in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The 20th century Drama:

The 20th century showed a talent in the drama with which the 19th century could not compete. H. Granville Barker, John Galsworthy, St. John Ervine were some of the playwrights who explored contemporary problems. St. John Ervine had been associated with a group of Irish dramatists whose work was normally produced in the Abbey theatre in Dublin. Much that is best in the modern drama in English developed from this movement. One of its originators were Lady Gregory with W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge. They were the most important dramatists of this Irish revival who used a sense of tragic irony, a violent species of humour and a rich and highly flavoured language.

       T.S. Eliot experimented with Greek tragedy in the early forties of the 20th century. Other dramatists of the modern era, John Osborne, wrote on people who grew up after the Second World War.

Kingsley Amis wrote about frustrated, anti-establishment young people. Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’ brought a new vitality to the theatre scene. It was more a cultural phenomenon than the work of literature.

Other important playwrights of the modern era include Anton Chekhov, Bertolt Brecht, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee William, Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

(IV) Indian Theatre:


i) Earliest seeds of modern Indian Drama can be found in the Sanskrit Drama.

ii) From the first century A.D. ‘Mahabhasya’ by Patanjali provides a feasible date for the beginning of theatre in India.

iii) ‘A Treatise on Theatre’ (Natya Shastra) by Bharat Muni is the most complete work of dramatology in the ancient world. It gives mythological account of the origin of theatre.

iv) Modern Indian drama however, has influences from all over the world, as well as Sanskrit and Urdu traditions.


Objective Test

1) Name any four periods of History of British Drama.

Answer:- The four periods of History of British Drama are:

i) Medieval period

ii) Renaissance period

iii) Restoration period

iv) Victorian period

2) List the four elements of drama.

Answer:- The four elements of drama are plot, characters, theme and stage directions. 

3) Give any two examples of dramas each from any four periods of history.


i) Medieval period         

:- Robin Hood, Everyman

ii) Renaissance period          

:- Romeo and Juliet, Duchess of Malfi

iii) Restoration period  

:- All for Love, The Way of the World

iv) Victorian period       

:- The Importance of Being Earnest, A Doll’s House

4) Compare the features of a comedy and tragedy.




i) A comedy deals with humorous story with a happy ending.

i) The tragedy deals with a serious or darker themes with sad ending.

ii) A comedy creates laughter and fun.

ii) A tragedy creates emotions of pity and fear.

iii) A comedy depends mostly on unusual circumstances and witty dialogues

iii) In tragedy the main character mostly has a moral flaw that causes the tragic end.

iv) A Comedy uses humorous dialogues and situations to give relief

iv) A tragedy evokes pity for the characters and teach moral lesson.

5) Define drama.

Answer:- Drama is a composition in verse or prose to be acted on the stage. It tells a story through action, costume, setting and dialogue.

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