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ANCIENT ROME AND ENGLISH RENAISSANCE THEATRE

ROMAN THEATRES AS MODEL FOR LONDON PLAYHOUSES

• Ancient Romes and English Renaissance Theatres • Roman Theatres as a model for London Playhouses • Early modern plays with a Roman Theme •
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1.  INTRODUCTION

The idea that the theatrical architecture of Elizabethan and Jacobean London owed something to the example of the ancients is a suggestion we first find in the diary of Dutch traveller Johannes de Witt. Writing in 1596 and having visited The Swan playhouse, as well as three other theatres, he commented on its 'outstanding' appearance, its 'wooden pillars which, by their painted marble colour, can deceive even the most acute observers' and suggested that 'its form seems to bear the appearance of a Roman work'.

This seems to offer an important connection between the English Renaissance and the classical world. This idea is considered in more depth below, under the following headings:

Please click any picture for a fuller view.

 

 
 

 

 

 

2. ANCIENT ROMAN THEATRE 

2.1 THE GREEK INHERITANCE

Greece is commonly accepted as the originator of theatrical performance, a form of performance where human fate rather than religious ritual lay at the centre of the action, giving it what may be termed 'a humanist perspective'. Aristotle's analytical essay Poetics introduced the genre classification of tragedy and comedy which are still in use to this day and defined the Unities of time, place and action as being the foundation of drama. The Greeks also endowed us with the words 'drama', meaning action and 'theatre', from the word to gaze or behold. Finally of course, they produced the first permanent, purpose built performance arenas, many of which survive in remarkably fine condition, testament in themselves to the importance that public performance played in their culture.  

Left is a picture of the theatre at Epidauros.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

2.2 ROMAN THEATRE BUILDING

The Greek tradition entered the Roman world via Sicily and the former Greek colonies of Southern Italy. Liviticus Andronicus (c284-c204 BC) is generally regarded as the founder of the Roman epic tradition, other famous tragedians being Ennius, Pacuvius, Accius and Senecca whose rhetorical style was widely imitated by the early Elizabethan playwrights. 

For the early part  of the Roman Empire plays were performed in temporary structures. The first permanent Roman theatre was built in 54 AD, and than 100 permanent theatre structures had been built by 450 AD.

Many examples of the arenas they built survive to this day. Left is the Roman theatre at Orange, among the best preserved of all ancient theatres. 

Notable features of these theatres include:

  • The performance area is built on level ground with banked seating, often constructed on a hillside.
  • The wall at the back, known as the frons scenae , was a departure from Greek theatre design which had open land behind the players. The frons scenae would be decorated columns, niches, porticoes, and statues and provided a backdrop to action. Note the way it joins with the audience to form one architectural unit.
  • The area in front of the frons scenae is called the proskene (proscenium), and staged the action of the play. The stage was raised to five feet and was very large (20-40 feet deep and 100 feet long) and would often be roofed.
  • The half circle in front of the proscenium is the Orchestra, used for action in Greek drama, it was available for spectators in Roman times.
  • Every spectator in the seating area (the Cavea) would have an unimpeded view of the action. In hot weather, they would be covered by an awning (vela).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2.3  OTHER ROMAN ENTERTAINMENTS

Famously, the Romans also developed a taste for more graphic entertainment, in the form of sporting events, especially fights betweenThey were staged in huge round buildings, known as amphitheatres which were the centre of entertainment in Roman cities, where many remains of amphitheatres can be still be found.  

The largest amphitheatre in the empire was the Coliseum in Rome which could seat up to 50,000 people.

This structure was still attracting attention in the Renaissance, as shown by this fine engraving by Etienne Du Pérac from the mid 16th century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. DRAMA IN THE MIDDLE AGES

Following the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, the Theatres closed in the 5th Century. Groups of itinerant circus performers, using combinations of trained animal acts (often featuring overt cruelty) survived alongside other entertainers such as jugglers and mime artists. Ironically, it was the church which provided the impetus for the revival of theatre on a major scale by commissioning a variety of plays dealing with religious themes which came to be known as Miracle and Mystery  Plays, dealing with the lives of Saints and Bible Stories respectively. A third kind of religious drama, the Morality Play appeared around 1400 and is a dramatized allegory constructed to illustrate ethical issues bearing on conduct and salvation. This type of drama survived the Reformation and was instrumental in creating a space for a theatre directed towards entertainment. 

The early days of commercial theatre involved  performances in public spaces such as town squares and inn-yards such as that of the White Hart in Southwark  which is illustrated left. 

In such a setting, a fee was charged to playgoers for entering the inn yard, and then an additional fee was added on if they wanted to go up to a balcony level. The finest surviving galleried inn in England is New Inn, Gloucester, itself a venue for both Elizabethan  and modern performances (left).

It was the commercial success of such productions that gave rise to the first purpose built theatre in London, appropriately called 'The Theatre' and built in Shoreditch in 1576.

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

4.1 SUMMARY OF THEATRES

The age of Early Modern theatre building in London is restricted to the period 1576-1614 and in this time a total of eleven open-air playhouses existed. These were as follows:

1567: The Red Lion, Mile End
1576: The Theatre, Finsbury Fields, Shoreditch
1576: Newington Butts, Southwark, Surrey
1577: The Curtain, Finsbury Fields, Shoreditch
1587: The Rose, Bankside, Surrey
1595: The Swan, Paris Garden, Surrey
1599: The Globe, Bankside, Surrey (re built 1613)
1600: The Fortune, Golding Lane, Clerkenwell
1600: The Boar's Head, Whitechapel
1604: The Red Bull, Clerkenwell
1614: The Hope (the Bear Garden), Bankside, Surrey

While very little of these theatres survive, there are several sources of information from which facts can be deduced about their appearance. Most common are the illustrated maps that were popular at the time and several of which survive in which theatre buildings can readily be identified. Some of these maps offer very little new information as they tend to be derived from earlier versions rather than new surveys, but the three referred to below, all from the Southwark area, are considered to include the most valuable information. There are also accounts of visits to the theatre taken from the diaries and writings of travellers, the contribution of Johannes de Witt being the most important as it also offers a visual record. Finally, the 1980s brought to light some physical remains of two of the Southwark theatres. There is also an extant copy of the contact for the building of the Fortune and Hope Theatres. Further details of all of these sources of information are set out below.

 

 
   

 

 

 

4.2 MAP VIEWS OF THEATRES

4.2.1 AGAS

This engraving is from the Civitas Londonium map printed in 1633 and associated with the name of Ralph Agas. It is believed to be based on a map produced by Braun and Hopenberg, probably produced in the period 1554-1572. 

The main features are the bull-bating and bear-bating arenas; these arenas put on spectacles of violence featuring animals which have much in common with those which took place in Roman times. Attendance at these shows was not confined to the lower orders - Queen Elizabeth attended a bull baiting in 1575 and the Zoo at the Tower of London included a collection of bears for this purpose. The physical similarity of these arenas to the Roman amphitheatres is also apparent. The bull-bating ring soon disappeared, but the bear-bating was to remain a feature of the area into the reign of Charles I and, indeed, still lingers in the contemporary street name 'Bear Gardens'.

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

4.2.2  NORDEN

This an extract from an engraving entitled Civitas Londini produced in 1600 based on drawings by John Norden . 

The partly concealed theatre in the foreground is The Rose, which was to be demolished in 1601. The building, just left of centre with the flag flying, is the bear-bating arena, now shown as polygonal rather than round. 

 

 

 

 

   

4.2.3  HOLLAR

This view was drawn by Czech born engraver Wenceslaus Hollar from Southwark's Cathedral tower around 1640.

It shows the re-built Globe to the left and the Bear-bating arena to the left. The canopy over the stage is very clearly visible.

 

 

 

   

4.3 TRAVELLERS' ACCOUNTS

4.3.1  DE WITT

This account, which dates from 1596-1598, is probably the single most important source of our knowledge of the internal layout of the London theatres. It consists of a diary note together with a sketch of the internal layout of the Swan Theatre.  

FROM THE LONDON OBSERVATIONS OF JOHANNES DE WITT

There are four amphitheatres in London so beautiful that they are worth a visit, which are given different names from their different signs. In these theatres, a different play is offered to the public every day. The two more excellent of these are situated on the other side of the Thames, towards the South, and they are called the Rose and the Swan from their signboards. There are two other theatres outside the city towards the North, on the road that leads through the Episcopal Gate called Bishopsgate in the vernacular. There is also a fifth, but of a different structure, intended for fights of animals, in which many bears, bulls, and dogs of stupendous size are held in different cages and behind fences, which are kept for the fight to provide a most pleasant spectacle to the people. The most outstanding of all the theatres, however, and the largest, is that whose sign is the swan (in the vernacular, the theatre of the swan), as it seats 3000 people. It is built out of flint stones stacked on top of each other (of which there is great store in Britain), supported by wooden pillars which, by their painted marble colour, can deceive even the most acute observers. As its form seems to bear the appearance of a Roman work, I have made a drawing of it (below): 

The drawing is of considerable importance as it gives us our only internal view of a London theatre but should be treated with caution as it is only a copy of the original. For a fuller discussion of  the provenance of this document see essay by John Gerritson.  The following features are apparent:

  • Circular structure, with open courtyard, hence the frequently used designation of 'Amphitheatre'.
  • Seating in galleries around the vertical internal walls.
  • Large elevated stage, covered with an elaborate roof held up by elaborate classical pillars.
  • Decorations and paintwork imitating marble and creating spectacular effect.
  • The various sections are labeled with names from the Roman theatre.

 

 
   

4.3.2 THOMAS PLATTER

Thomas Platter (born 1574) was a Swiss traveller who recorded his experience at the Globe in an account of his travels. A translation is set out below.

THOMAS PLATTER VISITS LONDON THEATRES, 1599

On the 21St of September, after the mid-day meal, about two o'clock, I and my company went over the water [i.e. across the Thames] and saw in the house with the thatched roof [in dem streuwinen Dachhaus] the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar quite aptly performed. At the end of the play according to their custom they danced quite exceedingly finely, two got up in men's clothing and two in women's [dancing] wonderfully together.

At another time, not far from our inn in the suburbs, at Bishopsgate according to my memory, again after lunch, I saw a play where they presented different nations with which each time an Englishman struggled over a young woman, and overcame them all, with the exception of the German who won the girl in a struggle, sat down beside her, and drank himself tipsy with his servant, so that the two were both drunk, and the servant threw a shoe at his master's head, and both fell asleep. In the meantime the Englishman crept into the tent, and carried off the German's prize, and thus outwitted the German in turn. In conclusion they danced in English and Irish fashion quite skillfully. And so every day at two o'clock in the afternoon in the city of London sometimes two sometimes three plays are given in different places, which compete with each other and those which perform best have the largest number of listeners. The playing places are so constructed that [the actors] play on a raised scaffold, and everyone can see everything. However there are different areas and galleries where one can sit more comfortably and better, and where one accordingly pays more. Thus whoever wants to stand below pays only one English penny, but if he wishes to sit, he enters through another door where he gives a further penny, but if he wants to sit in the most comfortable place on a cushion, where he will not only see everything but also be seen, he gives at another door a further English penny. And during each play things to eat and drink are brought round among the people, of which one may partake for whatever one cares to pay.

The actors are dressed in a very expensive and splendid fashion, since it is the custom in England when notable lords or knights die they bequeath and leave their servants almost the finest of their clothes which, because it is not fitting for them to wear such clothes, they offer [them] for purchase to the actors for a small sum of money.

How much time they can happily spend each day at the play, everyone knows who has seen them act or perform.

 

 
   

 

4.4 EXCAVATIONS

The site of the Rose was discovered during building works in 1989. After a major campaign, part of the foundations have remained on view in the basement of a modern commercial building. The photograph of the excavations left shows clearly the polygonal shape of this building. It was also apparent from a study of the remains that the building had been expanded in the course of its life.

Coincidentally, 1989 also saw the excavation of a small part of the foundations of the Globe. This gave a good indication of the shape of the building, being almost circular. 

 

 

 

 

   

4.5 THEATRE CONTRACTS

The building contract for the Fortune tells us that the woodwork of the interior was painted in order to imitate the appearance of marble, like Italian theatres. The underside of the stage canopy was painted with sun, moon and stars and probably the signs of the zodiac. 

The Hope theatre was built on the site of the bear-bating arena and was a dual-purpose theatre, adaptable to both animal acts and drama. 

Details of both contracts are given in Gurr, A., The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642, CUP, 1992.

 

 
 

 

4.6 THE NEW GLOBE IN BANKSIDE

 The Shakespeare's Globe project aimed to bring together all known facts about the original Globe Theatre and come as close to recreating it as possible. The project is not free from controversy, but few have been unimpressed by the care and scholarship associated with the reconstruction. 

This is apparent from both the exterior and the stage, with marbled columns, as referred to by de Witt.

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

5.  THE CONTINENTAL EXPERIENCE 

5.1 ITALY

In Vicenza in Northern Italy, a group of Renaissance intellectuals, self-styled the Accademia Olimpico, commissioned Andrea Palladio to build an indoor theatre in the style of ancient Rome. Following Palladio's death, it was completed in 1585 by his pupil Vincenzo Scamozzio. Although, barely used at the time, it survived in remarkably good condition and is now the oldest active indoor theatre in Europe. It is self-consciously a Renaissance building in a way the London playhouses were not. The stage includes a view extending behind the frons scenae which is intended to resemble ancient Thebes. It was intended primarily to be used for classical dramas.

A similar venture was the Farnese Theatre in Parma, completed in 1618-19 by the Ferrarese architect G. B. Aleotti, who also took his inspiration from classical age theatres.  The theatre, pictured left, is credited with being the first to employ a proscenium arch.

Italian plays of the Renaissance  began by reviving Plautus and Seneca in Latin, but soon progressed to Italian plays written in imitation of the ancient style, by writers such as Lodovico Ariosto and Pietro Aretino.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

5.2  SPAIN

A very different theatre building survives in Almagro, Spain, where the Corral de Comedias was built in 1628 in the courtyard of a public house. With its yard area which was generally occupied by men of the lower classes, galleries and commercial ethos, it has much in common with the London theatres. Indeed Twentieth Century critics noted a similar audience dynamic to that experienced at Shakespeare's Globe.

The most famous Spanish playwright of the period was the extraordinary Lope de Vega who was the most popular playwright of the day, and to whose output has been estimated at between 500 and 1,800 plays, of which over 300 survive. His successor, Calderon, also wrote for the public theaters.

 

 

 

 

   

6.  CONCLUDING COMMENTS  - HOW MUCH DO THE LONDON PLAYHOUSES OWE TO ANCIENT ROME?

To begin, it is worthwhile listing obvious similarities

  • Curved structure, at odds with most contemporaneous buildings, and indeed modern theatres.
  • Large raised stage, roofed over
  • Elaborate stage decoration, evocative of general opulence rather than background to the play
  • The yard area is reminiscent of the orchestra pit, being an open area in front of the stage
  • Steeply banked seating affording uninterrupted views for the spectator
  • Marbled pillars, evoking classical motifs.

While these factors cover all of the main elements of theatre design, it should be remembered that the theatres were purely commercial buildings and were constructed solely with the intention of maximising takings while minimising cost. In doing so however, it is not inconceivable that the architects, like so many important Renaissance figures, looked to Rome for their inspiration. A cautionary note comes from Andrew Gurr, who in The Shakespearean Stage points to the similarity of the the design of the theatres to the animal-baiting arenas. He does not however refer to the close similarity between the design and function of these arenas and the Roman Amphitheatres. It could be then, that part of the genesis of the popular vibrant and often violent London stage was not the refined culture of classical theatre which was to inspire the Italian drama, but the savagery of animal-bating shows, themselves the successors to the gratuitous violence of the Roman Amphitheatres.

 

 
    This site now moves on to consider Early Modern Plays with a Roman theme .