Staff profiles

Photo of Professor David Wiles

Professor David Wiles

Emeritus Professor of Drama

I am a historian of the theatre, which means that I am someone who wants to understand the present, because it is the past that has made each of us who we are. Undergraduate teaching has always informed and stimulated my research, while postgraduate supervision has opened up countless new horizons.

My main historical areas of specialism have been the theatres of Greece and Elizabethan England, and important themes in my work have been performance space, masked acting, festival, and the function of theatre in society. I have always resisted limiting myself to one historical period in order to take a broader view of how theatre has evolved. My current research focus is the history of premodern or ‘classical’ acting.


Research interests

My research began in the field of Shakespeare, where my first major book was Shakespeare’s Clown, a study of the Elizabethan clown. I followed up this book with a study of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a wedding play, which laid some of the ground for my current interest in theatre and time. A monograph called Theatre & Time was recently published in the Palgrave ‘Theatre &’ series.

Greek theatre has been the other foundation stone of my research. My first major publication here was a monograph Masks of Menander, analysing the masking code that shaped the performance of Greek comedy in the fourth century BCE, a code that modelled the form of an ideal society. I pursued my interest in Greek masks in Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy, a study of fifth century masking that drew both upon archaeology and upon 20th/21st century experimentation with the possibilities of the theatrical mask. I also broke new ground with Tragedy in Athens, a study of performance space and the way space made meaning in classical performance. This volume prepared the way both for a widely used student introduction to Greek theatre Greek Theatre Performance (also translated into modern Greek), and for my Short History of Western Performance Space (also translated into Polish), a study of seven basic configurations of the actor audience relationship.

More recently, I investigated the social function of theatre in relation to understandings of the classical concept of the citizen in Theatre and Citizenship: the History of a Practice - in essence asking whether theatre acts primarily upon self-aware individuals, or upon groups and feelings of group membership.

In collaboration with Christine Dymkowski, I edited the Cambridge Companion to Theatre History published in 2013. We attempted in this project to focus on the question of why the past should matter to the present, and assembled a powerful team of contributors for the project.

I have recently completed a study of performance in the 18th century theatre of Drottningholm, co-authored with Willmar Sauter of the University of Stockholm. This book is distributed in hardcopy by the University Presses of Exeter and Chicago, but can also be viewed online at

This work has prepared the ground for my current major project,  a study of classical acting, investigating how the works of antiquity provided actors for many centuries with a language through which they could articulate debates about the craft of acting. I want to challenge the idea that important debates about acting only began with Stanislavski.

Research collaborations

I have a long-standing collaboration with Willmar Sauter of the University of Stockholm, and we have recently co-authored a book entitled The Theatre of Drottningholm – performance then and now. Our ongoing collaboration is supported by thed Swedish Riksbank Jubileumfond in a five year project entitled Performing premodernity: exploring cultural heritage through the Drottningholm Court Theatre. I have a long-standing association with the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Theatre in Oxford, which most recently involves speaking at a conference on Performing Epic in September 2013. I am currently developing a collaboration with Prof Anna Sica of the University of Palermo, and we are working on the understanding of European traditions of declamation.

Research supervision

In my previous job at Royal Holloway, I supervised students and saw 16 through to completion, many of them now having academic jobs. Several have been practice based. I am no longer in a position to take on new doctoral students.

External impact and engagement

My work on the mask was informed by a close relationship with professional mask makers like Michael Chase and Thanos Vovolis. As a Greek theatre specialist, I have worked as a consultant to Gardzienice theatre company in Poland. I am currently involved in a research project with the 18th-century 'heritage' theatre of Drottningholm, examining the function of its summer operatic season. In April 2013 I was invited to address the Opera Europa conference of theatre managers and practitioners on the theme of opera and citizenship.

Contribution to discipline

Between 2011 and 2013 I convened the Theatre Historiography working group of the International Federation for Theatre Research. I am a regular attendee at the IFTR, and will be delivering a keynote address at the annual conference in Stockholm in 2016..


My teaching always involves a dimension of practice. I regard it as a creative activity, and therefore never teach the same course in the same way twice. I particularly enjoy projects which test out historical propositions, and courses which allow students to bring their own experience of the world to bear upon their work. Shakespeare has been an important focus of my teaching during my time at Exeter, and my philosophy is that recovering the past offers the most radical route to innovation in the present.

Modules taught



Jesus College, Cambridge,   B.A./M.A., 1969-72

University of London, Goldsmiths' College, Cert.Ed., 1973-74

Department of Drama, University of Bristol, Ph.D. 1975-78 (title: 'The servant as master: a study of role definition in Classical and Renaissance popular comedy')

employment in higher education:

temporary lecturer in drama, University of Manchester, 1978-80

lecturer in drama, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth,1981-86

lecturer in drama and theatre studies, University of London,

Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, 1986-93; reader

in drama 1993-1998; professor of theatre 1998-2013

maître de conférence invité, Université Paul Valéry,  Montpellier, Oct.-Dec.1990

Virginia C.Gildersleeve Visiting Professor, Barnard College, University of Columbia. Sept 2002

Chair in Drama, University of Exeter, August 2013-