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The theatrical world has grown immensely over the past few centuries. From comedies to dramas, Broadway to cinema, modern drama is at the height of human advancement. But, how did we get here? Where did this all begin? Interestingly enough, the first documented dramas were actually religious performances. Religion is commonly emphasized as the backbone for many theatrical aspects all over the world, but specifically in Europe. It is credited with showcasing the first performances for religious festivals utilizing actors portraying different characters. Most commonly, Catholicism encouraged performance as the form of storytelling as a better way to convey the gospels and teachings.
The origins of theatre in Ireland and England are prime examples of how religion sparked the increase of performance and audience appeal. Theatre in Ireland was first seen as a form of religious performance, seen as early as the 14th century. The recorded history of Irish theatre began at the start of the 17th century with the rise of the English administration in Dublin. The first well-documented instance of a theatrical production in Ireland is a 1601 staging of Gorboduc presented by Lord Mountjoy Lord Deputy of Ireland in the Great Hall in Dublin Castle.
How it works
While Ireland is not commonly thought of as a hub for theatre, the country heavily contributed to the world of drama in English. In the early days of its history, Lynch 2 theatrical productions in Ireland tended to serve the political purposes of the administration and religious purposes. To this day, Irish theatre continues to highlights its religious roots by showcasing the Catholic appeal of certain shows. Some examples of these productions include Testament by Colm Tibn, “a dark, brooding, wordy monologue starring none other than the Virgin Mary, who puts right a few misconceptions about the death of her son” (Fisher) and The Blue Boy, “a troubling piece of documentary theatre about Ireland’s industrial schools, where religious orders would educate orphaned children” (Fisher).
There are many more religion-based shows in Ireland – all aiming to reconnect with the Catholic roots of theatre. Beginning with its religious roots, theatre in Ireland has flourished since; churning out a multitude of famous playwrights and theaters as well. Additionally, many Dublin-based theaters developed connections with equivalents over in London, so many productions as well as performers from England commonly went back and forth between London and Ireland stages. For example, Oscar Wilde was a famous playwright born and raised in Dublin, Ireland who moved to London in order to fulfill his career writing short stories and plays.
Wilde is known for his plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, both written in 1895. Another famous playwright who started out in Ireland and eventually moved to London is George Bernard Shaw. Shaw is famously known for his play Pygmalion, which is credited as the foundation for the stage classic My Fair Lady. In addition to these famous playwrights, Ireland also introduced the Abbey Theater into its culture in 1904. Due to fire and relocation, the theater has modified but its goal remains: “the Abbey Theater sponsors and promotes Lynch 3 excellent Irish artists, who go on to create world class Irish Theatre” (Roake).
As the popular audiences grew and more theaters opened, Ireland began exploring a more diverse range of entertainment. Irish theatre began as religious performance and eventually morphed the country into quite the hub for drama. Similarly, in England, theatre began as medieval Miracle Plays and Mystery Plays, which dealt with Christian themes and were commonly performed at religious festivals. One of the surviving works of literature from the Middle Cornish period is An Ordinale Kernewek, a 9000-line religious work composed around the year 1400.
Most dramas from this era were solely religion based. Liturgical Dramas, which were performed between the years of 975 and 1500, were written in Latin and they were centered around Bible stories. These plays were commonly performed by priests or church members, but were not an essential part of a standard church service. In addition, there were the Miracle Plays which were based on the lives of saints, specifically how they became saints and their miracles of martyrdom.
These plays commonly featured the sexualization of the saint’s bodies – especially naked, female saints – in martyrdom, and emphasized adventure and the fantastic element of miracles. Miracle Plays were often performed in the Church and featured popular saints such as Saint Nicholas, Mary Magdalen, and Saint Sebastian. Similarly are the Mystery Plays. The Mystery Plays were performed in episodes, outdoors around the town, and could last up to sixteen hours. These plays were very bloody – utilizing special effects – and commonly featured a visual representation of Jesus’s death.
These religious dramas contribute to showcasing how the Catholic church is the backbone of drama in Europe. Lynch 4 Theatre in England may have begun as simple religious performances, but from that start grew an increasing amount of playwrights and theaters to keep this cultural appreciation alive. Theatre in England plays a crucial role in British culture, and theatre has been a vibrant tradition since the Renaissance with roots going back to the Roman era. Religion and theatre began separating when Hrotsvitha wrote non-liturgical plays, based on Terence’s plays, in the 10th century.
Hrotsvitha was a nun before she became the first known female dramatist and first known Western dramatist of the post-classical era. By 1296, theatre developed with the Mummers’ plays, a form of street performance associated with the Morris dance and commonly performed at Christmas time. These were folktales re-telling old stories, and the actors would travel across many towns performing these in return for hospitality and financial compensation. Many playwrights began joining the theatre world such as Ben Johnson, who is responsible for writing Volpone and The Alchemist. Johnson was a 17th century, early modern playwright whose popularity rivaled that of Shakespeare.
He wrote “masques in which the Queen of England and Prince of Wales performed, and was crowned England’s first poet laureate” (O’Connor). In addition to new playwrights, many theaters began being built around England to make theatre more accessible. Two theaters in particular contributed immensely to the theatre scene in England: The Rose Theater and The Globe Theater. The Rose Theater, built in 1587 by Philip Henslowe and John Cholmley, was home to The Admiral’s Men – a competitive acting company that performed Christopher Marlowe’s plays.
This theater, being the first Elizabethan theater of Bankside, is also where the famous William Shakespeare began his career. Next, we have the Globe Lynch 5 Theater – built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s acting company. It was eventually demolished in 1644 after having been closed for two years, but a modern reconstruction of the theater – now known as ‘Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre’ – was opened in 1997. “The open-air, polygonal amphitheater rose three stories high with a diameter of approximately 100 feet, holding a seating capacity of up to 3,000 spectators” (Pressley).
This massive theater allowed for more patrons to be able to access and experience drama, thus making theatre more universal. The theatre we know today is the product of centuries of evolution and modification. Dramas began as a religious practice; the spectacle was used to reenact Bible stories, long before they were performed for entertainment. Religions, specifically Catholicism, utilized plays in the setting of the Church and for select audiences.
This form of theatre was very limiting because it told very specific stories for the purpose of teaching the word of God. Not everyone could appreciate this, therefore more theaters were built and more playwrights came into the picture. This allowed for the continuation and spread of drama all throughout Europe and all throughout the world. Theatre quickly became part of the culture as it became more accessible and explored broader ranges of themes and styles. Dramas continued to be utilized in the church for religious purposes, but as more stories were being told through theatre, more patrons began attending and enjoying these plays.
From this, eventually grew to what is now the theatre we enjoy every day, whether that be on stage or on screen. Rooted with religion, drama is the center of human culture and has evolved immensely over the past few centuries to accommodate the times. Lynch 6 In conclusion, both Ireland Theatre and England Theatre began as a religious performance and over time evolved to cover more genres and draw to larger audiences.
Renaissance theatre derived from several medieval theatre traditions, such as, the mystery plays that formed as part of religious festivals in England during the Middle Ages, and the miracle plays which focused on the lives of saints. And in Ireland, there would appear to have been performances of religious themes from as early as the 14th century and continued throughout the country’s history.
As audiences began to enjoy this form of storytelling, more auditoriums and performance halls were built to encourage the growth of this art form. Alongside new theaters came many famous playwrights to fill these theaters with shows. These playwrights produced more stories and more genres than the previously religious centered plays from the church, further broadening the audiences. Theatre quickly attracted diverse audiences and, stemming from religion, became a focal point in society.
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