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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: November ::
Railed Stage
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1873  Monday, 14 November 2005

From: 		Steve Purcell <
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Date: 		Sunday, 13 Nov 2005 15:24:51 -0000
Subject: 16.1864 Railed Stage
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1864 Railed Stage

Thanks to all for the very useful replies to my original post.

Gabriel Egan wrote:

 >The evidence for them, it seems to me, is all in relation to
 >indoor hall playhouses. Or have I missed something about
 >them in relation to open-air amphitheatre playhouses?

There is certainly evidence to suggest the presence of railings around 
some indoor stages, the earliest being Middleton's reference to vaulting 
"high / Above the stage rails" in The Black Book (c. 1604), but evidence 
of any railings in the outdoor playhouses is, as far as I can tell, 
limited to the Hector of Germany stage direction (c. 1613, indicating 
the probability that the stage of either the Red Bull or the Curtain was 
railed), and possibly the Henry VIII line (also 1613 - though it is 
likely, as Bill Lloyd pointed out, that this tells us more about the 
Blackfriars Theatre than it does about the Globe). In short, then, there 
is no evidence at all to suggest that outdoor stages were railed during 
the Elizabethan period (i.e. prior to 1603), and very little to suggest 
that very many of them were railed at any time after that. The absence 
of railings in the de Witt drawing probably tells us nothing 
particularly useful, but the fact that no railings are mentioned in the 
Fortune and Hope contracts is possibly more significant. Gurr suggests 
that it would be "tempting" to see stage railings "as a feature only of 
the indoor playhouses [...] if Jones's drawing had included them" (150). 
Astington, as we have seen, does in fact identify railings in Jones's plans.

What interests me is the function served by stage railings. Gurr 
speculates that a stage rail in an indoor playhouse would have been a 
consequence "of a more crowded auditorium, and a lower stage height, and 
there also perhaps for the safety of the peacocks on their stools" 
(150), while Hodges, in *The Globe Restored* (1968, 2nd ed.), suggests 
that "its real purpose on a crowded stage would have been to help the 
actors visually to judge their distance from the edge of the stage." 
Hodges dismisses the suggestion that "it was there to prevent people 
from climbing onto the stage from the yard", since "the rail would be 
more likely to assist the climbers by providing a hand-hold than to 
hinder them" (93). However, any railing, however easily overcome, forms 
a barrier which is at least symbolic.

Southern, after stating (I now believe erroneously) that "The 
Elizabethan open stage was railed," describes the function of the rail 
as follows:
"...it emphasizes the stage, it contains the action for us neatly and 
comprehends it for us. [...] It is a grateful guarantee that that 
desirable intimacy shall not become a familiarity - that liberties shall 
not be taken with us." He goes on to suggest that the rail also had a 
useful function during onstage swordfights, for "in the rough and tumble 
of daily acting it is a not unwelcome thought that one's heel as one 
retreats may always rely on the warning of the rail before the edge is 
reached". He concludes: "The stage rail is valuable to the confidence of 
both the actor and the audience" (80-1).

I'd argue that such concerns, if indeed these interpretations are 
accurate, point towards a decisive shift in Elizabethan or Jacobean 
theatre away from the popular tradition. In the Mystery cycles, 
characters such as Herod or the Devil would move freely between the 
world of the audience (the platea) and the representational area of the 
stage (the locus); studies such as Weimann's Shakespeare and the Popular 
Tradition in the Theater have suggested that an inherited interplay 
between locus and platea was central, too, to Shakespeare's dramaturgy, 
and moreover to the Elizabethan theatre in general. The dangers of 
"liberties being taken" and, however slight, of actual physical harm, 
are an important part of the interplay between locus and platea, and any 
phyisical boundary which "contains the action for us neatly" must be a 
barrier to this kind of interplay.

If the stage rail was indeed a feature only (or at least primarily) of 
indoor playhouses, it would make dramatic sense. As Weimann notes, the 
private theatre "embraced a greater sense of theatrical illusion at the 
expense of a well-established popular tradition of plateau-oriented 
performance" (246-7), and presumably it was here that the use of the 
stage rail as a safety measure finally outweighed its potential handicap 
to dramatic interplay.

Steve Purcell

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