The Elizabethan Playhouse

1

  • Evolution

In early days of the Elizabethan era, no permanent theatres or playhouses were there for the acting groups. They performed in public places such as town squares, or inside inns or taverns which were later called “inn-yards”. Those were surrounded by balconies which led to the rooms that provided lodgings. The fee was higher for the playgoers who wanted to watch the play in balconies. They were usually inexpensive and the audience 2capacity was up to 500.

In 1576, James Burbage who was making considerable profit from Inn-yards, built an amphitheatre called “The Theatre” in London. This very first theatre in London soon led to the opening of new theatres including “The Curtain” and “The Rose”. These open air amphitheatres usually had an audience capacity of 1500-3000 people. They were mostly used only in summer months, as they were open air theatres.3

Late, the acting troupes moved to the indoor playhouses, in which they could perform even in winter. Some scholars doubt that these playhouses were built using the building structures of cock fighting pits which were a popular form of entertainment. In 1576 “The Paul’s’ playhouse was built. Some playhouses were built on purpose such as the “Salisbury Court playhouse”.

  • Features of a Playhouse

4 An Elizabethan playhouse was usually a small, private indoor hall which provided an audience capacity up to 500. These playhouses were much helpful for acting troupes as they were able to use playhouses all the year without restricting for the summer. Playhouses were open to anyone, but were more expensive than the outdoors. A public theatre would cost between 2-26 pennies. They provided more comforts at a high price. More luxury was provided for courtiers and the nobility. Indoor playhouses were lighted with candles. It led to the introduction of intervals, when the burnt down candles were replaced. Food and drink were sold and served during the interval.5

6   Playhouses were usually circular or octagonal with 3 galleries looking down upon yard or pit, which stage jutted out into the yard so that the actors came forward into the midst of the audience. Besides the stage there were side doors by which the characters appeared and disappeared. Back of the stage ran an upper stage, which was used for upper scenes such as when Romeo climbs up to Juliet’s bedroom. The space beneath it was known as the tiring house, which was concealed by a curtain. It was used for inner scenes such as the witch’s cave in Macbeth. There was no general curtain concealing the whole stage so that creating locality from scene to scene was impossible. Thus it was indicated using dialogues or property; a chair or a stool showed an indoor scene. These playhouses contributed much for the existence of the Elizabethan plays.7

     –Mihiravi Gunasekara-

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