The Department traces its origins to the informal elocution lessons offered on campus from 1903, which in turn led to the speech classes presented formally by the Music Conservatoire from 1921. In 1949 Speech, Recitation and Stagecraft was recognised as a fully fledged B.A. subject and the young Robert Mohr did remarkable work in this field. In 1961 the University appointed the well-known Flemish director and lecturer, Fred Engelen, as the first professor in drama and head of an independent Drama Department in South Africa. Under his guidance the H.B. Thom Theatre was opened in 1966 as a theatre for Stellenbosch and as a training centre, and a number of Flemish and Dutch staff members were appointed, including his wife, the famous actress Tine Balder, Dr Benoni de Haeck and Mr Jos Willemse. He also appointed a young Emile Aucamp as the theatre technician.
After Prof. Engelen's unexpected death in 1967 the Department was run for while by Mr Jocelyn de Bruyn, along with Prof. Trümpelmann from German, before Prof. Fred le Roux took over as head in 1969. After his retirement in 1977 Mr Herman Pretorius was appointed to the position. During this period of exceptional activity inspired by people such as Mr Pretorius, Dr Ben de Haeck, Mrs Pat Harvey, Johann van Heerden, Chris Goetsch, Noel Roos, Marie Kruger, Emile and Elaine Aucamp, the Department grew strongly in terms of stature, student numbers and courses offered. Under Mr Pretorius's leadership a specifically research-orientated programme was introduced. He left the University in 1994 after 16 years as head of the Department.
At this stage the University departed from its practice of appointing permanent heads of departments in favour of a system of departmental chairpersons. After serving as acting chair for a period, Dr Temple Hauptfleisch was promoted to professor and elected by the staff as the first Chair of the Department of Drama for the period 1996-2005 until he reached age of retirement in 2005. After this period (2006) Prof. Marie Kruger took on the task of Chair of the Department up to date. During the period 1995-2000 the Department (like the rest of the University) had to make a series of adjustments to the new conditions prevailing in the country and the academic sphere, during which time staff numbers were reduced and the old degree courses were converted to more focused training programmes, and there was considerable pressure to provide career-orientated training. During this phase the postgraduate component was expanded considerably, and technical and management training made more rigorous and focused.
Over the years hundreds of talented and famous people passed through the Department as students and lecturers. They have made all kinds of important contributions towards the development of a dynamic South African theatre and media industry at the artistic as well as administrative and technical levels. Among the well-known names that have made an impact over the years are Limpie Basson, Emile Aucamp, Franz Marx, Mees Xsteen, Antoinette Kellermann, Johan Esterhuizen, Annelize van der Ryst, Eben Cruywagen, Sybil Coetzee, Helene Truter, Duncan Johnson, Ilse Roos, June van Mersch, Peter Holden, Isadora Verwey, Antoinette Pienaar, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, Chris Vorster, Kobus Roussouw, Mark Graham, Christa Myburgh, Margit Meyer-Rödenbeck and many others.