Elizabethan Playhouses and Performance Conventions

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When Elizabeth became Queen of England in 1558, there were no specially designed theatre buildings. Companies of actors (usually small, made of 5 to 8 members) toured the country and performed in a wide variety of temporary acting spaces, mainly in inn yards, but also in churches, Town Halls, Town Squares, great halls of Royal Palaces or other great houses, or anywhere else that a large crowd could be gathered to view a performance.

It is true that they continued to tour throughout Elizabeth’s reign (especially during the Plague in London, when theatres were closed or earned but little money). Nevertheless, given the laws passed by the Queen to control wandering beggars and vagrants – which implicitly affected the acting companies as well – many actors were encouraged to settle down with permanent bases in London.

The first permanent theatres in England were old inns which had been used as temporary acting areas when the companies had been touring. E.g. The Cross Keys, The Bull, The Bel Savage, The Bell – all originally built as inns. Some of the inns that became theatres had substantial alterations made to their structure to allow them to be used as playhouses.

The first purpose built theatre building in England was simply called The Theatre, eventually giving its name to all such building erected in the outskirts of London and functioning until the closing of the theatres in 1642 during the Civil War.

The Theatre was built in 1576, at Shoreditch in the northern outskirts of London, by the Earl of Leicester’s Men who were led by James Burbage, a carpenter turned actor. It seems that the design of The Theatre was based on that of bull-baiting and bear-baiting yards (as a matter of fact, bull baiting, bear baiting and fencing shows were very popular by that time, and they were often organized before the plays started.). The Theatre was followed the next year (1577) by The Curtain, in 1587 by The Rose and in 1595 by The Swan (to mention but the most famous theatres). In 1599, a dispute over the land on which The Theatre stood determined Burbage’s sons to secretly tear down the building and carry away the timber to build a new playhouse on the Bankside which they names The Globe. By this time, the Burbages had become members of Lord Chamberlain’s Company, along with William Shakespeare, and The Globe is famously remembered as the theatre in which many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. (The Globe was destroyed in 1613 in a fire caused by the sparks of a cannon fired during the performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Rebuilt, it was closed and demolished in 1644 during the Civil War. The modern reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London was completed in 1997.)

Before going into more details regarding the structure of the Elizabethan theatre, distinction should be made, however, between two categories of playhouses: the public (outdoor) theatres and the private (indoor) theatres. The former were amphitheatre buildings open to the air and therefore cheaper – The Globe, for instance, charged two pence for a seat in the galleries or a single penny to stand in the yard. The latter (e.g. Blackfriars; The Cockpit) were built to a hall design in enclosed and usually rectangular buildings more like the theatres we know today. They had amore exclusive audience since they charged considerably more – the cheapest seat in a private theatre cost sixpence. The adult companies did not start to use the private hall theatres until after Elizabeth’s death, but they were used by the boy companies (made up entirely of child and teenage actors) in Elizabeth’s reign and were used by Shakespeare’s Company - by this time the King’s Men - and other adult companies in the Jacobean period.

Structure and Design of Public/ Outdoor Theatres
Public theatres were polygonal - hexagonal outside and round inside (“a wooden O” as Shakespeare puts it in Henry V). An...
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