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Think Audio: New Clues to the Shakespearean Playhouse

by Jerome Weeks 6 Nov 2009 4:11 PM

Ever since archaeologists found the remains of the Rose Theater in 1989 — where Christopher Marlowe’s dramas were once enacted — there’s been an explosion of research into the Elizabethan playhouses. Scholars still haven’t answered many puzzles — they’re not even certain how many sides the Globe had. But they’ve found some of the first concrete clues to what the theaters were like, what stage life was like. London archaeologist Julian Bowsher gave a lecture Thursday at the Dallas Museum of Art — and spoke to Think.


julian_bowsher_150x180The Globe, the Rose, the Theatre: They’re some of the most famous names in the history of theater, yet we didn’t really even know what they looked like until a Dutch drawing of one theater interior was found in 1888. It also turns out that the theaters themselvers were hardly fixed in some classic form. They were often hastily improvised, “ongoing projects” — with parts added on as needed. Or as the competition dictated.

One point, for example, that Julian Bowsher, senior archaeologist with the Museum of London, discussed during the Boshell Family Lecture on Archaeology at the Dallas Museum of Art, was the changes affected at the Rose (about which much more is known than the Globe). The Rose apparently took shape in 1587 without a fixed roof over the stage. Later, its circular shape was seriously altered — because a stage roof was added. That meant the sightlines along the sides had changed.  In effect, a flat-front proscenium stage had become a thrust stage — which is what the later Globe adopted.  The roof, Bowsher pointed out, also now permitted new “special effects.” It could hold pulleys for “gods” to fly in and out. These explanations, Bowsher said, were arrived at partly through consultations with working actors.

To give some idea of the dimensions of the Elizabethan stage: At 75 feet across, the Rose’s was a little smaller than the current stage at the Wyly Theatre. As for seating, the Wyly holds fewer than 600. The Globe? It held somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000. Imagine the lungs it took to be heard in the balconies’ back rows.

Bowsher is the author of The Rose Theatre: An Archaeological Discovery and a new book, The Rose and the Globe (to be released in December). He spoke with Krys Boyd for Think.