1599 - Elizabethan Theatre

This is Shakespeare's famous Globe theatre. The first purpose-built theatre in Britain dates from 1576 in an age when most 'entertainment' was based on gambling and blood sports. The design of these early  theatres was closely related to contemporary bear pits and bull-baiting arenas. The idea of an open standing area in front of the stage, surrounded by galleries where there would be benches, came from the inn courtyards where strolling players often performed. Do modern theatres give a better view of the stage?

Most members of the audience had an excellent view of the stage, which had trap doors through which ghosts, devils and suchlike could emerge or vanish during the performance. Behind it was the 'tiring house' where actors donned their costumes and from which they made their entrances and exits. Its upper storeys could be used to dramatic effect - the 'balcony scene' from Romeo and Juliet shows how Shakespeare, for one, made creative use of the theatre's structure. The forward extension - known, for obvious reasons, as 'the heavens' - was used not just to protect the stage from the weather but also to house the machinery used for sound effects or to lower characters to the stage. The illustration shows the timber framework of the seating bays at the Globe, with rows of hard benches arranged on three levels. Such an arrangement brought players and audience close together and, with food and drink freely available, performances would have been lively affairs - 'when any notable shew passeth on the stage, the people arise out of their seates, and stand upright with delight and eagerness to view it well.' In Henry I/Shakespeare refers to 'this wooden O' and while a contemporary illustration suggests a circular structure, it was in fact polygonal in form, with walls of lath and plaster under a thatched roof. In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, this roof was accidentally set ablaze when guns were fired to announce the King's arrival. The rebuilt Globe theatre continued in use until it was closed down by the Puritans in 1644, and its remains lay undiscovered until 1989. Over the past three decades, however, a team led by the actor/director Sam Wanamaker has been building a faithful replica of the Globe on a site very close to the original, and only a few yards from the existing Shakespeare Globe Museum. Soon audiences will be able to watch Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth as they would have been seen on the stage where they were first performed.


1836 - Camera Obscura