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The Elizabethan Theatre Playhouse

Two kinds of playhouses -- open-air, public structures & indoor, private structures.  The former were cheaper and offered afternoon performances.  The later were smaller , more select, and therefore more expensive.  After 1610, troupes sometimes performed in the public houses in summer and the private ones in winter.  The larger playhouses could seat 2,000 to 3,000.  Theatres had a variety of shapes -- round, square, five or eight-sided.

Pit or yard: The central space uncovered by a roof and surrounded by tiers of roofed galleries

Galleries: three-tiered, roofed audience seating that also formed the outer walls of the playhouse.

Large platform stage jutting into the center of the pit.

Stage doors: The stage house had two doors to facilitate continuos action in the play.

Cellarage: Cellar space below the stage that could be opened to allow something to arise from below.

Discovery space: Named "the pavilion," "the inner below" or "the study".  Either a space recessed into the back wall and covered by a curtain or jutting into the stage and covered with three curtains.  It served as a place to indicate locale or to introduce a surprise turn of events.

'The Inner Above" or Pavilion proper: The second floor acting area in the stage house which consisted of a narrow balcony, a curtained alcove similar to the discovery space below it, and was likely flanked with two bay windows.

"On the top": The space above the second floor upper stage eye-level with the third-level gallery tier.

The troupe could use six different locales to stage the action: 1) the main platform with the back curtain closed; 2) the lower discovery space; 3) the upper stage balcony and/or 4) the upper alcove curtain opened; 5) the cellarage; or 6) the top space across from the third gallery.

Influence on the Shape of Shakespeare's Plays

  • Since the theatre is open-air, the play must begin with something to draws the audience's attention away from games and meals.

  • The ending is often a monologue or song to allow the rest of the cast to exit the stage.

  • Scenes tend to clear the cast. They exit one door, as the actors for the next scene come on stage.

  • The actors must describe for the audience where they are since the stage has no painted scenery and little props.

  • Costumes tend to be lavish and spectacle is accomplished through pageantry and dances.

  • Shakespeare's plays can expect to draw on the number of locales in which to stage action.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding