The V&A's Theatre and Performance collections chart the history of theatre in Britain from the middle ages to today. From early dramatics forms such as mystery plays and court masques, to the alternative and 'in yer face' drama of the late 20th century.
A History of a Night at the Theatre
Drama in Britain grew of out church services at Easter from the 10th century onwards. By the 14th century mystery cycles of plays based on the Bible were performed outside the church by members of craft guilds in cities such as York and Chester. Each play was staged on a pageant wagons that processed through the streets.
In the late 16th century all classes of society (apart from royalty) visited the public theatres. The new theatres were popular and their audiences had a voracious appetite for new plays. New companies flourished and writers were employed to satisfy the demand for novelty.
During the 18th century theatre flourished as a popular pastime and many theatres were enlarged and new playhouses built in London and the provinces. One of the most successful shows on the London Stage in the early part of the 18th century was the ballad opera The Beggar's Opera. John Gay recycled popular songs of the day and wrote new lyrics that were humorous and satirical.
The 19th century was the age of a truly popular theatre. New theatres opened to satisfy a demand for entertainment from the workers who flooded into the major cities as the Industrial Revolution took hold. Pantomime, ballad opera, melodrama, circus, equestrian drama, aquatic drama and burlesque were all popular forms of entertainment.
Explore the history of modern theatre. Including the 'new drama' of the early 20th century, the patriotic wartime entertainment of the 1940s, the foundation of institutions such as the Arts Council and the National Theatre, and the controversial 'in yer face' movement that sprung up in the 1990s.
The term ‘poster’ originates from the medieval period when brief hand-written details of performances were handed out and stuck to posts in towns. By 1576, when the first public theatre in England opened, performances were announced by the distribution of handbills (as well as a drum procession through the streets, and by a flag hoisted at the theatre where the performance was taking place).
Theatre & Performance
The Theatre and Performance collection was founded in the 1920s when a private collector, Gabrielle Enthoven, donated her extensive collection of theatrical designs, memorabilia, books and photographs to the Museum. Since then the collection has continued to grow and has provided a home for many other significant objects and archives. All areas of the live performing arts are represented in the collections, documenting both current practice and the history of the performing arts in the UK.