Copyright
William John Lawrence.

The Elizabethan playhouse and other studies online

. (page 14 of 22)
Online LibraryWilliam John LawrenceThe Elizabethan playhouse and other studies → online text (page 14 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


lated. But by such a preposterous inversion of things, the very
intent of theatric representation is destroyed ; and the proposed
effect defeated, by thus detaching actors from the precincts of the
decoration, and dragging them forth from the scenes into the midst
of the parterre; which cannot be done by them without shewing
their sides, or turning their shoulders to a great part of the audience,

1 See my paper on "Proscenium Doors: an Elizabethan Heritage," in The
Elizabethan Playhouse and other Studies (First Series).

2 Colley Cibber, writing from the actor's standpoint, thought otherwise. See the
extract from his Apology, cited at pp. 165-6 of the First Series of these Studies.




■+

<



E-<



<

O



o

N



The Origin of the English Picture-Stage 147

besides many other inconveniencies ; so that was conceived would
prove a remedy, became a very great evil. 1

I have quoted Algarotti at some length because his
reflections tend to show that where the players or singers
of old, either for the purpose of being better heard or, in an
ill-lit theatre, of being better seen, confined their acting to
the forepart of the stage, the effect of the mounting must
have been decorative rather than realistic. 1 Since acting on
the Restoration Stage was still largely an art of rhetoric,
probably this was all that D'Avenant and Killigrew aimed
at. To admit this is to expose the fallaciousness of the
time-honoured contention that the introduction of scenery
spelled the downfall of poetic drama. Scholars have allowed
themselves to be deceived by a synchronization of events
in no wise inter-related. The truth is that the great seventh
wave of Elizabethan poetico-dramatic impulse had reached
high water mark considerably before the Civil War and the
disruption of the theatres. With Shirley, the tide had begun
to ebb.

1 Count Algarotti, An Essay on the Opera (London, 1767), pp. 96-7.

2 For ocular demonstration of this, see the accompanying plate of " Fitzgiggo : a
new English Uproar," taken from a rare broadside issued in connexion with a riot at
Covent Garden in 1763.



The Persistence of Elizabethan
Conventionalisms



The Persistence of Elizabethan
Conventionalisms

Unsatisfactory as must necessarily be all attempts at
terse generalization, one may venture the opinion that the
difference between the dramaturgy inspired by the platform-
stage and the dramaturgy inspired by the picture-stage is,
broadly speaking, the difference between the ill-made and
the well-made play. It was not until the oppressive luxuries
of scenery began to curb poetic imagination that the science
of dramatic construction came to be thoroughly considered.
In following this line of argument one champions the cause
of that " mechanical school of critics " which has been derided
for seeking in the physical conditions of the Elizabethan
playhouse some clue to the characteristics of Shakespeare
the dramatist. " For the reader who runs while he reads ",
we have been told, " it is a simple and obvious solution of
many difficulties ; as simple and obvious as would be the
explanation of the form of a snail by the shape of its shell." 1
Here the analogy is so absurd that it maybe readily confuted.
For example, dramatic climax as we now know it is mainly
the outcome of the tableau ending, just as the tableau ending
was itself due to the introduction and growing frequency
of employment 2 of the front curtain. Find a type of national
theatre with an unenclosed stage, and, whether it be in the
Athens of Sophocles' age or the London of Shakespeare's,
you may assume its drama to be essentially anti-climactic.
So far from ending abruptly on the topmost note of high
emotional stress, Elizabethan tragedy draws to a close in a
diminuendo of philosophic calm. In the absence of a front
curtain the dead bodies had to be borne off with solemn
dignity.

1 Edinburgh Review, Vol. ccvii, 1908, p. 4.21, article on "Mr. Hardy's Dynasts."

2 i.e., between the acts. It is doubtful whether the custom of the curtain falling
regularly between the acts came into vogue until the eighteenth century. This point
will be discussed later.



152 The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms

In the Pre-Restoration epoch, when the plastic platform-
stage set no limits to the dramatist's concepts and the public
brought to the theatre a ready, and, in a sense, trained
imagination, the dramatist was more concerned with poetry
than stage architectonics. Unhampered by accessories, he
was at liberty to construct his play much as he pleased,
without pausing to consider whether any particular act had
exceeded a maximum number of scenes, or troubling to see
that the act itself concluded with a well worked up picture-
poster situation. There was little symmetry of outline but
much beauty of ornament. Technically speaking, the play
was not so much the thing as the story : that had to be told
in full with all circumstantiality. Where the theme was
already popular there could be even some looking before
and after. The picture, not yet framed, ran off into space.
If an old wives' tale had to be told in terms of the theatre,
an old wife had to be introduced as if relating it. Whistler's
mot "why drag in Velasquez ?" might well be parodied by
the latter-day technique-ridden playwright in asking "why
drag in Christopher Sly ?" Certainly, to say the least, the
acting merits of The Taming of the Shrew are not improved
by his presence.

The transition from the ill-made play to the well-made
play, from the composite play of slow impulsion and abound-
ing anti-climax to the unified play of strictly sequential
interest and marked rhythmic progression, neither followed
quickly upon the advent of the picture-stage nor came at
long last with startling abruptness. So tardy and insensible
was the change that to indicate clearly how it was brought
about would demand an elaborate disquisition. To some
extent it will suffice now to say that opposing forces had to
fight out the battle. Scenery as it developed and became
systematized had the tendency, both by dint of its limitations
and its elaboration, to simplify the action. The whole trend
of technical progress was towards the firm establishment
of the principle of one act, one scene. For this reason,
the evolution of stage mounting ran counter to the preserva-
tion of all complexities pertaining to the nature of duality



The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms 153

of plot. But a predilection for Tragi-comedy, with its
alternations of laughter and tears, had almost become part
and parcel of the English playgoing temperament; with the
result that we find the genre pursuing as vigorous an exis-
tence in Dryden's later day as in Beaumont and Fletcher's
prime.

On the early picture-stage the persistence of the ill-made
play and of the conventions associated with it was due to
a variety of causes. The composite nature of this new
stage, with certain features permanent and traditional and
other features innovative, mobile, adaptive, lent itself
readily to this prolongation. Players, too, are notoriously
conservative, and one must recall that not only the old actors
but the new actresses had been trained in the platform-stage
routine. Moreover, for some years the old Elizabethan
drama continued to form the staple repertory of the theatres,
one material result of which was that the primitive scenic
system, instead of developing along its own plane, had to
conform to the necessities. Possibly for the reason that
the theatre was then closely associated with the Court, the
Restoration dramatist was more of the type of courtier-poet
than actor-playwright, and his interest lay anywhere but in
matters of technique. Except when French influence formed
a disturbing factor, he wrote. his play largely on the old
models, as if the plastic stage of yore was still in existence.
The use of scenery as a grateful but subsidiary adjunct he
did not understand. The question of stage mounting was
either considered by him not at all or much too curiously.
It was perhaps inevitable, although certainly unfortunate,
that scenery should have been looked upon in the beginning
simply as show, a pretty gewgaw to be exploited purely for
its own sake. The result was the upspringing of an abnormal
but happily short-lived type of play which masqueraded as
comedy, but was nothing better than an unmeaning hotch-
potch of pastoral, masque and opera. The exemplar was
The Slighted Maid of Robert Stapylton, originally produced
at the Duke's Theatre, Lincoln's Inn Fields, in February,
1662-3. As the novelty wore off these abuses corrected



1 54 The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms

themselves, but meanwhile a hankering had been created
for show which grew by what it fed on, and has never since
been wholly appeased. It is surprising to find that even
under these conditions of unstable equilibrium many of
the old platform-stage conventions still maintained their
sway in the theatre. The persistence of some of them has
already been demonstrated, 1 but several others demand full
consideration.

As the overture precedes the play, so we may begin
by discussing music and musicians. Revelation of an
interesting matter comes to us from Samuel de Sorbieres,
who visited London in 1663, and from Count Magalotti,
who came to England early in 1669 as one of the suite of
Cosmo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Both give some
account of the Restoration playhouses and agree on one
particular point. "The Musick with which you are enter-
tained," we learn from Sorbieres, " diverts your time till the
Play begins, and People chuse to go in betimes to hear it." 2
Writing of his experience six years later, Magolotti records,
"before the comedy begins, that the audience may not be
tired with waiting, the most delightful symphonies are
played ; on which account many persons come early to
enjoy this agreeable amusement." 3 There was, of course,
another reason why people should go betimes to the theatre,
besides the enjoyment to be obtained from listening to
beautiful music. This was the desire to secure good seats.
We must recall that in 1669 it was customary on the first
days of a new play to open the doors at noon, although the
performance never commenced before three 4 ; and as at
that period the custom of sending footmen to secure places
had not been introduced, playgoers had to go early and
take bodily possession of their seats. Probably on normal
occasions the doors were not opened quite so early, say

1 Sec the paper on "Proscenium Doors : an Elizabethan Heritage," in the First
Series of these Studies.

2 A Voyage to England (1709), p. 69.

3 Travels of Cosmo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, through England during the Reign of
Charles II, 1669 (London, 1821), p. 347.

4 See Pepys' Diary, 2 and 18 May, 1668, and 25 Feb., 1668-9. For tne hour of
commencing, see Lowe's Thomas Betterton, pp. 15-6.



The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms 155

about one o'clock. There are good reasons for believing
that this early opening and the long musical prelude were
inheritances from the old private theatres. When Philipp
Julius, Duke of Stetten-Pomerania, visited the Black-
friars in September, 1602, he found that "for a whole hour
preceding the play" a delightful musical entertainment was
given. 1 But before one can accept the Blackfriars practice
as the prototype of the Restoration custom another point
has to be determined. We know for certain that in the last
quarter of the seventeenth century the preliminary music
was divided into three parts, known distinctively as First,
Second and Third Music. 2 The Third Music was also
known as "the Curtain Tune", from the circumstance that
it heralded the rising of the curtain. 3 When we come to
seek indications of these three divisions in the old private
theatres all resources fail. True, we have Crites' simile, 4
"like an unperfect prologue at third music," but the refer-
ence seems rather to be to the third trumpet blast which
invariably heralded the Prologue's coming. ° One, indeed,
would be disposed to look upon the principle of the three
divisions as a Restoration innovation were it not for one
significant circumstance. Shirley's masque, Cupid and Death,
originally performed in 1653, was revived in 1659 at the
military grounds in Leicester Fields, when the music was
provided by Matthew Lock and Christopher Gibbons. The
overture was then arranged in three parts, the last called
"the Curtain aire". 6 The conclusion derivable from this
is that the principle of the three divisions was a convention
of early Italian opera, and was first adopted in England in
connexion with the Court Masques of, say, the early Caroline
period. Since the custom of giving a long musical prelude
had then been many years in vogue at the private theatres,
it is conceivable that about 1630 the principle of the three

1 Cf. C.W.Wallace, The Children of the Chapel at Blackfriars, 1597— 1603, pp. 105-7.

2 Cf. The Elizabethan Playhouse and other Studies (First Series), pp. 197 and 198 2 .

3 Thus in the play-house scene in Shadwell's A True Widoiv (1679), we have the
direction, "They play the curtain-tune, then all take their places." In most copies
this is mis-printed "curtain-time". 4 Cynthia's Revels (Blackfriars, 1600), iii. 2.

5 Note that in Ben Jonson's plays the Induction begins after the second sounding
and the Prologue enters after the third. 6 Oxford History of Music, Vol. iii. 213-4.



156 The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms

divisions was applied to it. As there was no front curtain
in the platform-stage theatres, "the Curtain Tune" would
then be known as "Third Music". Note that whereas the
term " Curtain Tune" disappeared at the close of the seven-
teenth century, the term " Third Music " lasted for close on
another hundred years. If we cannot concede a private-
theatre archetype for the three divisions we are compelled
to fall back on the theory that the principle was derived
from the later Caroline masques and first introduced into
the theatres in the D'Avenant operas. That the masque had
some influence of the sort is shown by the survival of the
term " Curtain Tune." But why should there have been an
alternative and more popularly accepted phrase ? Restoration
opera had marked conventions of its own, such, for example,
as the secondary, emblematic proscenium, 1 and a regular
operatic custom does not necessarily become a normal
theatre-custom.

Something remains to be said as to the remarkable
longevity of the system of First, Second and Third Music.
Our first definite trace of it in the English theatre occurs in

1 674, when Lock wrote the preliminary and interact music
for Shadwell's opera of The Tempest. This was published in

1675, together with Lock's music for Psyche. The First
Music consisted of an Introduction, followed by a Galliard
and a Gavotte ; the Second Music of a Saraband and a Lilk;
and the Curtain Tune (which was really the overture),
of descriptive music indicating a storm. Obviously, on
ordinary dramatic occasions, the Third Music would seldom
be so closely related to what was to follow. Here we have
indicated a distinction of method.

The custom soon passed over to Dublin, where we find
it flourishing in the middle of the eighteenth century. On
3 October, 1748, when the Smock Alley Theatre opened
for the winter season with As Ton Like It y it was advertised
that the First Music would play at 5.30 p.m. ; the Second
at six o'clock ; and the Third at half-past six ; after which
the curtain was to rise. When Coriolanus was given at the

1 For which see the First Series of these Studies, p. 198.



The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms 157

same house on 7 May, 1752, the advertisement concluded
with : "N.B. By command the Play will not begin till half
an hour after seven, the first Musick at half an hour after
six." Meanwhile the custom still remained in vogue in
London, where it would appear that at Drury Lane, about
1740, the Second Music was generally the best selection.
Adroit people could hear this gratis, as money was returned
to those who went out immediately before the rising of the
curtain. l In an account given of the riot at Garrick's theatre
on 25 January, 1763, over the question of Half Price we
read that "at night, when the third musick began at Drury
Lane, the audience insisted on Britons strike Home and The
Roast Beef of Old England, which were played accordingly." 2
After which the row started. I have cited this passage
mainly to draw attention to the recognized custom of calling
for tunes, about which something will shortly be said. In
concluding my brief history of the rise and progress of the
First, Second and Third Musick, it may be pointed out that
the practice was maintained at least until the dawn of the
nineteenth century. At that period English opera continued
to be written with the tripartite prelude. 3 In 1784 Drury
Lane opened its doors at a quarter past five, exactly an hour
before the performance. The longevity of First, Second
and Third Music is indicated in some lines written by John
O'Keeffe, the dramatist, to Wilde, the Covent Garden
prompter, about 1798 : —

Thro' dressing rooms is heard the warning call,
"First music, gentlemen ; first music, ladies";
"Third music !" that's the notice to appal. 4

In the majority of cases the old conventionalisms that
survived were conventionalisms associated with the later
private theatres, not those distinctively of the public thea-
tres, although a few carried over were common to both.
Our only trace of the custom of calling for tunes in Pre-

1 Vide ante p. no, extract from Theophilus Cibber.

2 Gent's Magazine (1763), p. 32.

3 I have in my possession a copy of Shields' overture to the Covent Garden opera
of Rosina (1783), as reprinted at Dublin by Hime, circa 1790. It is arranged in three
movements with changes of tempo. 4 0'K.eeffe's Recollections, ii. 422, app.



158 The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms

Restoration times is at the Blackfriars in 1634. 1 No clue
to the continuance of this free and easy habit presents itself
in the latter half of the century, but later evidence clearly
shows that it must have been practised at that period. In a
satire on the fops of the time and their conduct in the theatre,
written as if by one of the brotherhood, and published in
The Universal Spectator of 1 1 June, 1 743/ the writer boasts
of being the first to call for "The Black Joke," and glories
in the fact that the musicians were compelled to come out
and play it. Many absurd concessions had to be made in
those days for the sake of peace and quiet. This especially
applies to Ireland, where the recognized custom of calling for
tunes frequently occasioned riot and disorder through the
demand for party tunes. In January, 1 806, Thos. Ludford
Bellamy, the new Belfast manager, found it requisite to
advertise that C£ to prevent any unpleasant consequences
which may arise from Airs being called for not advertised
in the Bills, Mr. Bellamy deems it necessary to inform the
Public that God Save the King will be performed by the Band
at the end of the fourth act of the Play, Patrick's Day prior
to the farce, and Rule Brittania between the 1 stand 2nd Acts,
and on no account whatever will they be played at any other
period of the evening." In Dublin relics of the custom
lingered for another forty years. 3 But for the firmness
of Calcraft, the Hawkins Street lessee, at one particular
crisis, it might still be pursuing a vigorous existence there.
Eighteenth-century emigrants had carried the seeds of the
custom to America, where they found congenial soil and
germinated with rapidity. Writing of the New York Theatre
in 1803, Washington Irving, under the pen-name of
Jonathan Oldstyle, says :

I observed that every part of the house has its different depart-
ment. The good folks of the gallery have all the trouble of ordering
the music (their directions, however, are not more frequently
followed than they deserve). The mode by which they issue their

1 See the First Series of these Studies, p. 88, under " Whitelocke's Coranto."

2 Reprinted in part in The London Magazine (1743), p- 296.

3 Cf. Dublin University Magazine, Vol. lxxiii, 1869, p. 441, J. W. Calcraft's
unsigned article on "The Theatre Royal, Dublin, from 1845 to 185 1."



The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms 159

mandates is stamping, hissing, roaring, whistling, and, when the
musicians are refractory, groaning in cadence. They also have the
privilege of demanding a bow from John (by which name they
designate every servant at the theatre who enters to move a table
or snuff a candle) ; and of detecting those cunning dogs who peep
from behind the curtain. x

One marked difference between the theatrical routine of
the seventeenth century and the routine of to-day is due to
specialization of function. The vocations of player and
musician are no longer confused. Nowadays, when a song
in a play has to be accompanied or incidental music rendered,
the musicians fulfil their duties in the orchestra. Far other-
wise, and better, was the Elizabethan custom. In Shake-
speare's time, when songs 2 were rendered on the outer stage,
or dances 3 given, the musicians usually came on to play.
In most cases they were integral factors of the scene, and
generally spoke a few words in character during the action. 4
On the other hand, where languishing, music was utilized
to heighten the emotional stress of a scene, the effect was
usually accentuated by not making its source apparent. 5

This confusion of the vocations of player and musician,
or, in other words, the remarkable frequency with which
the musicians, both in their own character and as ordinary
supernumeraries, 6 were pressed into the service of the scene,
was largely due to the circumstance that the music room
was in stage regions and of ready access. This being so,
one would naturally expect to find that all the musicaland
other conventions to which the arrangement gave rise
would disappear when the platform-stage was superseded.
Whether their normal position in the early picture-stage

1 Cited in Dunlap's History of the American Theatre (1833), ii. 176.

2 Cymbeline, ii. 2; John a Kent and John a Cumber (1595), where Shrimp sings;
The Duke of Milan, ii. 1.

3 Orlando Furioso (1593), Dance of Satyrs ; Lust's Dominion, iii. 2 ; Love's Labour's
Lost, v. 2 ; Hyde Park, iv. 3. Sometimes singers and dancers were their own accom-
panyists, as in Timon of Athens, Act i ; The Tempest, iii. 2 ; Midas, iv. 1 ; and The
Poetaster, iv. 2.

4 Romeo and Juliet, iv. 5 ; Every Ma r n out of bis Humour, iv. I ; Northward Ho !
iv. 3 ; Westward Ho ! v. 3 ; Othello, iii. 1.

5 Alphonsus,KingofArragon, iii. 2 ; Antony and Cleopatra, iv. 2 (" Musicke of the
Hoboyes as under the Stage ") ; The Ttvo Noble Kinsmen, v. i ; The Lady of Pleasure, iv. I.

6 Cf. The Elizabethan Playhouse and other Studies (First Series), p. 90.



1 60 The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms

theatres was in a music loft above the proscenium or in an
enclosure in front of the stage, 1 the musicians were equally-
remote from the players. Strange to say, however, this
material change caused no serious interruption of the old
conventions. The music loft and the orchestra were simply
used during the playing of the preliminary music and of
the inter-act tunes. One refers here, of course, to ordinary
performances, not to those special occasions when opera was
given.

Abundant textual evidence exists to show that from the
earliest days of the picture-stage until at least the opening
years of the eighteenth century, the musicians continued
to come on the stage when incidental song and dance
were given, and sometimes to lend illusion to the scene by
forwarding the action. We have an example of the fulfil-
ment of this latter duty in Dryden's An Evenings Love; or
The Mock Astrologer, as produced at the Theatre Royal on
18 June, 1668. In the serenade scene in Act ii, Scene 1,
the musicians accompanying the rival lovers engage in
the quarrel of their employers and fall to fisticuffs. In
Otway 's Friendship in Fashion, originally performed at Dorset
Gardens in 1677, the fiddlers are constant in their attend-
ance on Lady Squeamish and her rabble rout. In Lord
Lansdowne's The She Gallants, as produced in Lincoln's
Inn Fields late in 1695, the musicians come on in Act iv,
Scene 1 , to accompany the song, "While Phillis is drinking",
and at the close of the scene, when all are about to depart
to a tavern, they strike up and march off playing. In the


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryWilliam John LawrenceThe Elizabethan playhouse and other studies → online text (page 14 of 22)