"Scaenes with Four Doors": Real and Virtual Doors on Early Restoration Stages

By Keenan, Tim | Theatre Notebook, June 2011 | Go to article overview

"Scaenes with Four Doors": Real and Virtual Doors on Early Restoration Stages


Keenan, Tim, Theatre Notebook


Debate over the number of physical doors of entrance on English stages during the Restoration period (1660-1700) has been a staple of commentary since the late nineteenth century. The majority of commentators prefer four, with several suggesting two, and at least one proposing up to six. (1) To the non-specialist there is a whiff of inconsequentiality here: the Restoration equivalent, perhaps, of angels on pinheads. I contend, however, that this is not merely a peripheral issue, of interest only to a few historians. The number of forestage doors on a particular stage (often an a priori assumption) influences how one interprets stage directions and therefore influences one's views not only of period theatre practice, but also of the plays themselves. That Restoration drama seems to be susceptible to misinterpretation may be inferred from the history of its critical reception. The serious plays have been castigated for not being sufficiently "Shakespearean", and many of the comedies (in their original forms) were effectively banished from the stage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on moral grounds. It is no surprise, therefore, that admiration was partial when the plays were "rediscovered" critically at the turn of the century. (Brian Corman gives an overview of their critical reception.) In a classic example of a faulty theatrical model resulting in faulty interpretations, critics at the time, assuming that Restoration theatres simply housed cruder versions of the Victorian/Edwardian picture-stages with which they were familiar, found Restoration dramaturgy to be naive and cumbersome. Even the pioneering theatre historian W. J. Lawrence, on whose notebooks Richard Southern based his influential book Changeable Scenery, confessed to being puzzled and alarmed by the "crude stage subterfuges" and "primitive arrangements" of the plays (Southern Changeable Scenery, 139-41). These notions persist; for example, in her discussion of Aphra Behn's The Forc'd Marriage (Lincoln's Inn Fields, 1670), Janet Todd refers to Behn's "slight awareness of the new platform Restoration stage with its proscenium arch, jutting platform, back stage, and sets of shutters shutting off various spaces" (3). The confused terminology is unfortunate, as is the garbled transmission of Southern's dispersed shutter hypothesis, for which there is no evidence in early Restoration theatres, but what is most striking about Todd's comment is her depreciation of Behn herself. In my analysis of The Forc'd Marriage, I find evidence of a confident control over theatrical resources--surprising at this early stage in her career --and Dawn Lewcock sees her structuring groove and shutter operations to manipulate audience responses (Keenan "Early Restoration Staging", 335-7; Lewcock Sir William Davenant, 198-202). One can only conclude that Todd's misunderstanding of Restoration stages and stagecraft has coloured her response to the play.

The implications of such misinterpretation run more widely, however. If one subscribes to the four-door model, which is based on evidence from later theatres, particularly the first Drury Lane (1674), it is easy to imagine entrances, and hence stage action, on the forestage near the doors, and hard to find reasons why action should normally occur in the scenic area, upstage of the curtain line. With two forestage doors, by contrast, one is more inclined to infer regular entrances through side-shutter (wing) passageways, and consequently to propose more action in the scenic area. The consequences of an actor's onstage position are as much perceptual as dramaturgical. With action mainly occurring on a forestage it would be reasonable to propose that scenery would have been viewed merely as a pictorial backdrop supplying a passive signifier of place; whereas stage action in the scenic area raises the potential for scenery to have played a more active (and perceptually integrated) dramaturgical role in Restoration performance. …

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