Theatre Eras & Movements: Nineteenth-Century British Theatre

Nineteenth-Century British Theatre

Type: Era

Date Range: 1801-1900

Keywords: spectacle melodrama burlesque pantomime society play realism music hall drawing-room comedy victorian era Britain classical drama savoy opera 


Under the new Theatres Act of 1843, the patent system in Britain was abolished, allowing for the rise of popular entertainment venues, such as music halls and saloons. A variety of hugely popular theatrical art forms developed throughout the nineteenth century, including pantomime, melodrama, burlesque, and the traditional society play. This guide explores the styles and history of these genres, along with key practitioners and playwrights from the era.


  • Ballad opera: a type of comic opera originating in the 18th century.
  • Burlesque: a short piece of drama or musical interlude that parodied a serious piece of dramatic literature.
  • Melodrama: a popular form of entertainment during the nineteenth century with a formulaic plot and stereotypical stock characters.
  • Pantomime: hugely popular and increasingly extravagant spectacles which has its roots in commedia dell’arte.
  • Patent system: a regulatory system whereby only theatres awarded a royal patent were allowed to stage plays.
  • Society play: popular drawing-room dramas based around a combination of social satire and comedy of manners.
  • Tableaux: performers freeze in poses that create a picture of one important moment in the play.
  • Theatres Act of 1843: a government act which abolished the patent system in theatres.

Key Dates & Events


  • Melodrama
  • Burlesque
  • Pantomime
  • Comedy
  • Satire

Key Dates

  • 1837 - 1901 - The reign of Queen Victoria.
  • 1843 - The Licensing Act was dropped under the new Theatres Act.
  • 1879 - Augustus Harris reopened the empty Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He staged his first pantomime, Bluebeard, later that year.
  • 1892 - Augustus Harris took over the failed Royal English Opera House and reopened it as successful music hall, newly named The Palace Theatre of Varieties.
  • 1895 - The Importance of Being Earnest premiered at St James's Theatre in London.
  • 1895 - 1897 - Following a highly publicized trial, Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indency with men and sentenced to two years' hard labor in jail.
  • 1896 - Augustus Harris died, aged 44. His funeral was attended by thousands of mourners.
  • 1900 - Broken by two years in prison, Oscar Wilde died in exile in France. He was just 46 years old.

Until 1843, theatre in Britain was regulated under a patent system, meaning that officially only theatres granted a royal patent (license) were allowed to stage plays. In London, only the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Theatre Royal Covent Garden could produce drama during their winter seasons. However, in practise, this rule was flouted across the country with unlicensed, or illegitimate, theatres staging drama, interspersed with burlesque interludes and/or comic sketches. Under the new Theatres Act of 1843, the patent system was abolished, allowing for the rise of popular entertainment venues, such as music halls and saloons. Although parliament had hoped to control and educate the masses, the unexpected consequence of the act was an explosion of melodrama, burlesque, and music hall that was designed to entertain and amuse its audiences. In the second half of the century, a generation of writers emerged who built on the early melodrama favored in the mid-century and made a name for themselves by satirizing and commenting on upper-class society. However, the dawn of a new century heralded a shift in focus and playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and August Strindberg rejected the melodramatic in favor of realism and naturalism.


miss-scott-as-black-eyed-susan-mr-tp-cooke-as-william-cb54b6-640 Douglas Jerrold's Black Ey'd Susan

Melodrama was a hugely popular form of entertainment during the nineteenth century. Its unprecedented popularity during the Victorian period owes much to its appeal to working-class audiences and the growing numbers of so-called illegitimate, or unlicensed theatres (pre-1843). It developed its unique style from the sentimental dramas of the eighteenth century and featured a formulaic plot, in addition to set stereotypical characters, such as an aristocratic villain, a noble hero, and an innocent maiden. Recognized codified gestures conveyed meaning and emotion to the audience and a dramatic tableau was frequently used to highlight emotional moments in the plot. The genre declined in popularity by the end of the nineteenth century but its influence on popular culture has been huge. Sensation novelists drew on melodramatic conventions and the instantly recognizable style of acting can be seen in the silent movies of the early twentieth century.


In the nineteenth century, a burlesque was a short piece of drama or musical interlude that parodied a serious piece of dramatic literature. It would mock the intention and style of the original piece of work, whether it be Shakespeare or a grand opera. Burlesques were usually risque, with plenty of gags and witticisms thrown in. In the early Victorian era, the burlesque followed the style of the ballad opera, which grew in popularity in the eighteenth century (words of songs put to popular contemporary music of the time). However, later burlesques grew up in composition and style, favoring a combination of music hall, revue, and operettas. Madame Vestris became known for her popular burlesques at the Olympic Theatre in London during the 1830s.

Madam Vestris as Don Giovanni Madam Vestris as Don Giovanni


Pantomime in the nineteenth century was highly influenced by the conventions and stock characters featured in Commedia dell’arte. The English harlequinade and early silent pantomimes had been popular since the seventeenth century, but the pantomime genre came into its own during the Victoria era. Following the 1843 Theatres Act, pantomimes no longer needed to rely on silent slapstick comedy. Witty word play, gags, and audience participation were added into the standard repertoire of mime, fairytale settings, exciting chase scenes, and spectacular transformations. Contemporary characters developed also, with the emergence of the principal boy, pantomime dame, and fairytale creatures. By the end of the century, pantomimes were huge, extravagant spectacles, featuring large casts and clever stage tricks. Theatre impresario Augustus Harris staged a series of hugely lucrative pantomimes at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane during the 1880s, featuring the top names in music hall, such as Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd, and Vesta Tilley.

The “Society Play”

Society dramas emerged in the Victorian era as a popular combination of social satire, comedy of manners, and risque or taboo subject areas (such as illegitimacy, adultery, or blackmail). Although the plays varied greatly in tone and content, the general formula included a drawing-room type setting, upper-class characters who take their social standing and respectability for granted, and a plot that has love or marriage as its primary end-result. Popular playwrights of the era included Arthur Wing Pinero, Oscar Wilde, and Henry Arthur Jones.