Her Majesty's TheatreSociety of London Theatre & UK Theatre

The period from 1840 to the end of the century saw theatre proliferating everywhere as populations grew and commercial opportunities were seized upon.  This was the age of touring companies, great actor-managers, grand opera, and the birth of music hall and variety.

Irving Sir Henry 1838-1905LIFE Photo Collection

Henry Irving became the first actor to receive a knighthood, bestowing a respectability on the profession it had never known before.

Portrait of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony , ca. 1882 Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs DivisionSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Settings became more realistic as technical advances allowed for more complicated scenery changes.  

Authors such as Arthur Wing Pinero and Oscar Wilde became celebrities. 

Adaptions of novels by Charles Dickens were staged as soon as books were published.  Gilbert and Sullivan created a whole new art-form in satirical light opera at the Savoy Theatre, built specifically for them by Richard D'Oyly Carte (the first ever theatre lit entirely by electricity!).

The London Palladium: Interior by The George Hoare Theatre CollectionSociety of London Theatre & UK Theatre

More theatres were built in this period than any other.  Architects such as Frank Matcham, W.Sprague, and Bertie Crewe developed specialist practices to design and build theatres.  Impresarios Edward Moss and Oswald Stoll established chains of theatrical venues to transfer productions and artistes from week to week, ensuring return visits from local audiences.  Most major towns had an Opera House, a concert hall, a Variety theatre, a couple of playhouses, and several music halls.

LIFE Photo Collection

Entertainment became big business and every medium flourished.  The biggest stars of the day would also tour in Europe and America to boost their coffers, just as Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse would travel from their homelands to perform on the UK circuits.

LIFE Photo Collection

European drama thrived with plays by Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov staging small town and family events and controversial themes in a realistic manner.  This was a baton picked up by George Bernard Shaw and carried into the 21st century.

Cus Chri X-Mas In Bye Gone Days And Pantomime ChildrenLIFE Photo Collection

The biggest contribution to British theatre history was the establishment of what we regard today as the traditional Christmas pantomime.  This was a tradition enjoyed by the public in the prolific Edwardian Period.

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