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A History


British Theatre

A hístory of the British theatre in seven programmes. Title? Seyen Sfages. Duration? Thirty mínutes each. Simple enough. But when producer, Amber Bamfather, and I tried to tell the thousand year-long history of the British theatre in those seven programmes, we found the task daunting. There was so much to tell. Our task was not made any easier by our decision to give the listener the story of 'theatre' rather than 'drama'. lf drama is literature, the study of suruiving play fexfs, then theatre is the clothing of those words in cosfumes, sefs, music and dance. Theatre is the chemistry between

performers and the audience. Somehow we had to include allthese

elements in the programmes. To do so u/e spoke to some of today's leading

British actors and directors, designers and technicíans; practitioners who

inherit the longest continuous theatricaltradition in the world. We hope that

we have done them, and their art, some justice. Amber and I would like to thank you for listening to all or part of the sen'es and for writing fo us. We hope fhese brief notes will be of some interest. Thank you once again.

Michael Kaye

Presenter, Seyen Sfages

We'd like to thank the following in particular for their part in Seven Stages:

The Globe Theatre; The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; The Royal National Theatre; The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford;

The Theatre Museum, London

Actors Brenda Blethyn, Simon Callow, Ben Kingsley, Josie Lawrence,

Michael Maloney, Michael Pennington, Fiona Shaw, Michael Sheen, Juliet Stevenson. Theatre critic Michael Billington. Designer \Mlliam Dudley. Directors John Barton, Gale Edwards, Sir Richard Eyre, Sir Peter Hall, Terry Hands. Fight director Malcolm Ranson. Playwrights Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare, Tom Stoppard.

Theatre poets Tony Harrison, Adrian Henri.

I The Mysteries of Theatre

The moods of nature have always impressed mankind. ln early societies natural disasters and nature's benefits were all thought to be the work of spirits or gods. lntricate rituals with singing and dancing to offer gifts to these supernatural beings grew more and more elaborate in lndia and China. Similar rituals spread throughout Asia to cross into ancient Greece before the

sixth century BC.

The first recorded Greek actor, Thespis, is now thought to have been a priest. He stepped out from a chorus of other priests celebrating the holy day of the god Dionysus and spoke alone. The richest period of Greek drama began with Aeschylus, born in 525 BC, arid ended with the death of Menander in 292 BC. During the great festivals of Greek drama audiences of betr¡.,een fifteen and twenty thousand people watched the plays in huge amphitheatres. Playwrights earned no money but competed to be voted the best playwright of the festival. Greece was conquered by the Romans who imitated Greek culture. Their great playwrights, who later influenced the British theatre, were Seneca, who wrote tragedies full of long speeches and bloody deeds; and the comic writers, Terence and Plautus, whose social comedies delighted the

Elizabethan playwrig hts.

By the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century AD, the great Roman theatres were being used for gladiatorial competitions, semi-pornographic comedies and satires against all religion. Christian fathers such as Tertullian condemned the grotesque practices in the Roman theatres. And in 390 AD St Chrysostom wrote:

Visiting the theatre leads to fornication, intemperance and every kind of


After the fall of the Empire in the early fifth century, the actors dispersed, wandering Europe as entertainers or minstrels. But the same Church which had deplored the theatre was to revive it.

Every activity in the Church was designed to reveal God's ways to man. The walls of church buildings were painted and the windows coloured with stained glass to show the illiterate members of the congregation stories from the Bible. Soon even the liturgy, the church service itself, was used to heighten

the drama of the Christian story of the universe. And the first recorded

evidence for this is to be found in England.

ln 967 AD, St Ethelwold, the Archbishop of Winchester, set down instructions on how a part of the Easter service was to be acted. The incident, to be performed by four male clergy, takes place when three women, the three Marys, come to the tomb of Jesus Christ in the hope that he has come back to life. The original text was sung in Latin and was only four lines long. The angel begins by asking the women a question:

Quem Quaeritis, O Christicolae?

Angel: Who are you looking for, O, Christians?

women: Jesus of Nazareth who was

crucified, o heaventy one.

Angel: He is not here. He is risen as he

said He woutd rise. Go and tell

everyone that He has risen from the grave.

From such small beginnings grew a

'mansions' or little stages all around the church. Sometimes thé

retigious drama which was

ptayed in




elaborate they took place outside the building. The stage directions for the

century, Anglo-Norman, Mystery of Adam, show great sophistication in


set design.

Paradise shall be set in a fairly

high place, curtains and silk cloths shali


Fragrant leaves ane¡

be hung around it, at such a height that the persons who shalt be in

paradise can be seen from the shoulders

flowers shall be planted there; there shall also be various trees with

fruits hanging on them, so that it rooks a very pleasant ptace.

Not every churchman liked the plays. ln

them from his church. But then two things

1244, a Bishop of Lincoln expetted

happened ai tfre beginninj of the

fourteenth century which led to exciting new developments. The Bible stories

began to be translated into the new European

languages, including English.

months and

And in 1311, the feast of Corpus Christi - the body of Christ - was éstaÜlisneO

as a universal church holy day. This took place in the summer

became a great theatrical street festival in the richer cities of England.

Each city that could

Plays) - telling the story of

afford it put on a 'cycle' of plays (known today as

the universe from beginning to the end, from


cycles -

Creation to Doomsday. We York, chester, wakefield and

still have the scriptJ of four of these great

N-town (which may have been corÁntry).

ln York each playlet or episode moved from place to place. The

was performed on a pageant waggon-which Yorkshire poet Tony Hárrison wái inspireO by

this early form of community theatre.

Tony Harrison: lmagine

packed with people coming

the streets absolutely packed - narrow streets

in from the countryside - farmers, children,

festivity, noise, hubbub. The plays were

in the streets, they

were performed by

the people who were performing

people selling food and drink;

not only performed for the people

amateur actors. The audience knew

and the performers knew the audience.

The name 'mystery' refers to the craft practised

workers. The church had handed over control of the ptays to

authorities. The city fathers checked the scripts and stored them

by a guild or association of

the city


carefully - which is one reason why the poet Adrian Henri was able to read

the Wakefield Cycle and adapt it for modern audiences.

Adrian Henri:

we're talking about a society in which

books virtually

thing". bo



didn't exist. Most

people's way of learning was being totd

the plays were essentially

didactic. But at the same time they

form of popular entertainment.

Actor David Timso¡r was in the BBC World Service version of the Wakefield


David Timson: The language of the mystery plays is simple and straightforward and is all the more beautiful and expressive because of that.

The city authorities tried to match episodes of the cycles to appropriate guilds.

ln York in 1415, for instance, we know that Noah's Ark was played by the

shipwrights; the bakers played the Last Supper where Christ broke bread with the Disciples; and the scene of the crucifixion was given to the nailmakers.

The most successful modern production of the York Mystery Cycle was not performed in the streets of York but within the confines of the Royal National Theatre's Cottesloe. The Director of the National, from 1988 to 1997, was Richard Eyre.

Richard Eyre: The Mysteries were done as a promenade performance. The audience did not sit, but followed the action around the large room.

It was thrilling to actively participate. And it's one of the greatest pieces

of theatre that l've ever seen anywhere.

Everybody involved in the original Mystery Cycles was assumed to share the same Christian faith. That assumption cannot be made in a modern theatre. So how would the company re-create the communial spirit of the fifteenth century? The actors were dressed in modern clothes and mingled with the

audience before the performance. Actress Brenda Blethyn played Mary


Brenda Blethyn: The actors would go in about a quarter of an hour before the show began and have a chat with members of the audience.

It was a terrific ensemble feeling. lt was thrilling.

At the same time that the Mystery Cycles were teaching the history of the universe, another, more intimate kind of drama was exploring the problems afflicting the individual soul - the Morali§ Play.

Death was never far away in the Middle Ages. Danger from disease, violence and natural disaster was ever-present. And people were terrified of where their souls might go after dying. They hoped for Heaven but Hell was what they feared.

One of the last and simplest of the Morality Plays was written in the early fifteen hundreds. Everyman tells the story of one man's journey to the grave. Without warning Death tells Everyman to prepare for his departure from life. He has only twenty four hours. Everyman looks for somebody - anybody - who will agree to go with him on his journey. The parts in the play are human - Kinsman and Cousin are two of the roles - or personifications of abstract qualities, such as Beauty, Wisdom and Goods (Riches).

ln the end, Good Deeds - weak and feeble though she is - is the only

character who will go with Everyman and speak for him. ln the Royal

Shakespeare Company production of 1996, Joseph Mydell played Everyman.

Joseph Mydell: I asked a Muslim friend who came to see the play

whether he didn't find all this Christian theology too much. He said, "No". He said the play had a universal message. lt is about mortality.

ln addition to the Mystery Cycles and the Morality plays there were other religious plays on saints' days. Unfortunately most of the secular theatre which must have been performed on village greens and in market squares, has disappeared without trace.

The Mystery Cycles and Morality plays endured for two hundred years - longer than any other kind of theatre in Britain. They did not die naturally. They were censored out of existence. King Henry Vlll of England wanted to divorce his wife. He needed the Pope's permission. The Pope said, "No". So King Henry broke with Rome in the fifteen thirties and set up his own church, with himself at the head of it. The new bishops of the Church of England frowned upon performances of plays which presented the Old Religion as the truth. The old plays died one by one. One or two survived into the childhood years of \Mlliam Shakespeare. But by the 1590's they had gone. Perhaps the saddest entry in the records of Hereford Cathedral reads:

This year, Corpus Christi play put away forever.

2 A Muse of Fire

King Henry Vll came to the throne of England in 1485. His accession brought

to an end a thirty year period of conflict between the rival houses of York and Lancaster which had sapped the country's energies.

King Henry encouraged cultural activities. He revived the


of fraving a

smq]] group

inteiest much further than his father. Henry Vlll loved pageantry of all sorts

music, poetry and the theatre. His Lord Chancellor until 1535 was a scholar


at court. And his son, Henry Vlll, took this cultural




and statesman, with friends throughout Europe. To discover what theatre

was like in the fifteen thirties we must turn to a play written in the 1590's, named after Henry's Lord Chancellor - 'Sir Thomas Moore'.

Moore: Welcome, good friend, what is your will with me? Player: My Lord, my fellows and myself, Are come to tender ye our willing seruice So please you to command us.

Moore: What, for a play you mean?

Whom do you serve? Player: My Lord Cardinal's grace. Moore: My Lord Cardina!'s players? Now trust me, welcome.

The players are wandering or'strolling' players who go from inn to inn or from one great country house to another to perform. They are under the protection of a great lord - in this case, the Lord Cardinal. (Players without protection



short 'interludes'

ran the risk of being driven away, put in the stocks or arrested as and vagabonds'.) The kind of plays they performed were usually

or e-ntertainments, both secular and religious. Sir Thomas

welcomes the players because he has ímportant guests to dinner, the Lord Mayor of London, some aldermen and their wives. (By the 1590's when the

play was written, the Mayor and council of London no longer allowed the

players into the city.) Sir Thomas chooses an interlude of Wit and Wisdom'. He then asks the Player

Moore: How many are ye?

called 'The Marriage

Player: Four men and a boy, Sir.

Moore: But one boy? Then I see There's but few women in the play.

Women were not allowed to be actors on the British stage until the 16_6Q's. Tñélilárts weie pláyed by boys or men. And with so few members in this

troupe, each actor would have to 'double' or play more than part. The boy

would play three

The manuscript of Sir -lhomas Moore contains five sets of handwriting, one of

which has been identified as belonging to William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was born in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the West of England ¡n !§-LL Roger Pringle is Director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford.

female roles in the

Marriage of Wit and Wisdom.

Roger Pringle: While growing up, Shakespeare experienced quite a

wide range of different sorts of play. Plays that dramatised biblical incidents; plays originating in the medieval morality plays; and general

pageants and entertainments con¡rected with the farming year. When

you look at Shakespeare's own professional plays, written for the

London stage some years later, you do get some taste, I think, that he knew a lot about amateur theatre.

The most familiar example is from a Midsummer Night's Dream. A group of

working men have been chosen to present the Duke with an interlude - 'Pyramus and Thisbe'.

Quince: Francis Flute the bellows-mender?

Flute: Here, Peter Quince!

Quince: Flute, you

must take Thisbe on you.

Flute: What is Thisbe? A wand'ring knight?

Quince: lt is the lady that Pyramus must love.


Yea, faith, let me not play a woman. I have a beard coming.

Quince: That's all one. You shall play it in a mask, and you may speak as small as you will.

Bottom: An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too. l'll speak it in a

monstrous little voice. "Thisne, Thisne!" "Ah, Pyramus, lover dear! Thy

Thisbe dear and Lady dear."

By 1588 Shakespeare had left his home and family for the capital. His sense of timing was almost perfect. Patrick Spottiswood of the Globe theatre in London.

Patrick Spottiswood: Sha-k_espgqre was born at the same time as the

building industry was born. So when he came down to London,


there were these new theatres that needed new writers and new actors.

The Red Lion was built in 1567 and then in_1_526

playhouses were built outsídg"!h_e Cily and North of the River Thames. The

liveliest leisure-pleasure district in London lay South of the river. Every

afternoon by two o'clock thousands of people would cross the river to see a

play at The Rose, The Hope or The Globe. Tourist guide, Mary Frost.


The--.T_-h-e_?-t,re. These

Mary Frost: People would have to cross

Brldge which was the


only bridge across the river until 1750. Or, if you had money, you could

ask a ferryman to take you across. And for a penny he would row you

across to the Globe.

When Shakespeare reached the theatre district, he found other ambitious

young playwrights had got there before him. The two most successful were T_ho_nAq Kyd and Qhristopher Marlowe. We know that's Kyd's great success, The Spanish Tragedy, impressed the young Shakespeare. (He refers to it in his own plays.) Christopher Marlowe had such a hit with his epic about a

conquering superhero, fg¡@urhjle, that he had to write a sequel. Marlowe

is regarded as th-e inventor of several kinds of plays. ln six years he wrote,

Edward ll, a hi-s,tqry play; the Jew of Malta, a black



and a profound

t¡_agq,C-y, Dr. Faustus. Actor Ben Kingsláy has played Faustus.

Ben Kingsley: "Stand still you ever moving spheres of heaven, That time may cease and midnight never come."

It's beautifully balanced language. Every line has a built-in spring that

propels the language forward.

t[e unrhymed, rhythmic iambic pentameter used by Marlowe,



developed by Shakespeare to express the subtleties of noble or tragic


The Globe Theatre was built in jl Sgg {with the materials from the dismantled Theatre). By that time Shakespeare had written a gory tragedy, Titus

Andronicus; s_e,v_eralco.m_edies; seve-ral h_ist.o_iles; and a rgqantlc tragedy,

Romeo and Juliet. The balcony scene between the two'star-cross'd' lovers probably took place high above the stage in a gallery. Patrick Spotiiswood is responsible for education at the new Globe Theatre.

Patrick Sottiswood: The Globe is a twenty-sided Wooden O. lt's made

up of three galleries that surround a yard. And thrust into the middle of

that yard is a wide and deep stage. Above the actors head was the

gorgeously painted roof, known as the heavens, supported by two huge pillars.


The stage of the original Globe was-l-o§_lhree feet wide. There was tittle or n-o sqgngry, costumes were contemporary and the only llghtlng was natural. And yet three_lhousand people a day crowded into the theatre to hear the tatest play by Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's men. Mary Fiost shows visitors round the preseni-Oay Globe.

Mary Frost: You had to pay o_lgl=olhr-ee Elizabethan pennies to come in. For a penny you stood on the ground around the stage; you were a

'groundling' or'penny stinkard' because you stank rather badly. For

two pennies you could sit in the lower gallery; for three you could go to

the top and sit by the 'v,uind=hgles' - from which we get 'windows'.

The real glory of Elizabethan theatre was not what you saw but w-he-t you

heard. Tftg l-a¡guqge set the time, the place, the plot and the feelings óf tne


John Barton, a director with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the

"l§60's and 70's, led the modern revolution in the acting of Shakesjeare Uy persuading actors to concentrate on the text of the plays.

John Barton: What the Elizabethans had was the text. Actors tearned their parts very quickly, acted in masses of plays, didn't have much rehearsal time and didn't even have a director. The text was all you had. They must have been able to pick up clues, or signals, in the text.

Texts of plays had to be submitted to the Master of the Revels who was the -Coürt Censor. Even after a play was approved actors and playwrights could iiitt spenO time in prison. Shakespeare's great rival and contempolary, B*e-n-

Jonson, spent time in prison for .§_qdttj_o¡'. Hig!o_1y plays were_ alw_ays risky, Oéaiiñg as they did with pqlitical issu_es whicn midni bé misinterpretéd.

Shakespeare's three parts of Herfry-Vl'Lnd_ Richqrd lll ñád pássed the censor

but his next history play, Richard ll,

almost brought disaster.


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The story is about a talented, intelligent king, unsuited to the throne, who is

deposed by his cousin, Bolingbroke. Towards the end of her reign, Henry

Vlll's daughter, Queen Elizabeth l, who ruled for over sixty years, felt her throne increasingly threatened by the lords surrounding her. On one occasion she is alleged to have remarked, "l am Richard ll, know ye not that?" One day a group of men close to the Earl of Essex, the Queen's former favourite,

persuaded Shakespeare's company to put on 'the old play', Richard ll. The

next day the Earl of Essex began a rebellion against the Queen. lt f¿¡iled and

he was beheaded. Shakespeare and his colleagues were lucky.

of ignorance of the plot was believed and they were let off with a fine.


The play itself is written entirely moves from a formal page-gnt _o_f

!l_!!en[ ve_¡-q_e_(igmpic penlameteQ. The styte


to a personal tragedy of

-lyricism and pathos. Kenneth Mcleish, a director of Shakespeare, has studied the text of Richard ll closely.

Kenneth Mcleish: Richard talks about the holtow crown that a king

wears. He compares it to the Court of Death and says that death

out of that like a skull. And, at an unknown moment, Death is going to


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come in the middle of all the pomp and majesty with a little pin and

"Farewell, King."

Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. She left a countrythat, although troubled in her last years, was stronger and more secure than she had found it. And one of her greatest legacies was the new professional theatre in permanent playhouses, peopled by companies of actors and playwrights who gave bírth to plays still able to move a modern audience. Ben Jonson, speaking of

Shakespeare, summed up the achievement of the period.

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"He was not of an age, but for all time."

3 A Kind of Wild Justice

A funeral bell tolls and the ghost of the dead man appears on stage. The

ghost is seeking revenge for his untimely death. The ghost, and the theatre

audience, watch as a love story is cut short by murder, murder leads to madness, and madness ends in a final scene of horror and destruction. This

is the plot of The Spanish Tragedy, a play by Thom¿s Kyd, and probably the

most influential piece of theatre staged in the last years of the sixteenth

century. The atmosphere, effects and plot devices of The Spanish Tragedy

inspired dozens of plays in the early seventeenth century - plays we now call

Revenge Tragedies, or the Theatre -of _Blq_qd.

The ghost, mgl-dg-rs, love tangle, madness and bloody--e¡ding are all to be

found in what is thought of today as the greatest tragedy in the history of British theatre - Slal<espeare's Hamlet. Hamlet was first performed in 1600.-

The range of emotions and moods that Hamlet himself explores in Shakespeare's longest play is breathtaking. And the part offers a further

challenge to the actor - to follow in the footsteps of all the great Hamlets past.

Actor Ben Kingsley.

Ben Kingsley: I was absolutely terrified to be asked to play

it and ! was

thrilled to be asked to play it. Having rehearsed for ten weeks, I felt v€rY, very sick on the first night with terror, really itl. Suddenty I was left on stage all by myself and I was able to articulate from my gut exactty how I was feeling because I opened my mouth and I said, "Oh that this

too, too solid flesh would melt." - "Ladies and Gentlemen, !wish lwasn't


'- Hamlet learns from the ghost of his father that the murderer of Old Hamlet

was his father's brother, Claudius. Now not only does Claudius sit on the

throne that Hamlet should have inherited from his father - he has also married

Gertrude, Hamlet's mother.

Hamlet is torn between duty and sin - between revenge and taking another human being's life. He delays and delays. And he reveals, from time to time, alone on stage, the perplexed state of his mind and his soul.


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"To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take

arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them."

The problem for an actor speaking the most familiar speech from Shakespeare's best-known play, is the temptation to give the lines too much emotional weight. Royal Shakespeare Company director John Barton, believes the speech should come more from the mind than the heart.

John Barton: There's a big acting trap here which is to look for, and explore, the mood that the speech suggests and to go into anguished

soul-searchings and then you generalise what is

actually an intellectual

exploration. lt could be Hamlet just exploring a hypothesis that's


Shakespeare himself would have agreed with John Barton about how actors should perform his plays. When a troupe of strolling players arrives at the castle of the King, Hamlet engages them to perform a play for Claudius. The play will re-enact the murder of Hamlet's father. Hamlet wants to see how Claudius will react. Like a modern theatre director, Hamlet gives the actors some hints on how they should perform the play. Ben Kingsley.

Ben Kingsley: I was saying to them this has got to be naturalistic, guys.

This has got to be real. We cannot ham this up. We have to-hold the

mirr_or up to nature. Maybe this is a clue to where Shakespeare was

pushing his company.

"Let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance: that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first as now, was and is to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature."

He's saying theatre has always been, must always 6e,.a reflegtlo¡_,of our

:ogi-ety. Huge statement from the 'Guv'nor', basically.

'Hamlet' ends with a sword fight between the Prince and Laertes, a young courtier who holds Hamlet responsible for the death