Copyright
William John Lawrence.

The Elizabethan playhouse and other studies online

. (page 13 of 22)
Online LibraryWilliam John LawrenceThe Elizabethan playhouse and other studies → online text (page 13 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


of the Spaniards in Peru 1 applies to the History of Sir Francis
Drake, as first given. One cannot be positive, however, that
the wings were again stationary, although, as all the scenes
were exteriors, mostly prospects of cities, permanent tree
wings would have harmonized with one and all. The
back scenes were again elaborately panoramic, with views
of people, ships, mules coming down mountain passes and
what not. 2 They were evidently flats, not drops, for in the
middle of the fifth entry the scene "opened" and revealed
"a beautiful Lady ty'd to a tree," doubtless a painting on
another flat scene.

In connexion with these Cockpit performances one other
point remains to be noted. In his memoir of D'Avenant,
Aubrey writes :

Being freed from imprisonment, because plays (scil. trage, and
comedies) were in those presbyterian times scandalous, he contrives
to set up an opera stylo recitativo ; wherein Sergeant Maynard and'
several citizens were engagers; it began at Rutland House in
Charter House-yard ; next (scilicet anno . . . ) at the Cock Pitt
in Drury Lane, where were acted very well, stylo recitativo, Sir

1 Appended to the quarto of 1658 is the note, " Notwithstanding the great expense
necessary to Scenes and other ornaments in this Entertainment, there is good provision
made of places for a shilling."

2 This type of scene persisted for some little time on the early picture-stage. In
Settle's Empress of Morocco (1673), at tne beginning of Act ii. we read, "The scene
opened is represented the prospect of a large river with a glorious fleet of ships, supposed
to be the navy of Muly Hamet." See also the plate illustrating this scene in the original
quarto (reproduced in CasseWs Library of English Literature, Vol. iii. " Plays," p. 327).



The Origin of the English Picture-Stage 137

Francis Drake's . . . and The Siege of Rhodes (1st and 2nd Part).
It did effect the eie and eare extremely. This brought scenes in
fashion in England; before at plays was only an hanging. 1

Aubrey, who wrote circa 1680, frequently forgot names,
dates and other necessary facts, and so was compelled by
his indifferent memory, in Sterne's phrase, to hang out
lights : hence the breaks in the above passage. Under the
circumstances it is difficult to know how much reliance to
place on his statements. But it is noteworthy that he speaks
here of the Second Part of The Siege of Rhodes as having
been produced at the Cockpit at this time. Hitherto it has
been understood that the Second Part was not produced
until shortly after the expanded First Part was revived
at the Duke's Theatre in 1661, a belief strengthened by
the fact that the earliest issue of the Second Part is dated
1663. But it seems highly probable that the first draft
of the Second Part was produced at the Cockpit in 1659,
seeing that the First Part had been revived there, and
that three operas (all we know of definitely) were scarcely
enough to keep the theatre going from December until
May.

When the King came to his own, exactly a year after the
close of D'Avenant's Cockpit venture, the long silenced
players were too eager to begin acting to trouble much about
the trappings of the stage. The first marked innovation was
not the permanent adoption of scenery but the employment
of actresses. One cannot say exactly when the first English
actress appeared. It may be that Jordan's prologue, intro-
ducing her as Desdemona, was spoken at Vere Street on
8 December, 1660, when Othello was certainly acted there.
But we have really no definite foothold until we read in
Pepys' Diary of the performance of The Beggar s Bush at
the same theatre on 3 January following : "it being very
well done, and was the first time that 1 ever saw women
come upon the stage." 2 It was not until almost six months
later that scenery began to be regularly — but not even

1 Aubrey's Brief Lives (edited by Andrew Clark, 1898), i. 208.

2 Cf. Dutton Cook, A Book of the Play, Chap, xvi, "Her First Appearance."






138 The Origin of the English Picture-Stage

then universally — employed. Consequently, the story of
the Restoration stage in the first twelve months of its
record forms the closing chapter in the history of the old
platform-stage.

Such were the laxities of the times, and so eager were
the players to renew activities that they did not even trouble
in the beginning to get the necessary permission from the
King or The Master of the Revels. Three of the old
dismantled playhouses, The Red Bull, the Cockpit and
Salisbury Court were hastily fitted up, and acting was
resumed on the old, old lines. The story of the period is a
very tangled skein, but an accurate summary of the main
evolution of things is given in Wright's Historia Histrionica
(1699), where Lovewit says :

Yes ; presently after the restoration, the King's players acted
publickly at the Red Bull for some time, and then removed to a
new built playhouse in Vere Street, by Clare Market. There they
continued for a year or two, and then removed to the Theatre Royal
in Drury Lane, where they first made use of scenes, which had been
a little before introduced upon the publick stage by Sir William
D'Avenant, at the duke's old theatre in Lincoln's-inn-fields, but
afterwards very much improved, with the addition of curious
machines by Mr. Betterton at the New Theatre in Dorset Garden,
to the great expense and continual charge of the players.

Let it here be said with emphasis (for, thanks to the
muddling of our historians, much confusion exists on the
question of the introduction of scenery), that not the
slip-htest flaw or defect is to be found after the minutest
examination in the above statement. The picture-stage era
undoubtedly began with the opening of the new Duke's
Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fie" is late in June, 1661, when
The Siege of Rhodes was revived 1 Before that neither scenery
nor opera had been seen upon the Restoration stage.

In connexion with that statement 1 anticipate being asked
a somewhat ugly question. On or about 8 November, 1660,

1 For the date, see Robert W. Lowe, Tbomas Betterton, pp. 83-4. What a pity it
is it can only be approximated ! The event was truly epoch-marking, more especially
as, according to Uownes, the opening day was the first occasion on which Charles II
visited a public theatre.



The Origin of the English Picture-Stage 139

the King's players removed from the old Red Bull, where
they had been acting for at least three or four months, to
a new playhouse constructed in Gibbons' tennis-court in
Vere Street, near Lincoln's Inn Fields. Pepys, who visited
the new house on 20 November to see Beggar s Bush, was
highly taken with the acting, and adds, "indeed it is the
finest playhouse, I believe, that ever was in England." Now,
the question I anticipate is, why did Killigrew fit up this new
theatre and remove the King's players there unless it was to
have the advantages of scenery? The only answer 1 can give,
lame enough in all conscience, is that Clerkenwell was some-
what out of the way, and that a more central position was
desirable. Remark that when D'Avenant built the Duke's
he built it in the same locality.

If one cannot be exactly sure what was Killigrew's aim in
removing, one is at least able to say positively that from first
to last scenery was never used at Vere Street. Apart from
Wright's precise statement this can be shown by more closely
related evidence. Let us look, for example, at Dryden's first
play, The Wild Gallant^ which was originally produced at
Vere Street on 5 February, 1 662-3. * The P^ a 7 was .not
printed until 1 669, some two years after its revival in altered
form, and with a new prologue, at Drury Lane ; but even at
this date it presents a sufficiency of evidence to show that its
original production took place in a theatre of the platform-
stage order. In the earlier prologue the speaker enters and
tells the audience the poet had bidden him go and consult
the astrologers as to the probable luck of his play. Then
we have the direction, "The Curtain drawn discovers two
Astrologers; the Prologue is presented to them." A brief
conversation between the three follows, in which the astro-
logers shirk the issue, and the Prologue, having finally
addressed the house, bespeaking its good will, the play
begins. Now, whereas this prologue is not at all of the
Restoration picture-stage class, it is somewhat in the old
platform-stage manner, and practically implies the use of
the traverses and rear-stage. If we seek for precedent we

1 Cf. Evelyn's Diary under that date, and Pepys under 23 February, 1663.



140 The Origin of the English Picture-Stage

shall find it in Doctor Faustus and The Merry Devill of
Edmonton. In the former, Chorus delivers the prologue,
and on coming to the words, "and this the man that in his
study sits," rapidly draws the traverses. In the latter, the
Prologue pulls aside the curtains and reveals Faber.

As there are indications of changes of scenery in The Wild
Gallant quarto of 1669, the text undoubtedly represents the
revised and altered play as acted at Drury Lane. But it
presents at least two indications of the nature of the stage
on which it was originally acted. In Elizabethan days it
was customary for eavesdroppers to enter, not by the usual
doors, but on to the rear-stage, where they peeped through
the curtains, taking care to show themselves to the audience.
But they did not formally "enter" until they came forward. 1
This is exactly paralleled in Act iv, Scene 1, of Dryden's
play. The scene is a room, "a table set, with Cards upon
it." Trice, all alone, proceeds to play an imaginary game of
Piquet with Loveby — and loses money to him. While he is
so engaged, " enter Loveby behind." He listens, and when
Trice whimsically begins to abuse him for winning his
money, comes forward. The direction is, "Loveby enters."
Now, although the conventionalism of entering behind to
listen was followed on the early picture-stage, 2 the character
on that stage only made one formal "entry", as there were
no traverses to hide behind. He simply stood at the back.
The other characters had entered through the proscenium
doors and stood on the apron well to the front.

It seems to me, furthermore, that the following colloquy
in the fourth act owed its origin to the fact that the Vere
Street theatre stage, like all the platform-stages, was adorned
with tapestries.

Enter Constance, as with Child.

Nonsuch. Now Gentlewoman! is this possible?
Const. I do not reach your Meaning, Sir.

1 For examples see A Midsummer Night's Dream, Q i and 2, Act iv. I, where
Oberon listens ; Cymbeline, Act v ; The Fatal Dowry, iii. i ; The Dutchess of Malf,
iii. 2. Cf. The Elizabethan Playhouse and other Studies (First Series), pp. 17 1-2.

2 See The Squire of Alsatia, iii, "Enter Ruth behind them" 5 All for Love, iv. 1 ;
The Country Wit, ii. 1.







SCENE IN THE OPERA OF ARIANE AT THE THEATRE ROYAL

BRIDGES STREET, 16-4. v Tn '/• „

/n 1 1. ■ . l-loface p. 140.

(Prologue, showing view of the Thames at back).






The Origin of the English Picture-Stage 141

Non. Where have you been of late ?

Const. I seldom stir without you, Sir ; These Walls most com-
monly confine me.

Non. These Walls can get no Children; nor these Hangings;
though there be Men wrought in 'em.

Isa. Yet by your Favour, Nuncle, Children may be wrought
behind the Hangings.

Pepys records many visits to Vere Street from its opening
to its close, but in none of his entries does he make any
mention of scenery. If he had seen plays mounted there
in the new fashion, why should he have jotted down on
7 May, 1663, when the Vere Street company opened at
Drury Lane, "this day the new Theatre Royal begins to
act with scenes, The Humourous Lieutenant, but I have
not time to see it." There can only be one meaning to
that sentence, and that Wright has already yielded us.

Outside Italy the science of theatre-building at this period
was ill-considered. In England the logical progression
shouldjiavebeen^from the hexagon or circle of the Eliza-
bethan pubTictEeatres to the semi-circle, or horse-shoe shape,
of the picture-stage. Unfortunately, when the first Restora-
tion theatres came to be built, French example intervened.
In Paris, from 1 620 onwards, most of the troupes had been
installed in playhouses fitted up in tennis-courts. 1 This was
false economy, for a long narrow building such as a tennis-
court was ill-adapted, in point of both sight and hearing, for
dramatic performances. At the Restoration the English idea
was to unite the principle of the French tennis-court play-
house to the seating disposition of the old private theatres,
an unhappy amalgam. Whereas the existing French theatres
had, and (with one exception) long continued to have, a
standing pit, the Restoration pit was seated. French travel-
lers, such as Sorbieres 2 and Balthasar de Monconys, who
both visited London in 1 663, emphasize this fact. In a note
on Drury Lane, made on 22 May, 1663, shortly after its
first opening, Monconys writes, " Tous les bancs du parterre

1 For full details see Germain Bapst, Essai sur UHistoire du Theatre, pp. 167-71.
See also p. 183 for view of the theatre du Marais.

2 Relation d'un voyage en Angleterre^ etc. (1664), p. 166.



142 The Origin of the English Picture-Stage

ou toutes les personnes de condition se mettent aussi, sont
rangez en amphitheatre, les uns plus hauts que les autres." l
Thus in France the pit was the worst part of the house, in
England the best. Thirty-five years later Misson records :

There are two theatres at London 2 one large and handsome,
where they sometimes act operas, and sometimes Plays : the other
something smaller, which is only for plays. The Pit is an
Amphitheatre fill'd with Benches without Back-boards, and
adorn'd and covered with green cloth. Men of quality, particularly
the younger sort, some Ladies of Reputation and Virtue, and
abundance of Damsels that hunt for Prey, sit all together in this
Place, Higgledy-piggledy, chatter, toy, play, hear, hear not ; farther
up, against the wall, under the first Gallery, and just opposite to
the stage, rises another Amphitheatre, which is taken up by persons
of the best Quality, among whom are generally very few men.
The Galleries, whereof there only two Rows, are fill'd with none
but ordinary people, particularly the upper one. 3

The earliest and, for long, sole exception in France to
the principle of the standing pit occurred in the first Paris
Opera-house, as constructed in a tennis-court in the rue de
Vaugirard in 1 67 1 . Seeing that this house had a seated pit,
arranged amphitheatrically, one is inclined to think that a
hint had been taken from the Restoration theatres. 4

In the later private theatres of the platform-stage type
the amphitheatrical pit was a logical development from
the unseated yard of the public theatres. We who are
accustomed to a pit extending beneath the dress circle must
bear in mind that in the Elizabethan public theatres the yard
was strictly circumscribed in its limits by the lowermost
gallery. This can be clearly deduced from the Fortune

1 Journal des Voyages de Monsieur de Monconys (Lyon, 1666), Pt. ii. p. 25.

2 The Queen's (formerly the Duke's in Dorset Gardens) and Drury Lane. The
Queen's was the operatic house.

3 Misson, Memoires et observations faites par un voyageur en Angleterre, The Hague,
1698 (cited from English translation of 1719). I drag in this interesting quotation,
tji et armisy because the reference to the benches of the pit being covered with green
cloth proves my contention in The Elizabethan Playhouse and other Studies (First Series),
p. 188, a contention which has been vigorously disputed by Mr. Hamilton Bell in his
thoughtful article on "The Playhouse in the days of Shakespeare and Elizabeth," in
The Ne-zv Tork Times, of 1 3 October, 191 2.

4 For details, plans, etc., see Ch. Nuitter et E. Thoinan, Les Origines de L'Ope'ra
Francais } Chap, vi, passim.



7 he Origin of the English Picture-Stage 143

building contract and the Dutch sketch of the Swan. At the
Fortune the stage was "to be paled in belowe with good
stronge and sufficyent newe oken boardes, and likewise the
lower storie of the said frame withinside, and the same
lower storie to be alsoe laide over and fenced with strong;
yron pykes.

Cockpits were usually arranged amphitheatrically, and the
first amphitheatrical pit may have come in with the trans-
formation of the Cockpit in Drury Lane into a playhouse.
We seem to have some evidence of the disposition in the
direction on Shirley's masque. The, Triumph of Peace, "The
scene is changed and the Masquers appear sitting on the
ascent of a hill, cut out like the degrees of a theatre." All
we know definitely, however, is that the amphitheatrical pit
existed at the Restoration. One result of the arrangement

o

was that the last row of the gradually ascending pit was only
a few feet below the ledge of the boxes. This explains what
to the latter-day mind proves a puzzling passage in Dennis's
account of Wycherley's intrigue with the Duchess of Cleve-
land. " She was that Night," he writes, "in the first Row of
the King's Box in Drury Lane, and Mr Wycherley in the
Pit under her, where he entertain'd her during the whole
Play." 1 It also explains that announcement so frequently
made in connexion with benefit nights in the eighteenth
century, when admission to the pit was charged at box rates,
"Pit and Boxes laid together." 2 All these matters will be
the more readily comprehended after a careful scrutiny of
the accompanying view of the interior of the old Hay-
market, originally published in Gilliland's Dramatic Mirror
in 1808.

If the physical limitations of the Vere Street theatre
formed the only reason for Killigrew's non-employment

1 This means that Wycherley was in the back row of the pit, for the King's Box
(following the continental method) was then in the middle of the first circle. Cf. Genest,
Some Account of the English Stage, i. 473.

2 Lowe {Thomas Better ton, p. 34) appositely cites a passage from one of Congreve's
letters describing a fashionable gathering at the Queen's in Dorset Gardens : — "The
boxes and pit were all thrown into one, so that all sat in common ; and the whole was
crammed with beauties and beaux." Are we to assurjje from this that on such occasions
all barriers were removed ?



144 ^e Origin of the English Picture-Stage

of scenery before the opening of Drury Lane, it is curious
that D'Avenant when he came to create the English picture-
stage should have pitched on another tennis-court, 1 not a
hundred yards away, wherein to build his theatre. But it
may be that lack of means compelled him to content himself
with a ready-made shell, despite its inconveniences ; and one
indeed finds a half hint to that effect in his prologue to the
Second Part of Tbe Siege of Rhodes, as spoken at the new
theatre shortly after its opening : 2

But many trav'lers here as Judges come,
From Paris, Florence, Venice, and from Rome,
Who will describe, when any scene we draw,
By each of ours, all that they ever saw.
Those praising for extensive breadth and height,
And inward distance to deceive the sight.
When greater objects, moving in broad space,
You rank with lesser, in this narrow place,
Then we like Chessmen on a Chess-board are,
And seem to play like Pawns the Rhodian Warr.
Oh money ! money ! If the Wits would dress,
With ornaments, the present face of Peace ;
And to our Poet half that treasure spare,
Which Faction gets from Fools to nourish war;
Then his contracted Scenes should wider be,
And move by greater Engines, till you see
(Whilst you securely sit) fierce armies meet,
And raging Seas disperse a fighting Fleet.

Pepys, like a child with a new toy, was all excitement
over D'Avenant's innovation, and of The Wits, the first
play to be adorned with scenery on the public stage, had
perforce to record, "and indeed it is a most excellent play
and admirable scenes." Of Hamlet, the first Shakespearean

1 Lisle's, extending from the back of Portugal Row, on the south side of Lincoln's
Inn Fields, to Portugal Street. When the house was abandoned by the players in 1674
it was, on Aubrey's showing, reconverted into a tennis court. Betterton and his fellows
turned it again into an indifferent playhouse in 1695, but were glad to leave it in 1705.
Subsequently it was rebuilt by Rich, and opened in 17 14. Cf. Lowe's Thomas Betterton^
p. 148.

2 Vide ante p. 137. If an earlier performance of the Second Part could be established,
this ascription might reasonably be disputed.



The Origin of the English Picture-Stage 145

play to be given on the picture-stage, his opinion was, "done
with scenes very well." But all was not well with the new
theatre, and two months later, on 21 October, 1661, we
find him writing: :

To the Opera, which is now newly begun to act again, after
some alteration of their scene, which do make it very much worse ;
but the play Love and Honour, being the first time of their acting
it is a very good plot, and well done.

Doubtless Drury Lane (otherwise the Theatre Royal,
Bridges Street) was a considerable improvement on the
Duke's, more particularly as it was a specially built theatre,
not simply a theatre rigged up in a tennis-court. Monconys,
who visited it on 22 May, 1663, shortly after its opening,
recorded, "les changemens de Theatre et les machines sont
fort ingenieusement inventees et executees." But for the
matter of that, he was equally well pleased with the scenic
effects at the Duke's, " ou les changemens de scene me
plurent beaucoup." Considering that the initial advan-
tages lay with Drury Lane, it was not so superior as might
have been expected. During the period in 1665-6 when
the theatres were closed through the Plague, occasion was
taken to make material alteration of that house. On 1 9
March, 1 665-6, Pepys records, "after dinner we walked to
the King's playhouse, all in dirt, they being altering of the
stage to make it wider. But God knows when they will
begin to act again." It was really not until the opening of the
Duke's Theatre in Dorset Gardens in 1671 that England
could be said to possess an adequate house of the new order,
one in which both actor and machinist had elbow-room. In
the second Duke's D'Avenant made amends for the short-
comings of the first, although he did not live to see it
launched into success.

The English picture-stage of the seventeenth and eigh-
teenth centuries owed its distinctiveness to the concessions
which had to be made in the beginning to the usages and
prejudices of players habituated to the methods of the
platform-stage. As created by D'Avenant it was a happy
amalgam of the prime characteristics of the platform-stage

L



146 The Origin of the English 'Picture-Stage

and the masque-stage of the Caroline period. Permanent
entering doors and balconies the players still required to
have, but as the tiring-house disappeared with the introduc-
tion of scenery, the doors and balconies had to be brought
to the front and placed on either side of the proscenium
arch. 1 The apron, so long a characteristic of our theatres,
was apparently born of the physical limitations of the
Duke's Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields. In a long, narrow
house, where many of the audience were situated remote
from the players, it was necessary that the stage should jut
out as far as possible, so that the players might come well
to the front to make themselves heard. At a slightly later
period a similar apron had to be introduced into the Italian
opera houses for an almost identical reason. On the subject
Algarotti writes :

As most people are captivated with what appears grand and
magnificent, some were induced to resolve on having a theatre
built of an excessive extent, and out of all reason, where, however,
they should hear commodiously ; which to effect, they made the
stage whereon the actors perform, to be advanced into the parterre
several feet ; by that expedient, the actors were brought forward
into the middle of the audience, and there was no danger then of
their not being heard. But such a contrivance can only please
those, who are very easily to be satisfied. For who that reflects, does
not see that such a proceeding is subversive of all good order and
prudent regulation? 2

The actors, instead of being so brought forward, ought to be
thrown back at a certain distance from the spectator's eye, and
stand within the scenery of the stage, in order to make a part of
that pleasing illusion for which all dramatic exhibitions are calcu-


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryWilliam John LawrenceThe Elizabethan playhouse and other studies → online text (page 13 of 22)