The actual theaters in those days were very primitive, and scarcely any scenery was used; but the dramas produced are the greatest in English literature.
Theatres today are places of amusement, resorted to, as a rule, in the evening after the work of the day. The buildings are large and comfortable, and the scenery is magnificent and realistic. The scenic arrangements delight the eye, the music charms the soul, and the situations created by the plot are such as to arouse the interest, and make us lose the sense of our own troubles and worries in sympathy with the joys and sorrows of those who are impersonated upon the stage. Theatres being looked upon, in modern times, largely as places of recreation, the public demands amusement, “and those representations which are of a cheerful and joyous nature, those plots which involve the characters in trouble and leave them in possession of unalloyed happiness, are the most popular, even though in many cases they are untrue to life. There is, however, another side to the question.
The English stage was most flourishing in the time of Queen Elizabeth. The dramatists of that day looked upon amusement as only a part of their duties. Many men of lofty and penetrating intellect used the theatre as a medium for the expression of their thoughts and ideas. Their aim was to ennoble and elevate the audience, and imbue it with their own philosophy, by presenting noble characters working out their destiny amid trials and temptations, and their pictures, being essentially true to nature, acted as powerful incentives to the cultivation of morality. Shakespeare stands preeminent among them all, because by his wealth of inspiring thought he gives food for reflection to the wisest, and yet charms all by his wit and humour and exhibits for ridicule follies and absurdities of men. It is a great testimony to the universality of his genius that, even in translations, he appeals to many thousands of those who frequent Indian theatres, and who differ so much in thought, customs and religion from the audiences for which he wrote. The modern theatres of India are chiefly the result of imitation of European theatres and, though there are dramas enacted of great merit and elevating in their moral tone, it must be confessed that many representations are nothing more than a medley of the worst features which are to be found in European theatres.
In the most popular pieces, the plot is often crude and scanty, and the audience is kept amused by topical songs and exhibitions of skill, which are no essential part of the play. Other pieces are low and degrading in tone and demand a low standard of morality in the actors. It should be remembered that the managers of theatres are not entirely to blame. They put on pieces which they consider likely to pay and, if those pieces are degrading, it is the fault of the audience. It is the public which sets the tone of its theatres, not the managers or actors.