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  • “The Stage is Hung with Blacke”:On the Use of Black curtains for Tragedies in the Early Modern Period1
  • Mariko Ichikawa (bio)

The literature of the early modern period contains many references to the use of black curtains for tragedies. In Shakespeare’s narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece, one stanza consists of Lucrece delivering a series of rebukes against “comfort-killing night” (Q1 [1594], F3r), among which we find the phrase “Blacke stage for tragedies” (F3r). In this glancing reference Shakespeare is no doubt drawing on his own experience and knowledge of current theatrical practice. The phrase certainly seems to refer to the use of curtains in creating an effect of blackness on the Elizabethan stage, and the fact that it is both brief and oblique may be the most noteworthy thing about it: this short phrase is all that was needed to enable the reader of the poem instantly to recognise what would have been a common practice.

The most helpfully explicit allusion to black hangings occurs in the induction to A Warning for Fair Women (1595-99),2 an anonymous play acted by Shakespeare’s company first at the Theatre, or perhaps at the Curtain, and then at the Globe: personified History tells Comedy, “The stage is hung with blacke: and I perceiue / The Auditors preparde for Tragedie” (Q1, A3r). The evidence from John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge (1600-01), written for the Children of Paul’s, carries the clear implication that not only open-air “public” theatres but also indoor “private” theatres made use of black hangings for tragedies. The Prologue to the play, setting out to create a suitably gloomy atmosphere for what is to follow, invites all those “Who winkes, and shuts his apprehension vp / From common sense of what men were, and are, / Who would not knowe what men must be; let such / Hurrie amaine from our black vasag’d showes” (Q1, A2v). The phrase “black [End Page 153] vasag’d showes” indicates well enough in general terms the effect being aimed at. But, however graphic it may be as a metaphor, it gives no clue about how precisely this effect was to be achieved.

In fact we know very little about how black hangings were actually employed. Take, for instance, something as fundamental as which part of the stage was covered by black hangings. Scholars have suggested different locations, and so far there is no consensus on the matter. Other questions are equally problematical. Were the hangings kept in place throughout the play’s performance, or were they there for only part of the time? Were they at some point removed altogether, or changed? If changed, what other forms of hangings were used in their stead? All these matters will be considered in what follows. The main evidence is contained in the plays themselves in the form of stage directions and dialogue. However, all such textual evidence needs to be supplemented by reference to the physical layout of early modern professional theatres, outdoor and indoor, and this is where I propose to start.

The structure of the stage

There was no typical English Renaissance playhouse: the London commercial playhouses of the period varied considerably in size, shape, and architectural features. They were nevertheless similar both in the spatial relationship between the stage and the auditorium and in the basic equipment of the stage. The stage, raised from the yard or the pit, projected into the auditorium. At the rear of the stage was a tiring-house, whose façade had entrance doors on to the stage; there was a balcony above the stage, and a trapdoor to the space below. With the exception of Tim Fitzpatrick who still argues against the existence of a central opening in the tiring-house façade (39-53), it is generally accepted that the stages of most professional playhouses had two main entrance doors and a large opening between them for “discoveries”. For obvious reasons no indoor theatre needed a separate stage roof, and although one might expect outdoor playhouses to have had a cover over the stage, none seems to have existed before the Rose was provided with one, possibly in 1591 or...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2051-8358
Print ISSN
0040-5523
Pages
pp. 153-188
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-26
Open Access
No
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