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Elizabethan Theatre and Its Audience Essay Sample

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Elizabethan Theatre and Its Audience Essay Sample

The posthumous impact of ancient Rome has an unsurpassable influence on the historical background of Elizabethan Theatre. The defining feature of the period is the growth of a modern consciousness, which has another alternative name, ‘Early Modern’. This is not only apparent in the theatre of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century but in present time also. During Middle Ages the individual artists were evolved first. These artists, normally poor and depended on the audience’s generosity, were essentially minstrels. They used to perform in the King’s court, social festivals or market places. The church did not support these minstrels but some of the priests imitated their techniques and amalgamated religious guidance and secular stories. Thus, they invented ‘Dramatic Rituals’, which were spoken in Latin language and enacted by clerics. In the course of time, these dramatic rituals became the basis of biblical stories, presented in liturgical and dramatic manner in the church which was considered to be the stage and the audience sat amidst the actors. During thirteenth and fourteenth centuries this method experienced a huge change.

The new secularized version of drama found its expression in English instead of Latin. The convention of script was invented. Even characters were developed from homely and comic ground. People came across the evolution of Mystery, Morality and Miracle plays. But during Renaissance, the Elizabethan theatre reached the position of excellence. Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne of England in the year 1558. At that point of time there were no specially designed buildings in England. There were some companies of actors which toured the country and delivered their performances in a wide variety of temporary acting spaces, sometimes building stages and scenery for particular series of performances. There were even records of actors performing in churches, Royal palaces, Inn Yards, Town Halls, Town Squares or anywhere else where a large number of people could gather to view a performance. These acting companies were very small and mobile by nature.

These were composed of five to eight players including a young male member who played all the female roles. In spite of this background the focus is on the larger companies that inhabited the larger theatre buildings that were built later in Queen Elizabeth’s reign (up to 1603). But these larger companies also toured the Provinces when the London theatres were closed owing to the epidemic, Plague. When Queen Elizabeth came to rule, laws were passed to control the wandering beggars and vagrants. According to these laws any actor, who toured and performed without the support of a member of a highest rank or nobility, would be considered as a criminal. As a punishment that person was driven out or if he continued in doing so, he was forced to become servants to Lords and Ladies of the realm officially. The first permanent theatres in England were the old inns—the Cross Keys, the Bull, the Bel Savage and the Bell. Even some of these had substantial alterations that enabled them to be playhouses.

Particularly, The Red Lion in Stepney had a rough auditorium with scaffolding galleries built around the stage area. This design casted a great influence upon the later built theatres such as The Theatre and the Globe. The architecture and structure of the Elizabethan theatre were very interesting. The amphitheatre of this era was an open air arena, octagonal in shape. Even sometimes the number of sides varied from 8-24. This kind of amphitheatre was almost 100ft in diameter. The materials required for construction were nails, timber, flint stones, plaster, thatched roof etc. builders required almost six months to accomplish the construction. These were capable to accommodate 1500-3000 audiences and the grounds of these theatres were bustling with people and stalls of refreshments which were considered to be the mode of attraction for the non-playgoers. Only one main entrance was there but the theatre was without any toilet system; people had to relief themselves at the outside. On the either side of the balconies and galleries there were staircases.

Its interior design resembled the ancient Roman colosseum but it was much larger in size than the Elizabethan theatre. It could contain almost 50,000 audiences. There were no facilities for artificial lighting. Most of the plays were staged during 2’O clock in the afternoon and the performances were held in natural lighting. In England the summer afternoons were always pleasant; therefore, there was no issue of extreme heat in the open air arena. But during winter it was quite problematic to stage a performance in an open stage. Hence entire thing had been shifted to the indoor section. The performance stage was 20-45ft wide, 15-30ft deep and its elevation was around 3-5ft from the ground. The floor of the stage was made of wood and there was a special device called ‘Trap Door’, which was used for special effects or dramatic entry for supernatural elements. In front of the stage, there were ‘Herculean Columns’—the large pillars, made of the huge trunk of single tree—and it supported the ‘Heavens’—a cell where actors could hide themselves from the eyes of the audience and with the help of ropes and wires they could dramatically enter the stage.

Behind these Herculean Columns there was the stage wall covered by a curtain and above it, there was a large decorative gallery—‘Frons Scenae’ (taken from Roman theatre convention). At the back stage, there was ‘Tiring House’ for the actors to change their attires. The sitting arrangements reflected the presence of stratification in the society. ‘The Lord’s rooms’ and ‘The Gentlemen’s rooms’ were for the aristocrats where as the wooden seats in the galleries were meant for the common people belonging to the lower strata. The Elizabethan theatre was highly influenced by the Greek theatre. But there was a co-existence of the similarities and differences between the two ages. The Greek theatre was the birthplace of western drama.

It began with the festivals like ‘City Dionysia’ in honour of the god of wine and fertility, Dionysus. During 8th-7th century B.C., the contest of choral dancing held at many festivals—this choral dancing was called ‘Dithyrambs’. The first definite record of drama was found in 534 B.C. Comedy, Tragedy and Satyr were being performed. At that point of time, a contest was held for the best tragedy instituted and the winner of the contest was Thespis. Since then the title ‘Thespians’ had been evolved to honour the Greek actors. The Greek amphitheatres were built onto hillsides. There were originally temporary wooden structures, later made of stone. These were considered a form of temple, capable of accommodating 20,000 spectators. The theatre building had several divisions: Orkestra, Thymele, Theatron, Skene, Parados, Periaktoi and Machina. Audience was the important part of the theatre.

Chorus was there to perform the choric role of making the audience aware of story of the play by delivering a prologue. The actors were without the aid of exaggerated costumes and masks. These masks were made of linen or cork, so none of them have survived till now. Tragic masks carried mournful expression, while comic masks were smiling. The shape of these masks made the words easier for the audience to hear. Ancient Greek actors had to display grand gesture so that the audience could see and hear the story. The Greek theatres were so cleverly constructed that the smallest sound could be transmitted to any seat.

The Elizabethan theatre was derived from medieval theatre tradition: Morality, Mystery and Miracle plays. During this era, drama became a unified expression as the same production was staged before the aristocrats as well as the common people. But the conventions experienced a lot of changes. The dramas of Elizabethan era were greatly influenced by the elements of Seneca. The gory spectacles, tragic vision added extra excitement to the reaction of the audience. The theatre acted as a mirror of society and the contemporary activities. Unlike Greek theatre, here costumes were very fashionable and contemporary. These costumes were indicative of character’s social ranking or status. The young male members were used to perform the female roles as there were restrictions on the part of women regarding stage performances. The speech became natural without any poetic appeal but gestures were as grand as the Greeks.

The theatres were of two types mainly: the ‘Public’ amphitheatres (such as the Theatre, the Globe, the Swan, the Rose) which were open air and the smaller and more expensive ‘Private’ theatre (such as Blackfriars and the Cockpit) which resembled a hall design in enclosed and usually rectangular buildings more like the theatres of today. The first built theatre building in England—originally and solely intended for performances—was called ‘The Theatre’. It was built in 1576 by the Earl of Leicester’s Players who were led by James Burbage. For this Burbage relied on Dr. John Dee’s architectural library. The design was based on bull baiting or bear baiting yards which had sometimes been used by actors as performance location in the past. It was wooden, polygonal in shape and it had most probably three galleries full of seating arrangement one above another. The Globe was a very famous public amphitheatre of that era because the famous playwright, William Shakespeare’s most of the plays had been debuted over there. It was constructed in 1599. It stood just next to the Rose, on the right hand side of the river, Thames.

It was designed and built for the Chamberlain’s Men by Cuthbert Burbage, the son of James Burbage. The stage was divided into two sections: the outer portion was rectangular in shape and had a covering of a thatched roof. But there were no curtains on the either sides. The inner stage was leading to the ‘Tiring House’. There was a large cell between the large cell between the inner and outer stage. It was called ‘hell’ and used for the dramatic and frightening appearance of ghosts and supernatural creatures. The Globe theatre caught fire on 1613 owing to the misfiring of a canon ball during the performance of Henry VIII. Within a year the Globe was reconstructed and its thatched roof was replaced by a tiled one. The reconstructed theatre was retained up to 15th April, 1644 until it was demolished by the landlord, Sir Matthew Brend. The Globe theatre was very famous for its special effects for which there were facilities to use several elements: canon, trapdoors, wires, ropes, fireworks, flowers, music, live animals, bones, intestines and blood of dead animals etc.

Audiences were the important part of the theatre and during the Elizabethan era the audience performed a very special role. They reflected the reactions and witnessed the ongoing actions of the actors. But to know about the socio-economic background of the audience, one should plunge beneath the surface. London society had stratification in its social structure. There were aristocrats, guildsmen, apprentice, craftsmen, merchants, scholar and the base of societal hierarchy was composed of soldiers, peddlers, vagrants etc. The people belonging to the lower strata led an arduous life from Monday to Friday. Saturday was a half work day so it left the afternoon and evening for some self-indulgence like theatre, harlots etc. On the contrary, social elites were used to live a luxurious and pompous life.

Entertainment was largely depended upon the person’s position in society as was the amount of money he had available to spend. Their monetary system was comprised of two types of units: silver and gold. But there was also ‘Moneys of Account’ which did not exist as currency but was used to deal with a large sum of money. General admission to the Globe and the other public theatres of the day was as low as a penny. Thousands of people stood around the yards and the rest seated in the galleries. During performance there were no intervals. The poor patrons stood beside the stage where as the wealthy ones secured the cushioned seats in ‘the Gentlemen’s rooms’.

Theses audiences were not at all well behaved. They were uncultured, rowdy like people. Therefore, the plays should contain exciting scenes to entertain them. Sometimes the truly bad actors or the actor playing a menacing role were jeered at or they were being attacked by the audience with objects. The presence of pick-pockets and prostitutes was a much more likely feature of local ail-houses. In spite of this condition research work allows to state the similarities and differences between the Elizabethan and the Modern audiences. The Modern audience, seated in the dark, can establish the individual connection with the illuminated stage or the actors. Unlike this, the Elizabethan audiences were aware of other members not because of natural light but of their common behaviour. Still the similarities lie in their financial resources, time and personal interests.

Endnotes

Through this sociological study, the historical, cultural, economical and literary aspects of the Elizabethan era are revisited. Drama became the national literary manifestation of the time. Moralities and interludes were still a living memory, since they had instilled a great interest in drama in the people. A new interest in classical drama had been introduced by Humanism. The theatre was a mirror of society, whose structure was modelled on the divine order of the universe, inside which man had to respect a precise hierarchy: drama derived from the breaking of this order. The theatre was both physically and financially accessible to the audience. But which mattered most was the leisure time. Near about 1,60,000 people resided in the area from where theatres were in walking distance. But only 2 out of 15 London playgoers paid weekly visit to the theatres. On the other hand 10 out of 15 American playgoers paid visit to the theatres per week. It proves leisure time was much more important then physical and financial access to the theatres.

Works cited

Burgess, Anthony. The Elizabethan Theatre. New York. Paperback. Print.

Dessen, Alan C. Elizabethan Stage Conventions and Modern Interpreters. New York. Paperback

1986. Print.

Larque, Thomas. A Lecture on Elizabethan Theatre. Web. 2001 and 2005.

Salingar, L.G. A Theatre for Eloquence and Pageantry. “The Penguin Guide to English Literatur

-e”. 1969. Web. 19th June 2010.

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