'The Evolution of the Drama' - by Vigilant , Westralian Worker, 29 June 1917, 3 August 1917, 7 September 1917 and 12 October 1917

Among Fitzgerald’s notes on this series:

Part I: This piece shows Vigilant’s (Curtin’s) very lively interest in drama, and its origins. Based on good sources (cited), seriously researched. A very clear, arresting account for a popular readership.

Part II: A second instance of Vigilant’s very lively and infectious (transmitted) interest in (Greek) drama and its origins. Well and graphically described. Not labouring any plot details: encouraging his readers to try for themselves.
Vigilant, meanwhile, has become a cultivated mind (“cultivated” person) himself.
Touches: “the glorious fructification of ancient ritual”; “Go to the ant…a foolish saw”; “…as though we attended a play at His Majesty’s and found the two archbishops…”; “Any tourist’s handbook of California” – ! etc.
In his preparatory research, Vigilant has collated Marett (HUL) [Home University Library] with Gilbert Murray and Everyman volumes – (cultivating himself).

Part IV: Again, Vigilant not merely repeating or copying what he has read; has assimilated the material and presents it in a form of his own which relates to the circumstances of his W.A. readers: eg comparing Guild festivals to our Eight Hour Day procession; and, brilliantly if original, describing the recently performed (in Perth) “Passing of the First Floor Back” as “a modern adaptation of the old Morality Play” (which it is!) [1]


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The Evolution of the Drama by Vigilant


Under the above title a series of some three or four articles is proposed, in the definite hope that the outcome may be the establishment of a Repertoire Theatre Society for Perth.

These theatres are now dealing in a very thorough manner with the ancient drama, and as it is to Greece that we must look for dramatic origins, so far as European literature is concerned, these articles will be, largely, a study of Greek drama and religion.

Drama and religion: Even to-day the efforts of broad churchmen and morality-play writers have scarce succeeded in spanning the vast gulf between State and Church. But not only in origin, but also in the circumstances surrounding the introduction of the drama into England, stage and church are inseparably bound up. The miracle plays of mediaeval England were religious propaganda agencies, with monks as actors.

But in Ancient Greece the drama was actually part of a religious ritual – none other than the festival of Dionysos (the Bacchus of the Romans). This is hard enough to understand when we read a play like the “Trojan Women” of Euripides in which Dionysos is not even mentioned, but becomes ten times harder when, as in the “Frogs” of Aristophanes, Dionysos is, indeed, the chief character, but is treated by the author with but barely concealed scepticism, and with open ridicule.

Evidently some great evolution has taken place, if the Greek drama actually arose as a portion of the ritual of the Dionysian festival. To understand this we must know a little of the Greeks, and a little of Bacchus.

The latter we today regard as a wine-god. But in reality he was a god of corn and wine – a fertility god. True, men got drunk at his festivals, just as they occasionally get drunk at Christmas time to-day. But to regard him merely as a drunken god would be fatal to our understanding of the spirit of Greek drama.

What was a fertility-god? To answer that question we may look, as well as elsewhere, to a not-unknown sight, even to-day – the Maypole.

Maypole dances these times are performed by children. But in some countries, where primitive folk still live, and in all ancient countries, this dance is, or was, a very serious business, in which every adult joined. Everyone knows that the maypole dance is a revival of an old custom, and most believe it to be a celebration of the return of Springtime – to rejoice for the renewed fertility of earth. But, as Dr Frazer and other learned authorities assure us, primitive folk believed that the dance actually brought about fertility in fields and flocks. In other words, it was a magical ritual.

The connection between magic dances and the stage is, at least, feasible, but when the whole subject of magic ritual, fertility religions, and ancient drama is analysed, all room for doubt vanishes.

The magic ritual, whereby men perform their own fertility charms, gradually gives way to the religion of a corn or herd god. All ancient religions took such forms. The philosophic religions of to-day are a later development. The main concern of Christianity is the propagation of a certain moral philosophy. The same can be said of modern Bhuddism, and even more so of Confucionism, which has no “theology” at all. But in ancient Greece a far different state of affairs prevailed. The philosophers were not priests, or theologians, but secular scholars, and the priests, on the other hand, were not concerned with moral philosophy. The whole religious system was designed for the physical needs of the community. The priest who sacrificed the sacred bull, for example, was merely performing a magical ceremony which in more simple times, was carried out by the whole community, who met for a maypole dance.

The theory of the sacrifice also calls for explanation. The bull is not offered as a present to the fertility god, with a lively anticipation of favors to come. On the contrary, the bull is the god. The simple Greek who saw the bull slain believed that he witnessed the slaying of Dionysos himself.



If so privileged, he partook of the flesh, believing that he was eating his god. With considerable satisfaction he would watch the axe that struck the fatal blow duly tried, found guilty and condemned; and finally he would see the hide stuffed with straw and set on its feet. His god had come to life again. Later on a fresh bull would be substituted, and would be the representative of the god-head for the ensuing year. So long as the bull were well, all went well; if he sickened, the crops would fall; for him to die would be an unthinkable calamity.

Adonis, Osiris, Tammuz, Hercules, Bacchus, were all fertility gods, slain annually, in the form of an animal (or even human) representative, and resurrected by the replacing of a new sacred animal for the old.

It is hard to realise how these gods were regarded without understanding what manner of world primitive folk live in. Our universe is ruled by law. Every effect, with us, must have an adequate cause, but with the simple children of forest and steppe every effect must have an immediate cause, which, to our minds, would appear anything but adequate. In fact, they believe everything not thoroughly obvious to be the result of magic. A death, with our blackfellows, is caused either by material weapons or by a magical ceremony which consists in an enemy pointing a bone at the victim. To give an impressive example of this obsession – anthropologists declare that very backward savages (including some Central Australian tribes) do not attribute the paternity of a child to its mother’s husband, but to a sacred stone, or tree that its mother has touched.

It is, of course, inconceivable that the educated Greek believed that the slaying of a sacred bull actually produced the fertility of plants, animals, and human beings, but it is quite understandable that the ceremony of the sacrifice had acquired, for him, symbolic meaning at variance (at least apparently so) with its original object: that the ritual had become to him a holy of holies, embodying the highest and noblest sentiments of the State. Thus it was that he continued to attend the festival of Dionysos, with the full conviction that he was taking part in the supreme religious function of his country, for hundreds of years after the priest and his principal attendant had become the “star” actors, the crowd of maypole, or sacrificial dancers had evolved into the chorus, and the subject matter presented had ceased to have anything to do with Dionysos.

To trace the Greek drama further and to rub shoulders with one or two of its exponents will be the theme of the next article in this series (some two or three weeks hence). But before leaving the question of the very early origins of the drama, it is worth noting that in other lands the development of a more or less complex social system has been associated with a similar upgrowth of religious drama. Thus in India to-day dramatic representations of the slaying of the giants by Rama, the man-god, are a regular feature of native life. They give to-day what is probably a very accurate idea of the transition stage from magic ritual through which Greek drama must have passed.

It seems a far call from a modern maypole dance to the “ox-murder” of ancient Athens, but in your fair-haired Queen-o-May surely lives the latest resurrection of the slain corn gods of the ancient world.


Hints about books worth reading on the above subject (mainly for beginners):-
“Ancient Art and Ritual,” by Jan Ellen Harrison, LLD., D. Litt. Home University Library, 1/9 from Perth Booksellers)
Part IV, of “The Golden Bough (Adonis, Attis, and Osiris) by Dr J. G. Frazer; can be consulted in the Public Library. Many of the facts are contained in “The Churches and Modern Thought” by P. Vivian (chapters on Ancient Beliefs), which is sold in a cheap edition.

Any of Gilbert Murray’s translations of Euripides may be read with profit. “Trojan Women” (1/6 from Perth booksellers) should make a good start.



In our first article on dramatic origins, we traced the development of primitive drama from the ritual of primitive magic-religions. We now propose to examine at more leisure the glorious fructification of ancient ritual in the drama of Ancient Greece. It is, perhaps, advisable to drop a word in season upon the importance of Greek culture in general. Complex civilisations existed for thousands of years before Greece, but it is to the Greeks that we trace philosophic, artistic and democratic origins. This is not merely an historic accident.

“Go to the ant and learn wisdom”, is an old and foolish saw. An ant-hill is a wonderful economic complex. Its galleries contain storehouses, stables, hospitals, nurseries and dairies, each managed by workers thoroughly equipped for that special work. In addition it has its food gatherers, and its military caste, all working in perfect order, and without a hitch. But, who will suggest that any super-ant ever thought out this system? The whole thing is automatic, a result of gradually accumulated custom. The ant has little more individuality than a single cell of a human body.

Ancient society much resembled the ant-hill. The medicine-man of the savage tribe gradually became the god-king of Egypt, while the totem marriage taboos developed into civilised marriage laws, but the steps in the change were largely taken unconsciously. They grew; they were not planned. Man was their chattel, not their master.

Towards the close of the sixth century, B.C., a process of “intense fusion” that had been taking place on the shores of the Aegean drew to a close. The result was a race of “glorious mongrels” – the Ancient Greeks. “Intellectual freedom,” says R. R. Marrett (In “Anthropology,” Home University Library) “may be said to have been born in one place and at one time – namely in Greece, in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.” And again, “to break through custom by sheer force of reflection, and so to make rational progress possible, was the intellectual feat of one people, the Ancient Greeks; and it is highly doubtful if, without their leadership, a progressive civilisation would have existed to-day.”

The persistence of automatic civilisation in China until recent years may be cited as a strong point in favor of Marrett’s contention.

Now that we are in a position to understand two important things about a Greek play-first, that it is portion of a religious festival in honor of Dionysos, and secondly that it will probably have nothing whatever to do with Dionysos – we may venture to enter a Greek Theatre. Unfortunately such a building does not exist in Perth, nor, indeed, nearer than San Francisco. (Any tourist’s handbook of California will no doubt, contain a photograph of this theatre.)

The central feature is the chorus – merely a circular space. Around three sides rise tier upon tier of seats. There is no central aisle, but generally one on each side. An observer seated centrally in the amphi-theatre looks across the chorus to the stage, a relatively small platform, while before the chorus is the orchestra. There is no roof, no curtain, very little “scenery,” and no charge for admission. To attend was a right and a duty of the ancient Athenian.

Let us enter among the spectator worshippers. We may sit where we consider our social status entitles us – certainly not in the front rows, for there the seats are permanently reserved, and are provided with backs. But we may venture to inspect these tiers. The middle seat of the front row is inscribed with the title of the chief priest of Dionysos. That is his seat and we may be sure he will not fail to occupy it. The remaining backed seats are similarly reserved for the priesthood. It is as though we attended a play at His Majesty’s, and found the two archbishops occupying the central seats in the first row of the stalls, and the next two rows filled by the various clergy of Perth. We are again reminded that we are about to take part in a religious festival.



Our examination of the theatre finished, we await the play. It is not long before we understand the relative sizes of the stage and the chorus. “The play’s the thing” with us. But in the ancient drama, “the thing” was the chorus. In fact, it is thought that in the earlier stages of the evolution from magic ritual to drama, the chorus was everything, or nearly so.

It sang the ritual dances, while the single actor was the priest, who slew the sacred bull. He would be called upon to recite certain formulae. Gradually a second, and later a third and fourth actor, with a speaking part, came to be introduced, and that number is rarely exceeded, even when the magical character – the representations of the mysteries of Bacchus came to be discarded in favor of legends of the heroic age, like the political satires – the comedies of Aristophanes. But, even in the latter, dialogue occupies half of the play. The rest consists of lyrical composition sung by the chorus. Sometimes the whole chorus sing together, sometimes one semi-chorus answers another and again a sort of part-song is introduced. Then again we have a typically ritual form in which the actor addresses the audience from the stage, and the chorus responds in song.

As already mentioned, there is very little scenery. A great portion of what dialogue there is consists in describing the scene, and in relating events. Both are done at considerable length, and no pains are spared to conjure up a very real picture in the minds of the audience. In “the Frogs” of Aristophanes we are taken to the house of Hercules and across the Styx in Charon’s boat, we engage in a scuffle with Cerberus, the three-headed dog at the gates of hell, and sit in judgment in the court of Pluto without the assistance of any but the most meagre stage furniture.

Our modern playwright frequently crowds sensation incident into his work. The ancients avoided it. The action, largely, is supposed to be performed elsewhere and is merely reported by the actors. Thus, in Euripides tragedy Electra, tow murders are committed, but neither within view of the spectators. The story runs that Agamemnon, returning from the Trojan war, was murdered in his bed by his wife, who, during his ten years’ absence, had become enamoured of Aegisthus, a neighbouring chieftain. Orestes, the son, fled, while Electra, the daughter, is wedded to a peasant, so that she might never become the wife of one whose children carry on Agamemnon’s feud with Aegisthus. But Orestes returns, and slays Aegisthus by stategem, while Electra lures her mother to her hut, by pretending that she, Electra, had become mother to a man-child.

The murder of Aegisthus is reported to Electra, in front of her hut, and when Orestes arrives, the pair murder the mother, Clytemnestra, inside the hut – out of view of the spectators. The dramatic element, however, is fully preserved by the presence of the two dead bodies on the stage. Orestes, finally, dies in terror, pursued by the Furies.

Our best introduction to Greek drama may be had through the medium of the Australian Professor of Greek at Oxford – Gilbert Murray. This remarkably gifted man has translated the plays of Euripides, and several other works of the time, into magnificent English verse. None need hesitate to attempt these words, for the volumes (which can be obtained for 1/6 in Perth) are supplemented with very copious notes, which make the rather unfamiliar allusions understandable to all. Besides “Electra”, “Trojan Women”, and “Iphegenia in Tauros” might be recommended for a start. The comedies of Aristophanes can be obtained in a single volume in the Everyman Library (1/9 from Perth booksellers). In addition to a selection of the plays of Euripides and Aristophanes, those who desire to understand the period should also read “Ancient Art and Ritual” and “Ancient Greece”, in the Home University Library series.

The next article on the drama will deal with the period of the revival of learning in Western Europe.


This, the third article on the progress of the drama, like the first, will have little to do with plays or playwrights. We hinted at the outset of the series that the drama of Shakespeare’s time owed a debt to the Church miracle plays of the previous century. It would, perhaps, have been better to have said that the Shakesperian stage evolved from the Miracle stage. The Miracle play provided the body; for the soul we must look to the Italian Renaissance.

Triumphant Christianity drove the ancient gods from their thrones on Olympus; and so far as the Pagan deities were the idols of an outlived creed, they need never have been missed. But they were more. They were the living symbols of ancient art, science, and literature, and with their departure “there passed away a glory from the earth.”

Added to this was the fact that Europe was, for centuries, a battlefield between Barbarian and Roman, and war has ever been the Abortionist to Learning.

One case, however, in which war functioned as midwife, stands as the exception to prove the rule. Constantinople fell to the Turk in 1453, and Greek scholars, who for generations had been isolated from the West, poured over Italy, bringing with them the priceless manuscripts of the ancients.

And to their influence the great revival is largely attributed. They were the tutors of the New Learning; but we must not overlook its John the Baptists – Abelard, the heretic; St Francis, the mystic; Averroes, the restorer of the text of Aristotle, Roger Bacon, the first man of science. Later came Giotto, the painter, Boccaccio and Petrarch, the story-tellers. Who profoundly influenced Chaucer, the father of English poetry. The death of the last-named brings us to the dawn of the fifteenth century, and during the ensuing two centuries impulse after impulse followed in quick succession. The reign of the Medici, the great patrons of the movement, commenced in Florence in 1434. Constantinople fell in 1453. The first printing press was set up in Mayence by Fust in 1450. Columbus discovered America in 1492. In 1507 Copernicus proclaimed that the Earth was no the centre of the Universe but one of many planets revolving round the Sun, and towards the end of the sixteenth century and in the beginning of the seventeenth the discoveries by Galileo in physics, and by Harvey, of the circulation of the blood, carried on the assault that led to the foundation of modern science.

The movement was thus started and sustained by a well-time series of shocks. Almost within a single life-time three new worlds were discovered – the ancient world, that was forgotten; America, the gift of Columbus; and the limitless universe of new-born Science.

Keat’s transports of joy upon first looking into Chapman’s Homer must have been the common lot of men in those mighty days –

“Then felt I like some watchers of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortes – when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific, and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise
Silent upon a peak in Darien.”

Edith Sichel, in her able work on the subject, declared the great mission of the movement to be the reconciliation of the old gods with the pale Galilean. The ban was lifted and once again art and literature were free to paint or sing of Pallas and Dionysos – to re-light their altar flames – to resurrect the Great God Pan.

All nations bowed to Pallas, but as we shall see, while Italy’s chief niche was occupied by the bust of sculpture, Germany burned incense before her sister of philosophy, and England re-enthroned Dionysos, the god in whose mysteries the drama had its origin.

To pick out more than a few of the greatest of the men of the Italian Renaissance would be impossible. There was Donatello, the re-born Pygmalion, who endowed dead marble with life. There were Ghiberti’s marvellous Baptistry doors, that took thirty years to complete; and again the first of the Moderns, Leonardo da Vinci, painter, antagonist, inventor, the creator the sybil-like Mona Lisa, and the unapproachable Last Supper – an Eucharist of Art; or the sublime Sistine Madonna of Raphael, and the decorations of Michael Angelo. Any one of these, choose which ye will, would suffice to make famous the age that brought it forth.

Not only in art, but in literature as well, was it a time of excellence. But in Italy the spirit of the Renaissance lived in the artists.



So too, it was in Flanders where the glorious buildings of the period and the paintings of the Van Eycks rivalled the great works of the Florentines. In France the arts and literature were more evenly balanced, but perhaps the Renaissance note rang truest in the philosophic works of Rabelais and Montaigne.

In Germany a different note was struck. True, the architecture and sculpture of the time bear witness to-day that art was not neglected, and the sombre pencils of Durer – The Knight, and Melancholy – are after their kind, as great, and perhaps even deeper, than the immortal colors of Italy. But it is a more serious and purposeful art. If the Italians depicted the “soul of the body,” Durer has given us glimpses of the soul of the soul. The Knight, grim-visaged, riding on into blackest midnight, and heedless of Death and the Devil, calls to mind Henley’s fine song of resolution:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet, the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid
It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul

In fact, the expression of the Revival in Germany was the Reformation. Both Protestantism and Catholicism, as we know them to-day, are the results of the intellectual upheaval that closed the Middle Ages. The stern philosophy and passion for abstract right characteristic of Goethe, Ibsen, Carlyle, is attributable to the one; the warm humanist enthusiasm of Mazzini, Connolly and Mannix surely finds its root in the other. On the one hand we have the avatars of Luther and Durer; on the other the soul of the Florentine commonwealth is re-incarnate.

The Reformation, in England, was more political than intellectual in character and no school of art arose as a result of Renaissance influence. But literature, which gave such brilliant, if brief, indications of its existence in Chaucer’s time, flamed up like a new sun. After Chaucer’s death it suffered almost complete extinction, due to the Wars of the Roses, but with the Tudors came peace, and towards the middle of the sixteenth century two Englishmen, Wyatt and Surrey, returned from an embassy to the cradle of the Renaissance. Spencer’s first poems appeared in 1579, and Francis Bacon’s “Novum Organnum” in 1620. Between these two dates were written the plays of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and nearly a dozen lesser dramatists who in themselves would have made the period famous, but are today little heard of owing to the great pre-eminence of Shakespeare. In addition Spencer’s Faerie Queene, and a vast quantity of other poetry, Chapman’s translation of Homer, and essays and other prose works by Lyle, Sidney, Bacon, Raleigh and others, saw the light.

This relatively short period comprised the Golden Age of English literature. But the Renaissance impulse was not exhausted. It let on to Milton, in the realm of letters, and to the Cromwellian revolution in the world of political thought.

Such, in brief, was the course of the mighty movement that put an end, for ever, to the Dark Ages. To do the period justice, this superficial sketch should be supplemented by the biographies of, at least, some of its leading men, and by an acquaintance with the works of art and masterpieces of literature of the period. The first mentioned want is met by Edith Sichel’s volume on “The Renaissance” in the Home University Library, while “Painters and Painting” by Sir F. Wedmore, and “Architecture” by Prof Lethaby (in the same series) together with a small selection from the “Famous Painters” series (2/- from Perth booksellers) and an examination of the engravings in the Art Gallery will go, at least part of the way, towards satisfying the second. For the third, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Bacon, and Spencer can be readily obtained, even in that blessing of latter days, the cheap edition. A school edition, with notes (single plays) is the beginner’s best introduction to Shakespeare.

Two very readable books that give a good general idea of that period are Reade’s “Cloister and the Hearth” and “The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini” both published in the Everyman Library.



In approaching the subject of the Shakespearian drama, we must take into account two factors, In the first place the Renaissance, or Revival of Learning, brought about the intellectual atmosphere that made the master dramatist’s work both possible and acceptable; and in the second place the Miracle Plays of earlier centuries supplied the shell, or mould, into which the intellectual bronze was cast. That is why the spirit of the Renaissance, which in Italy was expressed in Art, and in Germany in religious discontent, found its voice in England in the Drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

We saw in our first article on the Drama that the drama of ancient Greece had its origin in the magic ritual of Dionysos. The gradual development of this ritual led eventually to the highly complex comedies and tragedies of Athens and Rome. With the decadence of the Roman Empire the public tastes declined, and the Circus and the Hippodrome – the gladiatorial contests and the chariot races – gradually displaced the drama, and what little remained of the latter was debased to the level of music hall performances. Theodora, wife of Justinian, a great Eastern emperor, was an actress on the debased stage of Constantinople, and also a keen partisan in the chariot contests. Her patronage of the “Blues,” against the “Greens,” resulted in the disastrous Nika Riots in which thousands of people lost their lives. At last the invasions of the barbarians, together with the ascetic moral code of the early church, succeeded in suppressing both the grandeur and excesses of the ancient world.

But at a later date, especially when her missionary efforts extended to the Northern Races, the church found the stage a very valuable propaganda agent. People in those days, it must be remembered, could not read, and some more vivid method of presenting views than by mere preaching was required. To meet this want legends from the New and Old Testaments were acted. The Deluge, the Tower of Babel, the Return of the Prodigal, were amongst the subjects commonly dealt with and the mode of presentation was both rough and indecorous. Later on legends from the lives of saints, and incidents in the history of the church were introduced. The latter were spoken of as Miracle Plays, the former as Mystery Plays. At first the actors were priests, monks, and novices, and the theatre the Church, but as these performances rapidly grew in popularity the stage was removed to the village green, and the actors became gradually more secular in character. No doubt the performances on the green became confused with the Maypole dance, which, as we have seen in an earlier article, was really, in origin, a magical ritual of the same order as the Mysteries of Dionysos.

Eventually the plays passed completely from the church to another very interesting mediaeval institution, or set of institutions – the Guilds. Without discussing minutely the character of the latter, it may be said that they resembled trade unions, although they included both masters and men, and they also functioned as benefit and secret societies. Guild membership, in mediaeval England, was to a large extent the test of citizenship. However, the annual festivals of the guilds closely resembled our own Eight Hours Celebrations. They were marked by processions, with banners and trade displays, sports, and last but not least, the performance of Miracle Plays. Wakefield, Chester, and Coventry were the great gathering centres of the guilds. The usual practice was for each Trade Guild to perform a separate miracle, and the gatherings consequently lasted for several days, and sometimes for weeks.

From 1100 to 1400 A.D. the Miracle Plays were the only drama performed in England. But from the latter date, which, by the way, was marked by the death of Chaucer, the father of English poetry, a new development was noticeable. Imagination was allowed freer play. Personified abstract introductions, such as Vice, Virtue, Folly, were introduced, and rapidly took possession of the whole stage. The new departure gave us the Morality Play.



“Everywoman” is a modern revival of this pre-Shakespearian form, and “The Passing of the Third Floor Back,” an adaptation of the same type. As both of these plays have appeared in Perth within the past few years, it is hardly necessary to say more about the Morality Play, except to note that, with its appearance, the playwright was freed from the tyranny of the Biblical text, and might use his imagination and creative power as he willed so long as he continued to deal with abstractions. But even this restriction gradually gave way, even before the flood-tide of Renaissance ideas reached England. The temptation to make Vice a caricature of the village drunkard, Virtue a picture of the charitable lady, Folly of the smart young coxcomb, is very obvious, and no doubt many a portly local dignitary came in for a more or less complimentary characterisation.

Then came the Renaissance. Its first dramatic expressions in England towards the middle of the Sixteenth century took the form of a few plays, written in Latin, and carefully modelled after Platus and Seneca, two Latin writers who lived in the first century A.D.

These efforts are only important as symptoms of the coming age. In 1574, Queen Elizabeth granted permission for plays to be staged in London, and the first regular theatres were opened in 1576. Very shabby structures they were, compared with the palaces of drama with which we are familiar, but on the other hand their stages were graced, with the most intense products of dramatic genius that the world has seen, either before or since, excepting only those of the great days of Greece.

The building, as we have seen, was rough. The stage settings were meagre, the scenery imaginary. The stage jutted out into the middle of the “yard” – the portion occupied by the stalls in modern theatres – and at the back stood a two storied structure that served as a changing boom, an inner chamber, or a balcony, as circumstances required. Charges of admission were “3, 2 and 1” – pence, not shillings. The penny patrons stood in the yard, while two penny patrons and “gentlemen” were provided with seats, which were raised on galleries that surrounded the stage on three sides. The acting was, it is believed very rapid, and probably one side of the stage was used for one scene while the other half was being prepared for the next.

Whether the actors were good or bad we have no means of knowing. Prior to the building of the theatres players were performed in the yards of inns, by companies of “strolling players.” No doubt these gentry were in the habit of stealing eggs, etc; at any rate, they were eventually proscribed as “rogues and vagabonds,” by an Act that remains unrepealed to the present day. Noblemen who desired to witness plays therefore entailed these strolling players amongst their retainers, and the companies known as “Lord Leicester’s Servants,” “The Lord Chamberlain’s Servants,” thus acquired a sort of charter, and reputability, and attracted to their ranks both actors and writers of ability.

There are no women on the Shakespearian stage. Women’s parts were taken by boys, and Shakespeare’s women were therefore, as a rule, limited to a range of emotions capable of being understood by boys. The costumes were gorgeous, and in some sense compensated for the lack of elaborate scenery. Music and singing also served to relieve the monotony of the drama.

Such, in brief, were the conditions under which the great dramatic art of the period was presented to the public. The differences between the rough stage of the sixteenth century and the elaborate settings of the present day is vast indeed, by not so marked as the contrast with the simple grandeur of the Greek theatres.

Here we must, for the time, break off. We have, as it were, set the stage for the entry of Shakespeare, and in our next articles we will proceed to examine his life and work, as well as that of some of his great contemporaries.


1. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Curtin: Book discussions (largely from Our Bookshelf), 1917 - 1988. JCPML00653/36