William John Lawrence.

The Elizabethan playhouse and other studies online

. (page 16 of 22)
Online LibraryWilliam John LawrenceThe Elizabethan playhouse and other studies → online text (page 16 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Common Council-man and his spouse.

On the early Elizabethan stage a curious convention
held sway, born of the employment of the multiple scene 1
in the Mysteries 2 and Moralities, as well as in the later
performances of plays at Court. Journeys both long and
short were performed in full sight of the audience. This
explains the direction in Romeo and Juliet, i. 5 (Quarto 1),
so often misconstrued, "they march about the stage, and
servingmen come forth with their napkins." Precisely what
this signifies will be the more readily grasped by considering
the analogous direction in The Famous Historie of Sir Thomas
Wyat, " A Dead March, and pass round the stage and Guild-
ford speaks." Here the journey from Sion House to the
Tower was visually accomplished by a mere circling round
the stage. Out of this convention arose the correlated
practice of changing the place of action while the characters
remained, and that without any symbolic action indicative of
ajourney. To the modern reader unversed in old methods
there are some bewildering transferences of this order in
Arden of Fever sham, Act i, where the scene shifts abruptly
from a room in Arden's House to the exterior, with ajourney
performed to the painter's house, and all without break. 3
Sometimes by the mere drawing of a curtain the characters
were transferred from the outside of a house to the inside,
or from one room to another. 4

Although these conventions were best observed in the
days when the principle of the multiple scene flourished at
Court, or up to the meridian of Shakespeare's career, traces of
their persistence are to be found even in the Caroline period,
when improved methods of technique were struggling for
the mastery. For example, the more illusive method of

1 Cf. The Elizabethan Playhouse and other Studies (First Series), pp. 127, and 237-43.

2 E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, ii. 134 5 C F. Tucker Brooke, The Tudor
Drama, pp. 21-3, Mystery of Abraham and Isaac, circa 1458 (for text of which see Anglia,
xxi, 1S99, pp. 21-55).

3 Cf. The Tivo Angry Women of Abington (1599), Act i. Also Edward II, v. 5,
for a sudden transition, which, by the way, proved very puzzling to the audience when
Marlowe's play was revived at Oxford in August, 1903.

4 Middleton's A Mad World, My Masters, ii. 7 ; The Tempest, v. I.

172 The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms

effecting a change of scene had been practised in The Faith-
ful Friends (ascribed, no doubt wrongly, to Beaumont and
Fletcher). 1 In Act iv, after the banquet and masque,
Rufinus says, "Away, before them, lead to the chamber
called Elysium." Tullius, Philadelphia and Rufinus exeunt,
a rich bed is thrust out, and they enter again, Tullius saying,
"this is the lodging called Elysium." On the other hand,
in a considerably later Blackfriars play, The Goblins, rever-
sion is made to the primitive system. Although the break
is well led up to in the fifth act of Suckling's tragi-comedy,
the change of scene to Sabrina's chamber is made while the
characters remain.

One sturdy convention of Elizabethan dramaturgy was
fated to pass away with the rise of the picture-stage — the
convention of the unlocated scene. 2 Vagueness of back-
ground was no longer possible once the principle of succes-
sive scenery was adopted. The unlocated scene owed its
origin to long familiarity with the arbitrary laws of the
multiple scene, 3 and by a parity of reasoning one would
expect to find that all the other stage practices which sprang
from the same source had also disappeared with the coming
of the picture-stage. Strange to say, however, that was not
the case. The principle of the transference of scene while
the characters remain persisted on the English stage until
the second decade of the eighteenth century. On the early
picture-stage the use of the flats closing in the scene was
analogous to the use of the traverses shrouding the rear
stage in the Pre-Restoration theatres. It brought the
mountain to Mahomet. By simply drawing the flats the
characters on the stage were at once placed in another room.
An early example of this occurs in Dryden's The Rival
Ladies, as produced at the Theatre Royal in August, 1664.
Act v, Scene 1, opens in a carack. The Captain says, "Don
Rod'rick's door opens, I'll speak to him." Then we have
the direction, "The scene draws and discovers the Captain's

1 Cf. Fleay, Biog. Chron. Eng. Drama, ii. 331, No. 297.

2 Cf. The Elizabethan Playhouse and other Studies (First Series), pp. 67-8.

3 ibid, p. 238, and more particularly note 3.

The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms 173

cabin ; Roderick on a bed, and 2 servants by him." The
Captain then proceeds to address Roderick just as if he had
come to his bed-side.

Two other points in connexion with this scene are note-
worthy. Doors were seldom, if ever, provided in the scene
on the early picture-stage, their presence being largely
obviated by the permanent proscenium entering doors,
which answered all ordinary purposes. Hence, where we
find a character giving instructions for a door to be opened
that somebody in a suppositious inner-room may be seen,
we may infer (in the few instances where accompanying stage
directions are wanting) that this was a cue for the partial
withdrawal of the back flats. 1 Again, at the end of the scene,
between Roderick and the Captain, we have the direction,
"Bed drawn in, exeunt," indicating that when the flats were
opened the bed was thrust well forward. This curious
survival of an old Elizabethan custom was due to the
necessity of making audible the speech of the supine repre-
sentative of Roderick, a necessity which indicates the origin
of the practice. Thus, in Dryden's last play, Love Trium-
phant ; or Nature will Prevail (1 694), we read at the opening
of Act ii, "The Scene is a Bedchamber, a Couch prepar'd,
and set so near the Pit that the audience-may hear."

Still quainter than the earlier example is Dryden's employ-
ment of the adopted convention of transference of scene
with a full stage in An Evenings Love, or the Mock Astrologer,
as produced at the Theatre Royal in June, 1668. At the
close of Act iv, Scene 1, while Wilding is soliloquizing,
" the scene opens and discovers Aurelia and Camilla ; behind
them a table and lights set on it. The Scene is a Garden
with an arbour in it." Thus interrupted, Wilding merely
says, " The garden door opens ! How now, Aurelia and
Camilla," etc., and then departs unseen. Shortly after-
wards Don Melchior enters, and is taken for a ghost by the
women, one of whom in her fright overturns the table and

1 Cf. Otway's The Soldier's Fortune, Act iv, where the characters are closed in
in front after the Drawer is directed to shut the door. Also Dryden's An Evening's
Love, v. 1, end ("Maskall, open the door"); Crowne's Sir Courtly Nice (1685), i. I,
at end, and v. 3, end ; and Congreve's Love for Love, iv. 1.

1 74 The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms

lights. The scene is then closed in by the running in of
another pair of flats, but Don Melchior is left standing in
front, 1 and opens a new scene with a soliloquy. Dryden at
this juncture evidently believed it was a poor convention
that couldn't be made to work both ways !

Slightly later examples of transference of scene while the
characters remain are to be found in Crowne's The Country
Wit (1675), Act iii, and in Otway's Don Carlos (1676),
Acts iv and v. The earlier example in Otway's tragedy is
somewhat curious. The fourth act opens in an ante-chamber
to the Queen's apartment. While the King and Ruy Gomez
are conversing, the scene draws and reveals to their sight
Don John and Eboli embracing. 2

As time went on, bland acceptance of this convention led
to curious intricacies of technique. Towards the close of the
last act of Nat Lee's tragedy, The Massacre of Paris (1689),
the Queen Mother set an unexcelled precedent for Sir Boyle
Roche's bird in contriving to be in three places at once. In
Scene 5, representing the Louvre, we find her saying,

Here, Colonel, bring your prisoners,
And let me see these leaders of the faction.

Then the scene draws, exposing the commanders, who
are shot. Afterwards the scene is drawn again to reveal the
Admiral's body burning. It is noteworthy that most of these
changes from one part of a building to another, cc openings of
doors", and discoveries were not reckoned separate scenes
in the technical or literary sense. Lee heads Act v. 5, " Scena
Ultima", oblivious of the two marked changes taking place
in it. In accordance with this convention Addison opens
the back scene in the last act of Cato (17 12) to reveal the
philosopher dying in his chair, although in other respects
the Unity of Place is so strictly observed that only one scene
was used throughout, "A Large Hall in the Governor's
Palace of Utica."

1 For later examples of this practice, see Jevon's The Devil of a Wife (1686), i. 3
at end; and Southerne's The Wives' Excuse; or Cuckolds make Themselves (1692), iv. I.

2 Cf. Lee's Constantine the Great (1684), iii. 2 ("See there the Bed's prepar'd"),
and v. 2 ("Behold the poison'd Bath") 5 Southerne's The Wives' Excuse (1692), Act v.

'The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms 175

Albeit that in point of dramatic construction Nicholas
Rowe was a neo-Elizabethan, it comes with some surprise
to find him writing a tragedy in 171 5 which ends with a
compound transference of scene similar to the one in The
Massacre of Paris. 1 In his Lady Jane Gray, as produced at
Drury Lane in April of that year, Act v, Scene 2, shows
the ill-fated heroine at her devotions in her cell in the
Tower. After a poignant interview with Guilford, who is
led off to execution, she rails at Gardiner, and concludes
her reproaches abruptly with, "and see my journey's end."
Accompanying this is a direction, "The scene draws, and
discovers a scaffold hung in black, Executioner and Guards."
After taking farewell of her attendants, and making a final
speech, Lady Jane Grey goes up to the scaffold, and another
pair of flats are run on in front, closing in the scene of execu-
tion but closing out Gardiner, to whom Pembroke immedi-
ately enters, with his mouth full of bitter reproaches, and then
the play ends. In point of theatrical effectiveness nothing
could have been clumsier. Here we have the expiring
flicker of the old transference of scene with a full stage, as
well as of the well-worn principle of terminal anti-climax.
Already in Comedy new concepts had begun to rule.

With regard to exits and entrances a curious parallelism
is to be noted between the routine of the platform-stage and
of the early picture-stage, and that, despite their marked
physical differentiation. On both the great majority of exits
and entrances were made through two permanent doors,
situated on the one in the tiring-house facade, and on the
other at the sides of the proscenium arch. The main excep-
tion to the rule on both was associated with the entrance of
eavesdroppers who came on behind. 2 Exits were mostly
made through the permanent doors, but occasionally charac-
ters disappeared from sight by being closed in. On the
platform-stage this was only possible where the action was
momentarily confined to the lower or upper inner-stages. 3

1 For a simple transference of this order, see his tragedy, The Royal Convert (17 07),
v. 2. 2 Vide ante pp. 44 and 140.

3 Cf. Volpone, or the Fox, v. 6 5 The Mad Lover, v. 1 ; The Fatal Contract, v. 2 ;
Lust's Dominion, i. 1, end.

176 The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms

On the picture-stage this was frequently effected by running
on a pair of front flats. Most remarkable parallelism of
all, acts on both types almost invariably ended with a clear
stage. 1 Here we have clear evidence of the perpetuation of
an early Elizabethan conventionalism in the very presence
of physical conditions which positively clamoured for an
entirely different system. If the front curtain has one partic-
ular gratefulness more than another it is the adaptability
with which it lends itself to effective tableaux-endings.
But the correlative arrangement of the early picture-stage
indicates why these were so long avoided. Acting could
and did take place occasionally within the scene, but in the
ill-constructed and ill-lit theatres of the Post-Restoration
times it was necessary for the most part that the players
should keep well to the front, on the apron ; and at the
close of an act it was easier to make an effective exit by the
bordering proscenium doors than to work gradually inwards
so as to form an effective tableau. Apart from this, the
Post-Restoration dramatist had no understanding of the art
of the curtain. He could conceive that a terminal tableau
would be effective, but he did not know how to arrive at it
dramatically. Here, for example, is the germ of the modern
tableau, taken from Mrs. Behn's first play, The Forced
Marriage ; or The Jealous Bridegroom, as acted at the Duke's
Theatre, Lincoln's Inn Fields, late in 1670. 2 At the close
of Act i, we read :

The Curtain must be let down; and soft Musick plays: the
curtain being drawn up, discovers a Scene of a Temple: The King
sitting on a Throne, bowing down to join the Hands of Alcippus
and Erminia, who kneel on the steps of the throne; the Officers of
the Court and Clergy standing in order by, with Orgulius. This
within the Scene.

Without on the stage, Philander with his sword half drawn, held
by Galatea, who looks ever on Alcippus : Erminia still fixing her
eyes on Philander ; Pisaro passionately gazing on Galatea ; Aminta
on Fallatio, and he on her; Alcander, Isillia, Cleontius, in other

1 For a few platform-stage exceptions, see The Elizabethan Playhouse and other
Studies (First Series), pp. 86-7.

2 Cf. The Elizabethan Playhouse and other Studies (First Series), pp. 194-5.

The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms 177

several postures, with the rest; all remaining without motion, whilst
the Musick softly plays ; this continues awhile till the curtain falls ;
and then the Musick plays aloud till the Act begins.

Unfortunately, one cannot speak with any certainty as to
the exact physical disposition of the first Duke's Theatre,
no view or description of the interior having come down to
us; but if by "without on the stage" Mrs. Behn implies
"out on the apron", then the latter part of the arrange-
ment must have been particularly clumsy, as, owing to
the curtain being behind the proscenium opening, all the
characters posing without must have taken their places and
gone off in full sight of the audience. But it may be that
the description is misleading.

Some proof must now be advanced that the characters at
the end of an act left the stage by means of the proscenium
doors instead of being enclosed by a falling curtain. It will
not suffice to say that in the seventeenth-century quartos
of picture-stage plays this is indicated by the terminal
"exeunt", for, viewing the clumsiness of old-time directions,
which sometimes meant anything but what they said, this
might be plausibly assumed to be a conventional equation
for "curtain". The point is best driven home by citing
examples where towards the close of an act the characters go
off gradually, one by one, until the stage is left clear. Take
the concluding twenty lines of the fourth act of Otway's
Akibiades (1675). First Alcibiades and Timandra, " exeunt
several ways guarded, and looking back on each other."
Then the King speaks seven lines and departs, leaving the
Queen, who concludes the act with a brief speech, and finally
goes off. So far from this being a special arrangement neces-
sitated by the exigencies of the plot, one finds it cropping
up again in Otway's later plays, notably at the end of the
third and fourth acts of Don Carlos, Prince of Spain (1676). 1
By way of indicating the space of time which elapsed before
tableaux-endings became the rule, it may be pointed out
that Cibber's comedy, The Careless Husband, as produced

1 For examples in Dryden, see Troilus and Cressida ; or Truth found too Late, Act
iv 5 The Spanish Fryar, Acts i. ii and iv 5 The Duke of Guise, Act ii.


178 The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms

at Drury Lane in December, 1 704, has two exits in rapid
sequence at the close of the fourth act. 1

There are other terminal directions in the old quartos
which could hardly be contorted to imply the falling of a
curtain, and must therefore be taken at their surface value.
Notable among these is the "exeunt omnes", so often to
be found at the end of the last act. 2 Equally explicit is the
"Exeunt, the King leading her," which occurs at the close
of Act iv of Dryden and Lee's tragedy, The Duke of Guise

This wholesale departure of all the characters at the end
of the play, after the Elizabethan method, draws attention
to the fact that the curtain did not fall until after the delivery
of the epilogue. Any doubts that might be entertained on
this point will be allayed by Dryden's epilogue to Sir Martin
Mar-all y as spoken at the Duke's on 15 August, 1667 : —

As country vicars, when their sermon 's done

Run hudling to the benediction ;

Well knowing, though the better sort may stay,

The vulgar rout will run unblessed away :

So we, when once our play is done, make haste

With a short epilogue to close your taste.

In thus withdrawing, we seem mannerly ;

But when the curtain 's down, we peep, and see

A jury of the wits, who still stay late,

And in their club decree the poor play's fate.

Sometimes the epilogue was spoken before the dramatis
personae departed, as in the case of Arrowsmith's comedy of
The Reformation at Dorset Gardens in 1673, 3 but under any
circumstances the curtain did not fall until it was delivered.

This (as one takes it) wholly unnecessary preservation of
the principle of the general departure at the end led to the
continuance of the old system of bearers for the dead. Even

1 Cf. Farquhar's Sir Harry Wildair (1701), end of Act iii, where Wildair "pushes
him [Banter] out, and exit."

2 For examples, see An Evening's Love ; Sir Courtly Nice ; The Plain Dealer ,• Titus
and Berenice ; The Cheats of Scapin ,• Love and a Bottle and The Mourning Bride.

3 Cf. Howard's tragedy, The Festal Virgin (1665), in which, "just as the last words
were spoke, Mr. Lacy enter'd and spoke the Epilogue" ; also The Mock Dwellist y 1675.

The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms 179

at the very close of the century 1 cues were provided in the
text intimating when the bearers were to fulfil their office,
as in the last scene of Congreve's The Mourning Bride , where
Alphonso says, "Let 'em remove the body from her sight."
More positive evidence of the employment of bearers is to
hand in Dryden's tragedy of Tyrannic Love ; or the Royal
Martyr, as acted at the Theatre Royal about May, 1669. 2
At the end, after "exeunt omnes", we have the epilogue
with the heading, "spoken by Mrs. Ellen, when she was to
be carried off dead by the Bearers." This was the historic
occasion on which Nell Gwyn, to the exceeding delight of
the Merry Monarch, suddenly j umped up, and, after boxing
one of the bearers' ears, exclaimed :

Hold ! are you mad ? you damned confounded dog !
I am to rise and speak the epilogue.

Everything points to the fact that on the early picture-
stage the curtain, so far from being put to what would now be
called its obvious uses, was rarely employed to any material
advantage. It would seem that to a large extent the system
followed on the Caroline masque-stage 3 and inD'Avenant's
Commonwealth operas 4 — a system Italian in its origin and
European in its vogue 5 — obtained throughout the latter half
of the seventeenth century ; and that the curtain, once up,
did not fall until all was over. The known exceptions are
not more numerous than are necessary to prove the rule. 6
Usually the scene with which one act concluded remained
in sight of the audience until the next act began, when it
was drawn off (or closed in) and a new scene revealed. This
would explain why we find directions at the beginning of
acts like, "Scene draws off and discovers Lady Knowell,"
etc., as in Sir Patient Fancy (1678), Act iii, and "the Scene

1 Note the reference in The Spectator, No. 341, 1 April, 171 1-2, to the persons
"whose Business it is to carry off the Slain in our English Tragedies."

2 Although not printed until 1670 the play was licensed for publication on 14.
July, 1669.

3 Cf. The Elizabethan Playhouse and other Studies (First Series), pp. 11 8-9.

4 Vide ante p. 134.

5 At the Opera House in Paris the custom of dropping the curtain between the
acts did not come into use until 1828. See Bapst, op. cit. p. 385.

6 Cf. The Elizabethan Playhouse and other Studies (First Series), p. 171 note 2; also
this book, ante pp. 165 and 176.

1 80 The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms

changes to the tent of Achilles," as in Heroic Love (1698),
Act ii. Even so late as 1 7 1 5 we find Addison writing at the
beginning of the second act of The Drummer, "scene opens
and discovers Vellum."

In Italy the principle of the open stage from start to finish
was established by the abounding popularity of the inter-
medin which grew in time to overshadow the substantive
play. It may be that, following the precedent of inter-act
dancing at the old theatres, more interludes were performed
on the Post-Restoration stage than mere documentary
evidence would warrant us to believe. Writing of Katharine


Philips's posthumous tragedy, Horace, as given at the
Theatre Royal, Pepys records on 19 January, 1668-9 :

Lacy has made a farce 1 of several dances, between each act one ;
but his words are but silly and invention not extraordinary as to the
dances, only some Dutchmen come out of the mouth and tail of a
Hamburgh sow.

If this was the type of farce feebly satirised by Shadwell
in The True Widow (1678), the genre must have been more
popular than surface indications denote.

All these facts go to show that the kind of stage effect
sought for at the ends of acts was not an effect of grouping
but an effect of picturesque exits. In Post-Restoration times
was doubtless established that principle of the "springing
off with the established glance at the pit and projected right
arm," which still flourished a century later. 2 The closing of
the acts grew to be marked by a neat rounding off of speech,
which led to an extraordinary development of the conven-
tional tag.

So little consideration has been given to the history of
the tag that some inquiry into its rise and progress is now
imperative. To begin with, one must hazard a definition of
the term in its strictly specialized sense. In its final mould,
as familiarly known to playgoers half a century ago, the tag
formed the closing lines of the play. Whether in prose or
verse, it was an epigrammatic summing up of the moral

1 According to Mrs. Evelyn it was acted by the author and Nell Gwyn, and took
very well. 2 Cf. The Elizabethan Playhouse aad other Studies (First Series), p. 1S1.

The Persistence of Elizabethan Conventionalisms 1 8 1

intended to be conveyed. In speaking it, the player generally
came forward, and, ceasing personation, made direct appeal
to the audience. Here, for example, is the tag to The Lady
of Lyons (1838) : —

Ah, the same love that tempts us into sin,
If it be true love, works out its redemption ;
And he who seeks repentance for the past,
Should woo the Angel Virtue in the future.

When we come to probe into the question of origins,
we shall find that the moralizing tag was unknown in the
Elizabethan era, or to speak more definitely, within the
period of Shakespeare's intellectual activities. Tags of
simple appeal, begging the applause and good report of the
audience, are to be found now again in the drama of that
glorious epoch, but even in this elementary form, they are
the exception, not the rule. Shakespeare for the most part
avoids them, although at the close of AlVs Well that Ends
fVellwt find the King "advancing" to say :

The King's a beggar now the play is done;
All is well ended if this suit be won,
That you express content, which we will pray
With strife to please you, day exceeding day.
Ours be your patience then, and yours our parts ;
Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts.

The normal elementary tag was delivered by a single
speaker, but in Greene's Tu Quo que ; or the City Gallant^
as acted circa 1 6 1 1 x , we find a curious variant in which a
rhyming tag of sixteen lines is distributed among eight
people, a couplet to each. Of this order, but not so happy

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryWilliam John LawrenceThe Elizabethan playhouse and other studies → online text (page 16 of 22)