Last week I went to the theatre to see a contemporary play set in an English stately home. When the stage lights came up the audience was confronted with an elaborate, detailed set – the sumptuous library of the Earl. There was oak paneling, huge, filled bookshelves, a big mahogany desk, antique chairs, Persian carpets and traditional fabric sofas. When the scene ended the theatre was darkened for about ten seconds and when the lights came on again there were two actors on a gigantic bed in a fully fitted bedroom. The same procedure occurred at the end of the scene and then we were in a park, with a bench, trees and a blue sky backdrop. The final scene brought us back to the library.
The sets were on a circular, rotating section of the stage and all it needed was the push of a button to darken the theatre and revolve the stage to present the next scene. While that was being performed, stagehands were setting up the scene that was to follow.
It led me to think about such things as audience expectation, theatre technology, language, stage properties and so on. In the Elizabethan theatre it was much simpler. The origins of Elizabethan theatre can be found in the travelling player tradition. They travelled light and there was little chance of props other than items like swords. Furniture was out of the question. Performances were often on the balconies or courtyards of inns, in the open air, and sometimes on wagons. Everything depended on the text and the acting.
Once theatres were established there were more opportunities for props and furniture, but throughout the Elizabethan period, that aspect of performances was elementary by today’s standards. In contemporary drama the audience expects the language to be functional to the relationships between the characters and the dialogue to be realistic. Descriptions of the place where the action is occurring would be out of place to the modern sensibility. In Shakespeare’s plays the audience would expect the actors to give them a sense of the place where the action is taking place and that would be provided for in the text. The audience would then imagine the set.
In the early days of theatres like the Globe there would be swords and daggers, goblets and plates, candles and torches, chairs and stools, bottles of wine or ale, books, flags, and banners – small things that could be carried on by the actors. Gradually, such furniture props as beds, thrones, barrels, tables, and canons were introduced.
An interesting development in the Elizabethan theatre was something quite similar to the modern revolving stage. It was a device that theatre historians have named the ‘discovery space.’ The back part of the stage would be sealed off from the rest by a curtain, which would be drawn at the appropriate moment to reveal a large item of furniture, sometimes with an actor on it. That might be a throne or a bed. In Romeo and Juliet Romeo enters the Capulet tomb to find the dead Tybolt and the unconscious Juliet lying on raised platforms or biers. The curtain could be closed and the action continued on the front part of the stage while the set was being changed behind the curtain. In Othello, the murder scene takes place on Desdemona’s bed. Shakespeare makes it quite clear that it’s on a bed, and that would be previously set up in the discovery space. The transition from the previous scene would be as smooth and rapid as in the modern theatre with all its state of the art technology.
I was quite distracted while I watched the play set in the stately home. My mind was on the stage sets and furniture, and I’m afraid that I found myself admiring that more than the drama I had come to see.