Design of theatres

Purpose built theatres

Actors sometimes performed inside large houses, by daylight or candlelight. The first recorded performance of Measure for Measure, for example, took place in the banqueting hall of Whitehall in December 1604.

However, the first permanent theatres in London were usually open to the sky – although in 1596, Burbage had developed the site of a former monastery and opened it as the (second - he had earlier had another on the site) Blackfriars theatre. This was unusual in being enclosed and using artificial lighting.

Blackfriars and child actors

From early in the sixteenth century, choristers from the Chapel Royal and Saint Paul's Cathedral had taken part in pageants at court. Later these groups formed companies of child actors, the most famous of which was The Children of the Chapel. In 1597 Burbage leased the Blackfriars theatre to this group, who performed many plays by important playwrights such as Webster and Jonson.

Shakespeare felt the popularity of child actors to be a real threat to his company of older actors; gradually, however, children's companies became less popular.

Indoor theatre

Because of the decline in popularity of The Children of the Chapel, in 1608 Burbage and his company, the King's Men (of which Shakespeare was a part) took over the Blackfriars theatre during winter seasons. The different nature of the building, with its artificial lighting, allowed them to introduce new effects into the drama.

Masques

James I and his Queen, Anne of Denmark, were very fond of theatrical entertainments known as masques (from the fact that, in early versions, players were masked). The masques at James's court were held indoors, and involved spectacular scenery and costumes – made at great expense. They also contained a great deal of music and dancing. The participants were often courtiers, and James's Queen enjoyed taking part. In these ways, the court masques were very different from the normal theatrical performances in London at the time, where women could not act on stage and where scenery and props were minimal.

However, when the King's Men moved into Blackfriars theatre, they too were able to develop more elaborate staging, and in plays such as The Tempest Shakespeare introduced masque-like sequences into his drama.

The Globe theatre

While the child actors occupied the Blackfriars theatre, the King's Men acted at the Globe theatre, and this continued to be their summer venue (whilst they went back to Blackfriars for winter performances after 1608).

We do not know all the details about the Globe's construction, though the reconstructed Globe theatre built in the twentieth century (see also Author section: 1592 - 1611: Life in London) is based on much research and is accurate enough to give us a good idea.

The ‘Wooden O'

The Wooden O

The Globe was built as an octagonal outer frame, probably 30 metres in diameter, with several tiers of seating covered by a straw roof. A bird's-eye view from above would show what Shakespeare famously, in the Prologue to Henry V, called a ‘Wooden O'. Those who could not afford seats could stand in the area around the main stage.

Four levels of acting

The Globe Theatre

  • The main stage was a platform which p rojected out from one side of the outer framework into the central courtyard. This ‘apron' stage was about 1.5 metres in height, 13 metres across and 7.5 metres deep. There were no curtains around the stage to conceal the actors.
  • Above the stage, and offering some protection from the elements for the actors, was a roof, painted on the underside with stars, and known as ‘the heavens'. Through a trapdoor in this roof actors could descend on a sort of trapeze as gods.
More on the trapeze: Shakespeare makes reference to this device in Act V of his play Cymbeline:
‘Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle.'
  • In the centre of the main stage was a trapdoor through which actors could ascend from and descend to the space below the platform, which was surrounded by curtains – brightly painted for comedies, more sombre for tragedies. This enabled actors to mysteriously appear and disappear.
More on the trapdoor: For example, this was necessary for the Weird Sisters in Macbeth:

‘The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them. Whither are they vanished?'

  • At the back of the stage was a balcony, as used in Romeo and Juliet, and perhaps for the ramparts where the ghost appears in Hamlet. This was sometimes referred to as the ‘upper stage'.

Between the doors was an alcove known as the ‘inner stage' or 'discovery space' which would be curtained off but where actors could be dramatically revealed.

More on the inner stage: Examples of its use include:
  • In Romeo and Juliet this curtained area could be used to enclose the bed upon which Juliet is found, apparently dead, by her nurse
  • Ferdinand and Miranda are discovered playing chess in a ‘cave' at the end of The Tempest.

The flow of the drama

Actors could be seen by the audience from all three other sides of the main stage. In the wall at the back were two doors, one on each side, from which actors could arrive on stage from the ‘tiring house' (i.e. dressing rooms and backstage area). As one group of actors left by one of the rear doors, another group could be arriving without pause from the other.

More on the arrival / exit of actors: Shakespeare uses the possibilities of this uninterrupted flow of actors to create juxtaposition – that is, the setting side-by-side of scenes for effective contrast. For example, in Act I sc i of Measure for Measure we see the solemn court of the Duke and his instructions about how Vienna is to be governed, then go straight to the sexual jokes of Lucio and his friends which indicate why Vienna needs more control.

Scenery

Because of the open nature of the stage, scenery was minimal or non-existent; there was nothing to stop the action being supposed to be inside a building one moment and outside the next. For example, in Act III sc i of Measure for Measure the Duke speaks to Isabella inside the prison, then the action changes to outside the prison where Elbow arrives with Pompey. In the first printed edition of the play (the Folio edition of 1623) there was no scene division indicated here, though modern editors usually designate the scene with Elbow and Pompey ‘Act III sc ii'.

Instead of scenery, the playwright indicates to the audience what they need to imagine:

  • In Measure for Measure the Duke announces (in Act II sc iii), ‘I come to visit the afflicted spirits / here in the prison'.
  • In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon's first line is ‘Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania' and she asks him, ‘How long within this wood intend you stay?' So the audience knows that the action is taking place in a wood, at night.

Shakespeare did not need prison bars or artificial trees and electric lighting to assist his audience's ‘willing suspension of disbelief'. (In A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare specifically makes us laugh at those who feel such artificial aids to imagination are necessary: it is the unintelligent mechanicals who ask how they are to reproduce moonlight and a wall in a play.)

Costumes

Costumes were neither elaborate nor historically accurate, as they usually are today.

More on costumes: This explains why, in Julius Caesar, although productions nowadays usually have actors in Roman togas, we have what seem to be anachronisms in Shakespeare's text: for example, in Act I sc ii Casca says,
‘You pulled me by the cloak' rather than ‘toga'.
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