« AnteriorContinuar »
the exhibition of the plays of Shakspeare had been aided on the common stage by the advantage of moveable scenes, or if the term scene had been familiar to D'Avenant's audience, can we suppose that he would have found it necessary to use a periphrastick description, and to promise that his representation should be assisted by the art of prospective in scenes? “ It has been often wished,” says he, in his Address to the Reader, “ that our scenes (we having obliged ourselves to the variety of five changes, according to the ancient dramatick distinctions made for time,) had not been confined to about eleven feet in the height and about fifteen in depth, including the places of passage reserved for the musick." From these words we learn that he had in that piece five scenes. In 1658 he exhibited at the old theatre called the Cockpit in Drury Lane, The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru, express'd ly vocal and instrumental Musick, and by Art of perspective in Scenes. In spring 1662, having obtained a patent from King Charles the Second, and built a new playhouse in Lincoln's Inn Fields, he opened his theatre with The First Part of the Siege of Rhodes, which since its first exhibition he had enlarged. He afterwards in the same year exhibited, The Second Part of the Siege of Rhodes, and his comedy called The Wits; " these plays,” says Downes, who himself acted in The Siege of Rhodes, “ having new scenes and decorations, being the first that ever were introduced in England.” Scenes had certainly been used before in the masques at Court, and in a few private exhibitions, and by D'Avenant himself in his attempts at theatrical entertainments shortly before the death of Cromwell: Downes, therefore, who is extremely inaccurate in his language in every part of his book, must have meant—the first ever exhibited in a regular drama, on a public theatre.
I have said that I could produce the testimony of Sir William D'Avenant himself on this subject. His prologue to The Wits, which was exhibited in the spring of the year 1662, soon after the opening of his theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, if every other document had perished, would prove decisively that our author's play had not the assistance of painted scenes. “ There are some,” says D'Avenant,
6 — who would the world persuade,
" So diverse, who outlive the former age,
Disguises for the want of art and wit.” And no less decisive is the different language of the licence for erecting a theatre, granted to him by King Charles I. in 1639, and the letters patent which he obtained from his son in 1662. In the former, after he is authorized “ to entertain, govern, privilege, and keep such and so many players to exercise action, musical presentments, scenes, dancing, and the like, as he the said William Davenant shall think fit and approve for the said house, and such persons to permit and continue at and during the pleasure of the said W.D. to act plays in such house so to be by him erected, and exercise musick, musical presentments, scenes, dancing, or other the like, at the same or other hours, or times, or after plays are ended,”—the clause which empowers him to take certain prices from those who should resort to his theatre runs thus :
“ And that it shall and may be lawful to and for the said W.D. &c. to take and receive of such our subjects as shall resort to see or hear any such plays, scenes, and entertainments whatsoever, such sum or sums of money, as is or hereafter from time to time shall be accustomed to be given or taken in other playhouses and places for the like plays, scenes, presentments, and entertainments.”
Here we see that when the theatre was fitted up in the usual way of that time without the decoration of scenery, (for scenes in the foregoing passages mean, not paintings, but short stage-representations or presentments,) the usual prices were authorized to be taken: but after the Restoration, when Sir W. D'Avenant furnished his new theatre with scenery, he took care that the letters patent which he then obtained, should speak a different language, for there the corresponding clause is as follows:
. And that it shall and may be lawful to and for the said Sir William D'Avenant, his heirs, and assigns, to take and receive of such of our subjects as shall resort to see or hear any such plays, scenes, and entertainments whatsoever, such sum or sums of money, as either have accustomably been given and taken in the like kind, or as shall be thought reasonable by him or them, in regard of the great expences of SCENES, musick, and such new decorations as have not been formerly used.”
Here for the first time in these letters patent the word scene is used in that sense in which Sir William had employed it in the printed title-pages of his musical entertainments exhibited a few years before. In the former letters patent granted in 1639, the word in that sense does not once
To the testimony of D'Avenant himself may be added that of Dryden, both in the passage already quoted, and in his prologue to The Rival Ladies, performed at the King's theatre in 1664 :
in former days
High language often, ay, and sense sometimes.” And still more express is that of the author of The Generous Enemies, exhibited at the King's Theatre in 1672:
“ I cannot choose but laugh, when I look back and see
you, their wiser offspring, did advance “ To plot of jig, and to dramatick dance,” &c. These are not the speculations of scholars concerning a custom of a former age, but the testimony of persons who were either spectators of what they describe, or daily conversed with those who had trod our ancient stage: for D'Avenant's first play, The Cruel Brother, was acted at the Blackfriars in January, 1626-7, and Mohun, and Hart, who had themselves acted before the civil wars, were employed in that company, by whose immediate successors The Generous Enemies was exhibited : I mean the King's Servants. Major Mohun acted in the piece before which the lines last quoted were spoken.
I may add also, that Mr. Wright, the author of Historia Histrionica, whose father had been a spectator of several plays before the breaking out of the civil wars, expressly says, that the theatre had no scenes.
But, says Mr. Steevens, (who differs with me in opinion on the subject before us,) « how happened it, that Shakspeare himself should have mentioned the act of shifting
scenes, if in his time there were no scenes capable of being shifted ? Thus, in the Chorus to King Henry V :
• Unto Southampton do we shift our scene.' “ This phrase” (he adds) “ was hardly more ancient than the custom it describes."
Who does not see, that Shakspeare in the passage here quoted uses the word scene in the same sense in which it was used two thousand years before he was born; that is, for the place of action represented by the stage; and not for that moveable hanging or painted cloth, strained on a wooden frame, or rolled round a cylinder, which is now called a SCENE? If the smallest doubt could be entertained of his meaning, the following lines in the same play would remove it:
“ The king is set from London, and the scene
“ Is now transported to Southampton." This, and this only, was the shifting that was meant; a movement from one place to another in the progress of the drama; nor is there found a single passage in his plays in which the word scene is used in the sense required to support the argument of those who suppose that the common stages were furnished with moveable scenes in his time. He constantly uses the word either for a stage-exhibition in general, or the component part of a play, or the place of action represented by the stage:
“ For all my life has been but as a scene
King John. “ What scene of death hath Roscius now to act ?”
King Henry VI. Part III. “ Thus with imagin’d wing our swift scene flies, -"
King Henry V. “ To give our scene such growing,
Ibid. “ And so our scene must to the battle fly," Ibid. “ That he might play the woman in the scene."
Coriolanus. “A queen in jest, only to fill the scene."
King Richard III.
I shall add but one more instance from All's well that ends well:
“ Our scene is alter'd from a serious thing,
“ And now chang'd to the Beggar and the King." from which lines it might, I conceive, be as reasonably inferred that scenes were changed in Shakspeare's time, as from the passage relied on in King Henry V. and perhaps by the same mode of reasoning it might be proved, from a line above quoted from the same play, that the technical modern term, wings, or side-scenes, was not unknown to our great poet.
The various circumstances which I have stated, and the accounts of the contemporary writers, furnish us, in my apprehension, with decisive and incontrovertible proofs, that the stage of Shakspeare was not furnished with moveable painted scenes, but merely decorated with curtains, and arras or tapestry hangings, which, when decayed, appear to have been sometimes ornamented with pictures; and some passages in our old dramas incline me to think, that when tragedies were performed, the stage was hung with black.
In the early part, at least, of our author's acquaintance with the theatre, the want of scenery seems to have been supplied by the simple expedient of writing the names of the different places where the scene was laid in the progress of the play, which were disposed in such a manner as to be visible to the audience.
Though the apparatus for theatrick exhibitions was thus scanty, and the machinery of the simplest kind, the invention of trap-doors appears not to be modern; for in an old Morality, entitled, All for Money, we find a marginal direction, which implies that they were very early in use.
We learn from Heywood's Apology for Actors, that the covering, or internal roof, of the stage, was anciently termed the heavens. It was probably painted of a sky-blue colour; or perhaps pieces of drapery tinged with blue were suspended across the stage, to represent the heavens.
It appears from the stage-directions given in The Spanish Tragedy, that when a play was exhibited within a play, (if I may so express myself,) as is the case in that piece and in Hamlet, the court or audience before whom the interlude was performed sat in the balcony, or upper stage already described; and a curtain or traverse being hung across the stage for the nonce, the performers entered between that cur