- Early modern staging of throne scenes
Scenes involving thrones or chairs of state are plentiful in Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline drama. Moreover, dialogue evidence and a few stage directions suggest that, in addition to the royal seat, the stage property could include a canopy and a platform or steps by which a figure could ascend or descend or on which a second figure could be seated. Comparable large properties such as beds and scaffolds were thrust onto the stage, and occasionally a figure is directed to enter in or on a bed (for example, "A bed thrust out upon the stage, Allwit's wife in it" in Thomas Middleton, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, 3.1.0),1 but the evidence for how a widely-used property such as a throne would have been brought on is surprisingly scanty and perplexing.
Readers familiar with the received wisdom on such matters may be surprised at such a statement, for they will be aware of three items that would seem to resolve any doubts. First is Philip Henslowe's diary which lists "Itm pd for carpenters worke & mackinge the throne in the heuenes the 4 of June 1595" (p. 7). Second is the longer 1616 B-text of ChriStopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus where a stage direction ("Musicke while the Throne descends") is followed by a speech from the Good Angel that tells Faustus: "Hadst thou affected sweet diuinitie . . . Behold, / in what resplendant glory thou hadst set, / in yonder throne, like those bright shining Saints" (2006-7, 2011-13). Third is Ben Jonson's Prologue to the revised version of Every Man In His Humour in the 1616 Folio where he promises to offer his work "as other playes should be. / Where neither Chorus wafts you ore the seas; / Nor creaking throne comes downe, the boyes to please" (Prologue 14-16). For many readers (myself included) those three items have left an indelible [End Page 190] impression, with Jonson's snide reference to "creaking" and the need for music during the descent in Faustus suggesting a cumbersome, less than convincing mechanism.
Clearly, a few scenes do demand that a throne descend and ascend or somehow be placed above. Notable, in addition to the B-text Faustus, is Robert Greene's wishful thinking in Alphonsus, King of Aragon: "Exit Venus. Or if you can conveniently, let a chair come down from the top of the stage, and draw her up" (2109-10). Less clear is the placement of the prophet Oseas in Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge's A Looking Glass for London and England who is "brought in by an Angell" and then "set downe ouer the Stage in a Throne" (159-60) in order to observe the subsequent action. In contrast to these three items, only one extant stage direction (from a Caroline play, Robert Davenport's King John and Matilda) calls for a throne to be discovered: "A Chair of state discovered" (29).
That a throne descending from or placed above should be linked to a heavenly alternative (Doctor Faustus), a goddess (Alphonsus, King of Aragon), or perhaps a prophet who serves as Chorus (Looking Glass for London) comes as no surprise and fits with other special effects above the main stage.2 to what extent should such a descent-ascent mechanism then pertain to the nuts-and-bolts operation of the numerous throne scenes that permeate histories, tragedies, and romances?
An answer may be provided by a scene from a late Caroline play by William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. At the end of act 4 in The Variety the playwright sets up a tavern scene using "A Table, Stooles, Bottles of Wine, and Glasses, set out by two Drawers" (p. 60) that starts with revelry involving Newman, two jeerers, and two wenches. After one of the women slips away, newman is told that "the Pigeon that left us hath been in another roome with Mr Formall my Lady Beaufields Gentleman Usher" (64). For sport they bring in Formal and get him drunk so that he starts lusting after the wench who does her best to disappear. At this point Newman tells his boy: "you know...