As in all Western European countries, the theater, after the long eclipse following the breakup of the Roman Empire, was reborn in the churches and then overflowed into the squares and streets and passed from the control of the clergy to that of the corporations. A typical genre was the miracle, or mystery, whose maximum flowering took place between 1300 and 1450, but a profane theater also developed, with the rural mumming plays, which were linked to ancient pagan rituals, and with the pageant, of religious origin but soon became a spectacle to great effect. Near the end of the century. XV arose a new genre of edifying theater, morality, no longer a script for biblical episodes but a real drama. In the same period, the first companies of professionals were formed who, under the protection of some noble ladies, recited in the courtyards of the inns for a general public. According to Ehealthfacts, their settling in the capital was long and tiring: liked by the court, they were in fact not loved by the Puritan majority of the municipal council, who considered the theater a diabolical work. The first permanent rooms, open-air wooden buildings, were then built in the immediate surroundings of the city: they were The Theater (1516), the Curtain (1571), the Rose (1588), the Swan (1595) and, more famous than all, the Globe (1599). The companies still bore the names of their patron aristocrats, but they were entrusted to the guidance of the actors: they wrote dramatists of vivid imagination and extraordinary vigor for them and attended the performances by members of all classes. It was the Elizabethan theater, which also includes the reign of James I and which, not only for the presence of Shakespeare, is considered one of the highest moments in the entire history of this art.
Only men appeared on stage, even in female parts. Masques, elaborate shows where the scenography counted a lot, instead suited the court and the nobility . Following the offensive unleashed by the Puritans – first with ferocious pamphlets, then, the civil war was won, with an edict of 1647 which prohibited all sorts of performances and threatened severe penalties to actors and spectators – the theater went underground or turned to a new genus, the droll, based on music and dance with the inclusion of recited songs. Regular activity became possible again in 1660 with the Restoration of the Stuarts, but with substantial changes: the Elizabethan drama was in fact followed by the witty and elegant, cynical and libertine Comedy of Manners, in which women also played for the first time. Two theaters, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, enjoyed a monopoly regime for a couple of centuries. In the sec. XVIII, the dominating figure of D. Garrick accompanied the consolidation of a new bourgeois public eager for morally less irritating scripts. (1717-79), which began the long era of the actor-director and represented Shakespeare in adaptations that eliminated or attenuated his rawness and vigorous drama. For the first time contemporary clothes were abandoned and costumes were adopted that had some historical reference with the events represented. The figure of the actor also dominated the entire following century: there was not a single culturally relevant playwright in the entire nineteenth century, while the great histrionic personalities abounded, from J. Ph. Kemble (1757-1823) to E. Kean (1787- 1833), from W. Ch. Macready (1793-1873) to H. Irving (1838-1905), who acquired enormous popularity and also, little by little, a certain social prestige (Irving was the first theatrical to be appointed sir). The repertoire of the Victorian era included a lot of Shakespeare, but also a lot of melodramas, the only type of theater that could find – with the music hall – an audience even in popular circles. At the turn of the century, while O. Wilde and GB Shaw restored a certain respectability to the repertoire, the commercial theater was organized with the system of the group of actors specially signed to represent a specific text. At the same time the dramatic societies began the battle for the renewal of the scene: G. Craig (1872-1966), after some isolated experiments, went into exile in Florence, but W. Poel (1852-1934) and then H. Granville-Barker (1877-1946) renewed the Shakespearean staging and presented novelties of significant cultural commitment; the Old Vic, born as a meeting place to keep poor neighborhoods away from alcohol, became, starting above all in the Thirties, a theater intended for the representation of classical works in artistically relevant stage editions.
The phenomenon continued and worsened after World War II, simultaneously with the development, in the major provincial cities, of “repertoire theaters”, some of which, such as in Manchester and Birmingham, already had a not inconsiderable history. The Stratford-on-Avon Festival gained importance, from which the Royal Shakespeare Company was born in 1960; the actor and director G. Devine founded in 1956 the English Stage Company, with a contemporary repertoire written by authors who do not belong to the literary and social establishment; shows by directors such as P. Brook (b.1925) and JM Littlewood (b.1914) gained worldwide fame, while in 1963, crowning a nearly century-old dream, the National Theater was inaugurated and in 1969 the censorship on drama was lifted. The presence of a large group of playwrights is one of the characteristics of English theater: young authors generally find space for their first experiments in some of the many groups that make up the so-called Fringe; but their careers often continue in large public and private theaters. Among the so-called “leftist” writers we can mention H. Brenton (b. 1942), D. Hare (b. 1947), D. Edgar who adapted a Dickensian text to the stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Nicholas Nickleby (1980 ), one of the most memorable shows of the 1980s. Less politically committed but still attentive to the society of our time are C. Hampton (b. 1946), T. Stoppard (b. 1937) and P. Shaffer (b. 1926). The brilliant comedies of A. Ayckbourn (b.1939) were very lucky, while the presence of two women, C. Churchill, should be noted. (b.1938), linked to feminism, and T. Wertenbaker, to whom we owe two extraordinary plays of theater within the theater: Our Country’s Good(1988; For the good of the country) based on a novel by the Australian Thomas Keneally, and one reinterpretation of the Greek myth of Progne and Filomela in The Love of the Nightingale (1989; The love of the nightingale).