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English drama
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English drama

The earliest known plays in the English language are the medieval mystery plays and morality plays, which dealt with Christian themes, especially the life and death of Jesus Christ, and were performed at religious festivals.

There are two candidates for the earliest comedy in English: Ralph Roister Doister by Nicholas Udall, and Gammer Gurton's Needle, by an unidentified author.

English drama reached its height during the English Renaissance, during the reign of Elizabeth I. This period includes not only the justifiably famous William Shakespeare, but also Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and John Webster. Some have hypothesized that the English Renaissance paved the way for the sudden dominance of drama in English society, arguing that the questioning mode popular during this time was best served by the competing characters in the plays of the Elizabethan dramatists.

Various types of plays were popular at this time. Ben Jonson, for example, was often engaged to write masques, ornate plays where the actors wore, yes, masks. The three types that seem most often studied today are the histories, the comedies, and the tragedies. Shakespeare is remarkable in that he produced all three types, whereas other playwrights tended to specialise in one or another.

After the English Civil War, play-acting, especially comedy, was regarded as sinful, and all theatres were closed for some years. Restoration comedy, which became popular during the reign of King Charles II was a genre in its own right.

The different types of drama continued up until the 19th and 20th centuries, when some merging of the differences occurred, so that it was no longer essential for a play to have either a happy or a sad ending.

See also English literature, Mummers Play, Irish Theatre