« PreviousContinue »
love, a young heir just put into possession of his fortune, is surrounded by a number of intriguers and flatterers who pretend to be his friends, and who lead their dupe into all sorts of absurd and humiliating scrapes; and the piece ends with the return of the favored lover from a voyage which he had undertaken in a momentary pique. The manners represented are those of the middle class of the period, and the picture given of London citizen life in the middle of the sixteenth century is curious, animated, and natural. The language is lively, and the dialogue is carried on in a sort of loose doggerel rhyme, very well adapted to represent comic conversation. In general the intrigue of this drama is deserving of approbation; the plot is well imagined, and the reader's curiosity well kept alive. Gammer Gurton's Needle is a composition of a much lower and more farcical order. The scene is laid in the humblest rustic life, and all the dramatis personæ belong to the uneducated class. The principal action of the comedy is the sudden loss of a needle with which Gammer (Commère?) Gurton has been mending the inexpressibles of her man Hodge, a loss comparatively serious, when needles were rare and costly. The whole intrigue consists in the search instituted after this unfortunate little implement, which is at last discovered by Hodge himself, on suddenly sitting down, sticking in the garment which Gammer Gurton had been repairing.
A comparison between these early comedies, and Gammer Gurton in particular, and that curious and interesting piece Maistre Pierre Pathelin, which is regarded as the first specimen of the French comic stage, would not be uninstructive. In both the transition from the sottie or farce to regular comedy is plainly perceptible; and it must be confessed that in the humorous delineation of character, as well as in probability and variety of incident, the French piece has decidedly the advantage. The form of the dialogue, being in both cases a sort of easy doggerel verse, little removed from the real language of the classes represented, has great similarity; though the French comedy is, as far as its diction is concerned, far more archaic and difficult to a modern French reader than the English of Gammer Gurton to an English one. This indeed may be generally remarked, that our language has undergone less radical changes in the space of time which has elapsed from the first appearance of literary productions among us than any of the other cultivated dialects of Europe.
§ 7. It will be inferred from what has been said respecting the custom of acting plays at Court, in the mansions of great lords, in the Universities, and in the Inns of Law, that regular public theatres were not yet in existence. The actors were to a certain degree amateurs, and were frequently literally the domestics of the sovereign and the nobles, wearing their badges and liveries, and protected by their patronage. The line of demarcation between musical performers, singers, jugglers, tumblers, and actors, was for a long period very faintly traced. The Court plays were frequently represented by the children of the -yal chapel, and placed, as the dramatic profession in general was for . long time, under the peculiar supervision of the Office of the Revels,
which was obliged also to exercise the duties of a dramatic censor, These bodies of actors, singers, tumblers, &c., were frequently in th: habit of wandering about the country, performing wherever they couli: find an audience, sometimes in the mansions of rural grandees, some. times in the town halls of provincial municipalities, sometimes in the court-yards of inns. Protected by the letters-patent and the livery of their master against the severe laws which qualified strollers as vagabonds, they generally began their proceedings by begging the countenance and protection of the authorities; and the accounts of the ancient municipal bodies, and the household registers of the great families of former times, abound in entries of permissions given to such strolling parties of actors, tumblers, and musicians, and of sums granted to them in recompense of their exertions. It is curious to remark that the amount of such sums seems to have been calculated less in reference to the talent displayed in the representation, than to the degree of respect which the grantors wished to show to the patron under whose protection the troop happened to be. This state of things, however, had existed long before; for in the accounts of the ancient monasteries we frequently meet with entries of gratuities given, not only to travelling preachers from other religious bodies, but even to minstrels, jugglers, and other professors of the arts of entertainment. Nothing was more easy than to transform the ancient hall of a college, palace, or nobleman's mansion into a theatre sufficiently convenient in the then primitive state of dramatic representation. The dais or elevated platform at the upper extremity was a stage ready made; it was only necessary to hang up a curtain, and to establish a few screens covered with tapestry, to produce a scene sufficient for the purpose. When the performance took place in an inn, which was very common, the stage was established on a platform in the centre of the yard; the lower classes of spectators stood upon the ground in front of it, which custom is preserved in the designation parterre, still given by the French to the pit. The latter denomination is a record of the circumstance that in England theatrical representations often took place in cockpits. Indeed there at one time existed in London a theatre called the Cockpit, from the circumstance of its having been originally an arena for that sport. The ancient inns, as may be seen by many specimens still in existence, were built round an open court-yard, and along each story internally ran an open gallery, upon which opened the doors and windows of the small chambers occupied by the guests. In order to witness the performance the inmates had only to come out into the gallery in front of their rooms; and the convenience of this arrangement unquestionably suggested the principal features of construction when buildings were first specifically destined for scenic performances. The galleries of the old inns were the prototypes of the circles of boxes in our modern theatres.
But the taste for dramatic entertainments grew rapidly more general and ardent; and in the course of time, in many places, particularly in London, not only did special societies of professional actors begin to come into existence, but special edifices were constructed for their exhi
bitions. Indeed at one period it is supposed that London and its suburbs contained at least twelve different theatres, of various degrees of size and convenience. Of these the most celebrated was undoubtedly the Globe, for at that time each playhouse had its sign, and the company which performed in it were also the proprietors of a smaller house on the opposite, or London side of the Thames, called the Blackfriars, situated very nearly on the spot now occupied by the gigantic establishment of the “ Times” newspaper. The great majority of the London theatres were on the southern or Surrey bank of the Thames, in order to be out of the jurisdiction of the municipality of the City, which, having been from a very early period strongly infected with the gloomy doctrines, of Puritanism, was violently opposed to theatrical entertainments, and carried on against the players and the playhouses a constant war, in which their opponents repelled the persecutions of authority with all the petulance of wit and caricature. Some of these theatres were cockpits or arenas for bull-baiting and bear-baiting, either transformed into regular playhouses, or alternately employed for theatrical and other spectacles : but the Globe, and probably others as well, were specifically erected for the purpose of the drama. They were all, however, very poor and squalid, as compared with the magnificent theatres of the present day, and retained in their form and arrangement many traces of the ancient model — the inn-yard. The building was octagon, and entirely uncovered, excepting over the stage, where a thatched roof protected the actors from the weather; and this thatched roof was, in 1613, the cause of the total destruction of the Globe, in consequence of the wadding of a chamber, or small cannon, lodging in it, fired during the representation of Shakspeare's Henry VIII. The boxes or rooms, as they were then styled, were of course arranged nearly as in the present day, but the musicians, instead of being placed, as now, in the orchestra, or space between the pit and the stage, were established in a lofty gallery over the scene.
The most remarkable peculiarity of the ancient English theatres was the total absence of painted scenery, which in more recent times has been carried to such a height of artistic splendor and illusion. A few traverses, as they were called, or screens of cloth or tapestry, gave the actors the opportunity of making their exits and entrances; and in order to give the audience an idea of the place where the action was to be supposed, they employed the singularly primitive expedient of exhibiting a placard, bearing the name of Rome, Athens, London, or Florence, as the case might be. So exceedingly rude an expedient as this is the more singular as the English drama is remarkable for its frequent changes of scene. But though they were forced to content themselves with this very inartificial mode of indicating the place of the action, the details of the locality could be represented with a much more accurate imitation. Thus, if a bedroom were to be supposed, a bed was pushed forward on the stage; a table covered with bottles and tankards, and surrounded with benches, easily suggested a tavern; a gilded chair surmounted by a canopy, and called a state, gave the idea of a palace, an altar of a church, and the like. At the back of the stage was erected a permanent wooden construction, like a scaffold or a high wall; and this served for those innumerable incidents where one of the dramatis personæ is to overhear the others without being himself seen, and also represented an infinity of objects according to the requirements of the piece, such as the wall of a castle or besieged city, the outside of a house, as when a dialogue is to take place between one person at a window and another on the exterior. Thus in the admirable garden-scene of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet probably spoke either from the summit of this wall or from a window established in it, while Romeo stood on the ground outside; in the same way the “ men of Angiers ” spoke to the besieging English from the top of their wall, and the storming of Harfleur divided the action between Henry and his troops upon the stage and the defenders of the city upon the platform.
In those accessories to scenic illusion which in the language of the English stage are called properties, the old Elizabethan theatres were better provided than could have been expected, as may be seen from very curious lists of such articles which have accidentally descended to us from the ancient greenrooms. In point of costume very little attention was paid to chronological or national accuracy. The dramatis personæ of all ages and countries were in general habited in the dress of the period; this was fortunately a graceful, rich, and picturesque costume; and we may judge, from the innumerable philippics of divines and moralists against the luxury of the actors, that a very considerable degree of splendor in theatrical dress was common. The employment of the contemporary costume in plays whose action was supposed to take place in Greece, Rome, or Persia, naturally led into gross anachronisms and absurdities, arming the assassins of Cæsar with Spanish rapiers, or furnishing Carthaginian senators with watches; but these anachronisms were not likely to strike in a very offensive manner the mixed and uncritical spectators of those times. It may indeed be said that the meagre material aids to the illusion of the scene which were then at the disposal of the dramatic author were in reality of the greatest service to the poetical and imaginative department of his art. Not being able to depend upon the scene-painter and the machinist, he was obliged to trust to his own resources, and to describe in words what could not be “ oculis subjecta fidelibus.” It is to this circumstance that we owe those inimitable pictures of natural and artificial objects and scenery with which the dramas of this age are so prodigally adorned. Though the majority of the characters were clothed in the habit of the day, there were certain conventional attributes always associated with particular supernatural personages, such as angels, devils, ghosts, and so on. Thus “ a roobe for to goo invisibell” is one of the items in the lists of properties to which I have alluded above; and in all probability the spectral armor of the Ghost in Hamlet was to be found in the wardrobe of the ancient theatres. It appears that the dresses and properties belonged to persons who derived their livelihood from hiring these articles at a fixed price per night to the performers.
The curtain, that essential appendage to every theatre, is supposed to have opened perpendicularly in the middle, instead of being wounc up and let down as at present; and besides this principal curtain then seem to have been others occasionally drawn so as to divide the stage into several apartments, and withdrawn to exhibit one of the characters as in a tent or closet.
The cost of admission to the theatres was small, and it was possible to secure the use of a private box or room ; for it was then considerei hardly proper for a lady to be present at the representations of the public theatres : it was certainly long before any of our sovereigns deigned to witness any of those performances. Whenever the monarch desired to see a play the actors were summoned to court; and the accounts of the chamberlain's office furnish abundant entries of the recompenses ordered to be distributed on such occasions among th: performers. Several of the companies of actors were under the immediate patronage of the sovereign, of different members of the royal family and other great personages of the realm : they were bound to " exercise themselves industriously in the art and quality of stageplaying,” in order to be always ready to furnish entertainment to their employer, and in return for these services they were protected against interlopers and rivals, and above all against the implacable hostility of the Puritanical municipality of London. It is perhaps to this circumstance that we may attribute the designation of Her Majesty's Ser. vants, which our modern companies of actors still retain in their playbills; and the old custom of the actors at the end of the piece falling upon their knees and putting up a solemn prayer to Heaven in favor of the sovereign is perhaps commemorated in the words Vivat Regina, with which our modern playbills terminate. The usual hour of representation was anciently very early, in accordance with the habit of dining before midday, and the signal was given by the hoisting of a flag at the summit of the theatre, which remained floating during the whole performance.
The piece commenced with three flourishes of a trumpet, and at the third sounding, as it was called, the prologue was declaimed by : solemn personage whose regular costume was a long black velvet cloak. At the end of the piece, or occasionally perhaps between the acts, the clown or jester performed what was called a jig, a species of entertainment in which our ancestors seem to have delighted. This was a kind of comic ballad or declamation in doggerel verse, either really or professedly an improvisation of the moment, introducing any person or event which was exciting the ridicule of the day, and accompanied by the performer with tabor and pipe and with grotesque and farcical dancing. As the comic actors who performed the clowns and jesters, then indispensable personages in all pieces, tragic and comic, were allowed to introduce extemporary witticisms at their pleasure, they were probably a clever and inventive class; and the enormous popularity of several of them, as Tarlton, Kempe, and Armin, seems to prove that their drollery must have been intensely amusing.