Monday, June 09, 2008 6/9/08-The Elizabethan Theater

In today's excerpt--the ascendance of the Elizabethan theater:

"Theaters as dedicated spaces of entertainment were a new phenomenon in England in Shakespeare's lifetime. Previously players had performed in innyards or the halls of great homes or other spaces normally used for other purposes. London's first true playhouse appears to have been the Red Lion, built in 1567 in Whitechapel. ...

"William Shakespeare could not have chosen a more propitious moment to come of age. By the time he arrived in London in (presumably) the late 1580s, theaters dotted the outskirts and would continue to rise throughout his career. All were compelled to reside in 'liberties,' areas mostly outside London's walls where City laws and regulations did not apply. It was a banishment they shared with brothels, prisons, gunpowder stores, unconsecrated graveyards, lunatic asylums (the notorious Bedlam stood close by the Theatre), and noisome enterprises like soapmaking, dyeing, and tanning--and these could be noisome indeed. Glue makers and soapmakers rendered copious volumes of bones and animal fat, filling the air with a cloying smell that could be all but worn, while tanners steeped their products in vats of dog feces to make them supple. No one reached a playhouse without encountering a good deal of odor.

"The new theaters did not prosper equally. Within three years of its opening, the Curtain was being used for fencing bouts, and all other London playhouses, with the single eventual exception of the Globe, relied on other entertainments, particularly animal baiting, to fortify their earnings. The pastime was not unique to England, but it was regarded as an English specialty. Queen Elizabeth often had visitors from abroad entertained with bearbaiting at Whitehall. In its classic form, a bear was put in a ring, sometimes tethered to a stake, and set upon by mastiffs, but bears were expensive investments, so other animals (such as bulls and horses) were commonly substituted. One variation was to put a chimpanzee on the back of a horse and let the dogs go for both together. The sight of a screeching ape clinging for dear life to a bucking horse while dogs leaped at it from below was considered about as rich an amusement as public life could offer. That an audience that could be moved to tears one day by a performance of Doctor Faustus could return the next day to the same space and be just as entertained by the frantic deaths of helpless animals may say as much about the age as any single statement could."

Bill Bryson, Shakespeare, The World as Stage, Atlas, Copyright 2007 by Bill Bryson, pp. 70-72.


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