chapter  I
33 Pages

· Playhouses and stages

The construction of J ames Burbage's playhouse, called simply the Theatre, in Shoreditch in 1576, the first building since Roman times built in England expressly for the presentation of plays, does not, contrary to much received opinion, establish a Renaissance for English drama. Rather it defines a high point in the economic fortunes of one established company, a moment when it had the confidence to raise enough capital to erect a permanent cockpitlike structure for spectators around its stage. On this stage and on those of the playhouses that were built during the next fifty years or so were presented plays that had burgeoned from native theatrical stock that was then reaching maturity after two or three centuries of hardy growth. Unlike modern companies of actors, troupes of Elizabethan players depended neither on particular buildings equipped with technical devices to create illusion or spectacular effects nor on an audience prepared to reserve places in advance for a season that might run through the course of a year. Their plays were constructed on non-illusory principles, their performances often formed part of seasonal festivities, religious, civil, or domestic, and, as had been the case throughout the Middle Ages, they assumed that taking their plays to audiences was as much a part of their job as attracting audiences to them. Throughout the reigns of Elizabeth, James, and Charles players were prepared to present their plays in rooms of state frequented by the nobility, in halls at the universities or the London Inns of Court, in guildhalls or the great chambers of private houses, in inn-yards or inn-rooms. When the pestilence caused the playhouses to be closed and drove them out of London, they performed in 'town halls, or moot-halls, or other convenient places' (the stock formula from a licence issued to Queen Anne's players in 1604)/ on scaffolds at fairgrounds, in natural, artificial,z or, conceivably, ancient amphitheatres - or simply anywhere that an audience might congregate. Between November 1589 and February 1592, for example, Strange's Men are known to have played at the Cross Keys, at Court, and at Henslowe's playhouse the Rose. 3 All that they needed was some space: the Latin word for a stage that occurs sometimes in medieval stage directions is

platea, which means simply a 'place' or area. Around that, below it, on three sides, two sides, or one side, the audience disposed themselves with various kinds of provision made for their comfort or convenience.