The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.1334 Wednesday, 28 July 1999.
Date: Tuesday, 27 Jul 1999 16:02:35 -0400
What does the list think about "houses"?
For many years it was assumed there must be something known as an "inner
stage" in an Elizabethan playhouse, back there between the two doors.
Even though it certainly doesn't show up on the de Witt sketch, from
time to time scripts of that era called for a curtain to be pulled back
so we could "discover" actors inside, the way Miranda and Ferdinand are
discovered playing chess, so the "inner stage" was invented to cover
such activity. I think it's clear that any acting done in such a
tucked-away alcove wouldn't be seen by a considerable portion of the
audience (and possibly not heard all that well, either), so the inner
stage isn't as popular, as theories go, as it once was.
In addition, something was needed so that actors could be "above," as
Cleopatra and her maids should be, but not so far above (as on one of
the balconies) that it would be difficult to hoist up Antony to her as
called for in the script.
So what about "houses"? These are well described in Leslie Hotson's
"The First Night of Twelfth Night," and in A M Nagler's "Shakespeare's
Stage." Certainly these structures were used at Court performances; the
Office of Revels mentions them in detail. The "houses," 6 or 7 feet in
height, were portable structures made of wooden frames with painted
canvas sides (running on rods) which could be drawn back to "discover"
whoever was inside. Because they were covered with canvas they were
occasionally referred to as "tents." They were "see-through"; everyone
in the audience could see what was going on when the curtains were open,
something not true of the inner stage. In addition, some houses had
solid tops for actors to stand on-Cleo and her maids, Antony giving his
funeral oration, etc. As I say, the houses were portable and could be
carried out on stage when needed (they were not so large as to obstruct
other action) and could be "struck" when not needed.
One thinks of the quote from Ben Jonson, where a character pledges to
attack actors and wreck "their canvas houses." Or Platter's note about
an actor going into a tent onstage. If there was no inner stage, and I
certainly don't think there was, these portable structures known as
houses would answer a lot of questions.
What about "houses"?