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An Elizabethan Stage
from A History of English Literature

1918

by Robert Huntington Fletcher


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from Chapter VI. The Drama From About 1550 To 1642 

AN ELIZABETHAN STAGE

The medieval religious drama had been written and acted in many towns throughout the country, and was a far less important feature in the life of London than of many other places. But as the capital became more and more the center of national life, the drama, with other forms of literature, was more largely appropriated by it; the Elizabethan drama of the great period was altogether written in London and belonged distinctly to it. Until well into the seventeenth century, to be sure, the London companies made frequent tours through the country, but that was chiefly when the prevalence of the plague had necessitated the closing of the London theaters or when for other reasons acting there had become temporarily unprofitable. The companies themselves had now assumed a regular organization. They retained a trace of their origin in that each was under the protection of some influential noble and was called, for example, 'Lord Leicester's Servants,' or 'The Lord Admiral's Servants.' But this connection was for the most part nominal--the companies were virtually very much like the stock-companies of the nineteenth century. By the beginning of the great period the membership of each troupe was made up of at least three classes of persons. At the bottom of the scale were the boy-apprentices who were employed, as Shakespeare is said to have been at first, in miscellaneous menial capacities. Next came the paid actors; and lastly the shareholders, generally also actors, some or all of whom were the general managers. The writers of plays were sometimes members of the companies, as in Shakespeare's case; sometimes, however, they were independent.

Until near the middle of Elizabeth's reign there were no special theater buildings, but the players, in London or elsewhere, acted wherever they could find an available place--in open squares, large halls, or, especially, in the quadrangular open inner yards of inns. As the profession became better organized and as the plays gained in quality, such makeshift accommodations became more and more unsatisfactory; but there were special difficulties in the way of securing better ones in London. For the population and magistrates of London were prevailingly Puritan, and the great body of the Puritans, then as always, were strongly opposed to the theater as a frivolous and irreligious thing--an attitude for which the lives of the players and the character of many plays afforded, then as almost always, only too much reason. The city was very jealous of its prerogatives; so that in spite of Queen Elizabeth's strong patronage of the drama, throughout her whole reign no public theater buildings were allowed within the limits of the city corporation. But these limits were narrow, and in 1576 James Burbage inaugurated a new era by erecting 'The Theater' just to the north of the 'city,' only a few minutes' walk from the center of population. His example was soon followed by other managers, though the favorite place for the theaters soon came to be the 'Bankside,' the region in Southwark just across the Thames from the 'city' where Chaucer's Tabard Inn had stood and where pits for bear-baiting and cock-fighting had long flourished.

The structure of the Elizabethan theater was naturally imitated from its chief predecessor, the inn-yard. There, under the open sky, opposite the street entrance, the players had been accustomed to set up their stage. About it, on three sides, the ordinary part of the audience had stood during the performance, while the inn-guests and persons able to pay a fixed price had sat in the open galleries which lined the building and ran all around the yard. In the theaters, therefore, at first generally square-built or octagonal, the stage projected from the rear wall well toward the center of an unroofed pit (the present-day 'orchestra'), where, still on three sides of the stage, the common people, admitted for sixpence or less, stood and jostled each other, either going home when it rained or staying and getting wet as the degree of their interest in the play might determine. The enveloping building proper was occupied with tiers of galleries, generally two or three in number, provided with seats; and here, of course, sat the people of means, the women avoiding embarrassment and annoyance only by being always masked. Behind the unprotected front part of the stage the middle part was covered by a lean-to roof sloping down from the rear wall of the building and supported by two pillars standing on the stage. This roof concealed a loft, from which gods and goddesses or any appropriate properties could be let down by mechanical devices. Still farther back, under the galleries, was the 'rear-stage,' which could be used to represent inner rooms; and that part of the lower gallery immediately above it was generally appropriated as a part of the stage, representing such places as city walls or the second stories of houses. The musicians' place was also just beside in the gallery.

The stage, therefore, was a 'platform stage,' seen by the audience from almost all sides, not, as in our own time, a 'picture-stage,' with its scenes viewed through a single large frame. This arrangement made impossible any front curtain, though a curtain was generally hung before the rear stage, from the floor of the gallery. Hence the changes between scenes must generally be made in full view of the audience, and instead of ending the scenes with striking situations the dramatists must arrange for a withdrawal of the actors, only avoiding if possible the effect of a mere anti-climax. Dead bodies must either get up and walk away in plain sight or be carried off, either by stage hands, or, as part of the action, by other characters in the play. This latter device was sometimes adopted at considerable violence to probability, as when Shakespeare makes Falstaff bear away Hotspur, and Hamlet, Polonius. Likewise, while the medieval habit of elaborate costuming was continued, there was every reason for adhering to the medieval simplicity of scenery. A single potted tree might symbolize a forest, and houses and caverns, with a great deal else, might be left to the imagination of the audience. In no respect, indeed, was realism of setting an important concern of either dramatist or audience; in many cases, evidently, neither of them cared to think of a scene as located in any precise spot; hence the anxious effort of Shakespeare's editors on this point is beside the mark. This nonchalance made for easy transition from one place to another, and the whole simplicity of staging had the important advantage of allowing the audience to center their attention on the play rather than on the accompaniments. On the rear-stage, however, behind the curtain, more elaborate scenery might be placed, and Elizabethan plays, like those of our own day, seem sometimes to have 'alternation scenes,' intended to be acted in front, while the next background was being prepared behind the balcony curtain. The lack of elaborate settings also facilitated rapidity of action, and the plays, beginning at three in the afternoon, were ordinarily over by the dinner-hour of five. Less satisfactory was the entire absence of women-actors, who did not appear on the public stage until after the Restoration of 1660. The inadequacy of the boys who took the part of the women-characters is alluded to by Shakespeare and must have been a source of frequent irritation to any dramatist who was attempting to present a subtle or complex heroine.

Lastly may be mentioned the picturesque but very objectionable custom of the young dandies who insisted on carrying their chairs onto the sides of the stage itself, where they not only made themselves conspicuous objects of attention but seriously crowded the actors and rudely abused them if the play was not to their liking. It should be added that from the latter part of Elizabeth's reign there existed within the city itself certain 'private' theaters, used by the boys' companies and others, whose structure was more like that of the theaters of our own time and where plays were given by artificial light.


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