Explain the chronological development of drama from Greek to the Modern English Period.

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shaketeach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The origins of Greek drama are found in the religious ceremonies dedicated to Dionysus, the Greek god of "wine, women and song" so to speak or as I always call him, the party god.

It was out of the chorus of priests chanting the dithyrambs to Dionysus that Thespis stepped out and became the first actor and playwright.  Thus Greek drama was born and begot many children.

Roman theatre was a poor imitation that eventually deteriorated in sexually provocative dances called pantomimes (which eventually evolved into ballet),  tasteless farces called mimes and, of course, the popular entertainment of the gladiatorial contests.  Seneca's closet dramas were the only plays worth remembering since later dramatists preferred his looser rules to those of the Greek.

During the Middle Ages, drama again was found in religion.  Since the church services were in Latin and most people did not speak or understand Latin, stories from the Bible were performed in liturgical dramas.  When these became too big and complicated, these religious plays moved from inside the church to outside in the towns themselves.

Several things happened with this change.  First, when they moved outside, the language changed from Latin to the local vernacular.  They were renamed Mystery plays because the stories were performed by the craft guilds.  The term mystery refers to the fact that the guilds would teach the mysteries of their craft to apprentices.

These plays were performed in two ways.  On pageant wagons, each story was on a separate wagon in a parade.  The wagons would stop at specified places and perform the story then move on.

The other type of performance was a fixed stage against a prominent building, like a town hall.  The stage was divided into levels.  Under the stage was hell, and trap doors would be used.  The stage itself was earth and the roof of the building was heaven where angles could "fly" onto earth.

Other common types of plays were Miracle plays and the Passion Play.  Later to develop was the Morality play.  The most famous is Everyman.

During the late Middle Ages the special effects became very elaborate.

In England, the cycle plays of the Middle Ages were very popular and can still be seen today.  The first English plays came out of the schools.  Ralph Roister Doister is considered the first English comedy and Gorbadoc is the first English tragedy.

The most influential to Elizabethan drama were the University Wits, four university men who wrote plays.  The most famous of these was Christopher Marlowe, who was the first playwright to use bank verse.

Shakespeare is considered the giant of the period and rightly so.  Ben Jonson is also important.  However, there were numerous playwrights during this time period and each contributed to the growth of English drama.

The Restoration period followed and with it some changes in presentation, the most important being that women were allowed to play female roles.  Lots of satire.

Drama during the eighteen and nineteen centuries continued with the development of the English theatre.  Important playwrights are Sheridan and Goldsmith.

Heading into the 20th century is George Bernard Shaw.  By the middle of the 20th century English theatre was rather stogy, but in 1956, it was shocked out its complacency by John Osborn's, Look Back in Anger.

Today, English theatre is rich with playwrights like Tom Stoppard and companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.


Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The development of drama from Greek to modern English could take a thousand pages to answer.  You might want to discussion board this.  I'll just give you a very rough outline.

  • Greek Drama
  • Roman Drama
  • Mystery plays in Britain
  • Morality plays in Britain
  • Renaissance drama which includes Shakespeare
  • Restoration Theatre
  • Victorian Drama
  • Edwardian Drama
  • Early Modern Drama
  • Absurdist Drama

As I said, this is very rough.  You can find information on any of the above in literature handbooks, on the Internet, in drama texts, etc.  An interesting topic within modern drama might be the Irish Literary Renaissance, which was vital in 20th-century drama.