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Elizabethan Stage Scenery

More Elaborate Than Ordinarily Believed

by Eva Turner Clark (© 1941)

This article was originally published in the October 1941 Shakespeare Fellowship Newsletter (American Branch).

The scene-shifter is supposed to have had far less to do in Queen Elizabeth’s day than at present. John Addington Symonds thus expresses the general opinion: “It is difficult for us to realize the simplicity with which the stage was mounted in the London theatres. Scenery may be said to have been almost wholly absent. Even in Masques performed at Court, on which immense sums of money were lavished, and which employed the ingenuity of men like Inigo Jones [reigns of James I and Charles I], effect was obtained by groupings of figures in dances, by tableaux and processions, gilded chariots, temples, fountains, and the like, far more than by scene-painting. Upon the public stage such expenditure had, of course, to be avoided. Attention was concentrated on the actors, with whose movements, boldly defined against a simple background, nothing interfered. The stage on which they played was narrow, projecting into the yard, surrounded on all sides by spectators.”

Dr. H. H. Furness says, in A note on Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare Variorum), “I think there were more scenery and stage accessories in those days than is generally believed.” Then he asks, “Why should the rough makeshifts by the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream excite such mirth in Theseus and his court if they were not seen to be caricatures of the real stage scenery to which that court was accustomed?”

An examination of the records of the Court Revels will throw some light on the subject. A useful volume, Plays and Masques at Court During the Reigns of Elizabeth, James and Charles, was published in 1926 by Dr. Susan Mary Steele, Professor of English at Judson College. The book was compiled from materials taken from the “official records of court performances found in the office-books of the Revels and in payments to actors; and contemporary allusions found in correspondence, memoirs, diaries, and the like.” For the Elizabethan period, much of the material had been already published by Professor Albert Feuillerat in Documents Relating to the Office of the Revels in the Time of Queen Elizabeth (1908) .

Even before Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 “plays, masques, and other diversions were an established part of the holiday amusement of the English Court.” During the first decade of her reign, most of the holiday entertainments appear to have been in the form of masques, though when she visited the universities, according to Nichols’ Progresses of Queen Elizabeth, elaborate plays, generally in Latin, were arranged for her pleasure.

One of the earliest plays for which we have a description of the scenery is “Edwardes tragedy,” supposed to be Richard Edwards’s Damon and Pythias, produced at Whitehall, Christmas 1564. For this greatly admired play there were provided “Diuers townes and howsses and other devisses and Clowds.” For a play produced the following February, “Diuers Cities and Townes and the Emperours pallace & other devisses” were furnished by the Revels Office.

In 1556 [sic] Richard Edwards produced Palamon and Areite which pleased critics even better than Damon and Pythas. In this play, says Nichols, quoting from Wood’s MSS, “was acted a cry of hounds in the Quadrant, upon the train of a fox in the hunting of Theseus, with which the young scholars, who stood in the windows, were so much taken (supposing it was real), that they cried out, ‘Now, now!– there, there! he’s caught, he’s caught!’ All which the Queen merrily beholding, said, ‘O excellent! Those boys’ in very truth, are ready to leap out of the windows, to follow the hounds.’. .. In the acting of the said play, there was a good part performed by the Lady Amelia [supposedly the pretty boy, Peter Carew], who, for gathering her flowers prettily in a garden then represented, and singing sweetly in the time of March, received eight angels for a gracious reward by her Majesty’s command.”

In 1568 was produced, among other plays, “Orestes and a Tragedie of the Kinge of Scottes, to ye whiche belonged diuers howses, for the setting forthe of the same as Stratoes howse, Gobbyns howse, Orestioes howse Rome, the Pallace of prosperitie Scotlande and a gret Castell one thothere side.”

For six plays produced during the season of 1571-1572, all the suitable apparel for the actors was supplied by the Revels Office, “also apt howses: made of Canvasse, fframed. ffashioned & paynted accordingly: as might best serve theier severall purposes. Together with sundry properties incident: ffashioned, paynted, garnished, and bestowed as the partyes them selves required & needed.” For the play given on January 6, 1572, the Revels Office records the following: “John Izarde for mony to him due for his device in counterfeting Thunder & Lightening in the playe of Narcisses being requested thervnto by the seide Master of the office [a]nd for sundry necessaries by him spent therein ….xxij”

Another season, the Office of the Revels provided “A tree of Holly for the Duttons playe . . . other holly for the forest.” Again, “to paynte for howses for the players & for other properties as Monsters great hollow trees & suche other.” Properties needed in the different plays are not always listed in the Accounts, but are frequently mentioned in this way, “Throughly furnished garnished & fytted with the store of thoffice and provisions following,” showing that scenery and accessories were kept on hand from which new plays could be provided, sometimes with repairs and alterations.

A play at Hampton Court, December 25, 1574, required “iiij Lodes of Tymber for the Rock (which Mr. Rosse made for my Lord of Leicesters menns playe) & for other frames for players howses ij iiij.” In 1576, for The historie of the Collyer, a “paynted cloth and two frames” were taken to Hampton Court. Often the warrant for payment reads somewhat as follows: “For making theire Repaire to the Courte with their whole Companye and furniture to present a play before her Matie,” without listing details of the “furniture.” The “cariadge of the stuffe” to or from the court is often recorded while the articles carried are not given in the Accounts.

Occasionally, perhaps because the Revels Office could not supply the required stage-setting from its store and it became necessary to provide new scenery, the Accounts tell a fairly complete story. For The history of the Knight in the Burnyng Rock, produced at Whitehall, March 1, 1579, there were provided “Long sparre poles of furre . . . peeces of Eime cut compasse . . . Dobble quarters . . . single quarters . . . Deale bourds . . . Elme bourdes, 153. foote . . . in all,” and nails of various sizes were employed in the construction of the Rock. Its size is further indicated by the item “for mending a scalling Ladder that sewed at the Rock.” Sixpence was paid “ffor Coales at the Courte to drie the Painters worke on the Rock.” A “cloud” was employed in the same play. Ten shillings was paid “ffor a hoope and blewe Lynnen cloth to mend the clowde that was Borrowed and cut to serue the rock in the plate of the burnyng knight . . .” and “for nayles of sundry sortes vsed about the Clowde and drawing it vpp and downe;” also “for a coard and pullies to draw vpp the clowde.”

Besides actors’ apparel and properties furnished by the Revels Office for A history of the Duke of Millayn and the Marques of Mantua, produced December 26, 1579, “a countrie howse” and “a Cyttye” were supplied. For another play about the same time “A Cittie and a Battlement” were required. Similar items are listed many times. Many ells of sarcenet were used for most productions, “sarcenet” being a gauzy kind of silk, and the length of an “ell” being forty-five inches.

For A storie of Pompey, January 6, 1581, “was vmploied newe one great citty, a senate house and eight ells of cobble sarcenet for curtens.” During the season of 1581-1582, among properties provided were “a Mount with a Castle vpon the toppe of it, a Dragon & a Artificiall Tree” which cost 100; an “artificiall Lyon & a horse made of wood,” and three painted cloths.

Similar items for stage settings are occasionally recorded until 1584, but after that year they are not set down in the Accounts, nor seldom even the name of the play. This was probably due to the fact that at this time a new Clerk Comptroller of the Records of the Revels, William Honing, was appointed. From this time on, the most meagre details are given of productions at Court, merely place, date, name of company, and warrant for payment.

Failure to record details of stage-settings is no indication that plays were being produced less lavishly. On the contrary, from the time of the erection of the first theatre in 1576 to the end of Elizabeth’s reign, dramatic art was developing rapidly and we can only suppose that scenery and properties kept pace with the art. We may learn something from sermons preached through this period, for the clergy resented the better attendance at the theatres. An excerpt from one sermon, 1577, follows: “Behold the sumptuous Theatre houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality.” Another sermon, 1578, refers to “the gorgeous playing place erected in the Fields.” Gabriel Harvey spoke of the “painted theatres,” “painted stage.” (J. Q. Adams, in Shakespearean Playhouses). Even Tom Coryat, in his Crudities, says that the comic theatre in Venice is “very beggarly and base in comparison of our stately playhouses in England; neither can their actors compare with ours for apparel, shows, and music.”

In 1583, twelve of the most important actors in London were chosen from the best of the old companies to form a new company under the patronage of the Queen and, for the rest of that decade, it enjoyed high popularity. One must assume that these very able actors were provided with all the necessary equipment, stage-settings as well as apparel, for producing advantageously the finer dramas written during the 1580’s.

It must be admitted that records of the Court Revels give only one side of the picture, yet it was to the ornate public theatres that the clergy objected and to which Tom Coryat gave praise. While plays at Court were always more handsomely produced, it is safe to assume, from what contemporaries tell us, that scenery matched the houses in which the plays were given. Some of the most magnificent homes in England were being built about this time and it must be conceded that masons and carpenters who could achieve such fine results in palaces, could equally apply their inventive genius, along with that of actors and managers, to the improvement of the stage.

The first public playhouse built in London exclusively for the production of plays was the Theatre, erected in 1576, but, like the inn-yards where plays had long been given, the roof covered only part of it, leaving the “groundlings” subject to vagaries of the weather. Those who could afford boxes in the galleries were protected from a straight downpour of rain, and so, doubtless, the stage was equally protected. This was important for the elaborate costumes generally worn and for any scenery in use at the time.

For the inclement winter season, a small portion of the priory of Blackfriars was operated as a so-called “private” theatre for several years, and a little later, the singing-school of St. Paul’s Cathedral. While these playhouses were extremely small in comparison with the large public theatres (the Curtain was built a year after the Theatre, and others followed soon after) some of the best plays appear to have been given in them. The price of admission was double what it was at the Theatre and persons who “went thither were gentle by birth and by behaviour as well; and playwrights, we are told, could always feel sure there of the calm attention of a choice audience.” The declared purpose for which plays were given at the private playhouses was to rehearse the actors in their parts so they might give finished productions at Court. This must have been true also of the Queen’s Company, which generally played at the Theatre. Fleay, in his History of the London Stage (Introduction, p. 11), is emphatic in his assertion of “the absolute subordination of public performances to Court presentations.”

While the cost of elaborate scenery, stage-settings, and apparel for the actors was probably prohibitive for both public and private playhouses, nevertheless, since companies which made use of these houses played also at Court where lavish productions were the rule, they must have employed less expensive substitutes or they would hardly have been practiced for the stage-settings in which they were eventually to appear.

Gabriel Harvey has told us that John Lyly was “vice-master,’ of Paul’s and “foole-master” of the Theatre, meaning that Lyly was the assistant director of the company of children playing at the singing-school of St. Paul’s Cathedral and of the comedians of the Queen’s Company playing at the Theatre. The question is, since Lyly was the assistant, who was the director? All through the period when he was connected with these two companies, he was employed as secretary by the Earl of Oxford, who was known as a dramatist and the patron of a playing company. It is a logical assumption that Lord Oxford was the director behind the scenes, though it did not become his rank as hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain of England, to assume such a position publicly, since with the Puritans, a large portion of the population, the stage was held in low repute, and the time was one of great political turmoil, owing to the troubles with Mary Stuart and the war with Spain.

It is evident that Lord Oxford had a special interest in plays produced at the little theatre in Blackfriars because he took over the lease of it from Henry Evans in 1583 and, while he is supposed to have presented it to John Lyly, his secretary, the annual rents paid in 1584 were 20 and 8 for Lord Oxford and Lyly respectively. Their tenancy at Blackfriars did not last long, owing to the objections to a theatre in the vicinity by the owner, Sir William More, and it was at this time that the company moved to the singing-school of St. Paul’s.

It was a source of special grief to Lord Burghley that his son-in-law had no regard for the value of money and that he would leave his family destitute, though he had inherited one of the greatest fortunes in the realm. Lord Burghley objected to “his lewd friends, who still, rule him by flatteries.” The word “lewd” did not then mean sinful or vicious, as it does today, but “lay” or “unlearned;” and we may suppose that the reference was to actors and playwrights, with whom he must have been closely associated. That Lord Oxford was the greatest spendthrift of Elizabeth’s reign, we may rest assured. That most of his money was expended on the improvement of the stage, scenery, costumes, and in the payment of actors and playwrights, we may well believe. When in 1586 he could no longer carry on his extravagant methods in producing plays, the Queen came to his rescue with the grant of 1,000 a year, which, as we learn from another of Lord Burghley’s letters, he continued to spend on his “lewd friends.” The Queen, however, understood and approved, for in 1586 the war with Spain began and she valued the stage for purposes of education and propaganda. Years after, Thomas Heywood wrote: “Plays have made the ignorant more apprehensive, taught the unlearned the knowledge of many famous histories, instructed such as cannot read in the discovery of all our English chronicles . . . plays are writ with this aim, and carried with this method, to teach their subjects obedience to their king, to show the people the untimely ends of such as have moved tumults, commotions, and insurrections, to present them with the flourishing estate of such as live in obedience, exhorting them to allegiance, dehorting them from all traitorous and felonious stratagems.”

Having learned from evidence which cannot be produced in our allotted space that the Earl of Oxford was the author of the plays which appeared in print under the nom de plume of “William Shakespeare,” we must now consider whether, during the period when he was closely associated with the London stage, there was any improvement in its scenery and its stage-settings. We have only to take down our volume of Shakespeare and glance through almost any play to discover how varied are the scenes. As we have shown that quite elaborate scenery was in use, at least in Court productions, through the early part of Elizabeth’s reign, we must assume that in the later part, with the magnificent development of the dramatic art and the building of beautiful theatres, the stage technicians developed their craft in keeping with the demands upon them. It is probably true that the bills for meeting the increasing costs were largely paid out of the pockets of our spendthrift Earl.

Much of the evidence concerning the stage and the drama of Elizabeth’s day was blotted out by the excesses of the Cromwellian period and by the devastation of the Great Fire of 1666. We can’ however, well believe that the stage in her reign was more beautifully appointed than many have thought and we ask, with Dr. Furness, “Why should the rough makeshifts by the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream excite such mirth in Theseus and his court if they were not seen to be caricatures of the real stage-scenery to which that court was accustomed?”

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