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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

§ 21. Stage Appliances and Properties

The space beneath the stage was sometimes “paled in” by boarding, which, though not shown in the drawing of the Swan, must have been a common feature, because many instances occur of actors (especially when playing ghosts) appearing and disappearing through trapdoors, and of dead bodies being thrown down through them. We read of flames and even of a “brave arbour” appearing from below. If the stage was strewn with rushes, as it seems to have been, the use of the trap must, sometimes, have been difficult; and, in any plays where the trapdoor was needed, the “matting” on the stage, which Sir Henry Wotton mentions, apparently as an unusual thing, in his account of the burning of the Globe in 1613, must have been out of the question. There was also, in some playhouses at all events, an appliance by which players could be let down from above, as if descending from heaven, though it appears to have been more difficult to draw them up again. Whether the appliance worked from the balcony or the “heavens” is not ascertained.

Painted scenery on the public stage there was none, though the mention in an inventory of the Admiral’s men’s properties, compiled by Henslowe in 1598, of “the clothe of the Sone and Mone,” certainly seems to imply some attempt of this nature, and though the figures of men and animals frequently appeared in the woven or painted hangings. But there is abundant evidence that the properties were many and elaborate. Houses, beds, rocks, ramparts, wells, property horses, and even structures serving as shops, are mentioned as being brought on the stage, and there is strong evidence for the solid representation of woods and separate trees. Though there was no attempt at creating a picture, considerable care and expense were incurred in the provision of properties. Yet these attempts at realism, for which an Elizabethan audience, according to its lights, had as keen a desire as a modern audience, long went hand in hand with the simplest devices. The names of the places were fastened over the doors, especially in cases where the stage represented two scenes at once; and where the presence of spectators on the stage reduced the space, the properties for which there was not room were sometimes indicated by nuncupative cards, a practice which prevailed, at this time, also in France. Such cards, however, must be distinguished from the “title-boards,” which, in private theatres, were fastened up, or held up by the speaker of the prologue, to give the title of the play.