Elizabethan Theatre. The beginnings.
In the second half of XVI century in England over a hundred theatrical companies were on before a paying audience in the inn yards , when they were not engaged in their protector’s castle .
Unlike the holy drama, which took place in the squares, the profane one needed a place opened to the people, but far from the influence of the city. English actors organised their performances in inn and tavern courts and in the yards where dogs and bulls fought. Progressively dramatist actors were forbidden to act in the inn courts and in the yards.However, these constructions were used later as models for the Elizabethan theatrical building. In 1576 the manager and actor James Burbage joined the structures of yard and inn’s court together and obtained the first Elizabethan theatre that he built in London calling it “The Theatre”.
After it another seven theatres were built in London. Among them we remember “the Globe” (1599), Shakespeare’s theatre, the “Swan” (1596) and the “Red Bull” , obtained from a yard.
Today we haven’t got any example of Elizabethan theatre: the Puritans had them closed in 1642 and the new theatres, in the XVII century, imitating the Italian and French ones, replaced ancient buildings.
Even if the theatres were different for some details they had a common structure.
The building was often circular and his diameter measured from 25 to 30 metres.
The central court was surrounded by three tiers of galleries and it was open to the sky.
The audience sat in the three galleries, the second of which was the most expensive, or stood up in the central yard. Into this yard there projected a roofed stage, trapezoidal or rectangular in shape.
The stage, raised about five feet from the ground, was covered by a baldachin that was supported by two columns. Behind the stage there was a curtain, which could be drawn, thus revealing a second stage (inner stage). Over the back of the stage there was a balcony, used for the musicians or like a scene object. Then there were two doors on either side of the curtain and a trap door opening on the floor. The last part of the tiring house was a garret where there were machines used for creating special effects and on the roof of which there was a flag that flapped when a play was in progress.
English companies were formed by a limited number of actors that played the most binding roles.
Woman’s parts were done by boys, while secondary roles were played by apprentices.
They performed the plays in very different places. Although they mainly worked in public theatres,
they acted at inns and at court .
The theatres were placed in the northern or southern suburbs to escape the opposition of London’s management. Indeed actors were considered vagabonds and they were often persecuted. The most important companies looked for the protection of a powerful lord. If the actors obtained it they would enter the lord’s family wearing his livery: the company took the name of “Men of …” (Earl of Sussex men). The protection wasn’t free: frequently the actors had to work in their lord’s castle. Also Queen Elizabeth I and then King James I were interested in drama. So in a critical period for actors, caused by persecutions and epidemies, the company of The Queen’s Men borned (1583). This company played the comedies and the historical dramas by R. Greene and G. Peele. The most famous actor of Elizabethan age was Robert Tarlton. He was a comic actor, who plays roles of clown and fool. He was a master of mimic art and a good musician, too. When he left, the company declined and was substituted by The Lord Admiral’s Men. The most important actor of the company was E. Alleyn, who preferred heroic and grotesque roles. The Admiral’s men performed Greene’s gloomier works, Kyd’s Spanish tragedy and C.Marlowe’s ones.
The third big company, and perhaps the most important one, was protected by lord Chamberlain and then by king James: the main members were Shakespeare and R.Burbage. Richard Burbage was esteemed by his contemporaries for his realistic and passionate acting. He played many parts, like Hamlet, Othello, King Lear. The other important actors were J.Hamminges, H.Cundall, W.Kempe and then R.Armin.
The scene of the Elizabethan theatre didn’t represent, neither directly nor through painted backgrounds, a particular place. Very simple objects were enough to symbolise a place or the role of an actor: so a table stood for a room, a bush in a vase for a forest, and a crown for a king. So it was difficult for the audience to follow the play because the place was quickly changed. However, the mimic art of the actors helped the audience very much. In fact they represented both physical sensations that the place gave him (cold, hot …) and the feelings of his character almost at the same time. Besides, the text of the play helped people to understand.
The theatre building was deeply linked with the performance. The baldachin that covered the back of the stage was used to create a physical distance between two characters, but often the distance was spiritual; e.g. while Hamlet speaks with king Claudius and the queen he is spiritually far from the court, thinking about the adultery of her mother. So he seats in the centre of the stage while the royal family seat below the baldachin.
Besides it is used for private scenes; e.g. Hamlet that accuses his mother of betrayal and reveals the sin of his new husband, while Polonius has spying him behind the curtain that covers the rear stage.
The apparition of phantoms happened from that curtain, while the room behind was used like a crypt of witches or a tomb. Lastly, in the balcony there were acted all the scenes in a high place: on the walls of a city or on a hill.
Performances usually began at two o’clock in the afternoon and lasted for little more than two hours. The Elizabethan theatre could contain from 1600 to 2300 spectators.
It cost a penny to stand in the yard and two pennies to sit in one of the galleries. The nobles or those who could afford up to twelve pence could sit on the stage while the groundlings gathered around the open sides. The lack of means and tricks was made up for the wealth of mimic and puns.
People very much liked cruel and violent themes inserted in the Elizabethan plays.
The audience had learnt to compare themselves with big moral and politic motives from the “Morality Plays”, and therefore they appreciated dramaturgic theme.
The prosperous current of revenge’s tragedies borned by this
The other important current loved by the public was historical drama. It wasn’t a celebration of England military power but a means for the audience, who had lived the performed facts, to understand the bloody game of wars in the hands of the powerful men.