THE magnificent dramas' of Shakespeare that assumed flesh and motion upon the Globe stage in its golden decade shared the boards with hack plays, near cousins to the presentday soap operas and grade-B westerns. It is easy to forget that the company which produced Hamlet also presented The London Prodigal, and that the same Burbage who shook the superflux as Lear may well have portrayed the ranting, melodramatic husband of A Yorkshire Tragedy, a model indeed of a figure tearing a passion to tatters. Masterpieces and minor pieces followed one another in rapid succession in the same playhouse, and the customs of their production were the result of a single repertory system.
Among the various contending works on Shakespearean stage production the one subject that is invariably neglected is this repertory system. And yet, an understanding of how a theatrical company goes about the business of presenting its plays is a necessary step in working out a theory of staging. Who sees the show and who pays the bill more often determine the possibilities of production than other high-minded considerations. To know what the Elizabethan repertory system was and how it operated requires the answers to certain basic questions: How many performances was play likely to receive? In what sequence were these performances given? How long did a play remain in repertory? How long were the rehearsal periods for new plays? How many roles did an actor have to command at one time? Where were new plays first presented? In essence, all these questions can be contained in one all-embracing question: