A Performance of a Play at the time of Shakespeare as imagined by Edward Dowden, 1893
On Sundays folks are enticed away from the churches to the playhouse. We have walked in the past to theatres in the fields, but today we are going to the new theatre at Bankside and must walk across London Bridge. The gentlefolk ride their horses and have the horses held at the door by underlings while the performance takes place. Gentlemen travel by boat to Southwark. A flag is hung out from the top of the building. Admission to the yard costs from one penny, going up to nearly half a crown for a place in the best parts of the house. The performance begins at three o'clock and will last for two or three hours.
Within the theatre a miscellaneous crowd begins to assemble. Upon the rush-strewn stage, sit young gallants, who drink and smoke and joke while they wait for the appearance of the black-robed Prologue. The centre of the building is open to the sky and without seats, only the stage and gallery being roofed. Here in the yard, appretices, tradesmen, sailors and low women crush and sway, crack nuts and fight for bitten apples. The gathering of crowds leads occassionally to brawls in which the London apprentices do not fail to display their prowess. In times of plague, the infection is carried to the theatres by stricken persons and those who have only partially recovered. Public morality, it is said, suffers through temptations offered by the place and the occassion. Ladies in the upper rooms conceal their faces behind masks.
The plays are often written by two or more hands, sometimes to save time, sometimes from a later poet going over the work of some earlier dramatist and recasting his play or adding to it certain scenes which might serve to give it the charm of at least partial novelty, and sometimes as the result of an alliance between two writers of kindred or complementary genius who find they can be helpful to one another in this way. The theatrical companies own the manuscripts of the play, but the lovers of drama like to be able to buy and read a popular play. Sometimes reporters are sent to the playhouse to copy down words as they fall from the actor's lips, but sometimes so imperfectly that gaps in the reporter's copies have to be supplied by some mercenary scribbler, who generally succeeds in spoiling not only the sound, but the sense of such passages as he attempts to handle.
In some instances, though not in all, the writers of plays are also actors. Thus they study their public from the boards, acquiring an instinctive feeling for what will hit the general taste and for what would only perplex or offend.
In due time a flourish of trumpets announce that the play is to begin. Upon the trumpet's third sounding the prologue is delivered, the curtain divided and drawn back and the actors are discovered. Their costumes are expensive, an emroidered velvet cloak can cost £16. The stage is hung with arras and overhead a blue canopy represents the heavens. Sometimes when we are seeing a tragedy, the stage hangings are black. At the back of the stage is a balcony, sometimes used for acting and sometimes for musicians. A change of scene is indicated by a suggestive piece of furniture - a bed, a table with pens - or more simply, a board brought in, bearing in large letters the name of the place. The great actors, Alleyn and Burbage, have their supporters. While the play is going forward the clowns amuse the audience with joking, not set down by the poet. Between the acts there is dancing and singing and at the end of the play the clown puts the audience into good humour with a jig accompanied by dancing and the pipe or tabor. Sometimes a short epilogue is delivered. Finally, the actors kneel and offer up a prayer for the Queen.