chapter  1
Interpreting Restoration drama: some facts and fictions
Pages 35

One of the main purposes of research into the original staging(s) of plays from historical periods is simply stated: the more we know about the stage for which a particular play was written, the better we understand the play. Dramaturgical aspects that might otherwise remain obscure may be illuminated by specific knowledge relating to the physical conditions under which the play was originally performed. There is, however, very little direct evidence of staging arrangements at any of the four public scenic theatres operating in the Restoration period (1660-1700): Lincoln’s Inn Fields (16 61), Bridges Street (1663-71), Dorset Garden (1671) and Drury Lane (1674).1 Pictorial evidence concerning Restoration stages and scenic design is particularly rare. We may add information gleaned from other primary sources – from the plays themselves, promptbooks, diary entries, theatrical reminiscences, biographies, critical writings and private letters – but, invaluable as this may be, we simply do not know definitively what Restoration theatregoers saw when they gazed on the stage of any public theatre. As the ‘facts’ about Restoration theatre production are so slender, scholarly conjecture has a legitimate role to play in any consideration of the original staging of Restoration plays. Of course, conjecture is often unavoidable in any historical enquiry, with perhaps Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London representing the most prominent example of a conjecturally reconstructed stage. However, the main difference between, say, a conjectural model of Davenant’s LIF and Shakespeare’s Globe is that the Shakespearean platform stage was technically simpler than the Restoration scenic stage. Indeed, most of the dramaturgical devices of pre-Civil War plays, including soliloquies, eavesdropping scenes, discoveries, upper levels and trapdoors, were retained when the new theatres opened, and continued in use throughout the period. It is the nature of the new devices relating to the scenic stage that is the subject of greatest speculation. Concerning the two theatres considered in this study, LIF and Bridges Street, we know little more than that the former was a converted tennis court and

the latter purpose-built; that auditoriums in both were divided into pit, galleries and boxes; and that both theatres used changeable scenery arranged on a scenic area located upstage of a front curtain, downstage of which was a sizeable forestage. For neither theatre is there record, for example, of the dimensions of forestage or scenic area, the height and width of the frontispiece (proscenium arch) or the number and disposition of scenic elements. We will never know for certain how any play was performed at LIF or Bridges Street. Through scrupulous analysis of the available evidence, however, we should be able to confine conjecture to what was technically possible on Restoration stages at specific times. In other words, the task of the theatre historian is to refine existing knowledge and to direct speculation to productive ranges. This task may be achieved by considering the evidence in the light of all available critical commentary, testing individual interpretations against a full, as opposed to a selected, range of evidence, and providing new interpretations where old ones appear to fail. Such is the aim of this book.