Design of theatres

Purpose-built theatres

Actors sometimes performed inside large houses or palaces by daylight or candlelight, but the first permanent theatres in London were open to the sky.

More on theatre construction: We do not know all the details about their construction, though the reconstructed Globe built in the twentieth century is based on much research and is accurate enough to give us a good idea — as is a drawing made by the Dutchman Johannes de Witt, in 1596, of The Swan theatre.

The Globe: the ‘Wooden O'

The New Globe TheatreThe 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 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 action

  • The main stage was a platform which projected 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. 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, like the devils in Doctor Faustus
  • At the back of the stage was a balcony. This was sometimes referred to as the ‘upper stage': this might be used in Doctor Faustus for the appearances of the good and evil angels
  • Between the doors was an alcove known as the ‘inner stage' which would be curtained off but where actors could be dramatically revealed.

The flow of the drama

Photo by Tohma available through Creative CommonsActors 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.

Doctor Faustus offers opportunities to exploit the possibilities of this uninterrupted flow of actors to use juxtaposition — that is, the setting side-by-side of scenes suggesting very different moods —for effective contrast. For example, in the B-text the rapid succession of scenes would require actors to come and go quite quickly. The two doors, or possibly a balcony above, would be suitable for scenes in which the Good and Bad Angels appear.

Women barred from the stage

In Marlowe's day, women were not allowed to act on the stage in England. All the female roles in Marlowe were played by adolescent boys whose voices had not broken — including such famous romantic roles as Helen of Troy. This situation did not change until after the Restoration in 1660 of Charles II, who had spent many years in France where theatrical conventions were different and women were accepted as actors.

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