Stage or Stepping Stone?

John Earl looks into the world of theatre.

Theatre is almost the only art in which Britain has fairly consistently excelled and, for long periods, led the world. General histories of Western art credit us with an occasional creative giant, a Hawksmoor, a Turner or a Moore but tend otherwise to ignore these dim offshore islands. Theatre is an exception to the rule – and the other major exception, literature, has deep roots in the drama.

British dramatists, performers and occasions crowd together in any account of mainstream theatrical development over the last 400 years and in nearly every kind of popular entertainment, Britain has been prominent. The first massively popular permanent playhouses since Roman times were built here. The modern circus was created in Britain and variety entertainment achieved classic form in the British music hall. Our theatrical traditions have left their mark in every land where the English language – 'the language of Shakespeare' – is known and Britain is still a highly successful exporter (and invisible exporter) of theatre entertainment and theatre skills. 'The stage', in all its manifestations, is one of the very few fields in which, as a nation, we take achievement (perhaps unwisely) for granted.

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