Most early theatre in England was religious and evolved from the liturgical drama of the 10th and 11th centuries. Theatre became a truly popular form when the clergy encouraged the staging of mystery cycles in England from around 1350.
Mystery cycles and miracle plays were written in the vernacular in order to teach ordinary people about the Bible and Christianity. Church services and religious books were written in Latin and because most people did not receive an education, they could neither read nor understand the Latin mass.
Mystery plays were produced by local towns and were written in cycles. These followed the stories of the Bible from Creation to Doomsday. They included dramatisations of the Fall of Lucifer, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, The Nativity and The Passion of Christ. Plays from only four town cycles still exist. These are from Wakefield (known as the Towneley cycle), Chester, Coventry and York. The largest was the York Cycle which contained 48 pageants.
Miracle plays told the stories of the lives of different saints. At the time people believed in the power of saints to solve their problems.
Holy relics supposedly taken from the bodies of the saints (eg, bones, pieces of their hair, clothing and even skin) were kept by the church. People paid money to the church to pray to these relics. The superstitious belief that seeing or touching a holy relic would cure all ills was commonplace and was promoted by the Catholic church.
Miracle plays were popular in the 14th and 15th centuries, but in the 16th century Henry VIII banned all drama that could pose a threat to Protestantism in an attempt to stop any celebration of Catholic doctrine. As a consequence very few mystery or miracle play texts still exist.
Mystery and miracle plays were often performed on pageant wagons in town squares or in the grounds of churches.
Pageant wagons had a stage, sometimes with two levels, which could be used with the ground in front of the wagon as another performance level. Pageant wagons processed through the streets and stopped to perform at pre-arranged sites. In some towns, however, plays were acted in a set space or 'place' surrounded by fixed stages or 'scaffolds'.
Plays were produced by tradesmen's guilds. Guilds would specialise in producing one or more plays that were appropriate to their profession. For example the carpenters might perform Noah's Ark and the Pinners (who made nails) The Crucifixion. The design of the costumes contained symbols to help the audience recognise the characters, for example God wore a white coat and had a golden face.
The Tradesmen's guilds raised the money for the plays by a system called pageant silver. All the workers in the guild were expected to contribute a set amount, no matter how small their wages.
The rise of secular drama
Entertainment at court
All religious drama in England was suppressed as a result of the Reformation. In the 1530s the court of Henry VIII (reigned 1509–47) was opulent and extravagant. Henry saw entertainment as a vital way to impress his courtiers and foreign kings. The Court employed jesters and musicians for entertainment and small companies of actors took on the livery of an aristocratic patron.
Henry's daughter Elizabeth I (reigned 1558–1603) was also fond of being entertained, and under her rule, companies of performers moved from one residence to another to announce the arrival of the Royal Court.
Licences were issued to companies, allowing them to rehearse and perform in public, providing they had the approval and patronage of a nobleman. At first companies performed in enclosed inn yards. There was a bare stage and no scenery.
The first playhouses
By the 1570s purpose-built playhouses started appearing in London as secular drama began to predominate. In 1576 Britain's first playhouse 'The Theatre' was built by Leicester's Men in Finsbury Fields. This was outside the city walls as the City of London was hostile to public performances.
Over the next 16 years 17 new theatres were constructed. Most of these theatres were circular, surrounding an open courtyard where members of the audience would stand around the three sides of the thrust stage. The courtyard was surrounded by galleries roofed with a thatched or tiled roof where you could sit if you could afford to pay more.