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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

X. The Elizabethan Theatre

§ 17. Differences between the Elizabethan and the Modern Stage

The capital difference between the pre-rebellion public stage and the modern stage lies in the fact that the former was a platform stage, while the latter is a picture stage. The modern audience sees the drama as a moving picture in a frame, or as in a room with one wall, and only one, knocked out. The Elizabethan audience surrounded the stage on three sides, partly encroaching even on the fourth; they saw the drama as a scene enacted in their midst and—in the case of the groundlings, the spectators standing in the yard—very close to them. It is practically impossible for performers on the stage to compose groups that shall show an equally artistic shape on three sides at once, and the use of daylight prevented many of the visual effects that have been practised since the time of Garrick. The eye was appealed to less forcibly than the ear. The drama was rhetorical, and the actor more of a rhetorician than he is to-day, since the audience looked to his enunciation of the poet’s words for much of the pleasure that the picture stage supplies through the eye. “Spectacular” plays, such as England’s Joy, produced at the Swan in 1603, were not unknown; spectacle was aimed at and enjoyed; but word, voice and action were the chief elements in the drama. And authors, being free from the modern playwright’s necessity to lead up to a “situation,” a stage picture, on which the curtain may fall sharply at the close of each act, made the play, rather than each division of it, the artistic whole.

The stage begins with the bare platform on trestles, which could be taken away when the space was needed for sports that did not require it. Later, the space between the platform and the ground is found concealed with boarding, and a low rail runs round the edge of the stage. The rudest performance, whether in innyard or “ring,” supposes some place where actors can dress and wait concealed, and whence they may have access to the platform when their turn comes. This gives opportunity for a background—a matter, however, of small importance in a stage open on three sides—and also develops into the tirehouse. Questions as to the nature and use of this background and as to the development of the tirehouse into a somewhat elaborate structure lie at the root of all the difficulties in the restoration of an idea of the Elizabethan stage.