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THE EARLY ENGLISH THEATERS

The following article was originally published in The Outlines of Literature: English and American. Truman J. Backus. New York: Sheldon and Company, 1897. pp. 84-6.

In the year 1576, under the powerful patronage of the Earl of Leicester, James Burbage built the first English theater. The venture proved so successful, that twelve theaters were soon furnishing entertainment to the citizens of London. Of these the most celebrated was "The Globe." It was so named because its sign bore the effigy of Atlas supporting the globe, with the motto, "Totus Mundus agit Histrionem." Many of the early London theaters were on the southern or Surrey bank of the Thames, out of the jurisdiction of the City, whose officers and magistrates, under the influence of Puritanism, carried on a constant war against the players and the play-houses. Some of these theaters were cock-pits (the name of "the pit" still suggesting that fact); some were arenas for bull-baiting and bear-baiting. Compared with the magnificent theaters of the present day, all were poor and squalid, retaining in their form and arrangements many traces of the old model -- the inn-yard. Most of them were entirely uncovered, except for a thatched roof over the stage which protected the actors and privileged spectators from the weather. The audience was exposed to sunshine and to storm. Plays were acted only in the daytime. The boxes, or "rooms," as they were styled, were arranged nearly as in the present day; but the musicians, instead of being placed in the orchestra, were in a lofty gallery over the stage.

In early English theaters there was a total absence of painted or movable scenery, and the parts for women were performed by men or boys, actresses being as yet unknown. A few screens of cloth or tapestry gave the actors the opportunity of making their exits and entrances; a placard, bearing the name of Rome, Athens, London, or Florence, as the case might be, indicated to the audience the scene of the action. Certain typical articles of furniture were used. A bed on the stage suggested a bedroom; a table covered with tankards, a tavern; a gilded chair surmounted by a canopy, and called "a state," a palace; an altar, a church; and so on. A permanent wooden structure like a scaffold, erected at the back of the stage, represented objects according to the requirements of the piece, such as the wall of a castle or a besieged city, the outside of a house, or a position enabling one of the actors to overhear others without being seen himself.

The poverty of the theater was among the conditions of excellence which stimulated the Elizabethan dramatist. He could not depend upon the painter of scenes for interpretation of the play, and therefore was constrained to make his thought vigorous and his language vivid. The performance began early in the afternoon, and was announced by flourishes of a trumpet. Black drapery hung around the stage was the symbol of tragedy; and rushes strewn on the stage enabled the best patrons of the company to sit upon the floor. Dancing and singing took place between the acts; and, as a rule, a comic ballad, sung by a clown with accompaniment of tabor and pipe and farcical dancing closed the entertainment.

Notwithstanding the social discredit attached to the actor, the drama reached some popularity, and the profession was so lucrative, that it soon became the common resort of literary genius in search of employment. This department of our literature passed from infancy to maturity in a single generation. Twenty years after the appearance of the first rude tragedy, the English theater entered upon a period of splendor without parallel in the literature of any other country. This was mainly the work of a small band of poets, whose careers began at about the same time. This sudden development of the drama was largely due to the pecuniary success of the new and popular amusement. The generous compensation for such literary work tempted authors to write dramas.

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