Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part Two > The Elizabethan Theatre > Differences in Construction
  The Alternation Theory Stage Appliances and Properties  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

X. The Elizabethan Theatre.

§ 20. Differences in Construction.


The construction may well have been different in different houses; and there are several ways in which the necessary back stage may be reconstructed and the requirements of stage directions fulfilled, without imposing a strict “alternation theory” or incurring the difficulties referred to above. According to one scheme, 31  the pillars supporting the “heavens” (if pillars there be) play no part in the division of the stage. The stage proper runs right back to the wall of the tirehouse. The gallery either does not project, or projects only very slightly, in front of that wall. From the level of its floor, hangings fall to the stage, occupying, not the whole width of the stage, but most, or the whole, of that part of it which lies between the two doors, the doors being left uncovered. For this purpose, it is necessary to suppose the doors further apart than they are in the drawing of the Swan. These hangings, when drawn back, reveal the lower chamber of the tirehouse in use as part of the stage, possibly with a floor raised slightly above the stage level. Here, the strolling players in Hamlet would perform, and here, Henry VIII would sit in his closet. The room would be big enough to hold a fair number of people; in the Fortune, for instance, an inner chamber 20 feet wide would still leave 11 1/2 feet on either side for the doors. And the scene could always overflow on the stage proper. And since a third entrance is frequently mentioned and almost always necessary, a door in the back of this chamber must also be supposed, large enough to admit of “properties” such as beds, banqueting tables and so forth being brought through it. The stage proper is thus entirely free of hangings, except those in front of the chamber under the tirehouse; and the fact that this chamber must have been low and dark seems of less importance when it is remembered that plays were acted in unencumbered daylight. There were hangings, also, in front of the balcony above. The theory is not without its difficulties, the chief of which are that many of the audience must have been unable, from their position in the house, to see into the inner chamber, and that, when there were actors or spectators in the balcony, they, too, would have been unable to see into it. 32  This view, to some extent, is borne out by the titlepages of Messallina and Roxana mentioned above; but, as neither of these shows the whole width of the stage, no certain conclusions can be drawn from them. Another scheme makes the gallery project some feet from the wall of the tirehouse, with the traverse hanging from its floor and concealing all the doors when it is drawn. There is, thus, a kind of corridor stage behind the stage proper; but, once more, any actors or spectators there may be in the gallery will be unable to see what is taking place on the back stage, and it is also necessary to imagine that every scene in which doors are mentioned must have been a scene in which the back stage was used. To obviate these difficulties, a suggestion has recently been put forward 33  that the two side doors were not flat in the wall of the tirehouse but set in walls slanting towards it, while the traverse before the corridor hangs further up the stage (i.e. nearer the back wall) and, when drawn, conceals only the third, central door. The same suggestion curves the gallery forward at each side, at an angle corresponding with that of the walls containing the side doors, so that its occupants might see the back stage, and even provides semicircular projections, or bays, in order to make quite sure. 34    42

Note 31. This account follows, in the main, that suggested by Chambers, E. K., “The Stage of the Globe,” in the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare, vol. x, pp. 351 f. [ back ]
Note 32. Wegener’s suggestion (op. cit.), that there was a kind of ekkyklema on which deathbeds and the like could be wheeled over the back stage and brought forward, does not seem to be supported by sufficient evidence, though such a contrivance would certainly have been useful. [ back ]
Note 33. By Archer, u.s. See, in particular, the reproduction of a model by an architect, Walter H. Godfrey, of a stage according to the specification of the Fortune, illustrating Archer’s article. The model itself was on view in the Exposition théâtrale, Paris, 1908. [ back ]
Note 34. One objection to this arrangement is that it would make the drawing of the traverse (which we know the gallery to have had) a very complicated affair. [ back ]

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  The Alternation Theory Stage Appliances and Properties  
 
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