The Elizabethan Theatre

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The Elizabethan Theatre:

The design of Elizabethan theatres was inspired by inn yards, where the audience stood around a platform stage or watched the onstage action from rooms surrounding a courtyard. These playhouses were many sided buildings with two levels for acting and three for seating. The acting platform, usually five to six feet above ground level, has been called a localized platform stage because little or no scenery was used to indicate locale. A line for the play, or possibly a symbolic object was enough to inform the audience of the play’s geographical setting.

Behind the stage was the tiring house, a room that functioned as the actor’s dressing room. In the center rear of the stage was a curtained recess called the study. This area was used to reveal particular settings, such as a bedroom etc. In the center of the second level acting area was a shallow balcony, the tarras, behind which a curtain called the arras was often hung to conceal another recess called the chamber. Under that stage was a cellar that held the devices used to project ghosts and demons through trap doors in the stage floor. These trap doors were used in scenes like that of the gravediggers in Hamlet.

The heavens, a roof supported by two ornate columns was above the stage. The sun, moon, stars, clouds, and the signs of the zodiac were painted on the underside of the roof. An actor who spoke of the heavens and earth had only to point to the roof overhead and the stage floor beneath to create the illusion of a microcosmic universe. The back wall of the stage looked like the outside of a multistoried Elizabethan house.

Above the Heavens was what appeared to be a small house, which was appropriately called the scenery hut. This structure housed the machinery that raised and lowered actors to the stage, often implying these actors were ghosts or supernatural creatures. When a play was to be performed, a trumpeter played in the tower above the scenery hut. A flag was flown from the tower on the days of performance too.

Because there was no electricity at this time, the area surrounding the stage, known as the pit, was open to the sky to supply sunlight. Since these structures were not protected from the elements, the floor was sloped toward a central drain to carry off rainfall. The members of the audience who paid a penny to stand in the pit were called groundlings. The groundlings were typically apprentices, soldiers, sailors, country folk, and “cut purses,” the Elizabethan equivalent of pick pockets. The surface of the pit consisted of a mixture of ash, sand, silt and hazelnut shells because the audience amused itself during the play be eating nuts and apples. The more refined audience occupied the gallery seats, for which an additional fee was charged. The most expensive seats were next to, above or even on the stage.

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