Copyright
William John Lawrence.

The Elizabethan playhouse and other studies online

. (page 2 of 22)
Online LibraryWilliam John LawrenceThe Elizabethan playhouse and other studies → online text (page 2 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


temporary window of this kind was used in Arden of Fever-
sham y ii. 2, and the accompanying stage-direction recalls
Dekker's phrase : <c Then lettes he downe his window, and
it breaks Black Wils head." 1 As to the conclusion derivable
from the allusion in the Seven Deadly Sins of London, viz.,
that natural light was as far as possible pressed into service
at private theatre performances, one is the more disposed to
hold on to it tenaciously from the fact that its plausibility
gains force from an equally curious, if somewhat later, allu-
sion in Wither. In Fair Virtue, published in 1 622, we read :

When she takes her tires about her

(Never half so rich without her)

At the putting on of them,

You may liken every gem

To those lamps which at a play

Are set up to light the day ;

For their lustre adds no more

To what Titan gave before,

Neither do their pretty beamings

Hinder ought his greater gleamings. 2

If I should be asked> " why limit the somewhat vague
reference to lamps at a play to one particular kind of
theatre?" my reply would be that proof of the employ-
ment of artificial lights in the public theatres otherwise than
episodically, as a factor of the scene, is not yet forthcoming.
Wright's statement, made in 1 699 in his Historia Histrionica,
still holds the field. He plainly tells us that while the private
theatres " had pits for the gentry and acted by candlelight,"
the Globe, Fortune and Bull " lay partly open to the weather,
and they alwaies acted by daylight." One can readily divine
that this darkening of the private-theatre auditorium in

1 In his account of the first Blackfriars, Prof. C. W. Wallace argues that when
More complained of "the wyndows [being] spoyled " by Farrant in transforming the
rooms into a theatre he meant that they had been bricked up. (See The Evolution of the
English Drama up to Shakespeare, p. 146.) My interpretation would be that in adapting
them for theatrical purposes Farrant had destroyed their utility as normal windows
(i.e. for subsequent use when the place was turned again into a private dwelling).

2 George Wither's Works (edit. Sidgwick, 1902), ii. 71.



io Light and Darkness in the Elizabethan Theatre

association with night scenes of our third order considerably
intensified the dramatic appeal of the action. Here is an
example taken from a later Blackfriars play, The Guardian.
Act iii. 6 opens in a room in Severino's house. Iolante is
seated on the rear stage beside a banqueting table adorned
with tapers and is discovered by the drawing of the traverses.
Severino, after indulging in violent threats, binds her and,
taking up the lights, goes out. In the darkness Calipso
gropes her way in, unbinds Iolante, and sending her away,
takes her place : Severino returns, and, not knowing of the
substitution that has been accomplished, cuts and slashes at
Calipso with his knife. On his departure Iolante comes back
and resumes her old position. The consequence is that when
Severino returns (this time with a taper), he is convinced
that a miracle has been performed. Not the most ingenious
of modern melodramatists could have contrived a neater
piece of theatrical trick-and-shuffle-board. But effects of this
order, where much depended on the bringing in and carry-
ing off of lights, were not confined to the private theatres.
In the fifth act of Porter's Two Angry Women of Abington^ as
performed at the Rose in 1 599, a good deal of the pungency
of the action hung uponjudicious employment of thelights. 1
It may be, however, that in the public theatres lighting
effects were symbolical rather than realistic.

When we come to consider what was the method em-
ployed in lighting the private theatres nothing but disap-
pointment ensues. Search as one will, no material evidence
on the point can be found. Serious doubt may be expressed
as to how far we are safe in arguing a posteriori from the
misdescribed " Red Bull " frontispiece to The Wits^ or Sport
upon Sport, as issued in 1 66%. It must be borne in mind that
this plate merely depicts a performance of Cox's Drolls
during the interregnum and after the general dismantling of
the theatres. It may be that the lighting arrangements therein
shown followed the system that had formerly obtained in
the private theatres. But proof is lacking. Suspended by
wires over the stage are to be noted two chandeliers, similar

1 Cf. Greene s Tu Quoque lanthorn scene ; Tis Pity She's a fVhore > iii. 7.






Light and Darkness in the Elizabethan Theatre 1 1

to those formerly used in churches, and each holding eight
candles. Along the front of the platform is ranged a row of
foot-lights, consisting of half a dozen oil-lamps with double
burners. 1 Now, although there is some reason to believe
that stage chandeliers had been employed in the private
theatres, nothing points to the use of foot-lights. Had the
latter been a characteristic of the Blackfriars or the Cockpit
they would surely have been utilized again with the renewal
of acting at the Restoration period, and made a permanent
feature of the new picture-stage. But we have no evidence
of the regular employment of foot-lights in the English
theatre until the third or fourth decade of the eighteenth
century.

The possibilities are that the lighting arrangements of the
private theatres were based to some extent on the system
followed at court when performances were given there,
especially as the first house of that order, Farrant's Black-
friars, was in the beginning a mere rehearsal-theatre for
court plays. Happily, through the details preserved in the
Revels Accounts, we know something about the lighting
arrangements at Whitehall and Hampton Court during
holiday periods. When we come to draw an analogy we shall
have to bear in mind the difference in size between the com-
modious banqueting halls and the small private theatres,
and that, moreover, the players were not likely to emulate
the grandeur of the court. At Whitehall and elsewhere,
circa 1 573 (or about the period when the first private theatre
was built), it was customary to light the halls during the
Christmas festivities with wax-torches or candles, commonly
known as " white lights," placed in flamboyantly decorated
wooden branches of varying sizes, provided with broad
metal plates to safeguard the spectator from melted grease,
and suspended on wires. 2 These chandeliers were richly

1 These are similar in appearance to the boat-shaped lamps used in the Italian
court theatres of a slightly earlier period. Cf. Nicolo Sabbattini, Pratica di fabricar
Scene e Machine ne Teatri (Ravenna, 1638), Chap, xxxviii. Quare, were the lamps
referred to by Wither of this order and disposition ?

2 For the method of suspension and of lighting up, which generally took place after
the spectators had assembled, see Sabbattini, op. cit. Bk. i. p. 61, section on "Come si
deffano accomodare i Lumi fuori della Scena."



1 2 Light and Darkness in the Elizabethan Theatre

decorated with orsidue, a kind of thick gold leaf, and when
lit up, must have had a very imposing effect. They varied
slightly in number, according probably to the size of the
hall, but they generally consisted of about three large and
twenty-four small branches, or an average total of a hundred
and twenty lights, 1 and the candles were usually perfumed.
From this lavish, highly ornate system only a slight hint
could, at best, be taken. But, whatever may have been the
method followed at a later period, it seems not unlikely
that, in minor degree, the court method ruled at the
first Blackfriars, the only private theatre whose seating
arrangements approximated to the conventional disposition
followed alike at Whitehall and Greenwich and the Italian
courts. 2 In the lofty Elizabethan banqueting halls the
spectators were mostly accommodated on a comparatively
low amphitheatre ranged along the three sides. On the
other hand, the accepted type of private theatre, beginning
with the second Blackfriars, had three galleries, an arrange-
ment which would have rendered any considerable number
of central hanging lights a serious obstruction to the view.
But it must be clearly borne in mind that the first Blackfriars
was not a theatre at all in the Elizabethan sense of the term
but merely what it affected to be in accordance with the
crisis which created it — <£ a private house." The phrase
clung and we find it afterwards applied, with less apposite-
ness, to nearly all the private theatres. One must also bear
in mind that the first Blackfriars, although situated in the
same old building as the second, occupied a different part
of that building, was smaller and less lofty. The essential
difference between the two is that Farrant's Blackfriars was
a second-floor house and Burbage's a first-floor house. 3 In
the former, therefore, the audience must have been mostly
accommodated on the level.

1 Cf. Cunningham's Revels Accounts, pp. 162, 169, &c.

2 Cf. Sabbattini, op. cit. Bk. I. p. 55, section on "Come si deffano fare li scaloni
per gli Spcttatori."

3 Cf. C W. Wallace, The Evolution of the English Drama up to Shakespeare, p. 196.
I offer this in correction of my mis-statement at p. 233 of the First Series of these
Studies.



Light and Darkness in the Elizabethan Theatre 13

It follows from all this that a new system of illumination,
a system accommodated to the arrangement of the audito-
rium, must have come in with the second Blackfriars, which
ranks as the first organized private theatre. So far one may
safely proceed and that despite the fact that of the precise
disposition of the lights in the maturer private theatres
nothing is really known. All that can be gleaned with any
certainty is that candles of wax and tallow, torches, lamps
and cressets were employed. The evidence for the use of
cressets is slender but satisfactory. Cotgrave, in his French-
English Dictionary , published in 161 1, defines Falot as "a
cresset light (such as they use in playhouses) made of ropes
wreathed, pitched and put into small and open cages of
iron." Originally a beacon light, and so called from the
croisette, or little cross, by which it was surmounted, the
cresset was distinguished by its efficacy in withstanding the
elements. For this reason cressets were used in the poops
of vessels ; and in the mid-sixteenth century watchmen
carried them on their nightly rounds, raised on poles. 1 Since
they formed the most satisfactory of open-air lights one is
disposed to throw caution to the winds and jump to the
conclusion that their employment in the theatres was re-
stricted to dark days in the Bankside houses. If this could
be established Wither's allusion might bear a new interpre-
tation. But it happens that we have some slight evidence
of the employment of cressets in indoor entertainments of
more than passing note. A description in Latin is extant of
an academic performance given at Oxford before the Queen
in Christ Church College Hall in 1566, from which 1 cite
the following in Professor Schelling's translation: 2

Cressets, lamps, and burning candles made a brilliant light there.
With so many lights arranged on branches and circles, and with so
many torches here and there, giving forth a flickering gleam of vary-
ing power, the place was resplendent, so that the lights seemed to
shine like the day and to aid the splendour of the plays by their
great brightness.

1 For an illustration of a seventeenth-century cresset, see J. R. Green's Short
History of the English People (1893), iii. p. 992.

2 F. E. Schelling, Elizabethan Drama, i. 107.



14 Light and Darkness in the Elizabethan Theatre

But this apart, one searches in vain for any evidence in
support of Cotgrave's statement. Indeed, the few allusions
to be found to the broad characteristics of private-theatre
lighting puzzle by their disparity. Wither conjures up for
us a charming picture of the "pretty beamings" of the
lamps, but it is at best but a dissolving view and quickly
gives place toLenton's vivid description 1 of the town rake's

. . . Spangled, rare perfum'd attires
Which once so glister'd at the torchy Friars,

and which must now to the broker's. On further probing
one is inclined to doubt whether either lamps or cressets or
torches ever formed the dominant characteristic of the light-
ing scheme in the organized private theatres. Pause is given
because in Beaumont's lines to Fletcher on the failure of
The Faithful Shepherdess at Blackfriars in 1 609 we read :

Nor want there those, who, as the Boy doth dance
Between the acts, will censure the whole Play ;
Some like, if the wax-lights be new that day.

It may be, of course, that the lights here referred to were
strictly stage lights, but the point cannot be determined.
Beaumont's last lines gives the impression that wax lighting
was not the normal mode, and that it was reserved for
special occasions, probably the first run of a new play, when
advanced rates of admission were charged. We know defi-
nitely that at Salisbury Court in 1639 wax and tallow were
both employed. 2 Wax was the more expensive but it had the
advantage over tallow that it neither guttered nor gave off
an offensive odour. Hence one reason why a certain type
of fastidious, feminine -minded playgoer would be more
disposed to like the piece if the waxlights were " new that
day."

It will be interesting, perhaps suggestive, to recall what
was the method of stage lighting in Paris at the Hotel de
Bourgogne at this period. Here is what Perrault says on
the subject :

1 In The Young Gallants Whirligig (1629).

2 Cf. Shakespeare Society Papers, IV (1849), p. 100.



Light and Darkness in the Elizabethan Theatre 15

Toute la lumiere consistait d'abord en quelques chandelles dans
des plaques de fer-blanc attachees aux tapisseries; mais comme elles
n'eclairaient les acteurs que par derriere et un peu par les cotes, ce
qui les rendait presque tous noirs, on s'avisa de faire des chandeliers
avec deux lattes mises en croix, portant chacun quatre chandelles,
poure mettre au-devant du theatre. Ces chandeliers, suspendus
grossierement avec des cordes et des poulies apparentes,se houssaient
et se baissaient sans artifice et par main d'homme pour les allumer
et les moucher. 1

Here, one hardly knows whether it would be safe to draw
analogies, but one thing at least the English comedians of
the private theatres and the French players of the Hotel de
Bourgogne had in common, viz., a constant and increasing;
desire to economize with regard to the expense of wax and
tallow. 2 Although playgoers had to assemble considerably
before the hour of commencing, so as to secure good places
or any places, little or no light was vouchsafed them until
shortly before the play began. Proof of this is afforded in
the induction to Marston's What Ton Will, as acted by the
Paul's boys in 1601. Here we see the audience assembling
before the performance, and taking seats upon the stage. A
sequence of stage-directions shows that it was the tireman's
business to look after the stage-lights and that delay usually
occurred in bringing them in. "Enter Atticus, Doricus,
and Phylomuse, they sit a good while on the stage before the
Candles are lighted, etc., etc. . . Enter Tier-man with lights."
This waiting until the last moment before lighting up is also
indicated in the induction to Middleton's Michaelmas Term,
as acted at the same house in 1 607. " 1 spread myself open
to you", says a player; "in cheaper terms I salute you; for
ours have but sixpenny fees all the year long, yet we dispatch
you in two hours without demur: your suits hang not long
after candles be lighted." Here we have adroit use of legal
metaphor, in keeping with the title of the play.

1 Perrault, Par allele des anciens et des modernes en ce qui regarde la poesie (1682), iii.
p. 192.

2 The parsimony of the French players in this respect grew so intolerable that, in
November, 1609, Henri Quatre issued an edict, directing that lanthorns be put up in the
pit, balcony and corridors under pain of exemplary punishment. Cf. Alfred Bouchard,
La Langue Tbeatrale (1878), p. 304.



1 6 Light and Darkness in the Elizabethan Theatre

Besides attending to the stage-lights, it was the business
of the tireman or tiremen (for in some theatres more than
one was employed) to look after the wardrobe, 1 make the
properties and place them in position, 2 and, when necessity
demanded, come on the stage as supernumeraries. 3 If at
Paul's, on Marston's showing, there was only one, the Black-
friars of a later period must have had at least a couple. In
the induction to The Staple of News , as acted at the latter
house in 1626, the Prologue is surprised that the ladies
should desire to sit on the stage. Mirth asks him for stools,
but he calls for a form, and a bench is brought in. Then the
book-holder within cries, "Mend your lights, gentlemen —
Master Prologue begin." Agreeable to command, the tire-
man come in, carrying (as an allusion by the Prologue shows)
torches. Already the candle-snuffer, that important stage
functionary whose expertness in the eighteenth century was
generally rewarded with a round of applause, 4 had sprung
into being. In the Pre-Restoration playhouse his duties
were doubtless performed by the tireman. Thrift, in the
Proeludium to The Careless Shepherdesse, as acted at Salis-
bury Court circa 1629, makes allusion to the proverbial
poverty of poets, and says :

I do not think but I shall shortly see

One poet sue to keep the door, another

To be prompter, a third to snuff the candles.

In connexion with the players' desire for economy in
the matter of wax and tallow and the consequent delay in
lighting up, one interesting point demands discussion. We
know that at the second Blackfriars a concert of vocal and
instrumental music, lasting an hour, was given before the
play. 5 Are we to assume that the audience sat in darkness
during that period ? It hardly seems likely. Probably some
light was vouchsafed, but only a tithe of what was demanded
by the exigencies of theatrical performance.

1 See the reference in The Actors' Remonstrance ; or Complaint for the Silencing of
their Profession, 1643 ; also T. F. Ordish's Early London Theatres, pp. 172-3.

8 GirFord's Ben Jonson, v. p. 116, "An Expostulation with Inigo Jones" (1631).

3 W. W. Greg, Hensloive Papers, Appendix ii. p. 134, margin.

4 Cf. Dutton Cook's A Book of the Play, Chap, on " Footlights".

C. W. Wallace, The Children of the Chapel at Blackfriars, pp. 106-7.



Light and Darkness in the Elizabethan Theatre 1 7

If a passage in Pepys' Diary can be taken as referring to
the Pre-Restoration stage, we have some evidence to hand
that tallow-lighting was the rule in the private theatres and
wax-lighting the exception. Chronicling a conversation with
Killigrew, the manager of the Theatre Royal, Bridges Street,
Pepys writes on 1 2 February, 1667: " He tells me that the
stage is now, by his pains, a thousand times better and more
glorious than heretofore. Now, wax candles and many of
them ; then, not above 3 lb. of tallow. Now all things civil :
no rudeness anywhere; then, as in a bear-garden," &c. Here
it all depends upon what the diarist meant by "then," whether
the term applied only to the period since the renewal of
acting or comprehended a wider retrospect. But, after all,
if wax had been commonly employed in the closing years
of the platform-stage era, Killigrew would hardly have
indulged in his boast.

Sources from which hints for special lighting effects of a
spectacular order might have been obtained were apparently
not drawn upon. In 161 1 Serb'o's great work on Architec-
ture, originally issued at Paris in 1 545, was translated into
English and published in folio. One of the sections on
Perspective treats "Of Artificial Lights of the Scenes,"
discussing simple methods that recall those vast bottles of
coloured water through which hidden lights shine resplen-
dent in chemists' windows. But, except by Inigo Jones in
mounting the Court masques, it cannot be found that any
knowledge was derived from this source. It is noteworthy,
however, that Serlio's methods of procuring the illusion of
thunder and lightning were largely the methods employed
in the English playhouse from its inception. (Students
of the Elizabethan drama will not need to be reminded
of the frequency with which thunder and lightning were
resorted to for heightening the tragic impressiveness of the
action.) For the rumbling of thunder he advocates the
rolling of a cannon-ball in an upper chamber, 1 in part the
method alluded to by Ben Jonson, in the prologue to

1 Sabbattini discusses the modus operandi and gives an elucidative illustration, op.
cit. Book II. Chap. 53.

C



1 8 Light and Darkness in the Elizabethan theatre

Every Man in his Humour •, when he speaks of "roll'd
bullet" and "tempestuous drum". The rapid drum-
tapping was a grateful auxiliary to the Italian method, and
sometimes in the English theatres wholly superseded it.
Thus, in a mordant passage in John Melton's Astrologaster^
or the Figure Caster (1620), we read :

Another will foretell lightning and thunder that shall happen
such a day, when there are no such inflammations seene except
a man goe to the Fortune in Golding lane to see the tragedie of
Doctor Faustus. There indeed a man may behold shagge-hayr'd
devills runne roaring over the stage with squibs in their mouths,
while drummers make thunder in the tyring-house, and the twelve
penny hirelings make artificial lightning in their heavens.

Serlio's method of simulating lightning is again largely
the Elizabethan method. He writes :

There must be a man placed behind the Scene or Scaffold inahigh
place with a bore in his hand, the cover whereof must be full with
holes, and in the middle of that place there shall be a burning candle
placed, the bore must be filled with powder of vernis or sulphire,
and casting his hand with the bore upwards, the powder flying in
the candle will shew as if it were lightning. 1 But touching the
beames of the lightning, you must draw a piece of wire over the
scene, which must hang downewards, whereon you must put a squib
covered over with pure gold or shining lattin, which you will; and
while the Bullet is rowling, you must Shoote of some piece of
Ordinance, and with the same giving fire to the squibs, it will work
the effect which is desired.

The earlier part of this instruction recalls a passage in

the Induction to A Warning for Faire Women (1599), in

which sarcastic reference is made to the staofe-lip-htninp- of
i-i 00.0

the period :

. . . Then of a filthy whining ghost
Lapt in some foul sheet or a leather pilch,
Comes screaming like a pig half stick'd, and cries
Vindicta! revenge, revenge.
With that a little rosin flasheth forth
Like smoke out of a tabacco pipe or a boy's squib . . .

1 Cf. Sabbattini, op. cit. Bk. II. Chap. 23 ("altro modo come si possa mostrare un'
inferno"), where the device, considerably improved upon, is used for another purpose.



Light and Darkness in the Elizabethan Theatre 19

If the effect was as trivial as the writer would have us
believe, it is curious that in the course of half a century no
effort was made to improve upon it. In the epilogue to
Lovelace's comedy of The Scholar 1 , as delivered at Salisbury
Court circa 1636, allusion is made to "the rosin-lightning
flash", as a feature that delighted the gallery. 2

Serlio's device for what he (or his translator) calls
"the beames of the lightning" is equated by Ben Jonson's
"nimble squib", in the prologue already referred to.
This effect was not, I think, a common accompaniment of
storm scenes on the early English stage but was kept for
occasions when thunderbolts had to be represented. 3 A
notable example is to be found in The Brazen Age, a Red
Bull play of the period of 1 6 t 3. Jupiter appears above
and strikes Hercules with a thunderbolt, causing him to
sink through the earth. A cloud descends over the spot,
bearing a hand, and on re-ascending the hand holds a star
which it eventually fixes in the heavens. 4

A few other spectacular lighting effects, mostly procured
by the employment of fireworks, remain to be referred to.
The comet which Stowe 5 records as having been seen for
a week or ten days in October, 1580, apparently gave rise
to the convention of "the blazing star". My first trace of
this occurs in The Battel of Alcazar •, as acted circa 1588.
In the Dumb show given between Acts iv and v, Fame
enters in the guise of "an angel and hangs the crowns
upon a tree". Then a blazing star and fireworks are seen,


2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryWilliam John LawrenceThe Elizabethan playhouse and other studies → online text (page 2 of 22)