Drama - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


46. Drama


Susanne Greenhalgh


In Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘In the Nursery’ (1865) an old man and his granddaughter stage their own version of the romantic domestic play to which the parents have gone, building a theatre from books and old boxes and turning a broken pipe and scraps of clothing into actors. ‘Is this not better than the real theatre?’ asks the little girl at the end of the performance. With its interrogation of the relationship between children’s play and ‘real’ theatre, improvisation and scripted drama, and its child’s perspective of the adult patriarchal world (but mediated by an adult), this story offers a fitting prologue to the complex questions raised by drama for and by children. As Andersen’s story acknowledges, scripted drama, as well as participation in theatre and other forms of performance, has been part of children’s culture in virtually every society in the world at some point in their history, and yet it is still rare to find attention paid to these texts in discussion of writing for children. There are many reasons for this absence. All kinds of playtexts, not only those for children, have often been denied the status of literature, while awareness that the dramatic text constitutes only one layer of signification within the complex sign system that is theatre (where any object may stand for another), and the difficulties posed by their relationship with the intrinsic ephemerality and intangibility of actual or hypothetical performance have generated an attitude of caution towards this vast and elusive area of study. Reading a play is clearly a very different activity from reading a novel or a poem, or even listening to a story. A play’s words - whether dialogue or stage directions - are always designed to produce a performed text, in which the verbal codes and clues are turned into characters, speech, objects, sound, space and action presented to an audience who in turn must interpret and take an attitude to what they see and hear, and whose response actively and directly shapes the nature and meaning of the experience. Furthermore, the fixing of a play as a finished text, written down and published, has been neither a priority, nor even a possibility, in many theatre cultures, which have relied instead on processes of rehearsal and memorisation (as the grandfather in Andersen’s story improvises an entire short play out of his long experience as a playgoer). Even in cultures where reading a play has become an accepted activity in its own right, interpretation is always open to the performative rewriting that will accompany any new staging of the script. And it is through participation in performance, as actors or audience, rather than through reading, that most children experience drama.

A note on terminology for children’s drama is needed. ‘Creative drama’, also referred to as ‘creative dramatics’ or ‘child drama’, is usually understood as an informal process-centred and expressive activity directed towards imaginative and usually improvised enactment by children (and sometimes their adult guides), without any prior script, as activities to develop the child’s experience, creativity and understanding. ‘Participatory drama or theatre’ structures active involvement by the young audience/performers in the action (scripted, devised or improvised). Although offering itself as a more ‘open’ form, it can often be tacitly coercive. The term ‘emancipatory theatre’ has been coined for theatre with the young that genuinely allows them to choose the direction of the action. ‘Children’s theatre’ (or ‘theatre for young audiences’, a term growing in popularity) involves the performance of theatrical art (scripted or devised) usually by trained professionals (which may include children) and envisaged as primarily designed for a young audience. It potentially employs all the skills and aesthetic qualities expected from ‘adult theatre’. However, the term is also used of performances by children, for instance in schools. ‘Children’s plays’ (either pre-scripted or as a documentation of a devised production) remain the staple of this form of theatre, whether performed by adults or children. ‘Youth theatre’ usually refers to theatre by young adolescents often intended for an audience of similar age, while ‘young people’s theatre’ may involve this but can also include drama activities offered by professional or educational companies felt to have special relevance to the concerns of the young. Theatre in Education (TIE) combines aspects of creative drama and theatre (often involving professional theatre makers working in educational contexts) and aims at being at least participatory if not actually emancipatory. Scripts and scenarios will usually emerge out of long research preparation and sometimes from long-term engagement with projects involving the young participants in many kinds of activities, designed to encourage learning in the broadest sense. ‘Reader’s theatre’ almost always takes place in schools and is closely linked with enhancing students’ understanding and appreciation of non-dramatic forms of literature by adapting them into dramas that can be given staged readings.

Drama, has, in practice, often been inseparable from other forms of writing, including that for young audiences, as Andersen’s story again illustrates. Writers of novels or poems for children, from Andersen himself to A. A. Milne, Ted Hughes and Alan Garner, have written plays as well, or even, like J. M. Barrie and his Peter Pan (1903-4) turned plays into children’s books. Dramatists most noted for their adult work, for example Jonson, Webster, Strindberg, Gertrude Stein, Alan Ayckbourn, Edward Bond, David Mamet, Megan Terry and Wendy Wasserstein, have also written plays for child performers or audiences. In our mediatised, digitised world, it is the dramatic mode which increasingly dominates, often becoming the chief means through which other genres and narratives are delivered, but this ‘intermediality’ has a longer history than is often recognised. Adaptation of the fables and fairy stories that were once part of both adult and childhood oral culture has always formed a staple of world drama, from Shakespeare to Carlo Gozzi’s ironic fiabi, Maeterlinck’s fin de siecle symbolist fantasies or Brecht’s pragmatic transformations of folk tales into political lehrstucke (learning plays). From the mid-eighteenth century on, with the advent of publications addressed specifically to children, the resulting stories, rhymes, novels and poems have regularly been put into dramatic form: transpositions which are often translations too, exploiting theatre’s cross-cultural capacity to carry native and local traditions and narratives into other national contexts. One of the first public performances for children in Japan, for example, was a version of the European fairy tale The Gay Fiddle in 1903, while its first children’s theatre companies were influenced by German fairy-tale performances and the post-revolutionary Soviet children’s theatres (Rouyer et al. 1994: 26). Conversely, the global dramatic repertoire, especially Shakespeare, has been the source for countless prose narratives tailored to the supposed needs of the child reader. In turn, theatre, and the experience of dramatic performance, which in western culture are so dominated by the concept that ‘all the world’s a stage’, have inevitably formed one of the many, liminal alternative worlds that pervade children’s books; represented variously as a means of bringing families and friends together, or as a surrogate for the loss of such emotional connections, as a healing place for trauma, or an exciting, colourful but often dangerous location for growing up and acquiring new skills, insight and confidence.

Although drama has always been intrinsically intertextual with other literary forms, its primary relationship is, of course, with the actualities of theatre and performance, and thus with the material culture and ideological practices of societies. Plays, like other cultural forms, emerge from and engage with the culture that shapes them, but the ways in which they in turn also shape the culture which produces them can be viewed as more direct and visible in a mode of cultural production which is inherently and inescapably interactive and dynamic. On the other hand, while plays always emerge from specific national or ethnic communities, as a social institution theatre has often had internationalising and intercultural tendencies, seizing and translating its subject-matter from many cultures, and acting as a conduit for the transmission of new and different perspectives on life and living. The anthropologist Victor Turner, in collaboration with the performance theorist Richard Schechner, has modelled this process as a kind of double feedback loop, in which aesthetic drama is continually fed by the social drama of everyday conflict and change, which in turn unconsciously borrows its tactics and scenarios from the art forms that emerge (Schechner 1977: 144; Turner 1982: 74). As new dramatic conventions appear, altering the terms on which audience and playwright meet, they also create new versions of the world and its inhabitants that do not simply mirror reality but help to construct it. Drama therefore offers an especially vivid and concrete record of the ways in which childhood has been understood, perceived, imposed and contested in different periods and cultures.

It is precisely these self-reflexive, world-building aspects of performed drama that have always attracted educators and social engineers. Promising as it does possibilities both for effective instruction under the guise of entertainment and the instilling, through a public and shared mode of collective experience, of the values of an institution or a whole society, the dramatic genre is premised on action (as its etymological origins in the Greek word for something done suggest, and as Aristotle was the first to emphasise). Drama, more than most other genres, is acknowledged to have designs on its audience, even if only to win its applause. And these attributed powers to both educate and morally improve the young have always been proffered as a chief defence against perennial ‘anti-theatrical prejudice’. Aristotle was only the first of many to attempt to theorise as socially productive the relationship between the mimetic impulse, learning, pleasure and the fully fledged artistic forms of drama and theatre. There is now a proliferation of terms, definitions and distinctions associated with these fields of enquiry, derived from a number of disciplines and philosophies. Play, not plays, is the focus for many of these approaches. Many theorists, especially in America, seek first to distinguish between the ‘doing’ and ‘seeing’ activities implied by the root meanings of the words ‘drama’ and ‘theatre’ to propose a continuum from imaginative, imitative play, regarded as natural and innate in children, to formal theatrical presentation of dramatic scripts. (For a discussion of graphical representations and the ‘continuum’ see Davis and Evans 1987.)

The next stage on from ‘natural’ drama on this ‘continuum’ is guided drama involving ‘child’ or ‘creative’ drama (or ‘dramatics’), which is characterised as improvisational, nonscript-based, emotionally expressive, developmental of personality, social and intellectual skills, language and communication, moral or social awareness, aesthetic appreciation and empathy with others, and concerned with process rather than product. This is followed by ‘participation’ drama, in which more ‘theatrical’ activities such as watching as an audience become prominent, as well as direct intervention in the unfolding dramatic action. The culmination is experience and appreciation of the arts of theatre. As Stephani Woodson has noted, however, the concept of the continuum leans heavily both on the evolutionary models of childhood as a stage of development, and on Romantic idealisations of the child and nature, implying that childhood is simple and irrational, adulthood complex and rational, and that the child’s progression from drama to theatre mirrors this ‘maturing’ process (1999: 204). According to Moses Goldberg, the goal of ‘creative dramatics’ is ‘not performance, but rather the free expression of the child’s creative imagination’ (Goldberg 1974: 4). From the perspectives made available from the new field of performance studies, however, largely adult-dominated and ‘complex’ theatre and child-centred ‘simple’ creative drama can both be seen as forms of what Schechner calls ‘restored’ or ‘twice-behaved’ behaviour (1985: 36), requiring framing, aesthetic choices, and generating a sense of the ‘multiple realities, each the negative of all the others’, which ‘locate the essence of performance’ (123).

Further perspectives on these questions of child agency in performance, particularly important for much contemporary drama for and with children, are offered by the materialist theories of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. In 1928 Benjamin, as a result of his love relationship with a Russian children’s theatre worker, wrote a brief but suggestive ‘Proletarian Children’s Theatre’ programme, unpublished until the 1960s, which described a ‘pre-ideological’ theatre out of which a ‘true’ education in Marxist dialectics could emerge. Benjamin, too, emphasised play but wanted to create conditions for its ‘radical release’ to bring about a ‘fulfilled’ childhood (1928/1973: 31) through improvisation, the stimuli of other arts practices, and above all dramatic play with provided or found objects. From this engagement with the material world rather than the ‘dangerous magic-realm of mere fantasy’ (30) children’s self-generated, rather than imposed, performance gestures would create a theatre which would be ‘truly revolutionary ... a secret signal of what will come to be’ (32). The ongoing debate between those who regard drama as primarily an expressive, creative form arising from universal instincts and phys- ical/cognitive imperatives, those who prize its powers to model a world (and self) in the constant process of being constructed, and those for whom its aesthetic dimensions are most valuable and ‘timeless’ in turn affects what is seen as drama, and how its relation to childhood is understood.

Jack Zipes has argued that in a globalised world


[m]ost contemporary plays for children are produced for the play’s sake, not for the children’s; most pander to the entertainment industry’s expectations and conceal power relations . Traditional plays show off talent while concealing any connection to the daily struggles of children or their attempt to grasp how art can play a role in their immediate lives. While many plays deal with social issues, they divert attention from those mediations that bind children into the corporate interests of the public sphere.

(Zipes 2003: 12)


There has always been a dialectical tension between the potential of drama to create a questioning active child subject through the experience of conflict and otherness, and its use for purposes of socialisation and the encouragement of conformity with cultural norms. Here the fact that drama also concretely explores the relation between child and adult, is significant. Unlike the experience of reading, in child drama adults are almost always present, one way or another, as authors, actors, facilitators or fellow spectators. The genre always assumes, implicitly or explicitly, a dual reception, if not always appearing to offer a dual address, to both kinds of audience simultaneously. The many theories which connect theatre with the instinct to play underline the sense in which drama can be regarded as the genre, above all others, which can revive the child in its participants, whether nostalgically or provocatively. What is sometimes overlooked about children’s drama, however, is that in the intrinsically social and political tripartite performance experience, which always involves the self, the performer and the rest of the audience (Read 1993: 90), that audience always includes other children as well as adults: a power relationship at least as important as that with adults.

The assumption that children constitute a specialised audience for drama, requiring plays and performances tailor-made for them, is put in question by much of theatre history. In many of the cultures of the past, as is still the case in some African and Asian societies where children and adults habitually form part of the same audience, little or no distinction was made between the dramatic fare offered or performed, although children may require initiation or long apprenticeship to acquire the appropriate performance skills, as in the dance dramas of Japan, China and Indonesia. Nevertheless, it is possible to find evidence of special recognition of the young as both performers and audience at specific key points in western theatre history. The ritualised competitive displays of choral song and dance out of which Athenian drama emerged in the fourth century BC already highlighted the role of boys on the cusp of maturity, but the emergence of a new kind of ‘performance culture’ designed to serve the ideological needs of an evolving and highly experimental democratic polis accentuated the significance of the youths about to become citizens through their roles in the chorus. Here they were educated through enactment, ‘playing the other’ of the male free, rational and militarily active ideal citizen through impersonations of women, slaves, old men, foreigners and animals (see Zeitlin 1990). These roles for young adults also contrasted with the mute male child roles which were occasionally written into tragedy, especially by Euripides, in the form of passive victims of war or female evil, as in The Trojan Women or Medea, the first of countless adult plays to employ child figures in order to create effects of pathos and innocent suffering.

If Athenian drama can be regarded as in some ways an early form of youth theatre, other dramatic modes demonstrate more ways in which youth performance can be political. Benjamin linked children’s play with the carnivalesque in its capacity to subvert and challenge the fixed structures of a culture, and seasonal periods of allowed misrule and hierarchical inversion, when boys could temporarily become priests, chiefs or kings, have been a feature of much popular festivity and ritual across the world. Children also participated in the European religious and biblical drama of the middle ages, sometimes, as in versions of the story of Abraham and Isaac, taking a central role with the emphasis again on pathos and innocence, combined with iconographic functions as emblems of the gentleness and purity of Christ or his saints and martyrs. With the revival of the traditions of classical training in rhetoric by the humanists of the Renaissance, drama became a core element in the school curriculum. The Roman plays of Terence, and to a lesser extent Seneca and Plautus, were the most favoured models for classroom declamation as well as performance, together with religious stories, either in the form of Bible or saint’s tales or moral allegory, but often blended with narratives and tropes from popular oral culture.

School drama for boys, modified according to whether the institution was Catholic or Protestant, was an important influence on professional drama in continental Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This was particularly the case in the theatrical culture of early modern England, where, unlike much of Europe, boy actors not only took all female roles, but a distinctive professional tradition of children’s companies and play repertoire developed from the court performances of choir schools, to which many of the best-known dramatists of the time, such as Lyly, Peele, Jonson, Marston, Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher, Chapman and Middleton, contributed. These plays are far from simple, but rather fully exploit the potential for parodic, satirical and playful effect created by the presence of child performers, ‘a sort of Jack-and the-giant situation in which the audience’s sympathies were clearly with the smaller characters’ (Shapiro 1977: 104).

Other important sites of school drama were the educational establishments of the militant Catholic religious order, the Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius Loyola, which for over 200 years staged often spectacular and hugely popular performances of plays written both for and by the young. Surviving examples, such as the martyr play Vitus written by the English recusant Joseph Simons for boys at the Jesuit college at St Omer in 1623, show they provided excellent roles for young protagonists, such as boy emperors and martyrs, and even a child Christ. This long-lasting dramatic tradition, which was also exported to the newfound Americas as part of the missionary endeavours of the order, was always a form of ‘outreach’ theatre, designed to attract (and if necessary convert) visiting dignitaries and natives, as well as relatives and members of the local community. It was also, as Goethe recognised when he witnessed performances in Rome, above all a theatre of the world, designed to serve the needs of the young by extending their social abilities and intellectual understanding, as well as moral virtue, and developing and staging their talents as actors and writers, through giving them the richest theatrical resources possible. It is hardly surprising therefore that Jesuit drama produced many of the most important playwrights of the time, including the Corneille brothers, Racine and Moliere in France, Calderon and Lope de Vega in Spain, and Goldoni in Italy, only losing influence with the dissolution of the order in between 1750 and 1773.

All the drama discussed so far was the product of strongly gendered performance traditions, written and performed by men and boys, and often designed to produce the forms of masculinity approved by its society, though also capable of calling such certainties into question, as in the transvestite drama of Renaissance England. Even when not intended for public performance, it still offered mimetic models of, and practice in, the public skills of debate and persuasion, and was peopled by male dramatic figures equipped with nimble wits, moral awareness and will, heroic endeavour or manly endurance. However, there was a largely hidden counter-tradition, only recently excavated by feminist historians, of writing by women in the form of ‘closet drama’ created for the domestic space rather than the playhouse or school theatre. In convents, schools and homes this amateur female theatre offered a new kind of theatrical ‘sociability’, one intimately bound up with family life, and thus with children. It was necessarily intimate and small-scale, since such performance (or even reading) was only permissible within the security of close relationships, but could be interrogative, as well as imitative, of the established dramatic conventions of the male canon. The performances by children in court or noble households had also been a form of ‘family’ drama, but one in which the concept of ‘family’ was both extended and hierarchical, in which children were often equivalent in status to servants, or actually working in such roles as pages, maids or apprentices.

The impact of Enlightenment ideas about human perfectibility and the possibility of social progress through reason and scientific enquiry brought with it significant changes in ideas of childhood and family structure, influenced especially by the philosophies of Rousseau, as well as the beginnings of political feminism. The first woman to write drama specifically for these child performers and audiences was Stephanie, Comtesse de Genlis, tutor to the future king of France, Louis Philippe, whose TheAtre a l’Usage des Jeunes Personnes, first published in 1779-80, along with her other writings on education, was rapidly available in English. In England it was the husband of the radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, political and educational philosopher turned children’s publisher, who produced the first English play anthology for children in 1807. Wollstonecraft, whose daughter Mary Shelley also wrote several plays for the young, though also a follower - and critic - of Rousseau, found de Genlis’s work for and ideas about children’s education marked by conservatism and sentimentality. The ‘new dramaturgy’ she created, which replaced black-and-white morality with ‘the struggle between good and not-so-good’, watered down or ridiculed evil and maintained a mood of ‘triumphant sweetness and light’, offering a manipulative dramatic world deliberately deprived of real conflict (Levy 1992: 2-3).

Unlike de Genlis’s plays, which aimed at gently moulding the child to socially and morally desirable ends, the plays of the Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) illustrate the potential of child-focused drama to address issues of social concern and to make implicit links between the position of children as subordinated subjects and other forms of social hierarchy and oppression. Edgeworth wrote both as a member of a family circle linked with such scientific radicals as the members of the Lunar Society, and as an inhabitant of a colonised nation. The system of Practical Education (1798) that she and her father devised and advocated was mimetic in the sense that it was built on detailed observation and recording of children’s speech and behaviour. As well as the Little Plays (1827), which were added to the Parent’s Assistant anthology of educational tools for use in the domestic setting, Edgeworth’s novel The Absentee (1812), about tenants and landowner relationships in Ireland, was originally written as a play for her large family of stepbrothers and sisters. It was only turned into novel form when the leading playwright and theatre manager of the time, Sheridan, advised that the play would not be passed by the censor for professional staging.

Despite these early stirrings of interest in drama as a vehicle for progressive education, the fact that during the nineteenth century the socialisation of the young of all classes increasingly took place in schools rather than the family meant that surviving published drama includes both school and household or other amateur drama, mainly in the form of fairy tales and folk stories, history and religious plays, sentimental comedies, improving scenarios and parodies. However, the chief forum for child-centred performance texts was becoming the professional theatre itself, more than ready to offer a more specialised product for a new category of consumer. Commercial imperatives to keep theatres open and profitable throughout the year led to the introduction of seasonal offerings for family audiences, especially at Christmas, based around appropriate parts of the existing theatrical repertoire, such as pantomime, burlesque, fairy and folk tales, and magic shows, with a theatricality based more on spectacle and musical and obvious moral lessons than subtleties of plot or characterisation. Finland even had its own national children’s playwright in the journalist and historical novelist Zachris Topelius, whose didactic and moralistic versions of national and international folk tales, written in the middle of the century, formed an almost unvarying dramatic repertoire well into the twentieth century. Such plays were a very different form of ‘family entertainment’ from that which had been provided by theatre during previous centuries, and were to be the dominant mode of children’s theatre in Europe and America for over a hundred years, continuing in many respects into the present. Although J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan attempted to break the mould by creating a more psychologically complex drama in which a child would play the child protagonist, the role would constantly be given to adults and the play turned into another version of pantomime.

Much of the subsequent development of drama for the young was also, in one way or another, a reaction to or rejection of the norms established by these commercial traditions. By the beginning of the twentieth century, such critiques were being developed from both educational and political perspectives, and to some degree these different emphases helped determine the formation of three main counter-traditions, which would influence the emergence of different forms of children’s drama in various societies. The educationally focused perspective, with creativity also a key concept, became influential in much of the English-speaking world, while, following the Russian Revolution of 1917, a more ideological view of drama for the young dominated large parts of Soviet-influenced eastern Europe, and subsequently countries of the third world, such as Cuba, China and various African and Asian states, often as part of their own revolutions. The third tendency, though still heavily influenced by socialist ideals, was more concerned with theatre as an art form or vehicle of spiritual or cultural values rather than its uses as a tool for social change. In practice, however, throughout the twentieth century these different tendencies towards education, social conditioning, creativity and aesthetic enhancement, have constantly intermingled and migrated across national borders, both through the work of individual practitioners and theorists and through international organisations and events such as festivals and theatre tours specifically designed to encourage interculturalism. The evolution and dissemination of specific national dramatic repertoires have also inevitably been significantly affected by historical events, such as the two world wars and the long period of world domination by the superpowers of the USA and the Soviet Union. Also influential have been the independence from colonial rule by European powers of many nations in Africa and Asia, the development of a youth-based counter-culture movement in the west in the late 1960s, and the struggles against totalitarian and militaristic regimes in Europe and Latin America, and in the Middle East.

Although the first state theatre for children was created in Hungary in 1919, with the support of intellectuals and artists such as Bartok, Kodaly and Lukacs, with similar attempts made in Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1918, it was in Russia that a national programme for children’s theatre was first realised from the 1920s onwards. Theatre buildings and permanent, highly trained companies were established in all the major cities, leading to an ongoing demand for the production of new plays and the adaptation of existing writing of all genres for children and adults, as long as the state-endorsed principles of social realism and socialist idealism were incorporated. Children’s theatre (generally known as TUZ) was seen as both a primary means to redress the social and economic inequalities which the revolution had been intended to overturn, by exposing the young to the cultural riches of the past and present, and also as a visible and appealing showcase for the progress made towards the promised utopia. Accordingly, the well-subsidised theatres were able to build a colourful and popular repertoire, ranging from fairy tales to versions of adult classics for different ages, and combining drama with music (as in the famous Peter and the Wolf commissioned from Prokofiev in 1928 by the Moscow Central Children’s Theatre, led by Natalia Sats). The celebrated children’s writer Samuel Marshak (1887-1975), in his role as head of the children’s writers’ union, was an important supporter of children’s drama, and many of his stories, along with those of other well-known children’s authors such as Yevgeny Svarts, became a staple of the repertoire. The children’s theatres also served as a refuge for artists viewed as dissident or otherwise out of step with the party line. By the mid-1950s their output catered as much to adult as to child audiences, dealing with the problems of society rather than providing an escape through fantasy, or using fairy tales as a disguise for political parody. It benefited from the participation of outstanding musicians, dancers and visual artists to develop new, aesthetically innovative possibilities for performance which could be exploited by playwrights. Victor Rostov, whose play Her Friends (1949), about a blind girl, had been officially criticised for ‘sentimentality’, wrote a number of works which dealt with contemporary issues of conflict and moral choice rather than conformity, centred on young Hamlet-like protagonists, and it was his play Alive Forever which opened the studio of the Moscow Arts Theatre at the beginning of the ‘thaw’ that followed the end of Stalin’s oppressive regime (Smeliansky 1999: 26).

The seriousness of Russian theatre’s engagement with both aesthetics and social goals for the young was a major and continuing influence on the rest of Europe even during the Cold War years. Although much of the drama that emerged was at the safe, traditional end of the spectrum, with the familiar reliance on fantasy and charm, in the mid-1960s, as counter-cultural political movements and reactions against them rippled through many European societies, young theatre-workers began to discover a new oppressed minority in children. They attempted to find ways to radicalise the children through reinventing the techniques of Brecht and Piscator for the new conditions; they later discovered new influences such as Augusto Boal’s forum theatre and the American Living Theater, all of which introduced different ways of thinking about content, audience address and mode of presentation. Grips Theatre in Berlin, with its rediscovery of Brecht’s ‘fun’ cabaret theatre, was to be a much-copied and enduring exemplar of the possibilities for a political children’s theatre (Zipes 2003) in Europe and beyond. Countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia, with existing traditions of richly poetic, highly experimental theatrical forms, liberated children’s drama into the surreal, the dreamlike and the abstract.

All over Europe, after a period of rejection of the ‘cosy’ fairy-tale traditions which had dominated mainstream theatre, there was a new realisation not only of the ways in which these materials could be made fresh and exciting for children, but how they could also revitalise adult theatre practices. Writing of the achievement of theatre for young audiences in Europe, Wolfgang Wohlert celebrates it as a ‘theatre of feeling and fantasy, a theatre that speaks most of all to the senses’, which, in its ability to reach people from all social levels can be regarded as a ‘folk theatre for all generations’ that has yet never given up its specificity as a theatre for the young (Rouyer et al. 1994: 26).

In the English-speaking world generally, the development of drama for the young was driven by a combination of commercial and socio-educational imperatives in a broadly liberal humanist mode. Children’s theatre in the USA can be dated to the creation of Alice Minnie Herts’s Children’s Educational Theater in New York in 1903, which primarily aimed to serve the ‘melting-pot’ requirements of the society by using drama to teach English and encourage social integration. Subsequently the production of drama for children remained dominated by similar social and pedagogic objectives, with plays performed by primarily amateur companies and written by teachers and social workers. A key figure in expanding the diet available to children from the 1920s on was Winifred Ward (1884-1975) who developed the field of ‘creative dramatics’ through both her writing and practice, introducing university courses on educational drama, founding the Children’s Theater at Evanston and in 1944 initiating what would eventually become the Alliance for American Theater and Education (AATE). Ward advocated drama in the form both of informal educationally motivated creative drama and theatre productions by casts of children and adults, and consequently put a new focus on encouraging innovation and quality in playwriting for children and in children’s theatre companies. An early pioneer in the former field for many years was Charlotte Chorpenning (1872-1955), whose plays for the Goodman Theater in Chicago (1925) from 1931 mostly favoured versions of ‘universal’ and ‘familiar’ fairy stories, folk tales and well-known children’s books, and emphasised clear moral values. Her plays were also part of the Federal Theater Project, which introduced drama to countless deprived children across the nation during the 1930s. Although colleges and universities would remain important in developing standards and skills in playwriting through their teaching and theatre arts programmes (many taught by faculty who themselves wrote prize-winning children’s drama, like Jonathan Levy, Moses Goldberg and Suzan Zeder), the emergence of a number of regional children’s theatres introduced an important new source for the patronage and encouragement of dramatic writing. Leaders in this field have been the professional children’s theatre companies of Minneapolis, Seattle, Lexington and Honolulu, all of which have graduated over the years to well-equipped theatre buildings, and established close links to local schools, libraries and museums. The existence of these, and other, non-building-based companies has led to a huge increase in playwriting for children since the middle of the twentieth century. A particularly successful experimental touring company is Judith Martin’s long-established Paper Bag Company (1955), which borrowed some of the practices of Russian children’s theatre to offer surreal object-based scenarios combining art activities with performance in a way reminiscent of Benjamin’s ‘programme’.

In a rich field, some of the outstanding dramatists to emerge include Aurand Harris, Sandra Fenichel Asher, James Still, Max Bush, Ric Averill, Laurie Brooks and Jose Cruz Gonzales, with plays ranging stylistically from heightened realism and zany fantasy to complex psychologically based explorations of mythic narratives, and dealing with subjects derived from history, children’s literature and the narrative and cultural traditions of the many ethnicities that make up America. An important stimulus for such variety of writing has undoubtedly come from the awards and sponsorship made available by the many American organisations concerned with children’s theatre. The Bonderman National Youth Playwriting Symposium, which showcases and develops plays for young audiences, was started in 1985, and is held biannually in Indianapolis. The event has also served as a model for newer TYA development venues, including the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices programme, the Provincetown Playhouse’s New Play Readings, and the American Alliance for Theater in Education’s Playwrights in Our Schools programme. However, America has also been the first location for globally marketed and franchised Disney musicals, starting with Beauty and the Beast, which not only co-opt children as junior consumers of multinational tie-in products but, as Julie Taymor’s The Lion King has demonstrated, have an ability to appropriate once radical ‘world theatre’ styles and techniques for commercial ends in a way analogous to the marketing of ‘world music’.

In most of Asia, a specialised, professional children’s theatre and accompanying dramatic repertoire only emerged after the Second World War, and remains undeveloped, other than in countries which were part of the USSR. In Japan, where a degree of westernisation accompanied industrialisation from the beginning of the twentieth century, theatre was influenced by both German and Soviet forms of children’s theatre, and since the war a flourishing range of companies and organisations has arisen, which combine aesthetic and educational approaches and draw on the many other national performance traditions, such as puppetry and mask. Throughout Asia, and increasingly in Africa, it is possible to detect a tension between growing influence from western cultures of childhood, such as ‘Disneyfied’ fairy tales, transmitted globally by the media, and the desire to preserve and build on local performance traditions and narratives, and address pressing social issues through ‘theatre for development’. Influences have also come through the work of western specialists in TIE and educational drama (especially in former British dominions and colonies such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), or the emancipatory techniques of Grips Theatre, for instance in parts of India.

In the UK, too, drama was initially influenced by developments in child-centred educational theory and practice, with some key figures emerging whose ideas would reach an international audience, such as Peter Slade, Brian Way (who founded Theatre Centre in 1953), Dorothy Heathcote and Gavin Bolton. All of these, though with different emphases, sought to place drama at the heart of the school curriculum, as a ‘way of knowing’ as well as teaching, and as an art form distinct from theatre. The development of professional theatre for children has reflected the importance of London as a theatre centre, with 30 per cent of productions now originating there, although as early as 1927 Scotland had had its own company founded by Bertha Waddell on the model of Soviet children’s theatre.

In 1947, Caryl Jenner (1917-73) founded the Unicorn Theatre which, after a difficult time in the 1990s, is now the focus for a campaign to build a specialist centre for national children’s theatre practice and research. The Polka Theatre and the Oily Cart company also provide imaginative drama for the very young.

Theatre in Education, which seeks to blend aspects of child drama and formal theatre, is Britain’s most distinctive contribution to world drama for children, which has since been exported to former British colonies and dominions such as Australia, South Africa and Canada (whence to the USA), and, though few of the resulting plays have been published, it has also been the proving ground for many new playwrights, such as Bryony Lavery, Diane Samuels and Julia Pascal, and has attracted established ones such as Edward Bond. Despite this, many of the TIE companies which came into being in the 1960s, inspired by the new educational theories, disappeared as a result of arts and education funding cuts during the 1980s and 1990s and the creation of a National Curriculum focused on set targets for literacy achievement which has squeezed out theatre-going and creative drama activities. As a result, such work has been increasingly taken over by professional companies, sometimes for rather cynical economic reasons (although children pay cheaper prices, they can provide a stable and predictable market, especially for ‘set text’ productions), with a possible dilution of the educational focus and a return to more traditional or canonical narratives in some cases.

As well as versions of great plays (especially Shakespeare - see Megan Isaac (2000), Naomi Miller (2003), and Richard Burt (1983)) - dramatisations of the adult literary heritage for teaching purposes have always been an important aspect of British drama for the young. These have been augmented by stage versions of children’s literature such as Alice, Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows, which in turn eventually provided commercial and state-subsidised theatres with a popular and ‘quality’ alternative to the Christmas pantomime. The golden age classics have since been regularly joined by an abundance of new members of the canon, including many versions of Roald Dahl’s work by the prolific and talented David Wood (who has created plays from virtually every possible kind of source, including Enid Blyton and Eric Hill’s Spot the Dog series of picture books), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Royal Shakespeare Company 1998), Tom’s Midnight Garden (Unicorn 2002), David Almond’s Skellig (Young Vic 2003) and an epic two-part version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (Royal National Theatre 2004).

While adaptations of children’s literature have been prevalent across the world, this genre appears particularly dominant in the UK, where it has always been a major feature of radio and television drama for children and families (Greenhalgh 1998) and where children’s books and their authors have become valuable assets for the heritage and tourist industries. Following the publication of a report on education and the arts industries in 2000, the Arts Councils of England and Scotland have turned their attention to how children’s theatre can be developed, through funding for more companies (in Scotland) and the encouragement of quality and diversity in writing (in England) through supporting theatre-based writing internships and sponsorship (Arts Council England 2003). Action for Children’s Arts, a lobbying group made up of professionals in arts for children and chaired by David Wood, is also putting drama for children at the centre of planned conferences and ‘inspiration’ events, involving the Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo (whose When the Whales Came is a popular adaptation) and Philip Pullman, and celebrating the centenary of Peter Pan in 2004. Speaking at the Arts Council England seminar on quality in children’s theatre in Birmingham, October 2003, the artistic director of Unicorn, Tony Jackson, acknowledged the positive spin-offs that this new seriousness about children’s literature in the UK might have for children’s drama, but also pointed to the need for British children’s theatre to move away from its educational and literary roots to the aesthetic possibilities offered by physical theatre, performance art and collaboration with artists in other media such as that of the choreographer Alain Pleytel in Belgium (see Kear 2004). In 2003 LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) inaugurated a research and performance season, Why Do We Play? focused on work by, for and about children from around the world. Jackson’s own production of Red Red Shoes at the Unicorn, as well as ‘crossover’ theatre like Shockheaded Peter, points to the possibilities and challenges of exploring the darker aspects of childhood, in ways perhaps necessary in a society which, in the wake of notorious child murders, some by other children, takes an often schizophrenic view of childhood ‘evil’ and ‘innocence’.

In his essay for the first edition of this Encyclopedia, Peter Hollindale described children’s drama as the ‘Cinderella’ of children’s literature. The analogy can be taken further. Cinders in her rags (at least in many theatrical versions) creates a poignant and selfrevelatory form of ‘poor theatre’ through her imagination, compared with which the spectacular stagecraft of the ‘transformation’ scene stage-managed by the fairy godmother can look tawdry and hollow. This essay has tried to emphasise the complex and shifting international web of relationships with play, theatre, performance, other literary forms for children, and changing technologies in which children’s drama must be situated if we are ever to understand its ‘multiple realities, each the negative of all the others’ (Schechner 1985: 123).

Much remains to be done. As we move further into the twenty-first century we can celebrate decades of achievement across the word in creating spaces where children can interact imaginatively with themselves and their many worlds. There is much to celebrate too in the new scholarly attention being given to this field, for instance in the wonderful resources of the Jonathan Levy Child Drama Collection at Arizona State University. The task of discovering a hidden history and documenting its present manifestations is a demanding but exciting one, and riches wait to be uncovered, for example in the still relatively unexcavated records of children’s theatre in the former USSR, or the changing nature of children’s performance in postcolonial societies like South Africa or India, or post-revolutionary ones like China or Chile. The theoretical perspectives made available by gender and performance studies must be brought to bear on a range of productions, plays and practitioners. If it is true that this field is on the verge of being granted a new seriousness by the public and governments, at least in Europe and the English-speaking world, the scholarship of childhood studies needs to support this through more serious and substantial critical and theoretical attention to the resulting products and processes (Schneider 1995) just as publishers and librarians should ensure that its texts do not disappear as so many have done in the past.

Plays will remain important in these endeavours, for the young, the practitioners and the scholars. The criteria used by Tony Jackson to evaluate the ‘quality’ of drama can help us begin to construct a full appraisal of their dramaturgy: ‘Does the play matter to children? Is it something they might care about? Does it have a sense of poetry? Of flight? Does it contain a child’s perspective? Is it a drama? Can it transcend and transform?’ (Jackson in Arts Council England, 2003). But we should also listen to Jack Zipes when he warns that ‘unless children can appropriate the scripts, all plays - Broadway plays, classical dramas, adaptations of famous novels - have minimal value for their lives’ (Zipes 2003: 12). Perhaps, in the end, this is the main lesson that children’s drama has to teach the adult world, to stand back and give the young room for their ‘radical play’.



Arts Council England (2003) The Quality of Children’s Theatre: After the Birmingham Seminar.

Online. Available http://www.artscouncil.org.uk (accessed 1 December 2003).

Benjamin, W. (1928/1973) ‘Program for a Proletarian Children’s Theater’, trans. Buck-Morss, S., Performance 1, 5: 28-32.

Burt, R. (1983) Unspeakable Shaxxxspeares: Queer Theory and American Kiddie Culture, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Davis, J. H. and Evans, M. J. (eds) (1987) Theatre, Children, and Youth, New Orleans, LA: Anchorage Press.

Goldberg, M. (1974) Children’s Theatre: A Philosophy and a Method, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall.

Greenhalgh, S. (1998) ‘Different Worlds? Children’s Books and the Media’, in Reynolds, K. and Tucker, N. (eds) Children’s Book Publishing in Britain since 1945, London: Scolar.

Isaac, M. L. (2000) Heirs to Shakespeare: Reinventing the Bard in Young Adult Literature, London: Heinemann.

Kear, A. (2004) ‘Taking a Stance: Ethics and Performance in the Theatre of Alain Platel’, in Kelleher, J. and Ridout, N. (eds) Theatre in Europe, London and New York: Routledge.

Levy, J. (1992) The Gymnasium of the Imagination: A Collection of Children’s Plays in English 17801860, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Miller, N. (ed.) (2003) Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults, New York and London: Routledge.

Read, A. (1993) Theatre and Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance, London: Routledge.

- (forthcoming, 2005) Prodigious Performance: Infants, Animals and Other Anomalies, London and New York: Routledge.

Rouyer, P., Nagy, P. and Rubin, D. (eds) (1994) World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Europe, London and New York: Routledge.

Rubin, D. and Solorzano, C. (eds) (1995) World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Americas, London and New York: Routledge.

Schechner, R (1977) Essays on Performance Theory 1970-78, New York: Drama Book Specialists.

- (1985) Between Theater and Anthropology, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Schneider, W. (1995) ‘“Rosy Cheeks” and “Shining Eyes” as Criteria in Children’s Theater Criticism’, The Lion and the Unicorn 19, 1: 71-6.

Shapiro, M. (1977) Children of the Revels, New York: Columbia University Press.

Smeliansky, A. (1999) The Russian Theatre after Stalin, trans. Miles, P., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turner, V. (1982) From Ritual to Theatre, New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.

Woodson, S. E. (1999) ‘(Re)Conceiving “Creative Drama”: An Exploration and Expansion of American Metaphorical Paradigms’, Research in Drama Education 4, 2: 201-14.

Zeitlin, F. I. (1990) ‘Playing the Other: Theater, Theatricality and the Feminine in Greek Drama’, in Winkler, J. J. and Zeitlin, F. I. (eds) Nothing to Do with Dionysus? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 63-96.

Zipes, J. (2003) ‘Political Children’s Theater in the Age of Globalization’, Theater 33, 2: 2-25.


Further reading

Arts Council (1992) Drama in Schools, London: Arts Council.

Bedard, R. L. (ed.) (1984) Dramatic Literature for Children: A Century in Review, New Orleans: Anchorage Press.

Bolton, G. (1979) Towards a Theory of Drama in Education, Harlow: Longman.

- (1999) Acting in Classroom Drama: A Critical Analysis, London: Heinemann.

Bray, E. (1991) Playbuilding: A Guide for Group Creation of Plays with Young People, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Caldwell Cook, H. (1917) The Play Way, London: Heinemann.

Chambers, A. (1982) Plays for Young People to Read and Perform, South Woodchester: Thimble Press.

Chatuvedi, R., Majumdat, R., Pong, C. S., Tanokura, M. and Brisbane, K. (eds) (1998) World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia/Pacific, London and New York: Routledge.

Chorpenning, C. B. (1958) Twenty-One Years with Children’s Theatre, Anchorage, KY: Children’s Theatre Press.

Corey, O. (1999) Aurand Harris Remembered, New Orleans, LA: Anchorage Press.

England, A. (1990) Theatre for the Young, London: Macmillan.

Gair, R. (1982) The Children of Paul’s: The Story of a Theatre Company 1553-1608, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Green, R. L. (1954) Fifty Years of‘Peter Pan’, London: Peter Davies.

Heathcote, D. (1997) Drama as a Learning Medium, rev. edn, ed. Wagner, B. J., London: Heinemann.

Hornbrook, D. (1989) Education and Dramatic Art, Oxford: Blackwell.

- (1991) Education in Drama: Casting the Dramatic Curriculum, London: Falmer Press.

Jackson, A. R. (1997) ‘Positioning the Audience: Interactive Strategies and the Aesthetic in Educational Theatre’, Theatre Research International 22, 1: 48-60.

Jennings, C. A. (ed.) (1998) Theatre for Young Audiences: Twenty Great Plays for Children, New York: St Martin’s Press.

- (1999) Eight Plays for Children: The New Generation Play Project, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Jennings, C. A. and Berghammer, G. (eds) (1986) Theatre for Youth: Twelve Plays for Mature Audiences, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Levy, J. (2003) Practical Education for the Unimaginable: Essays on Theatre and the Liberal Arts, Charlottesville, VA: New Plays Books.

McCabe, W. H. (1983) An Introduction to Jesuit Theater, St Louis, MO: Institute of Jesuit Sources.

Milne, A. A. (1922) Second Plays, London: Chatto and Windus.

Morton, M. (ed.) (1977) Russian Plays for Young Audiences, Rowayton, CT: New Plays Books.

Moses, M. J. (ed.) (1921) Treasury of Plays for Children, Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Newman, J. D. (2003) Final Report to the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America: Playwrights in Our Schools, Phoenix, AZ: American Alliance for Theatre and Education.

O’Toole, J. (1976) Theatre in Education, London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Pearson-Davis, S. (ed.) (1990) Wish in One Hand, Spit in the Other: A Collection of Plays by Suzan Zeder, New Orleans, LA: Anchorage Press.

Rasmussen, M. A. (2003) ‘A Look at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ New Visions/New Voices Program’, Stage of the Art 15, 2 : 12-18.

Rubin, D., Diakhate, O. and Ndumbe, E. (eds) (1997) World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Africa, London and New York: Routledge.

Slade, P. (1954) Child Drama, London: University of London Press.

Slaight, C. (ed.) (1993) New Plays from A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory, Newbury, VT: Smith and Kraus.

Swortzell, L. S. (ed.) (1995) International Guide to Children’s Theatre and Educational Drama, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

- (1996) The Theatre of Aurand Harris: His Career, His Theories, His Plays. New Orleans, LA: Anchorage Press.

- (ed.) (1997) Theatre for Young Audiences: Around the World in 21 Plays, New York: Applause Books.

Wood, D. and Grant, J. (1997) Theatre for Children: Guide to Writing, Adapting, Directing and Acting, London: Faber and Faber.

Zipes, J. (ed.) (1976) Political Plays for Children: The Grips Theater of Berlin, St Louis, MO: Telos.