In mediaeval times plays were performed on carts that the players pushed around from village to village; the actors were known as 'Strolling Players' because they walked or 'strolled' round from place to place, setting up their cart as a stage in the market place or the village square. They were actors, tumblers, jugglers, all rolled into one: they performed plays, they walked on stilts, they juggled, they created slapstick scenes - anything to please, to entertain and, of course, to earn themselves not only applause hut money to live on. At the end of their performance they appealed to the audience to be generous and they went round with their hats collecting whatever was thrown to them. If their performance pleased, they would be well rewarded; if they did badly they would not have much for supper that night.

Gradually, the innkeepers learned that when the Players came to town business was brisk; entertainment in those days was not easily come by and the arrival of the Players brought everyone out on holiday. The labourers and their families rubbed shoulders with the farmers and the foremen, as they all went to watch the plays. Thus, the innkeepers began to offer the shelter of their inn-yards for the performances and the Players would stand their carts at one end of the inn-yard whilst the local audience stood around to watch, buying their ale and mead and treating it as a festive occasion.

It was from this that the more involved role of the inns developed: a temporary stage would be erected at the end of the yard and the audience would gather, not only in the yard itself, but would be able to pay for a view, perhaps even a seat inside the inn by a window overlooking the yard. Many of these inns had tiers of galleries all round the yard and some of them became for a while almost permanent theatres. Most such inns are long disappeared but slide number 4 gives us a modern view of the Oxford Arms in London which remained standing until a few years back; you can see the present-day St Paul's in the background. It was the inn-yards that later dictated the shape and form of the custom made open-air theatres built in the last quarter of the sixteenth century - but more of that later.

This page is part of Dr. Hilda Spear's Lecture on The Elizabethan Theatre