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Essential Theatre Chapter 5
page 1 of 7
English Terms
Italian Terms
French Terms
I. The theatrical experiences we have examined so far were part of festivals
Essential Theatre Chapter 5
page 2 of 7
A. During the 16th and 17th centuries the role of theatre in Europe was redefined
A. Among the forces that brought about change was a growing secularization of thought
1. A rebirth in learning – the Renaissance
2. Revived interest in the classical world – Greece and Rome
a. Playwrights began to write plays that imitated or adapted classical subjects
B. The Renaissance spirit of inquiry also extended to religion
1. Disputes in doctrine and practice led to the formation of Protestant sects
a. Theatrical performance became a useful propaganda medium
2. Disputes often erupted into violence
a. The center of power shifted to the state and away from the church
C. By 1550, church and state had begun to try to reduce the growing disturbances
1. Elizabeth I outlawed public performance of religious and political plays
a. Despite their popularity, the cycle plays were finished
i. Outdoor religious drama was now forbidden by the same church and state that had
once encouraged and supported it
D. Theatre had to become secular if it was to survive
1. Dramatists turned to classical literature, historical chronicles and legends for subject matter
2. With traditional means of support no longer available, theatre became a commercial
E. The most enthusiastic supporters of the religious cycles were the most opposed to a professional
1. Socially, many considered performing secular plays for money wasteful and sinful
a. Public performances took place in the afternoon, they distracted people from work
F. Professional groups had to be able to play often, have a large and varied stock of plays, and have
a large enough performance space
1. They also had to own or control all production elements and assemble a company
G. Acting was not an accepted profession in the dominant trade-guild scheme
1. Actors were considered “masterless men”
a. To have legal status acting companies needed noble patronage
b. Theatre company names: Lord Admiral’s Men, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the King’s
Men, reflect this patronage
H. Although patronage protected them, companies were still restricted
1. Every company had to have a license from the crown
2. Every play had to be approved by the crown
3. The London city council forbade performances within the city
a. Permanent theatres were built outside city limits
I. Despite these challenges, by 1600 English theatre companies were creating what many consider
the greatest theatrical era the world has known
A. The reputation of the Elizabethan theatre rests on the work of William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
1. But he was only one of many significant dramatists of his time. There were others, including:
a. Thomas Kyd
b. Christopher Marlowe
c. Ben Jonson
Essential Theatre Chapter 5
page 3 of 7
B. Theatrical conditions favored the development of playwriting
1. Multiple companies playing in and around London
2. Performances 6 days a week
3. Strong competition for audiences
4. A company produced a new play about every 17 days
5. Average life of a play 10 performances
6. New plays were in constant demand
a. Like today’s television scripts, plays were not considered literature
i. Ben Jonson published his own dramas in 1616
ii. Shakespeare’s plays were not published until after he died
C. Playwrights had an incentive to be prolific
1. To make a living, a playwright had to sell 4 or 5 plays a year
2. Shakespeare seems to have written about 2 a year
a. He was also a major shareholder in his company, and after 1599 part owner of the Globe
D. A company also needed a performance space
1. Buildings intended specifically for theatrical performance began to be erected all over Europe
for the first time since the fall of Rome
a. Red Lion – 1567
b. The Theatre – 1576
2. All had similar features that drew on medieval conventions
E. The Globe Theatre was used by Shakespeare’s company after 1599
1. Round – exterior diameter approximately 99’
2. 3 levels of roofed galleries, each about 12’6” deep
3. The galleries enclosed the yard, approx. 74’ in diameter
4. The stage extended into the middle of the yard
5. Stage dimensions: 41’3” wide by 24’9” deep by 5’-6’ high
6. The audience viewed the stage from 3 sides
7. A roof over the stage (“the heavens” or “the shadow”) was supported by 2 posts
8. At least 2 large doors permitted entrances and exits
a. These doors are considered the most essential part of the background
b. Changes in locale were indicated through the exit and entrance of characters
i. Specific locations were indicated in the dialogue
9. A larger space may have existed between the doors – the “discovery space”
10. The second level of the façade included an acting space for high places (perhaps Juliet’s
11. The third level of the façade may have contained an acting level as well
BOX – The New Globe Theatre
Reopened in 1997, only 200 yards from where the original Globe Theatre stood
20-sided polygon, 100 ft. in diameter
Stage is 5 feet above the yard
2 pillars support the “heavens”
No scenery, microphones or spotlights
Theatre holds 1500 people, 500 of which stand in the yard
 Audience participation is heightened
 Sir Peter Hall: “The essence of Shakespeare’s drama is live interaction with a packed
audience in a very small space in daylight, challenged to use their imaginations. There’s
nowhere else in Britain where that’s happening.”
Virtual tour:
Essential Theatre Chapter 5
page 4 of 7
F. Overall, this stage was an adaptation of medieval conventions
1. The façade served the function of the mansions
2. The stage platform served as the platea
3. Stage properties were used to meet the demands of the action
4. The stage also had some things in common with its Greek and Roman counterparts
a. The background for all scenes was a formalized façade
b. Specific locations were established primarily through dialogue – “spoken décor”
5. Elizabethan structure and conventions allowed playwrights unlimited freedom in handling
time and place
G. Costuming and lighting conventions also resemble those of medieval theatre
1. Most characters were clothed in contemporary garments
2. Suggestive pieces might be worn over the Elizabethan garments
3. Costumes and banners accounted for much of the color and pageantry
4. Sunlight provided the lighting
H. Most important was the acting company itself
1. 25 people – all men
a. About half were shareholders
b. Hired men – actors, prompters, musicians, stagehands, etc., were employed
c. 4 to 6 apprentices – boys who played females
d. Each actor was responsible for a large number of roles
i. Some actors had to play more than one role in each play
ii. Actors had to perform in many different plays (repertory system)
2. The performance style was closer to everyday behavior and appearance than in Greece
a. Masks not worn except as disguises
b. Almost all lines were spoken, rather than sung or chanted
c. Character behavior was familiar to the audience (“to hold a mirror up to nature”)
3. Still, some dramatic and theatrical conventions heightened the performance
a. Much of the dialogue written in verse
b. Men played female roles
c. Formalized backgrounds
I. Elizabethan theatre included a considerable musical element
1. Trumpet flourishes, drums, and a host of other instruments were used
2. Music accompanied songs and dances, and almost all performances concluded with a jig
J. The other important ingredient was the paying audience
1. The plays usually included something for everyone
a. Complex plots with all the important action staged rather than merely described
i. This included stage violence whether serious or comic in nature
b. Poetic language and other devices
i. Directed attention to the significance of events
ii. Provided profound insights into human behavior
K. A small general-admission fee permitted audience to stand in the yard
1. A larger fee allowed one to sit in a gallery
2. An even larger fee allowed entry to private boxes – “lords’ rooms”
3. The Globe held about 3000 people
4. The configuration of the theatre meant that no one was very far from the stage
Essential Theatre Chapter 5
page 5 of 7
5. No intermission – vendors circulated throughout the audience during the performance
a. Somewhat like a modern sporting event
L. Let us take a look at Hamlet
1. One of 38 plays attributed to Shakespeare
2. Representative of Elizabethan drama in its story, structure and conventions
3. Considered one of the world’s greatest tragedies
A. Another of the theatre’s great eras occurred in Italy during the Renaissance
1. In the 16th century Italian plays were written imitating classical forms
a. Theatrical entertainments were done as a part of court festivals
i. Secular; intended to glorify ruler
ii. Subjects and themes were usually drawn from mythology
2. Italian scene design and theatre architecture drew on classical sources, especially De
Architectura by Vitruvius (1st century B.C.), which described:
a. How a theatre is laid out
b. The settings for tragedy, comedy and pastoral plays
c. The Italians radically transformed Vitruvius’ treatise, creating the theatre structure and
scenic practices dominant in European theatre into the 20th century
3. The Italians first set up temporary performance spaces
a. 1545 – Serlio published Architettura, which includes:
i. How to create a theatre space within an existing room
ii. Serlio’s perspective drawings of Vitruvius’ settings fused classical theatre architecture
with Renaissance perspective painting and drawing
4. Principles of perspective drawing were developed during the 15 th century
a. By the 16th century perspective had been adapted to stage use
5. The acceptance of perspective scenery signaled a movement away from the formal and
architectural stage in favor of a representational and pictorial stage
a. Place was pictorially represented in its entirety as seen from a fixed eye-point
b. This set the standard for stage scenery well into the 20th century
6. Renaissance artists had to solve the problem of how to transform a two-dimensional drawing
into a stage setting that occupies three-dimensional space
a. Their solution was to break up the picture and paint its parts on 3 main scenic elements:
i. Side wings
ii. Backdrops
iii. Overhead borders
b. The floor of the stage raked upward toward the back – from this we derive our terms
“upstage” and “downstage”
c. The height of side wings diminished as they receded away from the audience (upstage)
7. A pictorial setting demanded a frame
a. Proscenium arch – the “picture-frame stage”
b. Teatro Farnese – 1618 – the oldest surviving theatre with a permanent proscenium arch
c. The proscenium arch stage is still the most common type of theatre
8. A setting that depicted a single place in its entirety created another problem: how to move
from one locale to another. The solution:
Essential Theatre Chapter 5
page 6 of 7
a. Placing at each side wing location many different flats stacked together, shifted by pulling
the one in front offstage
b. “Back-scenes” (or shutters) set up at the back, shifted in the same way
i. Eventually back scenes were replaced by backdrops that could be lowered or raised
c. “Borders” hung above
d. Scene shifts were part of the overall visual experience
9. The love of spectacle and special effects, which inspired the desire to shift scenery, was
exploited primarily in “intermezzi”
a. More effort often went into the intermezzi than the plays
B. The appeals of intermezzi were eventually absorbed into opera
1. Initially an attempt to recreate the relationship between music and speech of Greek tragedy
2. Opera combined drama, music, dance, spectacle and special effects
3. In 1637 the 1st public opera house in Venice opened
C. Venetian opera houses were prototypes of subsequent theatres
1. Proscenium arch
2. Perspective scenery
3. The division and arrangement of auditorium reflected European class structure
a. Boxes
b. Pit
c. Gallery
A. The development of the French theatre had been interrupted by civil wars
1. Stability returned around 1625
2. Cardinal Richelieu believed the French stage needed drastic reform
a. He advocated adopting the proscenium stage, perspective scenery of Italy
b. He advocated a drama that would adhere to theoretical principles articulated in Italy
i. “The Neoclassical Ideal”
B. Neoclassicists recognized only two legitimate forms of drama, that they felt should not be mixed
1. Tragedy - about kings and nobles, and comedy - about the middle and lower classes
2. Plays should have 5 acts and follow standard rules and purposes:
a. Unity of time – action takes place in 24 hours
b. Unity of place – all action in the same location
c. Unity of action – only one plot
d. The ending should uphold “poetic justice”
e. The purpose of drama is to teach and please
C. Neoclassical rules were not widely known or accepted until 1636 when Pierre Corneille’s The Cid
was attacked (despite its popularity) because it failed to adhere to neoclassical rules
a. Unity of time was observed in the play, but many events, including an entire war, take
place in 24 hours
b. The play ends happily, even though it is a tragedy
c. Controversy over this play is a watershed event in French theatre – effectively
legitimizing the neoclassical view
2. Many believe that Jean Racine’s Phaedra perfected neoclassicism
3. Racine and Corneille set the standard for tragedy until the 19th century
Essential Theatre Chapter 5
page 7 of 7
a. Until then, this brand of tragedy was widely thought superior to that of Shakespeare’s
D. The transition to the new ideal also required that the theatre building be altered
1. Richelieu, in 1641, had built the first proscenium arch theatre in France
a. By the mid-17th century, the Italian order had replaced the medieval
A. Although Shakespeare and Molière are among the world’s greatest dramatists and were
separated in time by only a few years, they worked within different theatrical traditions
1. The English theatres were closed from 1642-1660. Upon reopening:
a. Actresses were accepted as on stage
b. The picture-frame stage, perspective scenery, and neoclassicism were adopted
i. Shakespeare’s plays were adapted to fit the new model
1. In the restoration revision of King Lear only the bad people died – performed until
B. English theatre between 1660-1700 (the Restoration) was noted for its comedy of manners
1. Focus on amoral behavior and witty verbal exchanges of the rich and idle upper class
2. Concerned with sexual conquests, advantageous marriages, fashion, and to be shocked at
3. Butts of ridicule:
a. The fop
b. The old man who marries a young wife
c. The old woman who tries to appear young
d. The pretender at wit and sophistication
e. The self-deceived
4. Sir George Etherege and William Congreve were among the major playwrights
C. Commedia dell’Arte influenced many European playwrights
1. Clearly evident in 18th century English theatre
2. Undeniable influence on Molière and other French playwrights
D. By the 18th century theatres throughout Europe shared the same basic conventions
1. Theatre had made the transition from festival to professional and secular performance