Maithili is spoken in the Mithila region of north Bihar state in eastern India. Maithili can boasts of one of the oldest theatrical traditions in India, dating to the growth of Kirtaniya in the fourteenth century. Hence it forms an important link between classical Sanskrit and regional forms. In the medieval period, Maithili theatre spread to Assam and Nepal, producing a huge corpus of Maithili drama. Siddhi Narasinghadeva and Bhupatindra Malla were among the known playwrights in Nepal. At the end of the nineteenth century Parsi theatre and Ramlila reached Mithila, leading to the premature burial of Kirtaniya.
This created a vacuum in Maithili theatrical activity filled by Jivan Jha. He evolved a new genre by synthesizing Kirtaniya, Parsi, Ramlila, Sanskrit theatre, and the theatrical renaissance in Bengal. But he employed colloquial Maithili as the language. He wrote the first modern Maithili plays, Sundarsanyoga in 1904 and Narmada-sagar in 1906. These were based on social problems and premiered in Varanasi. However, Munsi Raghunandan Das established modern Maithili theatre in Mithila. His Maithili natak i.e. 'Maithili Play' in 1910 and Dutangad-vyayoga i.e. 'Dutangad's Vyayogd' in 1932 were staged by commercial theatres. The troupes were Umakant's Mithila Natak Company and other troupes. The mid-twentieth century was dominated by Ishanath Jha. His Chini-ke-laddu i.e. 'Ball of Sugar' in 1939 and 'Ugna' in 1957 charmed the audience for a long time.
No permanent playhouses existed in those days. Stages were made of bamboo and wooden platforms with curtains, castor-oil lamps for lighting, and a big bright brass disc as reflector. Regal dresses but simple make-up and the use of Maithili lyrics as fillers were the unusual features of the early modern phase. Having no access to microphones, actors delivered their dialogue in loud voices and took recourse to over-gesticulation and special sound effects. Harijee and Ramjatan Mishra were the most popular heroes.
After Independence, Maithili theatre spread to cities like Calcutta, Patna, and Delhi where migrant Maithili populations had congregated. In Calcutta, the Mithila Kala Kendra and Mithiyatrik under the stewardship of Prabodhnarayana Singh, Nachiketa, Gunanath Jha, and directors like Srikant, Dayanath, and Trilochan Jha achieved new heights in Maithili theatre. Since the 1950s Patna emerged as the mecca where groups like the Chetna Samiti in 1953, Aripan in 1982, and Bhangima in 1987 even organized international Maithili drama festivals. In 1953, Subhadra Jha, wife of dramatist Hari Mohan Jha, broke social taboos against women performing and acted on stage for the first time. This encouraged Kamla Choudhary, Lalita Jha, Premlata, and other progressive ladies to participate in theatre. Both in Calcutta and Patna, experiments were made in stagecraft by Sudhansu Sekhar Choudhary, Mahendra Malangia, and Arvind Akku.
Maithili theatre still has rural and urban divisions. Rural spectators prefer archetypical socio-historical or religious drama as well as fast-moving and grand spectacles. Performers can enter from within the audience according to need and musicians sit on the right flank of the stage. Urban theatre depends upon auditoriums, its literate viewers preferring psychological plays. Some groups like Jamghat, Navtarang, Tarjani, and Sankalp-lok created a new genre by fusing the modern and indigenous forms. Govind Jha, Somdev, and Ramdeo Jha reinforced this synthesis in their scripts. The Song and Drama Division of Darbhanga, Bihar, invented a style called 'Vidyapati ballad'. Efforts to revive Kirtaniya have also been made in different possible way.