Write a note on origin and growth of English drama.

Answer:  Drama is a literary composition, which is performed by professional actors on stage (or theatre), before an audience. It involves conflicts, actions and a particular theme. Eye-catching make up, facial expressions and body language of the artists are prominent features.

Origin of Drama:
Western drama originated in Greece around 500 B.C. Ancient Greek drama consists of three kinds of plays:

  • Tragedy
  • Comedy
  • Satyr plays

Ancient Greek Drama:
The first tragedies are said to have been performed in 534 B.C. at the festival of Dionysus in Athens Satyr-dramas were added in 501 B.C. Comedies were first officially produced in Athens in 486 B.C. Greek drama flourished in Athens through 500 B.C. to 300 B.C.

Athens appears to have been the primary locus of dramatic activity in classical Greece. Comedies were also performed from the beginning of the fifth century B.C. onward in Sicily. The earliest dramas were designed to worship gods and goddesses. Masks were used to represent characters; high-soled boots were worn to add height. Antigone, Oedipus Rex and Medea are among the famous plays written during this time.

Roman Drama:
Roman drama refers to any dramatic form tragedy, comedy, farce, mime and pantomime composed in the Latin language. Latin was used by the inhabitants of the city of Rome and eventually became the administrative language of the Roman republic (509 30 B.C.) and the Roman Empire (30 B.C. 476 A.D.).

The Romans witnessed the first form of dramatic performance in Rome in 364 B.C. The people of Tuscany staged the performance in order to help the Romans avert a plague. They performed some form of dance accompanied by flute music. The first official dramatic performance was performed in Rome in 240 B.C. Livius Andronicus stage a tragedy and a comedy at the ludi Romani (Roman games). Livius Andronicus was a Greek slave. It is unclear whether his performances were translations or adaptations of Greek dramas.

Roman comedies and tragedies were performed at:

  • Festivals known as Ludi.
  • Temple dedications.
  • Triumphal parades.
  • Funerals of Roman aristocrats.

Roman theaters were temporary wooden structures taken down after the performance.

The first stone stage was seen after 55 B.C. Roman nobility funded Roman dramas, the actors themselves were noble.

Fall of Rome:
With the fall of the Roman Empire, Roman drama comes to its own end. Roman drama and Roman comedy in particular have enduring effect on the Western dramatic tradition.

Death of Drama:
From the fall of Rome in the late fifth century until the tenth century, the drama was essentially dead. This was due in part to the Romans’ lack of interest in drama and the Christians of late antiquity.  Acting was considered unchristian in the early medieval period as Roman Catholic Church banned theatrical performances. Drama remained dead for several years.

The Rebirth of Drama:
Drama was reintroduced into Western Europe in the tenth century. Just as drama was born among Greeks a part of religious observances, among Christians it too was reborn as a part of religion. Drama was reborn during The Middle Ages (Medieval Period).

Medieval Drama:
The Christian festival celebration had always included elements that were potentially dramatic. In the 10th century bits of chanted dialogue, called tropes, were added to the Easter celebration. This was the beginning of drama in post-classical Western Europe. These little plays (troops) grew more elaborate. Some of the later Latin plays were elaborate and, taking well over an hour to perform. The purpose of these plays was to teach religion.

Late Medieval Drama:
A great deal of dramatic material is found in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and the 14th century.  Most of it is religious. These plays can be divided into:

  • The mystery plays – life of Christ.
  • Miracle plays – lives of saints.
  • Morality plays – being good/ moral.

Renaissance Drama:
The English Renaissance, a cultural and artistic movement in England from 16th to early 17th century. It paved the way for the dominance of drama in the country. Queen Elizabeth I ruled during the period Great poetry and drama were produced. The renowned playwrights of this time include William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and John Webster.

The dramatists wrote plays based on themes like history, comedy and tragedy. Shakespeare emerged as an artist who produced plays based on all the three themes. Drama had previously been performed in temporary spaces. In 1567 the first public theater, the Red Lion Theatre in White chapel, was built. With the establishment of public theaters and acting companies the demand for plays was met by a group of highly educated men who were deeply educated in classical literature.

Modern Drama:
Modern Drama begins in the late nineteenth century and continues to the present day. By the late nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution and other economic changes insured that prosperous, educated middle-class people comprise the majority of theater- goers.

Romanticism gave way to Realism during the 19th century, paving the way for the era of contemporary drama in the20th century. Contemporary drama shows the influence of all that has come before. Modern drama involved much experimentation with new forms and ideas.

In the early part of the 20th century, musical drama came to dominate stages in New York and England, although each theater season saw the release of straight dramatic plays as well. The renowned playwrights of this time include W. S. Gilbert, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

Present Time:
The majority of musical dramas of the 20th century were written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. His works gained immense popularity. The dramas traveled to Broadway in New York and around the world. Some of them were turned into feature films as well.

Postmodernism had a serious effect on the existence of English drama, in the end of 20th century. However, a large number of theatres still exist around Shaftesbury Avenue, in the western part of London. The Royal Shakespeare Company, operating from Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s hometown), currently produces most of the plays written by the legendary dramatist.

Drama in Western Europe was started by Greeks which influenced most of the dramas in Rome. As the world saw the fall of Roman Empire, the drama died as well. Drama was reborn in the early Medieval time as part of religion.

People like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and John Webster changed the way dramas were perceived during Renaissance. The modern drama is still much alive but most people are starting to take more interest in other sources of entertainment.