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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

§ 19. The Alternation Theory

The attempt to work out this “alternation” theory by dividing the extant plays of the period into front and back scenes has not been successful. A further difficulty arises from the fact that not all the spectators were in front of the stage. A traverse between the pillars would not conceal what was going on behind it from people on either side of the stage. To block out their view, further traverses at right angles to that between the pillars would be necessary. The result, inevitably, would be to conceal not only the back scene from them, but a great deal of the front scene, too, on which action would be in progress. An even greater difficulty attends the suggestion that, since there are notable instances where it would be absurd for actors to enter the front scene by the only available entrance, that is, through the traverse, there must have been hangings all along both sides of the stage so that actors might enter from the sides. It is to be noted, too, that this theory supposes the upper stage or balcony to be concealed by the traverse. This would mean that all scenes in which the balcony was occupied must be back scenes, which is not easy to establish, and makes it impossible that the audience should ever have used the balcony; while three extant illustrations of the stage—the title-pages to Richards’s Messallina (1640) and Alabaster’s Roxana (1632), and the picture of a “droll” on the stage of the Red Bull which forms the frontispiece to Kirkman’s The Wits (1673)—distinctly show the traverse hanging from below the balcony, while the first and the last show a separate curtain for the balcony itself.

This theory seems to lose sight of the simple origin of the stage—a temporary platform erected in the midst of a crowd and surrounded by spectators regarding it from nearly all the four sides—and to err from over-anxiety to credit an Elizabethan audience with a susceptibility to the incongruous. The very naïve tradition of the miracles and early moralities, in which two or more scenes, sometimes representing localities hundreds of miles apart, were on the stage simultaneously, had not died out; and the audience may be fairly supposed to have been no more offended by the conventions of dramaticspace than is a modern audience by those of dramatictime, which allow an imaginary half-hour to pass in an actual five minutes. In his Apologie for Poetrie (written about 1580–1) Sidney writes:

  • For where the stage should alwaies represent but one place, … there is … many places, inartificially imagined. But if it be so in Gorboduck, how much more in al the rest, where you shal have Asia of the one side, and Affrick of the other, and so many other under-kingdoms, that the Player, when he commeth in, must ever begin with telling where he is, or els the tale wil not be conceived?
  • His words are borne out by numerous cases in extant plays, where two or more places are imagined to be on the stage at the same time; and it scarcely needs the evidence of ascertainable instances to prove that an Elizabethan audience would not have the least objection to seeing properties (such as the bench in the drawing of the Swan) brought on the stage without concealment and left there after they had served their turn, though it is extremely likely that susceptibility to the incongruous grew, as time went on, under the influence of Jonson and the classical playwrights. In spite of this, it is abundantly clear that there was a back stage, which could be revealed by drawing a curtain.

    The fact is significant that, just as the Hope, though planned on the lines of the Swan, was to be built of wood, not flint, so, in the contract with the builder, it is directly stated that he “shall also builde the Heavens all over the saide stage to be borne or carryed without any postes or supporters to be fixed or sett uppon the saide stage.” It is possible, therefore, that the pillars of the Swan were as the drawing shows them, and that the pentroof covered half or nearly half the stage; but that the plan was found inconvenient, was confined to the Swan and was discarded by Henslowe when he built the Hope. In that case, the Swan may have had the front and back scenes divided by the lofty traverse, and have used them as suggested by the theory summarised above; but it is at least unfortunate that the draughtsman should have hit on a playhouse the arrangement of which was unique and discredited.