Earliest Marathi Theatre was inspired by ‘Yakshagaan’ of Karnataka, and these were mostly mythological tales. Then going through the phases of Shakespearean plays (late 19th Century), social plays highlighting women’s issues and farce with huge English influence, it stopped for a while on the hugely popular Sangeet Natak. Snageet Natak, that had influence of western and Parsi musicals, included music (different genres – classical, semi-classical, folk based) and most dialogues were through music and songs. These musical plays, primarily targeted at the Maharashtrian upper class, had a huge feel-good factor, besides their high quality performance and literary standards.
The period of 1880s to 1930s was a Golden Age for Marathi Theatre.
Whereas the period from 1930s to about 1955 is considered as a dark period. During this period, theatre lost its charm and popularity among the Marathi middle class and upper middle class theatre goers – its primary audience. They had moved on to cinema with advent of ‘talking cinema’, besides of course the huge socio-political upheaval in India and overseas (freedom struggle and independence at home and the world wars and cold wars outside). It is interesting to note that this is exactly the period in which multiple ‘isms’ in art emerged – existentialism, dadaism, cubism, absurdism.
Around 1955-60, escapist theatre (engrossed in nostalgia of bygone era) evolved, with happy, status-quo loving, worry-free middle class being its primary patron. P.L Deshpande, Vasnat Kanetkar, V V Shirwardkar were prominent playwrights during this period. These playwrights in a way brought back the audience from movies to theatre. Commercial theatre has been strong since.
Emergence of a parallel Experimental Theatre
Post 1960, with awareness about corruption, inflation, violence in the industrial urban area, loss at war with China (1962) rising, started bothering even the middle class which was till then removed from the broader societal reality. Vijay Tendulkar, alongwith directors of his plays including Vijaya Mehta, who unmasked the middle class Marathi patronized, commercial theatre. They brought to fore the real issues of the society to stage with new experimental Marathi theatre. Tendulkar’s plays starting with Gidhade (written in 1955). Tendulkar’s best plays came in the 60s and 70s.
In the 70s a second wave of such aware playwrights brought plays to stage by prominent Marathi writers and theatre veterans like Satish Alekar, Govind Deshpande (one of the best political playwrights), Mahesh Elkunchwar.
A third wave came in the 90s with playwrights like Makaran Sathe, Jayant Pawar, Shafat Khan.
This 1960-90 was the most vibrant period for realistic, experimental Marathi theatre.
Post 1990, with emergence of cable Television, and now with digital content, experimental theatre has taken a blow in terms of patronage and audience.