3. OUTDOOR THEATRES

In 1575, when Shakespeare was only eleven, the City authorities imposed a Code of Practice upon the Players which so displeased them that they decided to withdraw outside the City boundaries. Thus it was that in the following year, 1576, the first custom-made London theatre, appropriately called 'The Theatre' was built in Finsbury Fields and the next year, 1577, The Curtain was built in the same area. Finsbury, now a bustling part of London, was then almost a country area but within easy reach of the City. These two theatres were so successful that ten years later another spate of building began, but this time across the river on Bankside, which gradually became a theatre centre. slide 07 In 1587 The Rose was built, in 1595 The Swan, in 1599 The Globe and in 1600 The Fortune, all in the same vicinity. The next slide (number 7) taken from a seventeenth century drawing, shows you a reconstruction of the Bankside of those days, based on a drawing by the Dutchman, C. J. Visscher; in the foreground is the theatre area and in the background, over the river, we can see St Paul's.

The Globe was built by the Burbage Brothers, Richard and Cuthbert, whose father, James, had built The Theatre back in 1576. The Globe was, in fact, a sort of reconstruction of The Theatre, for in 1597/8, when the lease ran out, The Theatre was demolished and its fabric taken to Bankside and used in the building of The Globe. It was The Globe where, after 1599, Shakespeare's company, at that time called the Chamberlain's Men, performed his plays.

slide 08 At the present moment (i.e. 1989) an exciting project is afoot to rebuild the Globe close to its original position, opposite St Paul's Cathedral. We do not know exactly what the original Globe looked like but we do have some early sketches of the 2nd Globe - the first was burned down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII. It was rebuilt in 1614 and the sketches on slides 8 and 9 date from 1616. slide 09

Much of our knowledge of the Elizabethan theatre is, however, merely conjectural, built up from odd bits of evidence that have survived the ravages of time. Some of this is visual evidence, such as the drawings of London and of the Globe but perhaps the most important piece of evidence is an extant copy of a very detailed agreement made between the builder of the Fortune Theatre, one Peter Street 'citizen and carpenter of London' and Philip Henslow and Edward Alleyn. This agreement specifies all sorts of details about the theatre and in particular establishes its measurements:

The frame of the said house to be set square and to contain four-score foot [one foot is approximately thirty centimetres and a score is twenty] of lawful assize every way square without and fifty five foot of like assize square every way with in... With a Stage and a Tiring-house to be made, erected and set up within the said frame, with a shadow or cover over the said stage, which stage shall be placed and set ... in such sort as is prefigured in a plot thereof drawn...

And which stage shall contain in length forty and three foot of lawful assize, and in breadth to extend to the middle of the yard of the said house.

Thus, a fairly close reconstruction of the Fortune can be made and, though the Fortune is of less interest to us than Shakespeare's Globe, it helps to build up the general picture of the kind of theatre Shakespeare's plays were first performed in.

What then do we know about Elizabethan theatres? Well, first, they were, in general, round, square, octagonal, or something of the sort. This is supported both by the specifications for the Fortune Theatre and also by Shakespeare's words in the Prologue to Henry V

pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object. Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Notice here "this cockpit" and "this wooden O", both of which indicate Shakespeare's awareness of the shape of his theatre; you might notice, too, "this unworthy scaffold" reminiscent of the makeshift stage of earlier times. slide 10 What seems to be certain is that the buildings were not longer in one dimension than another; it is now, in fact, believed that the Globe was a 24-sided polygon and we know from the specifications quoted above, that the Fortune was square (see slide number 10).

The theatres were, in effect, open-air theatres - the building, as you can see here, surrounded an open yard (like the Inn-Yards) with the stage at one end, jutting out into the audience to about half the depth of the theatre; the width was considerably more. Round three sides of the yard were three tiers of galleries where the wealthier or superior members of the audience sat; the rest of the audience stood in the open yard around the stage and (for obvious reasons) they were known as 'the Groundlings'. It was the Groundlings whose presence most impinged upon the Players for they were close to the stage. Shakespeare, however, never insulted his audience for he knew they were the lifeblood of the theatre. Some of his contemporaries were less kindly ; Ben Jonson, for instance, castigated the Groundlings in one of his plays, despising the

popular applause
Or foamy praise that drops from common jaws,

and John Marston objected to coming too close to the common audience where he maintained he would be, "choked/With the stench of garlic ... pasted to the balmy jacket of a beer- brewer".

But this common audience paid dearly for their entertainment. It cost a penny to get into the theatre and prices were accumulative, so that for a further penny you could sit in the "twopenny gallery" on the top tier and for further pennies still you could go into one of the lower galleries. The Groundling paying his penny would be spending the better part of a day's wages to go into the theatre. I wonder if a modern warkman would do that?

Despite the smallness of the theatre (80 x 80 feet), it has been estimated that 2500 people could be accommodated inside. The Elizabethans were, in fact, smaller than we are today and had shorter legs which enabled them to fit into more cramped conditions. A recent experiment has suggested that it would take at least half an hour for the audience to get in or out - a fact which has some bearing upon the way in which a play opens or closes - but more of this in a moment or so.

slide 11 Because of its shape the stage was known as an 'apron stage'. It was raised 3 or 4 feet above the ground and was surrounded on three sides by the audience; slide number 11 shows us in more detail how close to the stage the audience would be sitting. The main stage had doors on each side at the back and between these doors was a small curtained recess - the inner stage; slide 12 unlike the main stage it was possible to curtain this recess off because it was simply like a cupboard in the back of the stage. Above this recess was the upper stage with a balcony and perhaps a small gallery above the upper stage. The main stage was hollow and there was access from below through various and probably quite numerous trapdoors. slide 13 I have said that the theatre was open to the sky; the galleries, however, were thatched and there was a thatched roof over the back part of the stage, known as the shadow or heavens; the front of the stage was open to the elements; slide 14 if it rained the actors, like the groundlings, got wet. The next 3 slides show further views of the Elizabethan theatre: slide number 12 is a mock-up of the stage and galleries; slide 13 is a conjectural drawing, partly a cross-section, of an Elizabethan Playhouse, made by Walter Hodges in 1965; and slide number 14 (of rather poor quality, I'm afraid) takes us back in time to a contemporary drawing, the original of which was made c. 1596 by the Dutch traveller, Johannes de Witt, though it survives today only in a copy made by Arend van Buchell.

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