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stage, they could often only catch glimpses of the actors through chinks in serried ranks of stools.
The histrionic and scenic conditions, in which Shakespeare's plays were originally produced, present a further series of disadvantages which, from any modern point of view, render the more amazing the unqualified enthusiasm of the Elizabethan playgoer.
There was no scenery, although there were crude endeavours to create scenic illusion by means of "properties" like rocks, tombs, caves, trees, tables, chairs, and pasteboard dishes of food. There was at the outset no music, save flourishes on trumpets at the opening of the play and between the acts. The scenes within each act were played continuously without pause. The bare boards of the platform-stage, which no proscenium nor curtain darkened, projected so far into the auditorium, that the actors spoke in the very centre of the house. Trapdoors were in use for the entrance of "ghosts" and other mysterious personages. At the back of the stage was a raised platform or balcony, from which often hung loose curtains; through them the actors passed to the forepart of the stage. The balcony was pressed into the service when the text of the play indicated that the speakers were not actually standing on the same level. From the raised platform Juliet addressed Romeo in the balcony scene, and the citizens of Angers in King John held colloquy with the English besiegers. This was, indeed, almost the furthest limit of the Elizabethan stage-manager's notion of scenic realism. The boards, which were bare save for the occasional presence of rough properties, were held to present
THE ELIZABETHAN ACTOR'S COSTUME 41
adequate semblance, as the play demanded, of a king's throne-room, a chapel, a forest, a ship at sea, a mountainous pass, a market-place, a battle-field, or a churchyard.
The costumes had no pretensions to fit the period or place of the action. They were the ordinary dresses of various classes of the day, but were often of rich material, and in the height of the current fashion. False hair and beards, crowns and sceptres, mitres and croziers, armour, helmets, shields, vizors, and weapons of war, hoods, bands, and cassocks, were mainly relied on to indicate among the characters differences of rank or profession.
The foreign observer, Thomas Platter of Basle, was impressed by the splendour of the actors' costumes. He accounted for it in a manner that negatives any suggestion of dramatic propriety:
"The players wear the most costly and beautiful dresses, for it is the custom in England, that when noblemen or knights die, they leave their finest clothes to their servants, who, since it would not be fitting for them to wear such splendid garments, sell them soon afterwards to the players for a small sum."
The most striking defect in the practice of the Elizabethan playhouse, according to accepted notions, lies in the allotment of the female rôles. It was thought unseemly for women to act at all. Female parts were played by boys or men-a substitution lacking, from the modern point of view, in grace and seemliness. But the standard of propriety in such matters varies from age to age. Shakespeare alludes quite complacently to the ap
pearance of boys and men in women's parts. He makes Rosalind say, laughingly and saucily, to the men of the audience in the epilogue to As You Like It, "If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me." "If I were a woman," she says. The jest lies in the fact that the speaker was not a woman but a boy. Similarly, Cleopatra on her downfall in Antony and Cleopatra, (V. ii. 220), laments
the quick comedians Extemporally will stage us . . . and I shall see Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness.
The experiment of entrusting a boy with the part of Ophelia was lately tried in London not unsuccessfully; but it is difficult to realise how a boy or young man could adequately interpret most of Shakespeare's female characters. It seems almost sacrilegious to conceive the part of Cleopatra, the most highly sensitised in its minutest details of all dramatic portrayals of female character, it seems almost sacrilegious to submit Cleopatra's sublimity of passion for interpretation by an unfledged representative of the other sex. Yet such solecisms were imperative under the theatrical system of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Men taking women's parts seem to have worn masks, but that can hardly have improved matters. Flute, when he complains that it would hardly befit him to play a woman's part because he had a beard coming, is bidden by his resourceful manager, Quince, play Thisbe in a "mask." At times actors who had long lost the roses of youth masqueraded in women's rôles. Thereby the ungainliness which marked the distribution of the
BOYS IN WOMEN'S PARTS
cast in Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses was often forced into stronger light.
It was not till the seventeenth century was well advanced that women were permitted to act in public theatres. Then the gracelessness of the masculine method was acknowledged and deplored. It was the character of Desdemona which was first undertaken by a woman, and the absurdity of the old practice was noticed in the prologue written for this revival of Othello, which was made memorable by the innovation. Some lines in the prologue describe the earlier system thus:
For to speak truth, men act, that are between
Profound commiseration seems due to the Elizabethan playgoer, who was liable to have his faith in the tenderness and gentleness of Desdemona rudely shaken by the irruption on the stage of a brawny, broad-shouldered athlete, masquerading in her sweet name. Boys or men of all shapes and sizes squeaking or bawling out the tender and pathetic lines of Shakespeare's heroines, and no joys of scenery to distract the playgoer from the uncouth inconsistency! At first sight it would seem that the Elizabethan playgoer's lot was anything but happy.
The Elizabethan's hard fate strangely contrasts with the situation of the playgoer of the nineteenth or twentieth century. To the latter Shakespeare is
presented in a dazzling plenitude of colour. Music punctuates not merely intervals between scenes and acts, but critical pauses in the speeches of the actors. Pictorial tableaux enthral the most callous onlooker. Very striking is the contrast offered by the methods of representation accepted with enthusiasm by the Elizabethan playgoer and those deemed essential by the fashionable modern manager. There seems a relish of barbarism in the ancient system when it is compared with the one now in vogue.
I fear the final conclusion to be drawn from the contrast is, contrary to expectation, more creditable to our ancestors than to ourselves. The needful dramatic illusion was obviously evoked in the playgoer of the past with an ease that is unknown to the present patrons of the stage. The absence of scenery, the substitution of boys and men for women, could only have passed muster with the Elizabethan spectator because he was able to realise the dramatic potency of the poet's work without any, or any but the slightest, adventitious aid outside the words of the play.
The Elizabethan playgoer needs no pity. It is ourselves who are deserving objects of compassion, because we lack those qualities, the possession of which enabled the Elizabethan to acknowledge in Shakespeare's work, despite its manner of production, "the delight and wonder of his stage." The imaginative faculty was far from universal among the Elizabethan playgoers. The playgoing mob always includes groundlings who delight exclusively in dumb shows and noise. Many of Shakespeare's contemporaries complained that there were