- “What Story is That Painted Vpon the Cloth?”:Some Descriptions of Hangings and Their Use on the Early Modern Stage1
There are many references to curtains in the dialogue and stage directions of early modern play texts. The terms used, “curtain”, “arras”, “hangings” and “traverse”, were largely interchangeable in the stage directions, and for the most part they refer to a curtain (or pair of curtains) capable of being drawn back along a supporting rail.2 Their principal location was the central opening in the tiring-house façade where their function was to permit ceremonial entrances and exits and the carrying in and out of large properties, as well as providing both a place of concealment and a “discovery” space.3
We only rarely learn anything about the colour or design of these curtains, and there is little indication about the material used, whether it was plain, painted or woven cloth. But any discussion of the visual effect created by curtains should begin by noting that the inside of an early modern theatre was very far from plain. Around 1596 a Dutch visitor to London, Johannes de Witt, described the Theatre, Curtain, Rose and Swan as “four amphitheatres of obvious beauty”. He made a much-reproduced sketch of the Swan theatre and was particularly impressed by its “wooden columns which, on account of the colour of marble painted on them, can deceive even the most acute” (Wickham et al. 441). The building contract for the Fortune, dated January 1600, specifies that “all the principal and main posts of the said frame and stage forward shall be square and wrought plasterwise with carved proportions [i.e. figures] called satyres to be placed and set on the top of every of the same posts” (Wickham et al. 535). The roof’s ceiling of the Globe stage seems to have been painted with stars, as Hamlet points out to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “looke you, this braue orehanging firmament, this maiesticall roofe fretted with golden fire” (Hamlet [1600-1, Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe] Q2, F2r; 2.2.300-1).4 The Worcester College drawings for an [End Page 2] indoor theatre, which were probably made around 1660 by John Webb but, in terms of layout, represent an English Renaissance indoor playhouse (Higgott 9), show the tiring-house façade adorned with two sets of statues. When the playhouses and the stages were so decorated, it is extremely unlikely that stage hangings remained in their original, somewhat drab, woven state. At the very least they would have been dyed, and curtains, as we shall see later, were also in many cases covered with some form of imagery.
It follows from this that curtains were by no means neutral in their dramatic effect. We know, to start with, that black curtains were used for performances of tragedies. We know too that these black curtains were employed in different ways: for example, some tragedies would have had them in place throughout the performance, while others would have used them only for the beginning and the concluding acts or series of scenes.5 Differences of this kind suggest that in the early modern period stage hangings could be employed to create, change or reinforce a range of atmospheres on stage. While the monochrome effect of black was appropriate for tragedies, curtains in non-tragic drama would have required a different visual impact. Surviving play texts of non-tragic drama confirm this impression: as well as being dyed a single colour, curtains frequently incorporated visual imagery of different kinds. Setting out some of this evidence and investigating its significance form the basis for what follows.
Contemporary documents and illustrations
Before dealing with the plays themselves it may be helpful to survey the evidence to be found in contemporary documents and illustrations. As to the choice of colour for curtains, a suggestive hint is contained in some documents from earlier in the sixteenth century relating to a lawsuit in 1530-31 between John Rastell and Henry Walton where the issue at stake was the ownership of theatrical costumes and other properties. The documents contain two separate references to “ij curtens of grene & yelowe...