Episode 24: Stages in the Middle Ages


Em and Jesse discuss physical performance spaces, from Greek amphitheaters to pageant carts to prosceniums, and the changes theaters have seen over time. There’s a lot of Renaissance stuff in here, including an interesting discussion of the various theaters Shakespeare would have premiered plays–the Globe and the Rose–with some interesting digressions about the Blues Brothers, American Realism, and also the Bishop of Winchester and the area of Southwark known as the Liberty of the Clink.

Annotations and Corrections

1/ Hrotsvit was indeed episode 22.

2/ They shout at each other on someone’s lawn because doing the histories is less risky than doing the comedies, as I understand it (of which everyone has their specific favorite). The histories generally involve a lot of shouting.

3/ Bob’s Country Roadhouse: we got both types of music–country AND western. I assume the bottles thrown after they start singing “Rawhide” are appreciative bottles.

Jesse: We forgot to mention that animals can also show up at outdoor theatres (Bats! Racoons!). This definitely adds to the participatory “all-in-this-together” feeling and serves as a nice reminder that the environment can’t be controlled.

Also, the most famous medieval theatre fire is probably this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bal_des_Ardents

4/ A surprising number of early indoor theatres still exist. The earliest extant indoor theatres of modern Western Europe are in Italy. (“Modern” in this instance means after the fall of Rome, and “indoor theatre” specifies a space built specifically for performance.)

1580–85: Teatro Olimpico, Vicienza
1588–90: Teatro all’Antica, Sabbioneta
1617–18: Theatre Farnese, Parma

Proscenium style: from the Greek “pro skene,” in front of the scenery.

The oldest theatre, Teatro Olimpico, has a permanent skene with perspective scenery visible through the arches: it can be seen here.

Here’s the floor plan, where you can see the paths for the Teatro Olimpico’s perspective scenery. The entire back half of the stage is for the scenery and the skene.

5/ Later Baroque theatres such as Sweden’s Drottningholm Palace Theatre (opened 1754, rebuilt 1764-66) allowed actors to go a little upstage into the scenery without ruining the perspective. Nonetheless, actors tended to remain downstage, particularly on what we would now consider the apron (the small part of the stage that thrusts out in front of the proscenium arch). Here are some floor plans.

Here’s a GREAT video of the scenery changing at the Drottningholm Palace Theatre! You even see how they change it backstage (no computers or mechanization!).

Český Krumlov Castle Theatre (1767) in the Czech Republic is also an excellent example of a Baroque theatre. The video on this page has a lot of fun stills, including some of waves like those promoted by Nicola Sabbatini (1574–1654). See also this page (Sabbatini also used periaktoi, or triangular set pieces that could change scenery quickly. Very brief video here.

This video shows the Český Krumlov Castle Theatre scenery changing at 3:16. If you watch the complete video, you’ll notice that the dancer never goes very far upstage.

Here’s another video from the Český Krumlov Castle Theatre–the scenery changes at 10:45. You’ll notice that the scenery isn’t used to create a perspective, and the actors do make use of the upstage space. A cloud descends at 13:49.

6/ Bertolt Brecht, 1898–1956.

7/ The Theatre, built by James Burbage. Built in 1576, it’s not technically the very first purpose built theatre in England, but it’s the one that lasts. Burbage’s brother-in-law, John Brayne, built the actual first purpose-built theatre (the Red Lion) in 1567, but it was not successful.

8/ A Hark, a Vagrant! Comic about Richard III.

An article about the identification of his body from 2013. His bones were discovered in 2012 and reinterred in 2015. (Richard III was buried in Greyfriars, which was Franciscan and was dissolved in 1538 by Henry VIII.–Jesse)

The Rose.

In Shakespeare in Love, we meet Richard Burbage (played by Martin Clunes) and, as Jesse mentions, Philip Henslowe (played by Geoffrey Rush). We don’t meet Cuthbert Burbage.

9/ I think I thought the stage was taller because whenever a tv show (Good Omens comes to mind) shoots in there, they shoot the actors on stage at an angle that makes them seem very tall.

10/ Bishop of Winchester / Southwark.

The bishopric goes back to the year 634 CE, in case you were curious. Also, the bishop of Winchester gets to sit in the House of Lords and was typically the royal chancellor or treasurer. More on the Liberty of the Clink here. The bishop who got the license for permitting prostitution and brothels was the younger brother of King Stephen (the license, however, was granted by King Henry II, who was his first cousin once removed).

11/ For more on American dance dramas, see episode 12 (note 30) and episode 17 (notes 4 and 6).

For more on maps, see episode 14 (notes 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22), episode 11 (note 21), and episode 19 (note 8).

12/ La bohème: An opera by Puccini. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl dies of tuberculosis. Basically the same as the plot of the film Moulin Rouge. [Also the same story as Rent, famously! Because Rent is an adaptation of Bohème.–Jesse]

For more on Figaro, see episode 21 (note 5).

13/ Em: I just rewatched part of Deadpool while hanging out in L&D Triage two weeks ago (and texted Jesse about it while I was there). He breaks the fourth wall very effectively. [My love of Deadpool cannot be overstated.–Jesse]