Forms of English Theatre - An overview

Revised 2nd edition
By Steffan Glaube

This brief paper will endeavour to show the basics of the different forms of Theatre as it progressed through the ages in England. It commences with a look at what is considered to be the origins of liturgical drama and follows the progression through to the Elizabethan era. It does not take into account any influences that came through from Italy, France or any other country, but at how the forms appeared at their recordable peak during these times.


"a figure of speech; A word or phrase interpolated as an embellishment in the sung parts of certain medieval liturgies"

From around 925AD the Quem Quaeritis trope (named after the first two words of the responsive dialogue) was inserted into the Liturgical text of the Easter mass service. During the reign of Edgar (959-975) the 'Regularis Concordia', a book containing the rules for divine services in the English Monasteries, was composed.

Believed to have begun as a recitation (in the form of question and answer) by two halves of the choir, records from the 'Concordia' indicate that four priests recited the Trope. The first priest acting as the Angel in the tomb, the other three priests, as the women coming to anoint the body of Christ.

The Angel asks "Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, O Christicole?"
(Whom seek ye in the sepulchre, O Christian women?)

The women reply "Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, O caelicolae"
(Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O heavenly one.)

Angel "Non est hic, surrexit sicut praedixerat.
Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro."

(He is not here; He is risen, as he foretold.
Go, announce that He has risen from the sepulchre.)

The Concordia then goes on to describe the actions to be enacted by the priests following this interaction to complete the service. Although designed to enhance the story of the resurrection, here we find without doubt, notation of story acted out for the visual digestion of an audience. Originally performed near the main alter, over time the scenes grew and small platforms (stations) were set-aside around the inside the church for their delivery.

The successful use of the enacted trope led to similar insertions in the nativity service at Christmas, as well as other key events being dramatised. For a combination of various reasons, including scale, content and the dilemma of portraying evil characters within the church, these early Liturgical dramas were drawn outside the church and into the streets. A place where the secular world would, in time, take control.


The ongoing development and growth of the liturgical dramas as they spilled outside the doors of the church, led to the Mystery cycles. Most likely written by Clergymen, the Mystery Cycles were a series of biblical stories detailing the creation of the earth through to the death and resurrection of Christ and in some cases the final judgement of man. The stories chosen for the cycles usually highlighted key stories in the Christian story that impacted man and gave a precursor to the trials of Christ himself as laid out in the Old Testament. For example the Story of Abraham and Isaac is included as it is believed to represent the sacrifice God would make in order to redeem the world back to himself through the crucifixion of Christ.

The York Mystery Cycle, the oldest surviving of the cycles, is first recorded as being performed in 1376. The York Cycle has over 13000 lines and provides the whole story from creation to the last judgement.

The York Cycle is divided into 48 smaller pageants, some less than 100 lines in length. The smaller pageants were performed by different craft guilds or companies on wagons or carriages at a series of 'stations' or stopping places around the city.

York is one of 4 surviving mostly complete cycles, the other three being, Closter with over 11000 lines, Towney has over 12000 lines, 'N. Town' over 11000 lines. The cycles became connected to and were played in conjunction with the 'Corpus Christi' feast, the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday. The last performance of the York Cycle was recorded in 1569.

The presentation of the cycles developed in two ways. The first was the use of 'pageants', large 4 wheeled (some records mention 6 wheeled) carts housing scenery to play a particular scene, which were driven along a set path past the audience. Records indicate some of the 'pageants' being multi-tiered to allow the playing of heaven and earth, or earth and the grave, or all 3 simultaneously. There is some speculation as to whether or not the entire cycle could be played out in one day. Some believe the performances may have gone into the night, others across a number of days. The second was the use of static stations where the scenes were acted out and the audience moved along from scene to scene.

Information on the staging has been derived from representations in visual art and also from civic archives and guild records, such as the Mercers or the Bakers. These records provide information on repairs to wagons, props and about costumes and give some clear indications of the cost of running the cycles from year to year.


Found as early as the 13th century, Miracle plays, also called Saint Plays, were commonly used in retelling various aspects of the lives of the Saints, covering such subjects as their life, miracles and martyrdom. Some of the most popular of these types of play were based on the life and achievements of St George, during which, as civic records indicate, elaborate costumes and props were used. For instance a record in 1474 from Coventry notes:

"a kynges doughter knelyng a fore hym with a lambe and the fader and moder being in a touer a boven"
Saint Plays p8

The record also mentions St George in armour, a dragon, and an organ being played. Other records describe the dragon as a costume with one man inside, the use of horses and pageant wagons.


Rising from the message of the mystery plays came the onset of the morality play. These plays were mainly focussed on the trials and a tribulation of mans day-to-day life and the moral decisions he had to make within it. One of the most famous Everyman, (c. 1485-95), tells the story of how God becomes angry at mans materialistic desires and pursuits and so orders Death to summon him. Everyman then goes on to try and find a companion for his trip into death. Appealing to such characters as Fellowship, Kindred and Cousin, he approaches Good Deeds, who does not offer to go with him but suggests his sister Knowledge. She takes Everyman through his journey to many other characters, until, the moral of the story is revealed when Everyman is left abandoned by all except Good Deeds.

Other well known Morality plays include The Pride of Life (c. 1410), Mankind (c. 1465), Hickscorner (c. 1500) and written sometime between 1400 and 1425 is

"One of the longest and best-preserved morality plays is The Castle of Perseverance. Like most morality plays, it takes a central figure who represents all of us, and confronts him (he is always a male) with a situation which involves a moral decision. The central character in The Castle of Perseverance is mankind"


Records indicate that Mumming was a processional visitation to a private house of a social superior. The 'visitors' would be masked and possibly in costume, and they would devise some game to be played (such as dice), to generate the giving of a gift.

John Stow finds the earliest full description of mumming in a Survey of London. It tells of 130 people who rode in costume to the palace of Richard 2nd at Kensington in 1371. Once there they played dice with the young king making sure he would win the prize of 3 jewels. The entertainment ending with music and dancing. In another account of Mumming, a group arrived silently at a house, employed a herald to beg leave for their intrusion, and explain why they were there. Leave being granted they danced among themselves but not with their host, presented their gifts, and then departed as silently as they came.

In 1418, 1479 and 1511 mumming was banned on an issue of public safety. After 1418 mumming changed and became an arranged visit by disguised friends and dice playing almost exclusively replace by gift giving.

A disastrous case of mumming is recorded from the French court of 1393, where a group of mummers entered dressed as wild men. During an accident with a torchbearer, the costumes caught fire and all but one of the mummers died.

Mumming should not be confused with the Mummers plays from the 17th century.


Rising from the Morality, as its name suggests, the Interlude (short, witty, mostly farcical stories) was used between the acts of longer plays to break up the drama, and sometimes as a diversion for the guests during feasts.

As it grew, the interlude moved further from the influences of the church and its Morality beginnings and became less instructive, spawning recognisable human characters and allowing genuine comedy to emerge. An example of one, John Heywood's 'Play of the Weather' (c.1528), has a number of people praying for different weather to suit their own need, but of course conflicting with the needs of others. Other recorded interludes include 'Fulgens and Lucrece' and 'Nature' by Henry Medwall (c.1490-97), 'Magnificance' by John Skelton (c.1515-29) and 'Nice Wanton' by Thomas Ingland (c.1550-53).

Though records from the period refer to indoor (church, hall), or outdoor performances, the Interlude seemed to be more of an indoor performance and generally for the aristocracy. The practice of private, aristocratic performance led to the development of privately funded troupes of players supported by the upper class and eventually into the writing of full-scale plays.


Writing in the early part of this period still retained much of the verse style of the old prose. However as playwrights developed so did the style and plays continued to move further away from the church based liturgy (this had been happening for some time already) and began to develop a more grounded footing in fiction. Early playwrights of the time such as George Peele continued to develop the meter of verse. Christopher Marlowe developed the style even further but it was William Shakespeare who perfected it with the iambic pentameter.

Through the development of the play and the influences from further a field, (Marlowe's 'Barabas' from 'The Jew of Malta' undoubtedly takes its roots from the classic Pantalone from the Italian Commedia); Elizabethan playwrights dramatically changed the relationship between the audience and the actor. For the first time in English theatre history, the audience had a chance to connect with a character on an emotional level, without the influence of the church and its teaching or Mythology as the Greek and Roman theatre, and follow that character through a structured journey all of their own.

In 1559 Queen Elizabeth decreed that a licence was required to perform plays and thus acting became a formal occupation. Professional troupes of players were formed, such as the Earl of Leicesters Men, and Lord Howard's Men (later becoming the Admirals Men, both formed in 1574), and in 1583 the formation of The Queens Men, which would be replaced, in 1594 by the Admirals Men and the Lord Chamberlains Men.

In 1576 the first permanent play house 'The Theatre' was built by James Burbage, a lead actor in the Earl of Leicesters Men. Other play houses would follow including the Rose (1587 and the first of the Bankside playhouses), The Swan (1595), the Globe (1599) and the Fortune (1600), just to name a few.

Created to accommodate all levels of society, the playhouses generally, had a space in front and on two sides of the stage (the Pit), for the 'Groundlings' who purchased the cheapest entry, to stand and watch the show. Behind the groundlings were 3 tiers of covered seating which cost more than the Pit and most expensive were the private galleries.

The two most celebrated playwrights from the time, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, both born in 1564 would shape the Elizabethan play to greatness. Killed in a bar brawl at the tender age of 29, Marlowe's impact was cut short leaving Shakespeare to become the most renown writer of all time.

These types of theatre were by no means mutually exclusive, but rather developed and overlapped as time pressed on. Although not covered in any detail here, it must be said that each form was affected and influenced by not only its predecessors, but also by influences felt by the social and political environments of the time, as well as outside forces such as places like Italy, and France; all of which helped to shape the development of style and character. From humble beginnings of the liturgical plays first enacted for the embellishment of religious ceremony, Theatre in England developed to be not only, one of the most influential forms, but most studied forms to this day.


Banham, M. Cambridge Guide to World Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Cawley, A.C. Everyman and the Medieval Miracle Plays. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1956.

Happe, P. English Mystery Plays. Great Britain: Penguin Publishers, 1975.

Hartnoll, P. The Concise History of the Theatre. Spain: Thames & Hudson, 1983.

Harwood, R. All the Worlds a Stage. England: Secker & Warburg, 1984.

Taylor J. & Nelson, A. Medieval English Drama. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Tydeman, W. English Medieval Theatre 1400-1500. London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1986.

Vince, R.W. A Companion to the Medieval Theatre. Connecticut: 1989.


REED presents WWW links for theatre history:

The Morality Plays:

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907-21). Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One:

British Saint Play Records: