If we treat theatre (the doing place) as a social event as well as an entertainment, we will immediately realize that there are three elements in all theatre history where society is “instructed” by theatrical performance:
- the relationship between theatrical production and the ruling hierarchy;
- the relationship between social balance and social unrest;
- and the relationship between art and commodity (that is, what was the income source?)
As examples of the first, Shakespeare’s plays (and those of his contemporaries), especially the Histories, were completely controlled by the Queen’s and later, King James’, censors such as the Stationer’s Register, but after the Restoration, with a more worldly and cosmopolitan king (Charles II), theatre became distinctly coarser, urbane, and tolerant of social misconduct (Wycherley, Farquhar, and the like). It was not so much instructive of certain social behaviors as tolerant of them, mainly because Charles II was indulgent of all the depicted vices.
The second element can best be exemplified in the 19th century movement toward social realism. To say that Ibsen’s Doll House was socially instructive is an understatement. In the 19 century the unrest is palpable: the Industrial Revolution (witness Ibsen’s Enemy of the People); the new, now-growing republics thriving on dramatizations of the power of the people. which threatened even more political unrest; the expansion of commerce (both the European colonization and the westward settlement in the U.S.)
The final concentration is on the financial underpinning of drama, a direct link to social instruction. The proscenium theatre, with its ability to charge for admission, contrasts with, for example, the English pageant plays of the Middle Ages, which were open to the public and paid for by the guilds. Like commercial television today, theatre both reflected and imitated/instructed society.
By looking at these three elements, the relationship between theatre and social “instruction” is made clear: the will of the ruling class, the degree of social upheaval; and the flow of money, all connected to society’s “instruction” concerning accepted, changing, and rewarding behavior. With the possible exception of religious gatherings, theatre was the place of most learning of proper social behavior in every society. Its entertainment value and its endurance are ample warrant for a claim of social relevance in all times in history.