Origin and Growth of English Drama

English Drama: Origin and Growth

English Drama

The Last Scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Romeo_and_Juliet_last_scene.jpg

The Beginnings

The genesis of English Drama, like Greek and Roman drama, is intertwined with religion. In the early stages of all civilizations, the lives of important people found ways into “stories”, and these stories later began to be performed in front of audiences. This has been the general order of the progress of human imagination—from lives to stories, from stories to visual representations—through which the performers as well as the audiences relived those great lives. According to David Daiches:

Drama and religious rituals seem to have been bound with each other with earlier stages of all civilisations.

The Fall of the Roman Empire also marked the moral downfall of its citizens and so was their drama which debased people’s conscience. As a consequence, finding it irremediable, the church banned such drama. Later drama of all types was forbidden. As David Daiches puts the situation:

The early Church fathers saw Roman-acted drama in its last immoral and degenerate phase and understandably condemned it.”

It is interesting to note that the force which caused the end of classical drama was the same that led to the origin of English drama that is the church. According to Albert:

It is in the church and its liturgy that we find the stimulus which leads to the rebirth of drama.”

The Church, once again, introduced drama to propagate the important ideas of the Bible to common people. It started with representation of important religious events like the Birth and Resurrection of Christ as frozen scenes. With time, these scenes changed into actions with dialogues. Later, the events from Old Testament like the Creation and Final Judgement were also introduced in the form of cycles of plays. Thus, originated the Miracle and Mystery plays out of which evolved the Elizabethan drama.


Growth of Drama: Its Stages

English drama started as a religious enterprise and continued to evolve until it transformed into its secular, artistic form.

The Religious Period

In the later days of the Roman Empire, corrupt drama, on account of its immoral nature, was driven out of the stage. Further, the church forbade all kinds of drama. But people loved drama, and soon the church itself provided substitute of the forbidden play in the form of the famous, mysteries and miracles.

The Miracle and Mystery Plays

Miracle plays presented the Life of Saints, while Mysteries depicted the scenes from Christ’s life or stories from the Old Testament. However, this distinction of name was prevalent in France, not in medieval England. We have records of the Ludus de Sancta Katherina (1110) as the first miracle play. It’s author and language is not confirmed. But, the earliest plays were, generally, written in Latin or French (for important events and characters) with English dialogues for minor or comic parts. In four centuries, miracles increased in number and popularity. Clergies produced the plays in simplicity within the church premises. When the popularity of miracle rose, the church premises could not contain the audience. Besides, the church itself drove drama outside the church lands because the audience, out of excitement, could not maintain the decorum of the church.

By the end of the 13th century, drama was out of the ecclesiastical hands and was eagerly adopted by the trade guilds. According to Albert:

From the clergy, control passed first to the religious and social guilds, and then to the trade guilds, under the general control of the council of the town.”

The various guilds were assigned particular scenes which were presented on large movable platforms, called pageants, drawn by horses to different locations throughout the town. By the beginning of the 14th century, these plays were united into single cycle of plays, starting with Creation and ending with Final Judgement. Only four of these cycles of plays survived, namely, York plays, Wakefield plays, Coventry Plays, and Chester plays. These play were initially written in Latin, then French, and finally translated into English. In spite of their dominating religious tone, they did not lack humour and fun as presented by the characters like Noah’s quarrelsome wife, the tyrant Herold and the devil.


Morality Plays

In the later middle ages, while Miracles were still in their heyday, there emerged another dramatic form known as the Morality play. These plays differed from the Miracle plays in that they did not deal with stories of Bible, but with personified abstractions of virtues and vices like life, death, repentance, goodness, love, greed etc. who struggle for man’s soul. This struggle called ‘psychomachia,’ the battle for soul, was a common medieval theme.

The Morality plays made a distinct advance over the miracle plays in that it provided free scope to imagination for new plots and incidents. While miracles were produced with the purpose of educating masses about the important facts of the Bible, the morality taught a lesson about write livinga kind of dramatised sermon. The most characteristic personages of the moralities were the devil and the vice, who supplied humour to the common folk., the morality is generally ended with the triumph of virtue. The devil being thrown into hell with vice on his back.

The best known of all moralities is Everyman, belonging to the 15th century. Other famous morality plays are The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom, Everyone, The Four Elements, The Trial of Treasure, The Pride of Life, The Castle of Perseverance etc. Among the known authors of moralities, two of the best are John Skelton and David Lindsay. They were the pioneers in introducing satire in their plays which they used to satirize or denounce abuses of church and state, this making stage a medium for correcting abuses for the first time.



During the end of the 15th century, there emerged a morality play which dealt with the general moral problems in the same allegorical way. However, these plays had more pronounced realistic and comic elements. It was called Interludes. By the 16th century, the interludes started including scenes far removed from the theme and atmosphere of the Medieval morality. The term ‘Interlude’ can be used, in its simplest use, to refer to a playlet (small play) performed between courses of banquet or longer plays. However, literary historians, now, employ the term to refer to those plays which mark the transitions from Medieval religious drama to Tudor Secular drama.

In its fully developed form, Interludes made great advance of the Moralities in that it introduced ‘real’ characters, usually of humble rank like citizens and friars, instead of allegorical characters. It featured broader, but coarse farcical humour and good songs. There were set scenes – a new feature in English drama. John Heywood was the most important writer of Interludes. His famous ‘ The Four P’s’ depicts a contest of wit between a Pardoner, a Palmer, a Pedlar and a Potycary. Other important Interludes written during the period are Johan Johan, The Four Elements, The World and the Child, The Play of the Weather and Thersites.

These early plays were written with their specific purposes. Though, they did not contribute much to English literature but they prepared ground for the approaching ‘artistic’ drama. As W. J. Long remarks:

Their great work was to train actors, to keep alive the dramatic spirit, and to prepare the way for the true drama.”


The Artistic Period

The Artistic is the final stage in the development of English drama. It differs radically from the other two in that its chief purpose is not to point a moral but to represent human life as it is. Artistic drama may have a purpose, no less than the Miracle play, but representation of human life is always given more importance than the morals. The first true play in English with a regular plot, divided into acts and scenes, is probably the comedy Ralph Roister Doister (about 1553), written by Nicholas Udall, headmaster of Eton, and later of Westminster school, performed by his school boys. Based on Plautus’ classical comedy, Miles Gloriosus, it presented a model of a clear plot and natural dialogue—a significant contribution to English drama. The next play, Gammer Gurton’s Needle (about 1562) is a domestic comedy. It is a true bit of English realism, representing the life of the peasant class.

The classical influence was even more produced in the first English tragedy, Gorboduc. It was written under the influence of Seneca, the Latin playwright, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton and performed in 1562. It is remarkable for being written in blank verse, the style of verse, more suited for English playwrights. It follows the classical rule of Seneca. There is very little action on stage and the bloodshed and battle are announced by messenger. It also included a chorus made up of four old men of Britain. According to Moody and Lovett:

It is a stately production, and deserves veneration as the first regular tragedy written in English.”



In short, English drama took birth in hands of clergy. Starting with ‘Frozen‘ scenes to the addition of actions and dialogues, it passed from the ‘miracle’ stage to the ‘Morality’ stage and moved from the hands clergy to the common people. Gradually, plot and theme shifted from ‘religious’ stories of Bible those teaching ‘moral’ lessons and finally depicting ‘real’ human life. It shifted it’s tone from serious and solemn to comic and humorous. Interludes marked the latest development before the advent of the ‘real’ secular drama. The University Wits took charge to enhance drama with their University education, skill and individual genius. They prepared grounds for the coming dramatists like Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, creating audience for their Romantic Comedies. Finally, Elizabethan drama, in the hands of Shakespeare, attained maturity revealing the true potential of what English drama could do:

Presenting human life, human psychology, and his joys and sorrows in their truest and most vibrant colours.


If you are looking forward to prepare for UGC NET/JRF, you may find this article useful.




©2024. Md. Rustam Ansari [profrustamansari@gmail.com]


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