Elizabethan Playhouses and Performance Conventions

Category: Hamlet, Performance, Theatre
Last Updated: 21 Apr 2020
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When Elizabeth became Queen of England in 1558, there were no specially designed theatre buildings. Companies of actors (usually small, made of 5 to 8 members) toured the country and performed in a wide variety of temporary acting spaces, mainly in inn yards, but also in churches, Town Halls, Town Squares, great halls of Royal Palaces or other great houses, or anywhere else that a large crowd could be gathered to view a performance. It is true that they continued to tour throughout Elizabeth’s reign (especially during the Plague in London, when theatres were closed or earned but little money).

Nevertheless, given the laws passed by the Queen to control wandering beggars and vagrants – which implicitly affected the acting companies as well – many actors were encouraged to settle down with permanent bases in London. The first permanent theatres in England were old inns which had been used as temporary acting areas when the companies had been touring. E. g. The Cross Keys, The Bull, The Bel Savage, The Bell – all originally built as inns.

Some of the inns that became theatres had substantial alterations made to their structure to allow them to be used as playhouses. The first purpose built theatre building in England was simply called The Theatre, eventually giving its name to all such building erected in the outskirts of London and functioning until the closing of the theatres in 1642 during the Civil War. The Theatre was built in 1576, at Shoreditch in the northern outskirts of London, by the Earl of Leicester’s Men who were led by James Burbage, a carpenter turned actor.

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It seems that the design of The Theatre was based on that of bull-baiting and bear-baiting yards (as a matter of fact, bull baiting, bear baiting and fencing shows were very popular by that time, and they were often organized before the plays started. ). The Theatre was followed the next year (1577) by The Curtain, in 1587 by The Rose and in 1595 by The Swan (to mention but the most famous theatres). In 1599, a dispute over the land on which The Theatre stood determined Burbage’s sons to secretly tear down the building and carry away the timber to build a new playhouse on the Bankside which they names The Globe.

By this time, the Burbages had become members of Lord Chamberlain’s Company, along with William Shakespeare, and The Globe is famously remembered as the theatre in which many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. (The Globe was destroyed in 1613 in a fire caused by the sparks of a cannon fired during the performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Rebuilt, it was closed and demolished in 1644 during the Civil War. The modern reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London was completed in 1997. )

Before going into more details regarding the structure of the Elizabethan theatre, distinction should be made, however, between two categories of playhouses: the public (outdoor) theatres and the private (indoor) theatres. The former were amphitheatre buildings open to the air and therefore cheaper – The Globe, for instance, charged two pence for a seat in the galleries or a single penny to stand in the yard. The latter (e. g. Blackfriars; The Cockpit) were built to a hall design in enclosed and usually rectangular buildings more like the theatres we know today.

They had amore exclusive audience since they charged considerably more – the cheapest seat in a private theatre cost sixpence. The adult companies did not start to use the private hall theatres until after Elizabeth’s death, but they were used by the boy companies (made up entirely of child and teenage actors) in Elizabeth’s reign and were used by Shakespeare’s Company - by this time the King’s Men - and other adult companies in the Jacobean period. Structure and Design of Public/ Outdoor Theatres

Public theatres were polygonal - hexagonal outside and round inside (“a wooden O” as Shakespeare puts it in Henry V). An open-air arena – called “pit” or “yard” – had, at one end, a wooden stage supported by large pillars, with trap doors for special effects (to allow ghosts, devils and similar characters to be raised up) and was surrounded by three tiers of roofed galleries (thatched, later on tiled roofs) with balconies, overlooking the back of the stage. The rear stage was covered by a roof – which they called “Heavens” through which, by means of ropes, they ould lower down the actors playing the gods/ angels, etc. , for flying or dramatic entrances – held up by massive pillars and obstructing the view of audience members from various angles. The stage wall behind these pillars was called “Frons Scenae” (taken from the name given by Imperial Rome to the stage walls of their amphitheatres) provided with doors to the left and to the right and a curtained central doorway – referred to as the “discovery space” – which allowed characters to be suddenly revealed or a play within a play to be acted.

The rear wall of this inner stage was covered by tapestry, the only usual “scenery” used on the stage. Immediately above the inner stage, there was the stage gallery which could be used for multiple purposes: - as an acting space: on either sides, there were bow-windows used for the frequent window/ balcony scenes (e. g. Romeo and Juliet). Thus the arrangement of a front stage and two-storeyed back stage permitted three actions to go on simultaneously and a life-like parallelism of events. - another part of the gallery could be used as a music-room.

Music was an extra effect added in the 1600’s. The musicians started playing an hour before the beginning of the play and also played at appropriate moments throughout the performance. - when necessary, some of the boxes of the stage gallery were used for audience seating. They were referred to as the “Lord’s rooms” and considered the best (and hence the most expensive) seats in the ‘house’ despite the poor view of the back of the actors. (Nevertheless, the audience at large would have a good view of the Lords and the Lords were able to hear the actors clearly.

There were also additional balconies on the left and right of the “Lord’s rooms” called the “Gentlemen’s rooms”, also meant for the rich patrons of the theatres. As previously mentioned, the stage wall structure contained two doors (at least) leading to a small structure, back stage, called the “Tiring House” used by actors to dress, prepare and wait offstage. Above the stage gallery, there is a third storey connected with the “Heavens” extending forward from the tiring-house over the rear part of the stage, which was often used to represent the walls of a castle or a city.

Last but not least, on top of this structure, there was also what might be called a fourth storey of the tiring-house, referred to as the “Hut” presumably used as a storage space and housing suspension gear for flying effects, while the third storey stage cover served as a loading room for players preparing to ‘fly’ down to the stage. On top of the “hut”, a flag (a black one, if it was a tragedy, a white one, if it was a comedy, or a red one, if it was a history) was erected to let the world know a play was to be performed that day.

The access to the playhouse was ensured by one main entrance, where playgoers had to put the admission fee – i. e. 1 penny, for those who watched the play from the yard, standing, called the “Groundlings” (shopkeepers, craftsmen, apprentices), or more, up to 4-5 pence for the gentry and the great lords sitting in the galleries. The galleries could be reached by the two sets of stairs in the structure, on either side of the theatre. The first gallery would cost another penny in the box which was held by a collector (“gatherer”) at the front of the stairs.

The second gallery would cost another penny. At the start of the play, after collecting money from the audience, the admission collectors put the boxes in a room backstage, called the “box office. ” The Players There were invariably many more parts than actors. Elizabethan Theatre, therefore, demanded that an actor be able to play numerous roles and make it obvious to the audience by changes in his acting style and costume that he was a new person each time.

When the same character came on disguised (as, for example, many of Shakespeare’s female characters disguise themselves as boys – e. . The Merchant of Venice or Twelfth Night) speeches had to be included making it very clear that this was the same character in a new costume, and not a completely new character. All of the actors in an Elizabethan Theatre company were male (which might explain the scarcity of female roles in Elizabethan drama). There were laws in England against women acting onstage and English travellers abroad were amused and amazed by the strange customs of Continental European countries that allowed women to play female roles.

Exceptions : One woman - Mary Frith, better known as Moll Cutpurse - was arrested in the Jacobean period for singing and playing instruments onstage during a performance of a play about her life (Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl) and some suggest that she may actually have been illegally playing herself in the performance, and women sometimes took part in Court Masques (a very stylised and spectacular sort of performance for the Court, usually dominated by singing and dancing), but otherwise English women had no part in the performance of Elizabethan plays.

The male actors who played female parts have traditionally been described as “Boy Actors” – they were actually boys whose voices had not changed. The rehearsal and performance schedule that Elizabethan Players followed was intense and demanding. Unlike modern theatres, where a successful play can run for years at a time, Elizabethan theatres normally performed six different plays in their six day week, and a particularly successful play might only be repeated once a month or so. For example, in a typical season, a theatrical company could perform thirty-eight different plays.

The Elizabethan actor did not have much time, therefore, to prepare for each new play, and must have had to learn lines and prepare his blocking largely on his own and in his spare time – probably helped by the tendency of writers to have particular actors in mind for each part, and to write roles which were suited to the particular strengths and habits of individual actors. There were few formal rehearsals for each play and no equivalent of the modern Director (although presumably the writer, theatre managers, and the most important actors - who owned shares in the theatre company - would have given some direction to other actors).

Instead of being given full scripts, each actor had a written “part”, a long scroll with nothing more than his own lines and minimal cue lines (the lines spoken by another actor just before his own) to tell him when to speak - this saved on the laborious task of copying out the full play repeatedly by hand. There was a bookholder or prompter who held a complete script and who helped actors who had forgotten their lines. Costumes, Scenery and Effects

Elizabethan costuming seems to have been a strange combination of what was (for the Elizabethans) modern dress, and costumes which - while not being genuinely historically or culturally accurate - had a historical or foreign flavour. Strict laws were in force about what materials and types of clothes could be worn by members of each social class - laws which the actors were allowed to break onstage - so it would be immediately obvious to the Elizabethan audience that actors wearing particular types of clothes were laying people of particular backgrounds and types.

The colours were also carefully chosen so as to suggest: red – blood; black – gloom, evil; yellow – sun; white – purity; scarlet – doctor; gray – friar; blue – serving men. Extensive make-up was almost certainly used, particularly for the boys playing female parts and with dark make-up on the face and hands for actors playing “blackamoors” or “Turks”. There were also conventions for playing a number of roles - some of which we know from printed play scripts.

Mad women, like Ophelia, wore their hair loose and mad people of both sexes had disordered clothing. Night scenes were often signalled by characters wearing nightdresses (even the Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in his nightgown, when Hamlet is talking with his Mother in her chamber). The Elizabethans did not use fixed scenery or painted backdrops of the sort that became popular in the Victorian period – hence the playwrights had to provide the actors with spoken descriptions of landscape which with Shakespeare represent memorable poetry.

That does not mean, however, that the Elizabethans performed on a completely bare stage. A wide variety of furniture and props were brought onstage to set the scene as necessary - ranging from simple beds, tables, chairs and thrones to whole trees, grassy banks, prop dragons, an unpleasant looking cave to represent the mouth of hell, and so forth. Death brought out a particular ingenuity in Elizabethan actors and they apparently used copious quantities of animal blood, fake heads and tables with holes in to stage decapitations.

Heads, hands, eyes, tongues and limbs were dramatically cut off onstage, and probably involved some sort of blood-drenched stage trick. A number of other simple special effects were used. Real cannons and pistols (loaded with powder but no bullet) were fired off when ceremonial salutes or battles were required. Thunder was imitated by rolling large metal cannon balls backstage or by drumming, while lightning was imitated by fireworks set off in the “heavens” above the stage. One thing that Elizabethan theatres almost completely lacked was lighting effects.

In the outdoor theatres, like the Globe, plays were performed from two o’clock until about four or four thirty in the afternoon (these were the times fixed by law, but plays may sometimes have run for longer) in order to take advantage of the best daylight (earlier or later performances would have cast distracting shadows onto the stage). Evening performances, without daylight, were impossible. In the hall theatres, on the other hand, the stages were lit by candlelight - which forced them to hold occasional, probably musical, breaks while the candles were trimmed and tended or replaced as they burned down.

Elizabethan actors carried flaming torches to indicate that a scene was taking place at night, but this would have made little difference to the actual lighting of the stage, and spectators simply had to use their imagination. The nearest that the Elizabethans came to lighting effects were fireworks, used to imitate lightening or magical effects. Performance Techniques We know very little, unfortunately, about how Elizabethan actors actually played their roles. Performances probably ran continuously without any sort of interval or Act Breaks.

Occasionally music may have been played between Acts or certain scenes, but scholars think this was quite unusual except in the hall playhouses, where candles had to be trimmed and replaced between Acts. We do not even know how long Elizabethan plays usually ran. The law (mentioned above) expected plays to last between two and two and a half hours, but some plays - such as Hamlet, which in modern times runs for more than four hours - seem much too long to have been performed in such a short time.

What props and scenery there were in the Elizabethan Theatre were probably carried on and off while the scenes continued, while actors were continually moving forward and backward into the midst of the surrounding audience. All entrances and exits were through the doors at the rear of the stage proper: one actor left through one door while a second actor would appear through the second door to swing into the next scene. That means that there would have been no need to wait for scene changes.

The actors were kept in constant motion and, given the design of the stage, they had to face in as many different directions as possible during a scene. Another aspect of Elizabethan performance that we know a little about was the use of clowns or fools. Shakespeare complains in Hamlet about the fact that the fool often spoke a great deal that was not included in his script, and in the early Elizabethan period especially it seems to have been normal for the fool to include a great deal of improvised repartee and jokes in his performance, especially responding to hecklers in the audience.

At the end of the play the Elizabethan actors often danced, and sometimes the fool and other comic actors would perform a jig - which could be anything from a simple ballad to a quite complicated musical play, normally a farce involving adultery and other bawdy topics. Some time was apparently put aside for the fool to respond to challenges from the audience - with spectators inventing rhymes and challenging the fool to complete them, asking riddles and questions and demanding witty answers, or simply arguing and criticising the fool so that he could respond.

With no modern stage lighting to enhance the actors and put the audience into darkness, Globe audience members could see each other exactly as well as they could see the performers and the Groundlings in particular were near enough to the stage to be able to touch the actors if they wanted to and the front row of the Groundlings routinely leaned their arms and heads onto the front of the stage itself. The Groundlings were also forced to stand for two or three hours without much movement, which encouraged short attention ps and a desire to take action rather than remain completely immobile.

This means that the Groundlings frequently shouted up at the actors or hissed the villains and cheered the goodies. Elizabethan audiences seem to have been very responsive in this way - as their interactions with the Fool suggests - and were particularly well known for hurling nut shells and fruit when they disliked an actor or a performance. The Elizabethan audience was still more distracted, however, since beer and food were being sold and consumed throughout the performance, prostitutes were actively soliciting for trade, and pickpockets were busy stealing goods as the play progressed.

Elizabethan audiences may have “viewed” plays very differently, hence the origin of the word “audience” itself. The Elizabethans did not speak of going to see a play, they went to hear one - and it is possible that in the densely crowded theatre - obstructed by the pillars and the extravagant headgear that richer members of the audience were wearing - the Elizabethan audience was more concerned to hear the words spoken than to be able to see the action.

This idea is given extra weight by the fact that in the public outdoor theatres, like the Globe, the most expensive seats were not the ones with the best views (in fact the best view is to be had by the Groundlings, standing directly in front of the stage), but those which were most easily seen by other audience members. The most expensive seating was in the Lord’s box or balcony behind the stage - looking at the action from behind - and therwise the higher the seats the more an audience member had to pay. (Some Elizabethan documents suggest that the reason for this range of prices was the richer patron’s desire to be as far from the stink of the Groundlings as possible. )

Specific aspects of Elizabethan performances: bear-baiting: three bears in ascending size are set upon by an English hound in a fight to the death! fencing: less gruesome, this civilized sport also took place before plays. umb-shows/processions: parades or spectacles, these formal groups used all the most ornate costumes they owned, including crowns and sceptres, torches and swords. Dumbshows appeared at the end of each act to summarize the events of the following act. By the turn of the century, dumb-shows were considered old-fahsioned and corny. Processions were more solemn as actors moved mannequin-like across the stage. jigs: at the conclusion of a play, the actors would dance around the stage.

Separate from the plays, these were bawdy, knockabout song-and-dance farces. Frequently resembling popular ballads, jigs were often commentaries on politics or religion. masques: masques were plays put on strictly by the royals. These were celebrations, i. e. royal weddings or winning a battle. Designed as banquets of the senses, these celebrations pned several days during which each member of the party played a part in the allegorical theme of the banquet. Masques were always held in private playhouses.

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Elizabethan Playhouses and Performance Conventions. (2017, Mar 25). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/elizabethan-playhouses-and-performance-conventions/

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