( Originally Published 1869 )
The earliest efforts of the English drama are believed to have been either borrowed directly from Continental writers, or to have been composed by the Anglo-Norman clerks in the Gallic idiom. Long anterior to these, however, many of the religious or superstitious rites and ceremonies practised by the ancient Britons on great festal occasions, were of a highly dramatic character; and that both as regards the spectacle exhibited, and the actions of the performers. Religious dramas are supposed to have been regularly established performances in London about the year 1180; and it appears that in the middle of the thirteenth century, itinerant actors were well known in England.
Out of the religious drama sprang the moral plays, which were in a state of considerable advancement early in the reign of Henry VI. They seem to have reached their highest perfection under Henry VII., and their performance was not wholly discontinued until the end of Elizabeth's reign.
The first English dramatic production in which it was at-tempted to exhibit sketches from actual life, without any Scriptural saintly or allegorical intermixture, belongs to that class which were termed interludes, and appears to have been introeduced during the reign of Henry VIII. The earliest English tragedy, properly so called, is supposed to have been written about the year 1561.* In the year 1583, Queen Elizabeth first allowed a public company of players to act under her name and authority.
The compositions of Shakespeare,—the artistic merits of which having already been discussed, need not here be adverted to,—not only advanced, but carried at once to perfection dramatic writing. During the reign of Charles I., the fiery zeal of the Puritans prohibited theatrical entertainments altogether. In the reign of Charles II., when the drama was restored with the monarchy, essential improvements were introduced in the arrangements of the theatre, especially as regards decoration costume and music,* which at the present period have advanced still further with the general progress of art and of science.
The mechanical appliances auxiliary to dramatic representations, more particularly as regards the scenery, have indeed much improved in our day; although with respect to the essential features of the art itself, probably no great advance has been made during the last century. No nearer approach to nature in the representation has been effected; still less in the higher attainments of the art, has any progression been accomplished.