1690s Playhouses by Michael Cordner

Post-1660 playhouses are often written about as if they were indistinguishable from modern proscenium arch theatres – i.e. that the actors were now enveloped within a scenic world, which altered as appropriate as the action moved from tavern to park, from brothel to law-court.

Accordingly, late seventeenth-century acting is conventionally presumed to have been shaped, and constrained, by the knowledge that the human figures on stage were now viewed by the audience in relationship to a space-specific setting which framed, and to some extent defined, the significance of their movements.

The contrast with the pre-civil war playhouses, where the stage remained unvaried and unlocalised, as the story gravitated from Egypt to Rome, or Venice to Cyprus, is undeniably emphatic.

It is true that the new theatres of the 1660s and later contained a proscenium arch, and that, behind it, they had the facility to vary the scenic background as the story required, with grooved scenery sliding apart to present characters in a different setting.

But in front of the proscenium there was a very substantial apron stage, as much as twenty feet deep in some cases.   This was flanked by boxes and lit by the same chandeliers which lit the audience.

One 1690s observer notes how actors, once revealed in their new setting, automatically gravitated forwards onto the apron stage. This is clearly only common sense. Given the depth of these apron stages, it was impossible for actors to hold their audiences’ attention by acting all the time from upstage of them, especially in comedy.

Dryden’s Amphitryon demands some spectacular effects from the playhouse for which it was originally designed, including chariot descents from on high for Jupiter. But the majority of its action will have taken place on the bare apron, with only moveable properties (swords, a sealed case, etc.), but no chairs or other furniture.   This is a play which expects, and requires, a mobile, highly energised, performance style from its players.

1690s comedy is predominantly one-room theatre, in some respects more like modern stand-up than traditional proscenium arch performing. Actors cannot here hoard their privacy, or insist on the exclusive nature of the fictional world in which their characters have their being. The audience is always overtly part of the conversation, and the plays are designed accordingly.

This is combined, however, with an ability to map subtle emotional negotiations and taxingly forensic confrontations between the characters.

Conducting a continuing dialogue which involves the audience as a full partner does not hamper the actors from also establishing powerful relationships between the characters. The two co-exist, with complete ease, in this theatrical tradition and invaluably enrich each other.

Translating scripts created for such performance circumstances to the modern stage poses special challenges.   In our set design, auditorium lay-out, and playing style, our aim is to develop contemporary ways of ensuring the same performer-spectator ease of communication as 1690s audience will have experienced.

And, as far as the spectacle of the original stage is concerned, for its chariots and other machinery we have deployed twenty-first century technologies, to generate, we hope, equally exciting results.

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