Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century: English Theater, 1576–1642


English Theater, 1576–1642

  • James Burbage built the Theatre in Shoreditch in 1576 when theater in England was first commercialized.
  • Prior to commercial theater, plays were performed in courts, noble households, universities, and London’s Inns of Court.
  • Ralph Roister Doister (ca. 1553) and Gammer Gurton’s Needle (1552) were two popular early English comedies, while Gorboduc (1561), written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, was the first English tragedy.

Public and Private Theaters

  • Public theaters were polygonal with three tiers of audience seating and an unroofed yard, and contained a trap door in the stage floor allowing ghosts and characters to ascend from a darkened cellar, as well as pulleys under the roof to raise and lower props and actors.
  • Public theaters included the Swan, the Rose, the Fortune, and the Globe.
  • Men and women of all social classes attended theater.
  • “Groundlings” were viewers who paid a penny for admission and stood in the yard surrounding the stage.
  • Public theaters were banned within the City of London, while private theaters were built on “liberties”—property in the city exempt from municipal control.
  • The Blackfriars was the most famous private theater, built on the grounds of the Dominican monastery closed by Henry VIII in 1538.
  • Private theaters were more expensive and built for a limited social group. They were indoor theaters designed as long rooms with benches on the main floor, and were illuminated by candles rather than natural light.
  • Private theaters used companies of boy actors exclusively.

Acting Companies

  • In 1572 Elizabeth I decreed that actors be arrested if they could not demonstrate patronage, which led to the rise of professional theater.
  • The Admiral’s Men (producing Christopher Marlowe’s plays) and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (producing Shakespeare’s plays) were among the main companies licensed to perform in London theaters.

Properties and Costumes

  • Stage props were minimal, and settings were created through verbal description rather than props.
  • Costumes were elaborate, using pieces provided by the nobility.
  • Women were not permitted to act until the re-opening of the theaters in 1660; instead, female roles were played by young boys.
  • Richard Burbage (1568–1619) was the most famous actor of the period.

Playwrights and Plays

  • Playwriting was not a lucrative profession, so many writers also created pamphlets or other texts for London printers.
  • The Master of Revels granted licenses for plays, and could censor, arrest, imprison, and even torture playwrights for controversial material.
  • Plays belonged to companies; therefore, playwrights had no rights over production or publication.
  • Plays were published in cheap quarto editions and not considered “literary” until 1616 when Ben Johnson published an anthology of his own writings.
  • Shakespeare’s plays were not printed as a collection until 1623, when they were published by two colleagues seven years after the playwright’s death; the volume is now known as the First Folio.
  • Many plays are characterized by England’s growing stature as a European power, but the tone shifted to a dark subject matter after Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603.

Court Theater: masques

  • Stuart court masques—an elaborate form drama featuring spectacle, music, and dance, with plots celebrating monarchical authority—flourished during the reigns of James I and Charles I.
  • Ben Jonson was the foremost writer of masques, working in collaboration with stage designer Inigo Jones, who introduced Italian stage components to English theater.

Civil War, Commonwealth, and the Closing of Theaters

  • The relationship between state and stage ended during the English Civil War (1642–49) and Commonwealth (1649–60) when the Puritan Parliament overthrew the English monarchy and closed the theaters (1642).
  • The Globe Theater was demolished in 1644 and replaced with tenements.
  • Dramatic performances continued in private homes and other venues until English opera arose during the 1650s.