Theatre and Epidemics: An Age-Old Link

Maria Ristani*

First of all we must recognize that the theatre, like the plague, is a delirium and is communicative.
Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double  

Theatre and disease epidemics have always made an uneasy duet; the theatrical event—physical, viral and communal at its roots—stands in an ambivalent relationship with what essentially both mirrors and cancels its working logics. From the years of the Athenian plague, the Black Death outbreak, the yellow fever, polio and influenza epidemics to the more recent times of AIDS, Ebola, swine flu, bird flu, Zika, SARS and, of course, the newly emergent COVID-19 pandemic, theatre praxis has been both fueled and stalled by infectious disease outbreaks. The present analysis is an attempt to trace this age-old link, one that plots a sliding spectrum running from dread and anxiety to fascination and influence. For the theatre, disease spread has been an ever-looming threat to its very survival and existence, while it has also ambivalently served as a source of intrigue, a dramaturgical impetus and focus, as well as a “network of metaphors” to address and describe the stage world’s “own modes of corporeal interaction” (Garner 3). With these varying modes of intertwining in mind, I will attempt here to explore theatre in/as/of epidemics. Mutually cancelled and mutually fed, the two share a fascinating history of fits and breaks.
Keywords: theatre, epidemics, history, plague, Black Death, AIDS

Theatre of Epidemics

The link between theatre and spreading disease goes as far back as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. The play opens on an outbreak narrative, tellingly voiced in the prologue by the Priest-representative of the afflicted community:

The god of plague and pyre / Raids like detestable lightning through the city, / And all the house of Kadmos is laid waste, / All emptied, and all darkened; Death alone / Battens upon the misery of Thebes (52).

The raiding plague evoked in these lines is not just an inert backdrop, against which dramatic action may unravel, but rather the actual framing logic and working spine of the play. Infectious disease in Oedipus (nosos or loimos) forms an echoing verbal refrain[1] as well as a driving dramaturgical force; it is that which compels the plot’s unfolding, propels the action forward, brings Oedipus center-stage and sets the wheels of the hero’s peripeteia running. Though the play seemingly moves away from the collective plight of the plague-stricken city and onto the private wound of Oedipus, it is also the latter that follows and mirrors the working logics of an epidemic. Oedipus’ staged journey of self-discovery is as irreversible and rapidly overwhelming as the plague that “burns on . . . pitiless” (54)—a “surge of death” (52) and an “attack by fire” (54).

Oscar Isaac in Theatre of War’s The Oedipus Project (live readings from Sophocles’ play during COVID-19 quarantine). Live Zoom theatrical production, May 7, 2020. Screenshot of online premiere. Photo: Theatre of War

The epidemic disease described in the Sophoclean drama is less a fabricated device and more likely a factual reference to the actual plague that besieged Athens in 430 B.C.[2] In this light the play, which is dated around 426 or 425 B.C., is a plague-born drama marked by the lived experience of a raging epidemic. Sophocles crosses, as it were, into a taboo zone of painful reference, which might explain—as several scholars have suggested (Mitchell-Boyask 65; Ringer 78)—the second (punishment-like) place his play earned despite its admitted dramatic merit. The play, however, is not an exception in this respect; it seems, rather, that the epidemic experience fed and forged the theatrical imagination of most fifth-century theatre works, even if more latently so than the plague-ridden narrative of Oedipus’ drama.

A disease landscape is often encountered in Sophocles, conjured up by his ailing, Oedipus-like protagonists (Ajax and Philoctetes are prominent examples). Trachiniae is here a case in point in all its preoccupation with disease and waste of man’s power. The drama focuses on Heracles’ infected body (all-wrapped up in Deianira’s poisonous gift), whose plight it extensively details in language and imagery that might as well have sprung from Thucydides’ documentation of the Athenian plague (Mitchell-Boyask 75–87).

Euripides’ Hippolytus from 428 B.C., with characters joined in mutually transmitted nosos and bent by its suffering, also appears as a theatrical response to the epidemic trigger even if its disease narrative of eros affliction is of a more metaphorical nature; “Oh, the woes of mankind and their hateful diseases” (132) laments Phaedra’s Nurse at the sight of her ailing, eros-stricken mistress. The play relies heavily on medical language, and displays an increased awareness of and concern with infection (miasma), fear of contagion, medical conditioning and, above all, nosos in all its viral, inescapable motion and doom.[3]

Hippolytus and Phaedra. Front of a marble sarcophagus, ca. 290 A.D. Found in 1853 on the Chiarone riverbanks (Tuscany, Italy)

Since ancient Greek drama, the long history of theatre making traces numerous plays that have been similarly crafted in the light of—or even in actual response to—an epidemic spread. Theatre, as Fintan Walsh writes with reference to Neil Bartlett’s 2017 play The Plague, is essentially “a form in which destructive forces can be summoned for scrutiny, and epidemiology dramaturgically interpreted and modelled” in less or more stage-explicit ways (4).

From the broader dramaturgical repertoire, Elizabethan and Jacobean stage plays are perhaps the most prominent cases of epidemic-ridden dramaturgy, composed as they have been in years that suffered from repeated attacks of the bubonic plague.[4] The latter features as the subtle protagonist of this period’s afflicted stage world—a kind of unbanished specter evoked in the language used, in the characters’ pathos or even in the events dramatized. If not an explicit reference (which it rarely is, given its traumatic resonances for a plague-afflicted public), it still “hovers menacingly in [the] margins, sometimes in ways that a modern audience may scarcely notice” (Duncan-Jones 54).

Shakespeare’s plays—as it has been well-documented[5]—insistently draw on the metaphorics of communicable disease, or make direct allusions to the plague itself and its concomitant quarantine and self-isolation restrictions. It could not have been otherwise, as Katherine Duncan-Jones highlights, for “[p]lague was a defining context for all Shakespeare’s writing” (54). Prospero in The Tempest invokes the “red plague” upon Caliban (1.2.364), while King Lear describes his daughter Goneril as a “plague-sore” (2.4.225), and these are both “more than empty expletives” (Duncan-Jones 55); Olivia “purge[s] the air of pestilence” (1.1.19) for love-sick Orsino in Twelfth Night, Lady Macbeth, in the famous sleepwalking scene, insists on wiping her hands clean off that “damned spot” (5.1.31), and Friar John is found held in quarantine and thus unable to deliver the valuable letter that may have wrought a “happily ever after” change in Romeo and Juliet.[6]

The list of plague-resonant examples from Shakespeare’s stage universe could be endless, indexing how closely intertwined Elizabethan dramaturgy was with the epidemic narrative of its time.  

Video 1 
Promo video for Shakespeare’s King Lear, directed by Nancy Meckler Dries (2017), Shakespeare’s Globe, London

The same might be said of more modern drama—and more particularly of the early modern theatre of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—which displays a heightened concern with issues of contagion, viral spread and infection. Anton Chekhov, a trained physician himself with first-hand experience in handling a raging cholera epidemic, has Doctor Astrov in his Uncle Vanya (1897) describe a local typhus outbreak with bodies spread afflicted on the ground and with “[f]ilth, stench, smoke lying everywhere” (120).

In similar terms, Henrik Ibsen in his Ghosts of 1881 boldly brings syphilis epidemic to the forefront of his stage world, causing a critical uproar expressed, strikingly so, in disease-ridden language; his play was deemed equivalent to “a lazar-house with all its doors and windows open,” as put in the Daily Telegraph editorial (Moi 93).

Such an emphasis on disease and its motile, infectious economy may be easily explained in light of the fact that this is an important period for epidemiological studies. These are the years—as Stanton Garner explains in his insightful article on Antonin Artaud’s theatre and contagion— “during which the development of germ theory and its application to a range of institutions and social discourses fueled a preoccupation with issues of contagion” (2). Louis Pasteur’s new microbiological model to account for disease spread was fascination enough for the theatre world of the time which was often looking in science for new grounds of inspiration. These are also the years that witnessed a number of severe epidemic attacks, ranging from cholera spread to the recurrent lethal outbreaks of the influenza pandemic (1889–90/Spanish Flu of 1918–20) which would ravage Europe and the rest of the world.  

Video 2
Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, directed by Richard Eyre, Almeida Theatre, 2013

The same dramaturgical motifs of contagion, viral infection and epidemic spread would re-surface also later in the twentieth century, taking on new currency, particularly in the years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic which energized a number of theatre writings and acts in response. This period marks one of those rewarding cases in theatre history when drama and performance art actually aided disease awareness through thematizing (that is, acting out/voicing) the epidemic hit.[7] What had originally not received the attention it deserved, met as it was with media indifference or hushed in the (in)famous “Reagan-Bush silence” (Patton 173), was theatre-wise exposed and voiced, indexing, as David Román aptly remarks, “theatre’s capacity to participate in the shifting ideologies concerning disease, sexuality and citizenship in the United States during the formative years of the AIDS crisis” (44).

The “rare cancer seen in 42 homosexuals,” as the AIDS epidemic was announced and simultaneously dismissed in its first public reporting in New York Times in 1981, gradually gained recognition for what it was—another health crisis and not some form of ethical punishment or moral deviance.[8] This was achieved through a series of activist-oriented performances in the early years of the outbreak (1981–84) and, later, through a number of plays designed to have their audiences confronted with the taboo language and reality of a growing epidemic.

William M. Hoffman’s As Is, which brought the topic on a mainstream stage in 1985, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985), which openly called for public action to prevent further spread of the crisis, William Finn’s Tony-winning 1992 musical Falsettos and, of course, the well-known Angels in America (1991) by Tony Kushner are only few examples in a rich and ever-shifting list of AIDS-responsive theatrical activity and activism.

Video 3
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,directed by Marianne Elliot, London’s National Theatre, 2017
Theatre in Epidemics

Theatre activity in times of an infectious disease outbreak—as discussed above with reference to the years of the AIDS crisis—may as well sound as an inherent contradiction. In their interlaced history, theatre and epidemics appear also as mutually exclusives, considering that epidemic spreads (most typically) prompt theatre shutdowns. As spaces of community and communion, playhouses are automatically categorized as high-risk “infection clusters” and “hot spots” for disease transmission. Fleshed as it is by the very crowd it brings together, theatre pays, as it were, the cost for its unalienated, relational nature. It is this uncompromising togetherness that clashes with the epidemiological logics of disease containment and marks theatre as a “supersrpeading event,” forcing it to close doors. “The silence of after, once the theatre has emptied” (25), as poet Jane Hirshfield words it in her “Today, Another Universe,” is awkwardly prolonged in times of health crisis and theatre is set waiting for its own (Godot-like) self.

Theatre history marks a number of such suspended silences in years of epidemic strikes. Venues would often close down when the world was held in thrall to a new communicable disease. Writer Thomas Dekker—one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries—offers a vivid account of a shut playhouse in London of 1606, “stand(ing) empty . . . the dores locked up, the Flagges (like their Bushes) taken down,” looking more like a quarantined house “from whence the affrited dwellers are fled” (qtd. in DeWall 141). This must have been the case (and the sight) in the years of the first Black Death strike (1347 –51) and later, during the ongoing outbreaks of the bubonic plague (1592-3, 1603, 1609, 1625 and 1635), all with significant mortality rates. For a period of roughly three hundred years, theatre survived on a regularly interrupted mode, periodically opening and closing its doors for fear of plague, or as willed by disease peaks and valleys in the epidemic curve.

In London at the time of the bubonic plague, the (in)famous Bills of Mortality[9] helped authorities decide when “the city [was] too plague-ridden for theatrical gatherings” (Sullivan 85). A weekly record of more than thirty plague victims entailed that theatre shows might as well be called off. According to William Baker, “the total theatrical closures due to the plague,” in the years between 1603 and 1612, “accumulated to a grand total of 78 months” (15).

Similarly, during the Great Plague that besieged the city of London in 1665 and 1666, all theatrical activity was banned for more than sixteen months; theatre in all its “mirth and diversions,” as Daniel Defoe recounts of the 1665 plague in his Journal of the Plague Year, had no place in such devastating times “for the minds of the people were agitated with other things, and a kind of sadness and horror at these things sat upon the countenances even of the common people” (25).

Two women lying dead in a London street during the Great Plague, 1665. Etching after R. Pollard II

The same measure of theatre shut-down was activated also in later times. The Russian plague (1770–72) ordered the Moscow theatre closed, Yellow-Fever-struck Philadelphia of 1793 was suspicious of theatrical activity,[10] while the influenza pandemic in the first decades of the twentieth century (reaching a deadly peak with the so-called “Spanish flu” outbreak in 1918) had venues in the U.S. go dark, leaving the theatre industry severely wounded; Marx Brothers saw their musical comedy, The Cinderella Girls, playing for three days in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1918 (with audience members distanced and in masks) before forced to a quick lockdown by health officials. The influenza years in Britain—where there was no central order for mass theatre closure[11]—still witnessed theatre people struggling, as we read in the 1927 letter by theatre manager Oswald Stoll to the editor of The Stage, with “the prevalent notion . . . that theatres are haunts of infection during epidemics.” Stoll anxiously rushes in the same letter to reassure audiences that hygiene precautions are carefully followed and that “modern theatre has become well-nigh invulnerable to germs.”

In the more recent years of our twenty-first century reality, the same anxiety over theatre’s “disease vulnerability” has well persisted. The SARS outbreak in 2003 brought emergency theatre closures (as of other communal gathering spaces) in Beijing, where “public fun” was reported as “surrendered to growing fear”; the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 marked a similar case with entertainment halls and theatres closed down in Mexico in an effort to contain the epidemic hit. In its age-old history, theatre is often put on hold by epidemic eruptions and interruptions, as our present COVID-19 reality also uncannily indicates.

Video 4
Theatres in London’s West End, all forced in lockdown owing to the COVID-19 pandemic (video tour by 4Kexplorer)
Theatre as Epidemics

What often accompanied theatre closures in virus-plagued times was also a strong identification of performance art itself with an infectious epidemic. The idea of theatre being plague-like echoes persistently, for instance, through sixteenth- and seventeenth-century discussions of disease spread, for which theatrical activity was held both directly liable and practically exchangeable. These are, in fact, the years of a strong antitheatricalist discourse which expediently borrows from the language (and the terror) of the epidemic to instill in the wider public imagination a sense of theatre as pollution, and thus to rightfully demand playhouse closures.

Echoing the age-old (also etymologically voiced) belief that a plague is essentially a divine-sent punishment, the basic argument was that theatre is sinful activity and thus plague-inflicting. Theatre could bring on an epidemic, and, even worse—in a rhetorical shift from physical/medical terms to moral ones—it equals a disastrous epidemic itself. In 1584, London authorities reported to the Privy Council that “[t]o play in plague-time is to increase the plague by infection: to play out of plague time is to draw the plague by offendings of God upon occasion of such plays” (qtd. in Garner 3). Similarly, in William Prynne’s 1633 Histrio-Mastix: The player’s scourge or, actor’s tragedy, theatre is insistently accorded the nature and the blast of an epidemic; any playgoer is viewed as a miasma of “a most infectious, leprous, captivating, ensnaring qualitie,” which they might then as well pass on to anyone who befriends them (qtd. in Chalk 172).

Divorced from its stigmatizing intent, the idea of theatre as an infectious, captivating epidemic is not essentially alien to theatre discourse itself. The tropes of infection, possession and virality have all been more than often embraced in theatre theory’s attempts to grasp and word the stage world’s communication dynamics. Theatre and epidemics often appear as ideational counterparts, mutually reflective and recursively defining. The most famous example is, perhaps, Antonin Artaud’s 1933 essay “The Theatre and the Plague,” where the two are treated in strikingly identical terms.

Literally turning the antitheatricalist metaphor on its head, Artaud draws on the plague as a way to conceptualize and explain the function of the theatrical device, as well as a metaphor to describe the theatrical reform he visualized, one that would sweep theatre clean off its complacent, bourgeois practice. Theatre and plague in the Artaudian thought act on a shared ground; they both exert a cataclysmic force shaking the body and disturbing “the senses repose” (Artaud 28), while also forcefully opening the rational mind up to a “revelation, [a] bringing forth” (30). In a sense, they are partners in ambivalence; disastrous and apocalyptic, delirious yet communicative (27), they ravage and build anew.

The Artaudian thought, albeit radical, often underlies the debate on theatre and its potential. In less exaggerated (head-on) terms, though ones that essentially replicate the same idea, Erika Fischer-Lichte in her seminal study on Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual pinpoints the potential of theatre as an essentially infectious, saturating force. Discussing the rise of modern, ritual-like mass performances, she traces their affective power in their disease-like nature—in their “focusing on the bodily co-presence of actors and spectators, on the physical acts of the actors and their capacity to ‘infect’ the spectators as well as on the ‘contagion’ occurring among the spectators” (30). Epidemics is here—as elsewhere in theatre theory—evoked as theatre’s mutual doppelgänger.

Samuel Beckett’s Endgame with its four characters as the sole inhabitants of an apparently disease-ridden world. Photo: Theatre “T”

“The plague is found everywhere in literature,” states cultural critic René Girard in his influential “The Plague in Literature and Myth” of 1974 (833); it certainly is in theatre literature and culture. A paralyzing force holding theatre life to a standstill, a dramaturgical trigger (even if a delicate one to handle), a metaphorical partner of shared tropes and logics. The link between theatre and epidemics is intricate, following, as it were, the primary binary of arrest and release.

To speak of theatre in times of plague is, perhaps, to speak of no theatre; it is also, however, to speak of dormant theatre, one that, pregnant with silence, awaits eruptive release (as all bottled-up activity always does) in new powers and possibilities. And if these, as Artaud words it, “are dark, it is the fault not of the plague nor of the theatre, but of life” (31).


[1]See Mitchell-Boyask for a thorough analysis of the prominence of disease language in the play (58–66).

[2]In his 1956 article “The Date of the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles,” Bernard Knox drafts a convincing analysis of how the Theban plague of Oedipus Rex is a direct historical allusion to the Attic plague of 430 B.C., as this is documented by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War.

[3]The term nosos in all its derivative forms is repeated 24 times in the play. See Mitchell-Boyask for a detailed account of the frequency of the term in the surviving ancient Greek dramas of the fifth century B.C. (28–34).

[4]The bubonic plague spread into Europe in the fourteenth century (also known as the Black Death) and—after a long run of its and breaks—ended with the Great Plague of London in 1665–66.

[5]See Paula Berggren’s “Shakespeare’s Dual Lexicons of Plague: Infections in Speech and Space”; Barbara Traister’s “’A Plague on Both Your Houses’: Sites of Comfort and Terror in Early Modern Drama”; and Keir Elam’s “’I’ll plague thee for that word’: Language, Performance, and Communicable Disease” for a detailed account of the central role (spreading) disease holds in Shakespeare’s drama.

[6]All references to Shakespeare’s plays are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare (edited by David Bevington). They are here cited by act, scene and line number.

[7]See David Román’s Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS for a detailed account of how theatre revealed itself as an “act of intervention” in the years of the AIDS epidemic crisis in the U.S. 

[8]See Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors for a detailed study of AIDS epidemic and the metaphorical language that accompanied it.

[9]See Erin Sullivan for a detailed documentation of these death statistics (published first annually and then weekly)—London’s way of tracking and monitoring the epidemic spread. 

[10]See Martin S. Pernick’s “Politics, Parties and Pestilence: Epidemic Yellow Fever in Philadelphia and the Rise of the First Party System” (559–86).

[11]Theatre lockdown measures were not massively, quickly or easily decided upon in the case of this epidemic hit; the reason was mainly that closing down entertainment venues was a hard decision to reach in a period when wartime morale needed boosting. No widescale (and only local-based) closures took place in Britain, despite an escalating number of infections and fatalities. The effort was put on improving theatre’s hygienic conditions, even if this did not always pay off. 


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*Maria Ristani received her Ph.D. from the School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, in 2012, after completing her doctoral research on the intrinsic musicality of Samuel Beckett’s “text-scores,” exploring, in particular, the role of rhythm in the verbal and scenic idiom of his late plays. Part of her work has been presented at conferences in Greece and abroad, and published in international journals and volumes. Her research interests include contemporary British drama, sound art and acoustics. She is currently affiliated with the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Department of English Literature), where she teaches drama and research methodology courses.

Copyright © 2020 Maria Ristani
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