Monday, 3 June 2013

Is there illegitimate theatre?

by Greg Bepper

It never fails. Nine times out of ten when I talk to my students about the different genres of theatre, this question is guaranteed to be asked. Usually with a wry smile or smirk. But the smirk turns into a an embarrassed grimace when the answer is revealed as, yes. Or should I say the answer was yes in an era long gone. 

Legitimate theatre however, is still a term used for productions that are classed as "spoken drama", in other words, plays without a musical score.

How did this term come about I hear you ask? To answer that we have to journey back in time, back to a land where theatre has been performed for over six centuries. Back we go to Britain. To the year 1737 and the Licencing Act thereof. 


This act restricted "serious" theatre performances to the two patent theatres.
Now here's where our mate Shakespeare comes in, as this legitimate license restricted performances of classical authors and plays to the privileged houses (theatres). This was also to keep him inline as plays in these theatres were subject to rules and restrictions including censorship. All the rest such as comedies, melodrama and pantomime, the uncouth riff-raff I guess, were ranked as illegitimate theatre and could not, by law, be performed in these theatres. Like today, in these productions music essentially played an important role. BUT.. before you go off informing performers and devotees of Musical Theatre, Opera, Ballet and the like that their art form is illegitimate, I suggest you  read further.

Apart from loopholes found in the act and exploited in the late eighteen hundreds by creating private clubs for 'members only' performances. As hard as it may be to believe, this separation, this branding of all theatre not deemed serious, these 'patent' theatres, this act, was still in place right up to 1968! If it wasn't for the Edward Bond's, 'Saved' scandal in 1966 this act may still be in law. 

So where does that leave us today when classifying genres or in this case 'families' of theatre? Here's how I see it.

As I said, we still have legitimate theatre but now this includes comedies and rightly so. It still is classed a 'spoken' production but not limited to classical authors and plays. They now have their own little family: Classical Theatre or Shakespearean Theatre. Musical Theatre has ended it's illegitimacy and is now one of the most popular, if not demanding, family of theatre. There is Operatic Theatre or as more commonly known, Opera. This includes Rock Operas. Dance Theatre takes in all the genres of this art. 

There are many more spin off, breakaway, re-invented families of theatre who some may class or degrade as illegitimate but no matter what your preference, or passion. Theatre is there to entertain, inform, opinionate, create an escape, be thought provoking and there is nothing illegitimate in that! 

Author: Greg Bepper © 2013
Artistic Director
Greg Bepper's Thunderbolt Theatre & Film Productions 


  1. I was a huge fan of pantomimes in my childhood. Fantastic entertainment and presented in theatres. Fantastically engaging, contemporary, funny..... So is that theatre?

    1. Oh yeah, well and truely Colin. Pantos are classed as Musical Theatre or Childrens (Kids) Theatre. But as you know a good panto is written and played to both levels of the audience, kids & adults ... Oh, No it isn't!.. Oh, Yes it is!! :D

  2. Wow, very technical, but very good article. Thanks for the read - Jason Wagner

  3. I learned so much. I thought legitimate theater meant anything not on TV.

    1. TV & films also contain many genres, some which overlap from theatre. Watch out for my next blog which will cover all the genres of Comedy. You will be surprise just how many there are! Thx for taking the time to read this blog, cheers

  4. Greg, you have opened my eyes to a proper explanation and understanding of theatre! Waiting for the next post