Jacobean Public Theatre

Jacobean Public Theatre

Jacobean Public Theatre

Jacobean Public Theatre

Synopsis

Jacobean Public Theatre recovers for the modern reader the acting, production and performance values of the public theatre of Jacobean London. It relates this drama to the popular culutre of the day and concludes with a close study of four important plays, including King Lear , which emerge in an unexpected light as the products of popular tradition.

Excerpt

When in Coriolanus Volumnia urges her son to use visual language in pleading with the common people, she claims, ‘Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ignorant/More learned than the ears’ (III.ii.78-9). In a similar vein Hamlet complains that the groundlings ‘for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise’ (III.ii.11-12). Both speakers, condescendingly, give a social value to the kind of performance that emphasizes the visual language of theatre: it gives the vulgar something to look at. It is true that popular culture had a strong visual component; but it is also true that visual language is inherent in all theatre. Giving the audience something to look at can best be seen not as a reluctant concession to the groundlings but as a creative response to an important element in popular taste, an encouragement to use resources the theatre has in any case, and to use them as skilfully and eloquently as possible. The first of those resources, and the one I want to begin with, is the stage itself.

We are used to thinking of the stages of this period as empty spaces, to be filled in as required by the imaginations of the playwrights and the audience. Yet of the stages surveyed in Chapter 1, the Boar’s Head’s brief experiment with theatre-in-the-round was probably the only one that had that kind of simplicity. Elsewhere, there were distinctive features: the tiring-house facade, the entry doors, the pillars, the gallery, the discovery space. The stage was not just a place for acting but an instrument to be played on. Appearances ‘above’ (and I believe this usually meant the gallery, though the point is debatable) could express power relationships. Throughout the ‘Four Ages’ cycle, the remarkable five-play dramatization of Greek mythology performed at the Red Bull early in the tenure of Queen Anne’s Men, the gods appear ‘above’ to show their power. The Brazen Age (c. 1611) includes a comic variation when, as Vulcan catches Mars and Venus in his net ‘All the Gods appear above, and laugh’ (p. 237), adding mocking detachment and superiority to the usual image of . . .

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