Elizabethan Theatre

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The Structure and Arrangement of the Elizabethan Theater

The emergence of the Elizabethan theater changed how plays were produced and the general nature of how pays were produced. The Elizabethan theater began with groups of adult companies acting in a variety of places, which included houses, the halls of an Inn or Court, or inn-yards. James Burbage built one of the first permanent theater structures aptly called The Theater in 1576. Interestingly, this playhouse was located just outside of London “beyond the jurisdiction of the city authorities who were generally hostile to dramatic spectacles” (Abrams 431). Not long after this, other public theaters were built. These playhouses were generally shaped like an oval, with the center yard unroofed. (Abrams 431) This includes the famous Globe Theater, which was also located outside London. The Elizabethan stage was different from previous stages because it “utilized an open platform stage inherited from medieval theater” (Wilson 279). Wilson notes that the theater buildings had a character “all their own” (Wilson 279). Another significant difference between Elizabethan theaters and earlier theaters was the fact that Elizabethan theaters did not have painted scenery. Because of the nature of how plays were performed, the platform stage had to be a rather neutral playing area “which could become many different places in quick succession” (279). Because a play’s action moved swiftly, this type of stage was not only convenient but also essential to provide a sense of continuous action as the play progressed. Elizabethan playhouses were public and private. Public theaters were used primarily by professional adult acting companies until around 1610. The Globe is by far the most famous of these playhouses. It is estimated that this type of playhouse seated anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 audience members. Playhouses from this era were circular and octagonal. Sylvan Barnet notes that the Chorus of Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, calls the theater a “‘wooden O’” (Barnet 765). According to Wilson, The Fortune Theater was square with a rectangular stage running along one side. (Wilson 279) According to historical records, this shape was the exception rather than the rule. Private theaters held performances indoors and were lit with candles and windows that were usually located on the second story. While the name causes us to think that these types of playhouses excluded certain individuals, this is not the case in Elizabethan England. Private theaters were open to the public; however, they were considerably smaller than public theaters and, as a result, usually attracted a smaller audience. The Elizabethan playhouse was small, according to G. B. Harrison. From estimations, it is believed that the Elizabethan playhouse measured 80 feet by 80 feet, externally. The interior area of the playhouse was more than likely 55 feet by 55 feet with the stage occupying almost half of this space. While the playhouses might have been small, Harrison notes that even by today’s standards, “the size of the stage is considerable” (Harrison 136). The inner stage was used for discoveries made throughout the course of plays but it could also be used for concealments as well. The stage itself is commonly referred to as the “apron” (Harrison 140). Generally, the stage was a raised platform and audience members were never very far from the actors. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about plays during this era is that actors would step forth in broad daylight almost into the center of the audience. This concept is essential in that the actor and the spectators were "fused into a common experience” (Harrison 140). This helps us understand the nature of the famous soliloquy. In Elizabethan drama the soliloquy was a “quite natural communication as a character explains his thoughts and intentions to those immediately before him” (140). As a result of this intimate setting the actor did not need to shout or...
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