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Elizabethan Theatre
In the late 16th century all classes of society (apart from royalty) visited the
public theatres. The new theatres were popular and their audiences had a
voracious appetite for new plays. New companies flourished and writers were
employed to satisfy the demand for novelty.
The acting companies
Companies were hierarchical – actors who had a stake in the company were
called 'sharers' and divided up the profit between them; 'hirelings' were just
paid a weekly wage, whilst the boys who played women's roles were
'apprentices' and paid very little. Actors specialised in specific roles which
they performed as part of their repertoire.
The two most famous companies were the Admiral's Men and the Lord
Chamberlain's Men, who were rivals. Companies became known by the title
of the patron's household, for example 'Leicester's Men' were named after the
Earl of Leicester. Leicester's Men consisted of actor James Burbage and four
William Shakespeare was principal writer with the Lord Chamberlain's Men.
Famous Elizabethan actors included Will Kempe, Edward Alleyn and Richard
Plays and playwrights
Companies would perform between 30 and 40 new plays every year.
Documentation from the period shows that the Admiral's Men performed
every afternoon for six days of 40 weeks of the year.
Playwrights were expected to produce a number of new plays every year to
satisfy demand. Many of these were never published. Plays, when written,
became the property of the company and not the playwright. William
Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and John Fletcher were just
a few of the many playwrights of that era whose work is still performed today.
The Globe
The Globe Theatre for which Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous
plays, was erected in 1599 by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. When the lease
on the land at their playhouse, The Theatre, in Shoreditch ran out, the
company decided to rebuild it on the south bank of the River Thames. They
dismantled the timber frame building and pieced a similar structure together
and called it The Globe.
This painting from 1840 is one of the earliest attempts to imagine the Globe's
interior during performance. In fact Queen Elizabeth never visited the Globe
or any other public theatre.
The project was financed by seven of the actors (of whom Shakespeare was
one) and they became the 'housekeepers' who had investment in the building
as well as the company. They also received a share of the takings from the
The 20-sided structure had a capacity of up to 3000 people. A reconstruction
of the Globe was built near its original site, on the South Bank of the River
Thames in London, in the 1990s.
William Shakespeare (1564 -1616)
Shakespeare wrote 38 plays and numerous sonnets. It is not just the breadth
of his work that makes Shakespeare the greatest British dramatist, but the
beauty and inventiveness of his language and the universal nature of his
writing. Shakespeare is performed today because his writing still speaks to
audiences all over the world.
England's most famous playwright was born in Stratford-upon-Avon,
Warwickshire, in 1564. His father was a glove maker and wool dealer. William
attended the local grammar school in Stratford until he was 14 or 15, but there
is no record of him going on to university. It is not known what Shakespeare
did after leaving school. At the age of 18 in 1582 he married Anne Hathaway
and they had three children. However, there are no records of how he was
Shakespeare went to London where his first patron was the young Earl of
Southampton. The first reference to Shakespeare as a writer was in 1592,
when his early plays were successful enough to arouse professional jealousy
in some of his peers. Many of Shakespeare's contemporaries were scathing
about his lack of a university education.
In 1594 Shakespeare had joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men as an actor and
their principal playwright. He wrote on average two new plays a year for the
company. His earliest plays included The Comedy of Errors and his first
published work was the poem 'Venus and Adonis' in 1593. His tragedies
Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear were written after 1600. His last
plays, the romances, are Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest
which were written between 1608 and 1612.
In comparison with contemporary playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Ben
Jonson, Shakespeare had a relatively scandal-free life.
Shakespeare returned to his Stratford home and died there in 1616.
17th-Century Theatre
The most lavish 17th-century productions were not open to the public. King
James I (reigned 1603–25) and later his son Charles I (reigned 1625–49)
commissioned spectacular private performances called 'masques' which
involved music, dance, opulent costumes and extraordinary scenery and
special effects. They were performed once or twice at one of the royal palaces
and were only seen by members of the court. Such lavish court
entertainments were fashionable throughout Europe as an expression of
princely power.
Masques were often used to celebrate royal occasions such as a wedding or
birth. Design and visual symbols played an important role in masques which
called for lavish costumes and sets. Nobles and royalty would take part, often
playing gods or heroes while the other roles were played by professional
Court entertainments were far more opulent than those of the public
playhouses, but professional actors and writers crossed over between both.
Masque-like elements began to be included in popular plays. There are
masque scenes in Thomas Kyd's 'The Spanish Tragedy' and Shakespeare's
'Cymbeline' and 'The Tempest'. Ben Jonson wrote masques for the court as
well as drama for the public playhouses.
Inigo Jones (1573 - 1652)
Inigo Jones introduced the proscenium arch and moveable scenery arranged
in perspective into British theatre.
While travelling in France and Italy he had been impressed and inspired by
the use of stage machinery and scenic invention. Under James I and Charles
I he collaborated with the writer Ben Jonson on a series of masques and
elaborate court productions that cost a fortune.
Inigo Jones's scenery used a series of shutters that slid in and out using
grooves in the floor. He even flew in scenery from above and introduced
coloured lighting by placing candles behind tinted glass.
After a series of successful collaborations Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones
quarrelled. Jonson accused Jones of ensuring that the scenic changes and
transformations had more predominance in the masque than his poetry.
Indeed 'The Masque of Oberon' in 1611 cost over £2000 and the costumes
alone cost over £1000. Jonson received £40 for writing the script.
Inigo Jones went on to design theatre buildings. In 1619 he transformed the
Banqueting House at Whitehall into a theatre and in 1629 built the Cockpit at
The Closure of the Theatres
In 1642 civil war broke out in England and theatres were closed to prevent
public disorder. The theatres remained closed for 18 years, causing
considerable hardship to professional theatre performers, managers and
writers. Illegal performances were only sporadic and many public theatres
were demolished.
The Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, opposed theatrical performances and
were at loggerheads with King Charles I who promoted theatre at his court. In
1632 William Prynne had lost his ear for denouncing dancing as a 'Devil's
Mass' and women actors as 'notorious whores' in his book Histriomastix. This
was seen as a personal attack on Queen Henrietta Maria who loved the
theatre and often performed in masques.
However, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans were less censorious about
musical entertainment and tolerated occasional small-scale masques as the
unavoidable trappings of government.
In 1656, William Davenant succeeded in producing 'The Siege of Rhodes' in
his home in an all-sung version. He staged it with moveable scenery arranged
in perspective, which was to prove highly influential.
According to legend, Davenant was the illegitimate son of William
Shakespeare. He contributed to the last of the Stuart masques and was a
fervent Royalist. After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Davenant
and Thomas Killigrew were granted royal patents, which gave them virtual
monopoly over presenting drama in London. These monopolies were not
revoked until the 19th century.
Davenant opened the Duke's Theatre where he presented adaptations of
Shakespeare's plays with music, forerunners of the semi-operas of Purcell.
Most scholars consider that Davenant's 'The Siege of Rhodes' was the first
English opera. It was performed in 1656 at Rutland House in London.
Davenant wrote the text but the score was the work of several different
musicians. At this time, the theatres were closed and plays forbidden by law,
although music was still played. It is possible that the entertainment was
rather a way of getting round the law than an attempt to write a true opera.
This engraving depicts the 'Duke's House' (later Duke's Theatre) where the
Duke of York's players performed from 1661. It was originally a tennis court,
built in Lincoln's Inn Fields, which Sir William Davenant converted into a
performance space.
It was at the Duke's Theatre that the first 'scenic' production of 'Hamlet' was
staged, with Thomas Betterton as the Prince.
The picture gives us an idea of the interior of the theatre. A large, richly
decorated proscenium frames the stage. Above is a small room with a
curtained opening, presumably used by the musicians.
The actors are shown performing the 'The Empress of Morocco', presented at
that theatre in 1673.
Restoration Drama
The term 'Restoration' refers to the period following the restoration of Charles
II to the throne of the United Kingdom in 1660.
The introduction of scenery and elaborate stage machinery to the English
public stage in the 1660s gave rise to blockbusting semi-operas. Many of
these were adaptations of other plays, often by Shakespeare. These had
episodes of music, singing, dancing and special effects. They even had
transformation scenes.
The 1674 production of 'The Tempest' had many spectacular scenes including
a storm.
The advances in scene design impacted on the design of theatre buildings,
and behind the thrust stage a scenic stage was added, framed by a
proscenium arch.
The Duke's Theatre in Dorset Garden was planned by William Davenant and
designed by Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul's Cathedral. It cost
£9000 (about £600,000 today) paid for by 'adventurers' (we would call them
It stood by the River Thames and steps led up from the river for those patrons
arriving by boat. The theatre was the grandest ever seen in Britain up to that
time, with an elaborate proscenium arch, one of the first in London.
Over the theatre were flats, where Thomas Betterton, the leading actor of the
late 17th century and director of the acting company, lived.
Restoration dramatists
Audiences had a preference for Restoration comedy and heroic tragedy in
addition to plays by Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher and Shakespeare.
Restoration dramatists include William Wycherley, George Etherege, Thomas
Otway, William Congreve and George Farquhar. The double standards of
courtiers and members of the aristocracy were reflected in Restoration
drama's obsession with social behaviour. Powerful and well-mannered
characters were often portrayed as corrupt and sexually promiscuous.
Women writers
The Restoration period also saw women become recognised as professional
playwrights. The most famous of these was Aphra Behn. A group of women
writers known as The Female Wits produced many works for the stage. They
included Mary Pix, Catherine Trotter and the prolific Susannah Centlivre who
wrote 19 plays including 'A Bold Stroke for a Wife'.
When Charles II was restored to the throne, the theatre companies were quick
to provide public performances again, initially in converted tennis courts.
However, their freedom was short lived and Charles II soon reorganised the
theatre by creating a monopoly through royal patent. This licensed only two
companies to produce theatre in London. Their theatres Lincoln 's Inn Fields
and Drury Lane became known as the 'patent theatres' and were managed
and directed by Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant respectively.
Charles II had a taste for the drama and opera he had seen in exile in France.
He encouraged Killigrew and Davenant to introduce women on stage, thus
breaking with the tradition of boy actors taking female roles and to introduce
moveable perspective scenery which revolutionised staging and the design of
theatre buildings.
The royal patents also permitted a wide-ranging repertory, such as tragedies,
comedies, plays, opera, musical theatre and dancing.
Restoration actors
The leading Restoration actor was Thomas Betterton whom diarist Samuel
Pepys regarded as the best in the world, noting that 'he could command
attention even from the fops and flower girls'. Betterton went on to manage
the Duke's Company from 1668. Other Restoration actors included Cave
Underhill, Thomas Otway and Colley Cibber.
The first women on stage
The Restoration saw the emergence of the first professional actresses and
playwrights. Breeches parts, where women disguised themselves as men
(and thus revealed their ankles and legs in men's clothing) quickly proved
very popular in Restoration drama.
The first woman to appear on the professional stage in England is generally
considered to be Margaret Hughes who performed at the Vere Street Theatre
in 1660 in a production of Othello. Davenant employed eight actresses to
perform with his company shortly afterwards.
Other notable actresses included Elizabeth Barry who was known as the
queen of tragedy. She was trained for the stage by the notorious womaniser,
the Earl of Rochester, who was also her lover. The most infamous actress of
this period was Nell Gwyn, who was painted nude for Charles II and bore him
two children.