In the following essay, I am going to write about the development of drama and theatre from the English to the French Renaissance.
There is a few important aspects that I am going to focus on: The influence that the English playwrights Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare had on Elizabethan drama, the public outdoor theatres of the English Renaissance, a short summary on Commedia Dell’Arte, the different neo-classical ideals that developed during the Italian Renaissance, the major innovations of scenic design and scenic practices, also about Moliere as French Neo-classical comedy dramatist and the Cardinal Richelieu’s theatre: the Palace Cardinal. Christopher Marlowe was the first significant dramatist to emerge in the Elizabethan period. A history play that emphasizes important public issues, the chronicle play, was perfected by Marlowe. Marlowe did not write for publication, but rather for production. Christopher Marlowe was the most famous of the university wits. A dramatic structure standard was set by him and a number of interesting characters to English theatre was contributed by him.
Marlowe developed another element that originated in medieval morality plays. A fight will occur between a good and bad angel for the main characters soul. Marlowe used this theme in many of his plays and so it became an acceptable theme in English drama. Basically a full-length drama would be incorporated by an abstract notion from the morality plays. Marlowe also focused on dramatic poetry, the power of a dramatic verse.
The critics and people spoke off it as Marlowe’s mighty line, an element that became central in the later Elizabethan plays. This verse had five beats to a line, with two syllables to each beat and accent on the second beat. It was called iambic pentameter, which developed powerful elements such as strength, suppleness, lyric beauty and subtlety (Wilson ; Goldfarb 2010:189-191). William Shakespeare was an actor and also a member of a dramatic company and therefor he excelled in many aspects of theatre such as technical elements. He was noticed for his excellent use of the episodic plot, also for the powers of his metaphors and the use of music in his language. Another noticeable element of Shakespeare’s plays was the fact that his characters were well-rounded and carefully detailed which created an atmosphere of living people.
Shakespeare wrote comedies, tragedies, histories and sometimes categories that could not be labelled, that made him diverse in his work. Influences from earlier drama is illustrated in his plays and how it comes together during the English renaissance. Shakespeare did not follow the structure rules of Italian neo-classicists and instead used episodic devices that emerged in the medieval period. The use of more than one locale, he also used more than one plot and he mixed tragedy with comedy. A remarkable achievement of Shakespeare is his use of language.
Quotations and phrases that we use in everyday speech, originated from his plays. What makes them impressive is not only the rhythm and its imagery, but the sound of it. Scenes got alternated so that each episode illuminates or forms a counterpoint to the one before and after it (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:193-195). Enclosed inn-yards were adapted for performance space. A stage would be set up at the end opposite the entrance and while some spectators will stand in the yard, others will use rooms that overlook the yard as viewing spaces. Public theatres that were designed for performances became a primary space for adult acting companies whatever their origin.
Just outside London, between the 1560s and 1642s, nine open-air public theatres were built. The reason why it was built outside London is because the city fathers of London forbade it on their moral grounds. But Queen Elizabeth and later King James offered protections that ultimately allowed the theatre to survive, because they enjoyed it. The theatres outside London were called the Theatre, the Globe, the Curtain, the Red Bull, the Swan, the Rose and the Hope.
The number of spectators that the public theatre could accommodate, ranged from 1 500 to 3 000. The buildings were in different shapes, most of them were circular, some were polygonal and the Fortune theatre was in a square shape. The Rose theatre was discovered to have had thirteen or fourteen sides (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:200-201). In the public outdoor theatres the pit, galleries and boxes were used to accommodate the spectators and usually it was three tiers of seating all around the sides. The first tier was approximately 12 feet of the second one and it would be divided into boxes and it accommodated the wealthy people and therefore it was called the lords room.
The second tier was about 11 feet and it had bench seating along with the third tier that was 9 feet and also had bench seating that was undivided. Then there were a yard, which were standing space for the spectators on the ground in front of the stage and on the sides. It was usually for the lower class spectators that were known as groundlings and then before or during the show food and drinks would be sold to them (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:202-203). The stage was a raised platform thrust stage that was surrounded by the audience from all three sides. The space from the back towards the stage was sloped for the groundlings to stood and watch and they had trapdoors that was used in some plays such as Hamlet.
The tiring house was a stage house that was a three-story building right behind the raised platform. It was used as a space to store set pieces, properties and as a changing area for the actors to change their costumes. The entrances and exits introduced the scene changes and the faade was a basic scenic element in the Elizabethan public theatres. The first level had a certain number of doorways which were the discovery space basically it is when the audience suddenly discovered a body.
The second-story platform was known as the balcony and was required for many Elizabethan dramas. The third level housed the musicians that provided the music for the play and it was known as the musicians gallery. The roof was called the heavens or the shadows and it extended over the stage, supported by pillars to protect the stage (Wilson and Goldfarb 2010:203-206). Commedia dellarte is an Italian term which means play of professional artists and it was a popular type of entertainment in the Italian Renaissance. It originated in Italy from 1550 to 1750.
Commedia dell arte companies consisted of ten performers, 3 female and 7 male performers which could perform in town squares, theatre spaces, basically anywhere they could find space and this made them flexible performers. Commedia dellarte was traveling troupes which specialized mostly in comic performances. The profits as well as the expenses and losses would be shared by the members of the company. A brief summary of the stock characters were: Pantalone a rich, miserly old man, Dottore a doctor who acts as if he is filled with knowledge, Capitano who is a egocentric coward, Harlequin that carries the slapstick and is a comic servant, Brighella that pretends to be everything, but never gets wealthy, Pedrolino and Pulcinella who were servants, Isabella a female flirtatious girl who was part of The Lovers, Columbina who was Isabellas mistress and La Ruffiana, the prostitute (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:159-161). Commedia dellarte was improvised presentations and not written, literary forms.
Short scenarios would be written by a member of the group and would include no proper dialogue, only a plot outline. These actors tasks were made easier and simpler by Commedia dellarte conventions. The same stock character would be played by the actor throughout their career and the personality of the stock character would be closely linked to the actors personality to make improvisation easier. Commedia dell arte characters made use of lazzi which were repeated bits of comic business also to make improvisation easier.
Music duets and conventional exit and entrance speeches would be used regularly to make their task easier. Another convention that made improvisation easier was costuming. The Harlequin will wear a patchwork jacket and Dottore will wear an academic robe to make the stock characters more recognisable. Masks were also an essential element except for The Lovers (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:159-161). The neo-classicists of the Italian Renaissance wanted to formulate rules to imitate the Greeks and Romans. These rules were called the neoclassical ideals.
The neoclassical ideals are divided into groups, such as decorum and verisimilitude, unities, genres and other rules. Decorum was a statement used which indicated that actors should behave and act according to their sex, age and rank to create a more realistic atmosphere. Appropriate behaviour was expected from the Actors. Verisimilitude was a term used that meant the play, as well as the acting, should be true to life.
Ghosts, supernatural beings and events were not allowed because it was not experienced in the real life. Unities were categorized under unities of place, time and action. Unity of time had a rule that no action in a play was allowed to exceed 24 hours and if it did, it would be seen as not being truthful to the audience. Unity of place consist the rule that the action of the play was only allowed to take place in one locale. It was also done to make it more truthful to the spectators. And the last unity was action.
The plot of the plays was only allowed to have one major plot; subplots were forbidden (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:175-178). Genre is a term that means type and category in French and it is the third neoclassical ideal that is being discussed. Royalty was associated with tragedies and the endings would resolve in a sad ending while comedies would be associated with the common everyday people and it would have happy endings. But these two genres were not allowed to be mixed in a play. It was also very important that both genres must have been educational; basically it had to teach a moral lesson to the audience.
There were also other rules such as, violence onstage that was forbidden, the characters had to be decent, the audience had to accept them and the chorus was taken away (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:278). In the Italian Renaissance, Sebastiano Serlio created a deeper sense of visual realism in theatre by introducing perspective into scene design. He introduced three settings that should be used for plays: a tragic setting which involved royalty scenery, a comic setting with common scenes and a pastoral setting which had trees, villages and hills. Serlio suggested using angled wings to create these certain settings to match the plays.
Flats would be painted with a scene that will fit into the setting and would be hanged in the right position. They would be placed behind each other on both sides of the stage. But these angled flats that were suggested by Serlio, made it difficult to shift scenes during a performance. Various solutions came through after the 1550 period such as using a periaktoi which were designed by the Greeks. It is a device which had three sides and when the one side is shown to the audience, the other sides would be invisible and then they would turn this advice to create three different scenes. Methods for scene changing were developed after 1585.
The first method was using the periaktoi, the second method was to use the wings already in place and just to place new wings around them, and thirdly they used a method to conceal the previous scene by pulling painted canvases around the wings (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:170-171). Advances in art like perspective paintings and drawings made it possible to develop the flat win in the seventeenth century. These painting and drawing techniques that developed in 1600 created the illusion of depth and also three dimensional space. Flat wings were individual wings placed parallel to the audience on each side of the stage in a series.
For the flat wing scene shifting new methods had to be released. The two flat wing scene changing methods were called the groove system and the pole-and-chariot system. The groove system was the earliest method, above the stage floor the wings and shutters would be placed in grooves and allowed it to slide offstage easily and quickly so that the new wings and shutters can immediately be revealed. It did not last, because the scene shifters had a problem with the coordination with the wings and shutters when they were moved. The pole-and-chariot method was developed by Torelli. Scene flats would be attached to poles and these poles went below the stage floor and there they would be connected to wheel that ran on a track.
This made the flats move smoothly off the stage (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:171-174). Special effects developed even further in the Italian Renaissance. They started to made use of flying machines, trapdoors and devices that would create sound effects like thunder, rain and wind. They also had to use devices that would create light, because the plays would take place at an indoor theatre and it would minimize the light. They used candles and oil lamps and if they wanted to control the intensity of the light, they would use open canisters and cover the candle with it (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:174). Molire was a French neo-classical dramatist who specialised in comedies and also had the most influence on modern theatre.
He was born in 1622 as Jean Baptiste Poquelin. He was famous for a particular quote, If it be the aim of comedy to correct mans vices, then I do not see for what reason there should be a privileged class. He depicted the vices (an immoral or wicked habit of characters) and follies (a lack of good sense or understanding) truthfully and therefor the audience members were shocked, but he still succeeded in earning the respect of theatregoers and he remains one of the most popular dramatists. His dialogue consisted of witty dialogue mixed with farcical humour and human foibles.
He also made use of rhyming couplets in the dialogues of his plays. Molires plots would be solved by a deus ex machine and one of his lead influences were commedia dellarte, where stock characters were resembled (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:257-258). Molire had an option of two career choices if he wanted to be wealthy. He could have fallowed his fathers footsteps and become an upholsterer in the service of the king or he could have become a lawyer. But he left school in 1643 and decided to change his name to Molire. He was imprisoned for dept in 1645 because his theatre went bankrupt.
While his troupe was performing in the provinces till 1658, he was able to coach the performers with his methods. Molires plays were very successful but some of his plays like Tartuffe were banned. He did not only write one third of the troupes plays, but he was also the company manager and an actor. Molire lived an unhappy life, because he had to work harder for financial stability and his wife was also notorious for her flirtations. In 1673 Molire died when he fainted at one of the performances, because he suffered from a lung ailment (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:258-260).
Cardinal Richelieu erected the Palais Cardinal and after his death it was called the Palais-Royal. The Palais Cardinal was a theatre in France that was a rectangular form and had a stage at the one end and sitting space on three sides around it where it accommodated 1 500 spectators. The area in front was called the pit and it accommodated 300 people, the raised amphitheatre behind the pit accommodated 700 sitting spaces, another 330 sitting spaces was accommodated in the galleries, 50 wealthy nobles were seated on the sides of the stage and 70 people could have stand at the very back. The theatre made use of Italianate scene-shifting machinery and was also the first proscenium-arch theatre in France. An Italian scenic wizard called Giacomo Torelli installed scene-changing equipment in France and also designed the scenery.
He installed a pole-and-chariot system in the Palais-Royal which included him to build a platform stage 6 feet high, 49 feet wide, and 48 feet deep. French proscenium-arch theater buildings consisted of an amphitheatre in the back, opposite the stage that was bleacher-like seating and that made it differed from the ordinary Italian proscenium-arch theater buildings (Wilson & Goldfarb 2010:261-262). As seen above, the theatre of art has been developed in every aspect from the English renaissance, through the Italian- till the French renaissance. From the greatest dramatists to the most amazing methods to change scenes on set.
The renaissance period was not only a period of rebirth, but a period where spectacular theatre elements have been developed and improved.
Wilson, E. & Goldfarb, A. 2010. Living Theatre: A History, 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.
Wilson, E. & Goldfarb, A. 2010. Living Theatre: A History, pp 26-271, in University of the Free State 2014, DRAH1504 History of the Performance, Grov, M., Bloemfontein.