Previous page Page 4 of 7 Next page
List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 

Share |

Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily

Roman revivals and intermezzi: 16th century

In the spirit of the Renaissance, Roman plays are performed on festive occasions at the courts of Italian princes. Perhaps they prove a little heavy going for some of the guests. It becomes the custom to have rather more lavish musical entertainments (intermezzi, or intermediate pieces) between the acts, with spectacular stage effects, beautiful costumes and much singing and dancing.

Isabella d'Este, in the audience for a performance of Plautus in Ferrara in 1502, much prefers the intermezzi in which satyrs chase wild beasts in time to a musical clock, Swiss soldiers engage in a dance of war, and a golden ball melts away to reveal four Virtues who sing a quartet.

The first intermezzi to be preserved in detail for posterity (because they are the first to be published as etchings) are performed to celebrate a wedding at the Medici court in Florence in 1589.

The scenes are now close to those which will become familiar to opera audiences over the next two centuries - they include a heaven made up of clouds (in which the characters can sit and sing), a delightful garden, a rocky cave guarded by a dragon, and a sea scene with mermaids, dolphins and a ship. This combination of music and spectacle is now so popular with courtly audiences that it leads to a new development in Florence in 1597.

Commedia dell'arte: 16th - 18th century

Italy in the 16th century, home to the first stirrings of opera, also launches Europe's most vigorous tradition of popular theatre. The phrase commedia dell'arte (comedy of the trade) merely implies professional actors. There is a record of such a company performing in Italy as early as 1545.

Normally this is street theatre, though a company will use indoor premises if available. The traditional commedia dell'arte troupe arrives in a town, sets up a temporary stage and begins performing to the passers-by. Since it is essential to attract attention, slapstick plays a large part in the routine. So does improvisation, adapting the comic sketch to suit the audience's responses.

Though each company performs its own material, certain characters become widely established - and the use of masks makes them immediately recognizable. Pantalone is a pompous old man, good for playing tricks on. The tricks are liable to be perpetrated by comic servants, of whom Arlecchino (proud possessor of a costume of bright patches) and Pulcinella become the best known.

A Spanish soldier, Il Capitano, provides plenty of comedy in bragging about his bravery and then proving an arrant coward at the first hint of danger. He is known as Scaramouche in France, where the commedia dell'arte becomes an almost permanent attraction in Paris as the Comédie Italienne.

The Italian comedians are popular throughout Europe. Frequently they feature in fairs as an attraction to entice the public, who are then coaxed into buying fake medical potions - a trade which gives the name ciarlatini (clowns) its other meaning as charlatans.

Each country builds its own popular traditions on the Italian example. In England Pulcinella evolves into Punch, the beak-nosed wife-beater of the seaside puppet shows. And the young lovers of the Italian comedy have a longer life in Britain than anywhere else. They survive well into the 19th century as the Harlequin and Columbine of the traditional English pantomime.

The original Italian form of the commedia dell'arte loses its vigour during the 18th century. There are attempts to revive it by replacing improvisation, now grown somewhat weary and hackneyed, with scripted texts using the spirit of the commedia dell'arte in more sophisticated comedies of character.

Goldoni has a great success with plays of this kind in 18th-century Venice. But he is only giving artificial respiration to a popular comic tradition which has delighted Europe for more than two centuries and has now run its course.

London's theatres:1576-1599

The theatres built in London in the quarter century from 1576 are a notable example of a contribution made by architecture to literature. In previous decades there have been performances of primitive and rumbustious English plays in the courtyards of various London inns, with the audience standing in the yard itself or on the open galleries around the yard giving on to the upper rooms. These are ramshackle settings for what are no doubt fairly ramshackle performances.

In 1576 an actor, James Burbage, builds a permanent playhouse in Shoreditch - just outside the city of London to the north, so as not to require the permission of the puritanical city magistrates.

Burbage gives his building the obvious name, so long as it is the only one of its kind. He calls it the Theatre. It follows the architectural form of an inn yard, with galleries enclosing a yard open to the sky. At one end a stage projects beneath a pavilion-like roof.

In such a setting, custom-built, writers, actors and audience can begin to concentrate on dramatic pleasures. A second playhouse, the Curtain, rises close to the Theatre in 1577. A third, the Rose, opens in 1587 on the south bank of the Thames in the area known as Bankside. In that year one of these three theatres puts on a play which reveals how far English playwrights have progressed in a very short while - Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe.

In about 1594 a fourth theatre, the Swan, is built close to the Hope. There are now two theatres to the north of the city and two south of the river. But soon the balance shifts decisively to Bankside.

James Burbage, builder of the original Theatre, dies in 1597. Two years later his two sons dismantle the building and carry the timber over the river to Bankside, where they use it as the basis for a theatre with a new name - the Globe. This name resounds in English theatrical history for two good reasons. It is where Richard, one of the Burbage brothers, develops into one of the first great actors of the English stage. And it is where many of Shakespeare's plays are first presented.

The structure of the Globe and the other London theatres has a significant influence on English drama at its greatest period, because of the audiences which these buildings accomodate. Ordinary Londoners, the groundlings, stand in the open pit to watch plays for a penny. Others pay a second penny to climb to a hard seat in the upper gallery. A third penny gives access to the two lower galleries and a seat with a cushion. A few places in the first gallery, to left and right of the stage, are reserved for gentlemen who can afford a shilling, or twelve pennies.

This is a cross-section of nearly all the people of London, and the audience is vast - with four theatres giving regular performances in a small city.

It has been calculated that during Shakespeare's time one Londoner in eight goes to the theatre each week. A city of 160,000 people is providing a weekly audience of about 21,000. There is only one comparable example of such a high level of attendance at places of entertainment - in cinemas in the 1930s.

The range of Shakespeare's audience is reflected in the plays, which can accomodate vulgar comedy and the heights of tragic poetry. The occasional performances in the Athenian drama festivals must have had something of this efffect, involving much of the community in a shared artistic experience. In Elizabethan and Jacobean London it happens almost every night.

Marlowe: 1587-1593

The year 1564 sees the birth of two poets, Marlowe and Shakespeare, who between them launch the English theatre into the three decades of its greatest glory. Marlowe makes his mark first, in a meteoric six years (from 1587) in which his life and his writings are equally dramatic.

From his time as a student at Cambridge Marlowe seems to have been involved in the Elizabethan secret service. This dangerous work, combined with a fiery disposition, brings him into frequent clashes with the authorities. He is in prison in 1589 after a street fight. He is deported from the Netherlands in 1592 for the possession of forged gold coins. He is arrested for some unknown reason in London in 1593. And twelve days later he is murdered.

Marlowe is killed in a Deptford tavern by one of a group of colleagues with whom he has spent the day. The official explanation is a row over the tavern bill, but it is possible that the event relates to his secret service activities. What is certain is that when he dies, short of his thirtieth birthday, he is already an extremely popular playwright with the London audience.

Marlowe's first play, acted with great success in 1587, is an event of profound significance in the story of English theatre. Tamburlaine the Great introduces the supple and swaggering strain of blank verse which becomes the medium for all the glories of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.

Marlowe's Tamburlaine is a character who revels in the power which his conquests bring him, and the verse conveys brilliantly his sense of excitement. Rich words trip off his tongue, relished for their own sakes, in a manner which becomes characteristic of much English poetry. When Tamburlaine defeats the emperor of Persia, and imagines his moment of triumph, even the strange names of his three colleagues are pressed into service to add to the rich brew:

  'Is it not passing brave to be a king, Techelles?
  Usumcasane and Theridamas,
  Is it not passing brave to be a king,
  And ride in triumph through Persepolis?'

Tamburlaine is so popular that Marlowe adds a second part, staged in 1588. In the remaining five years of his life his plays include The Jew of Malta (a melodrama of revenge, in which the Jew indulges in an orgy of killing after his money has been confiscated), Doctor Faustus (inspired by a recent biography of Faust, and setting the pattern for later treatments of the subject) and Edward II (the first play to dramatise English history as a conflict between real characters, and the predecessor of Shakespeare's great achievements in this genre).

In the first three of these plays the title role is taken by Edward Alleyn, Marlowe's leading actor and the great rival of Shakespeare's Burbage.

The dates of the plays after Tamburlaine are uncertain, and the texts of Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta have reached us in very corrupted versions because they are first printed years after Marlowe's death.

What is certain is that when Shakespeare arrives in London, in about 1590, the London stage belongs above all to Marlowe. By the time of Marlowe's death three years later only one of Shakespeare's undeniable masterpieces, Richard III, has been produced (with Burbage as the villainous hero). It would be hard to predict at this stage which of the two talented 29-year-olds is the greater genius.

Previous page Page 4 of 7 Next page