Monday, December 19, 2011

An Era of Theatrical Perfection

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“The Plays The Thing.” This quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet establishes the meaning of life during the rule of Queen Elizabeth I in England. Queen Elizabeth I’s reign as queen of England ran from 1558 to 160. This era in England’s history is arguably the most productive literary period ever. From books to poems, and eventually drama and theater, this period had it all. However, the most influential aspect of this time would be the theater. The drama and theatrical presentation during the time of Queen Elizabeth I’s rule in England included different roots, writers, acting companies, playhouses, and diverse themes and styles for their plays. In this respect, this magnificent era in theater history has been appropriately named after the queen herself Elizabethan Theater.

Elizabethan drama was very diverse in that it encompassed many forms of drama. This drama had many roots, from colleges and universities to plays and acting troupes. First, the schools where plays were read and performed in Latin were crucial as influences to this period. The Inns of Court was one such college that shapes the drama of the period. It was a school for attorneys. Here, the students of this school were exposed to classical learning and the plays of ancient Rome. Ralph Roister Doister, a book by Nicholas Udall, by drawing its content from neoclassicism, helped advance the dramatic construction of the modern play. Another book, Gammer Gurston’s Needle also furthered the development of the modern play. Written by a Mr. “S”, this book uses the techniques of a Roman comedy to fuse together the subject matter and characters of a play in a medieval farcical manner. Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville united their writing skills to write the book Gorbudoc. Written in 1561, this first English tragedy introduced the concept of blank verse. Another influential man to the period was John Heywood. An early playwright, he introduced the interlude to the English Theater. A further enhancement of the drama was the emergence of a revenge tragedy. The Spanish Tragedy, a book written by Thomas Kyd, was the first revenge drama to be made known. Other, more politically oriented influences include the legalization of acting in the 1570’s and the outlawing of religious drama by Elizabeth I. Because of all these influences, the plays of the period had to be dramatically altered and therefore the writers of the period faced the difficult task of writing plays to suit all of these different criteria (Trumbull, “Elizabethan Theatres”).

During the Elizabethan period, there emerged many great playwrights, poets, and novelists. More importantly, the writers of the period are very much diverse and distinct from one another. The major Elizabethan playwright of the period was the great Sir William Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote everything from tragedies to comedies to historical plays. Besides writing 8 plays within a -year period, Shakespeare was an actor and shareholder in Lord Chamberlain’s Company. His most popular plays are Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth (Wild). Because of his importance to this period in history, the writers who came before him are considered to be pre-Shakespearean and those who came after, post-Shakespearean. There were three major pre-Shakespearean writers. The first was John Lyly. He wrote “light, romantic, pastoral comedies” (Wild). He also wrote a very popular play by the name of Endymion. Another pre-Shakespearean playwright was Thomas Kyd. Being deeply influenced by the works of Seneca, Kyd wrote the first revenge tragedy in The Spanish Tragedy (Lee, 105). The third and also leading pre-Shakespearean playwright was Christopher Marlowe. Noted as one of the three major writers of the period, Marlowe is considered the Father of English Tragedy. In his historical tragedies, he introduced the concept of blank verse (Lee, 105). After Shakespeare, the post-Shakespearean playwrights, there were many good writers but none as great as Ben Jonson. Jonson, an actor turned playwright, wrote many masques which were harshly moralistic in scope. He was such a great writer that in 1616, he was made England’s poet laureate (Trumbull, “Elizabethan Theatres”). Other, less celebrated contemporaries of the time were Thomas Dekker, George Chapman, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Heywood, and John Marston (Trumbull, “Elizabethan Theatres”). Also during this period, there were many groups that contributed to the writing of plays. The University Wits, an informal group of scholars, were one such group. The playwrights that belonged to this group were Thomas Kyd, Robert Green, Christopher Marlowe, and John Lyly. Besides helping to develop new theatrical conventions, such as elegant prose and complex protagonists, the University Wits made new plays for several acting companies (Trumbull, “Theatre’s Transition in Europe”). These acting companies then proceeded to make the plays into a visible reality.

The acting companies during Elizabethan England were so structured and strict that every aspect of the company is fixed and inelastic. From the governmental regulations to the individual members of a company, the acting companies were so tightly controlled that change within them was highly improbable. For starters, the government, in enacting its policies concerning the theater, limited the theater to what it could and could not do. For example, acting wasn’t considered an occupation so, under the Tudor Poor Law of 157, actors needed a license to act (Cassady, 6). Other laws limited the number of acting troupes and troupes could only be licensed to members of the royal family (Trumbull, “Theatre’s Transition in Europe”). The structures of the companies were also very strict. Economically speaking, a company was democratic and it had three members of economic investment shareholders, householders, and hirelings. Shareholders were those who had an economic interest in the company and shared the profits and losses of the company. Householders were those who had economic interests in the theater and shared the profits and losses of the theaters. Hirelings were actors who were hired for a single performance by a company. Within the company, there were also important, individual roles. For instance, each company had a specific playwright. The gatherer in the company was the most trusted member of the company who collected the penny admission from the audience as they entered (Wild). Because of the many restrictions on these companies, there were few major notable companies. The two most important are the King’s Men and Earl of Leicester’s Men. The King’s Men, also known as Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was the leading English acting company. Its leading actor was Richard Burbage and its resident playwright was William Shakespeare. The patron of the company was King James I and they performed in the Globe Theater (Wild). The Earl of Leicester’s Men was the first important troupe. Licensed in 1574, this troupe was headed by James Burbage and performed their plays in the Theater (Trumbull, “Theatre’s Transition in Europe”). In general, companies had little in common but there were some aspects and events that were accepted or affected the companies. First and foremost, no women were allowed to act. Also, the companies had extremely large repertoires so that they played a different bill each day. Finally, the companies usually consisted of 10-0 men and -5 boy apprentices (Cassady, 8). With the vast number of acting companies at the time, there was a necessity for the creation of stages for them to perform in. These stages, also known as playhouses, came in abundant and ample amounts.

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The playhouses during Elizabethan England all had very similar designs although there were two different types of playhouses. In general, a playhouse was either considered public or private. A public playhouse was an outdoor, open-air theater. It usually varied in size and shape and it was open to all those who wanted to go. It was much cheaper than a private playhouse and they were much more common than the private playhouses as well. A private playhouse, being smaller than a public playhouse, was an indoor, roofed theater. Here, the cost to attend a play was more and during the winter months most plays were performed in these types of playhouses. Regardless of whether the playhouse was a private or a public one, the theater setup was always the same. First, there is the pit. The pit is a courtyard or yard where the groundlings, or penny stinkers, stood to watch the performance. The name penny stinker is derived from that fact that they paid a penny to get in and that they usually stunk because showers were not done daily back then. Then there were the galleries. There were usually three galleries, in the case of the public theaters they were roofed, that were obviously more costly because of the better seating. Moreover, there appeared to be some private galleries for the people of nobility and of the upper classes (Lee, 104). Also, there was a musician’s gallery. The musician’s gallery was located below the hut and either on the first or third level. The stage itself also had many components. For starters, there was the forestage. This area of the stage jutted out into the central of the pit and here is where most of the action took place. Behind the forestage was a smaller area known as the inner below. This is the curtained discovery area just to the rear of the forestage through which actors generally entered the stage. Above the inner below is the inner above. As is stated in the name, this area is above the inner below, on the second level. It too is a curtained discovery area. Another area behind the forestage is the tiring house. This house was also located at the rear of the stage and it is here where actors would wait and change. Also, there were two doors leading into the tiring house and these were frequently used to represent different locations. Above the tiring house was the hut. Within the hut there was located heavy machinery and equipment. Even further above the hut, and capping of the top of the stage, was a flag. This flag was a certain color and that color pertained to the type or form of play that was going to be performed that day. Finally, as in anything, there has to be an element of religious intervention. For the stage, it is found in two areas heaven and the hell. The heaven was the roof over the forestage from which flying was common. The hell, on the other hand, was the area under the stage where that was used early on as an echo chamber for off-stage voices and spirits (Wild). Although these theaters were very similar in style, there were still many playhouses that had distinguishable characteristics. The first professional English theater of the period was the Theater. Opened in 1576 by James Burbage, it was an open-air amphitheater built outside of London. This theater was dismantled in 1587 and rebuilt in another location in 15 and it then became the Globe. Obviously, this theater was an open-air amphitheater and James Burbage built it as well. In 161, it was burned down and it was rebuilt in 1614. Eventually, it was closed in 164. Another prominent playhouse was Blackfriars. This was the first theater to open as an indoor, private playhouse. Formerly, this building was a monastery but it was converted. It was closed in 1584 and reopened and renamed Blackfriars in 156. Unlike the previous Blackfriars, James Burbage opened this theater and the King’s Men used it as a winter performance area (Wild). Other leading playhouses included Newington Butts, Rose, Swan, Curtain, Fortune, Hope, Paul’s, and Cockpit theaters (Holman). However, even with the success of the playhouse, there were many obstacles to be hurdled. The merchant class, being the fastest growing populace mostly made of Puritans, did everything they could to prevent the plays. Also, till 1608, the theaters were not allowed inside the city of London, making it a bit more difficult for the playhouses to attract an audience. The final breath of the playhouse occurred in 164 when an act of Parliament ordered the closing of all theaters (Trumbull, “Theatre’s Transition in Europe). Despite these difficulties, playhouses were prosperous and the playwrights of the period were forced to write many plays in order to keep them prospering. As a result of the abundant number of plays, there was an extensive field of theme ideas and style propositions that defined the Elizabethan Theater.

Within every play ever written, there is a theme and a style to be understood. In Elizabethan England, although the themes and styles were many, there can be found some similarities amongst them. Thematically speaking, the themes of the plays varied widely from comedies to tragedies. However, in spite of this difference in theme, there only existed four categories of plays historical tragedies, comedies, tragedies, and revenge plays (Wild). The styles of the plays, just like the themes, were also very simple and to the point. First of all, there were no scenery changes. This then led to the need for small and simple props and set pieces. Also, the playwrights faced difficulties because they had to have their characters reveal the time and place of any scene through the dialogue of the play. When dealing with the costumes, this period showed great importance for them. Theatrical costumes were not only necessary, but they were extremely expensive. They were necessary because it was the current fashion and because the dress of the actors would be seen on stage, in broad daylight, by the entire audience. This quote from a book helps to illustrate the significance of these costumes

“Garments of silk and satin and velvet, trimmed with gold and silver lace, spangled with gold or faced with ermine, cut and slashed with all the fantasy of Elizabethan tailoring, were the ordinary wear of the Elizabethan actor.” (Smith, 144)

Something else that should be understood is that insensitive to the time period of the play, the dress was predominantly Elizabethan. The only time where there would be distinctive dress would have been to mark the difference between two groups in the same play (Smith, 144-145). Regarding the acting style, there appear to be two differing views. The more formal view of the acting style argues that males did female roles, there were non-realistic scripts, conventionalized stage sets, and a large number of plays. The more realistic view of the acting style reasons that there were contemporary references, convincing characterizations, an emphasis on contemporary life and manners in comedies, truthfulness of human psychology, and the closeness of the audience to the performers. In either case, vocal quality and flexibility were required because of the openness of the stage and the activity and noise of the pit (Trumbull, “Theatre’s Transition in Europe”).

Elizabethan theater is one of the most recognized periods of the history of England and of theater history itself. As you have read, all of the conventions of this period have not only carried on the legacy of the previous periods of theater history but they have also incorporated innovations that have been further evolved for today’s theatrical presentations. This quote from the character John Milton in the movie The Devil’s Advocate thoroughly explains what theater during this period has done for theater today “I only set the stage. You pull your own strings.”

Because of this magnificent period in theater history, the actors and playwright of today have been able to pull their own strings and further enhance theater as we know it.

Cassady, Marsh. The Theatre And You A Beginning. Ed. Theodore O. Zapel. Colorado Springs Meriwether, 1. 6-8.

Lee, Robert L. Everything about Theatre! The guidebook of theatre fundamentals. Ed. Theodore O. Zapel. Colorado Springs Meriwether, 16. 10-106.

Miller-Sch├╝tz, Chantal. “Early Modern Playhouses in London”. Shakespeare’s Globe Research Database. Ed. Lyn Holman. April. 000. http//

Smith, Irwin. Shakespeare’s Globe Playhouse. New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 156. 144-145.

Trumbull, Eric. Elizabethan Theatres. 1 June. 000. Northern Virginia Community College http//

---. Theatre’s Transition in Europe. 1 June. 000. Northern Virginia Community College http//

Wild, Larry. Elizabethan Theatre. 6 Nov. 17. Northern State University. 17 http//lupus.northern.edu0/wild/th100/eliz.htm

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