Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Were the Doors Open or Closed?: The Use of Stage Doors in the Shakespearean Theatre

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Were the Doors Open or Closed?: The Use of Stage Doors in the Shakespearean Theatre

Article excerpt

The stages of most early modern English playhouses almost certainly had three entryways, that is, two flanking doors and a central opening. (1) Most entrances and exits were made through the flanking doors, and the central opening was used for special events, such as 'discoveries', eavesdropping, and ceremonial entrances and exits. The flow of the action was greatly dependent on the smoothness of entrances and exits through the flanking doors. It is therefore important to investigate how these doors were handled during the performance. (2) Scenes in which a character opens, closes, or knocks at a door are relatively few. How were the stage doors usually handled in most scenes that do not involve any such action? Were they kept open or shut throughout the scenes? If shut, did an entering or exiting actor have to open and close the door himself? Or were stage attendants standing by the doors in order to open and close them?

Some scholars argue that if closed, the heavy wooden doors would make it impossible for actors offstage to hear their entrance cues. They believe that the doors were therefore kept open and that backstage activities were concealed by curtains hanging in the doorways. (3) However, as some stage directions imply, stage doors including grates or grilles may have been available, at least at certain indoor playhouses. (4) Even closed doors, if fitted with grates or grilles, would have made actors onstage and people offstage fully audible to each other. The question of audibility might, therefore, not be a vital factor in the larger question of how the stage doors were handled. In this essay, I examine the early play-texts themselves to see what kinds of evidence or information they provide about the use of stage doors in the theatres of Shakespeare's time.

Defining fictional and non-fictional doors

One might hope to find stage directions which indicate that the opening or closing of a stage door took place not as a dramatic event but for purely practical reasons. Act 5 of John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The Little French Lawyer, performed by the King's Men (Blackfriars, 1619-1623), begins with the following stage direction:

   A Horrid noise of Musique within. Enter one and opens the Chamber
   doore, in which Lamira and Anabell were shut, they in all feare.

(F1, K4r)

According to Alan C. Dessen and Leslie Thomson's Dictionary of Stage Directions, the term 'chamber' 'is often linked to the discovery space or a stage door'. (5) As the stage direction itself clarifies, 'the Chamber' is the same place as the 'vault' in which Lamira and Anabell were confined at the end of the previous act (K3v). On the Shakespearean stage, a place of confinement was often represented by either the stage trap or the discovery space. From these observations it can be inferred that 'the Chamber' here likely refers to the central discovery space. (This direction may therefore suggest the existence of a door to cover the central opening of the tiring-house facade at the Blackfriars theatre.) (6) Interestingly, an unnamed person enters and opens 'the Chamber doore'. Perhaps, 'one' refers to one of the gentlemen who have confined the ladies in the 'vault'. (7) He neither speaks, nor is addressed, nor is referred to in the dialogue. His arrival signifies virtually nothing in the world of the play. His task is only to open the door. He would exit immediately after having done the task. The dramatic situation of the scene requires the person to open the door so that the imprisoned ladies can emerge and begin the scene. It would be helpful if we had similar examples that involve the opening or closing of a flanking door, but, regrettably, the early play-texts, so far as they have been examined up to now, do not provide any such stage direction. (8)

In this situation it is useful to examine scenes where the opening or closing of a stage door takes place as an event belonging to the narrative fiction. …

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