Between the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the sixteenth century, dramatic performances, provided by itinerant entertainers, took place in found spaces such as halls, inn yards, fields, and town squares. In liturgical drama, representations of biblical narratives moved out of the church into public spaces.
The Renaissance saw the introduction of the indoor theater, at first in temporary makeshift structures and later in permanent independent buildings. Italian architects studied Vitruvius and examined the remains of ancient theaters. The proscenium arch theater became the dominant model for later centuries. Theaters developed spectacular scenic effects, appealing to the senses and emphasizing perspectival vistas. From being a largely improvised and participatory experience, drama in the theater evolved into a fixed product in a fixed space, with the world of the play clearly demarcated from the audience.
At the same time, Renaissance theater in the public sphere stayed close to its popular base and drew on older traditions of stagecraft. The magnificent architecture and ingenious effects of Renaissance theater draw attention to themselves, in a striking parallel to metaphors in dramatic texts, which frequently comment on the illusory nature of the theatrical experience, and notions of reality and illusion more generally.
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition
After the disintegration of the Roman Empire, official theater ceased. Itinerant entertainment continued (though evidence is limited), preserving some aspects of late antiquity: similarities have been noted, for example, between the stock types of late Roman farce, the fabula attelata, and the characters of the commedia dell’arte, active from the mid-sixteenth century (Chaffee and Crick 2017). Another medieval entertainment was the courtly spectacle, such as a triumphal entry or wedding celebration. Performers of all kinds used found spaces rather than purpose-built structures (Brockett and Hildy 2010).
Liturgical drama began within churches. To edify the laity, aspects of liturgy and biblical narrative were enacted. Small booths called mansions were placed along the nave to represent locations for different episodes. Later the staging moved to the west door of the church and thence into public spaces such as market squares. For these performances, the text was in the vernacular, and acting was entrusted to laymen. Staging varied. As small symbolic enclosures serving as curtained entrances, mansions were retained. Sometimes they were placed close together, while in England movable wagons were used to represent different settings in mystery cycles, telling the Christian story from Creation to Doomsday. Morality plays, enacting instructive tales, were played on makeshift platforms before fixed facades. In Cornwall are found the remains of round outdoor theaters, used for morality dramas (Wickham 1959, 1987). In Spain, wagons (carros) brought essential properties to an improvised stage (Brown 2001).
Medieval performances were typically generically mixed: farce, gravity, and satire might all be present in a retelling of the story of Noah. Realistic behavior and colloquial idiom existed alongside an elaborate tradition of symbols and visual rhetoric. Theater was movable and participatory, involving interaction between audience and performers. These traditions continued in the public theaters of the Renaissance, particularly in England and Spain, where the classical model was less strongly enforced. The classical revival in Italy, sponsored by ducal courts and learned academies, introduced a new kind of theater, separating the space of actors and audience and providing elaborate scenic effects (Vince 1984; Cairns 1996, 1999).
Innovation and Original Aspects
Renaissance humanism brought with it an interest in the theaters of antiquity. Late fifteenth-century illustrations show performances of the plays of Terence using medieval mansions, linked together as in a street, but with the classical addition of framing columns, a possible origin of the proscenium arch. Inspired by the discovery of Vitruvius, temporary theaters were designed (e.g., by Serlio in Vicenza, 1530s) for the use of courts and academies (Hartnoll 1983).
The chief innovation in the Renaissance was the indoor theater (Hewitt 1958). The recovery of the De architectura of Vitruvius inspired the treatises of Alberti (De re aedificatoria (1443–1452)) and Serlio (Trattato de architectura, 1545). The first permanent indoor theater was the Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza (1585), designed by Palladio and completed by Vincenzo Scamozzi. Here a shallow stage is backed by a monumental scaenae frons (the Roman scene behind the stage). This takes the form of a colonnaded facade with five entrances, each one giving a street vista. Considerations of perspective are equally important in Scamozzi’s Teatro all’antica at Sabbioneta (1588–1590), the first indoor theater in a separate building. Here, the scaenae frons is abandoned and the open stage itself forms a single architectural vista. The first proscenium theater, framing the stage like a picture with an elaborate arch, was the Teatro Farnese (1618), designed by Giovanni Battista Aleotti. Perspective creates privileged spaces in the auditorium. While the multiple vistas of Vicenza suggest the equality among academicians, the single-point perspective of the proscenium theater privileges the central viewing position, a space occupied in Europe by the monarch or other noble patron, enjoying l’oeil du prince, looking directly to the vanishing point. The Teatro Farnese was the prototype of European theater for the next 300 years (Mulryne and Shewring 1991).
In France, public theaters, such as the Hôtel de Bourgogne (1548), tended to be long and narrow with audience distributed between pit and gallery. French court theater was designed by Italian architects, providing vast structures and elaborate scenery for an elite audience. The first proscenium theater in France was the Palais Cardinal (later the Palais Royal) built for Cardinal Richelieu (1641). In Spain, where the theater attracted popular audiences and writers of genius from the 1570s, spaces were simpler, following the native model of corrales – stages with backdrops set up at the end of squares. Indoor theaters in Madrid and elsewhere were an elaboration of this model (Thacker 2007). In England, London saw its first purpose-built outdoor theater with The Theater (1576), later reconstructed as The Globe (1599), home to Shakespeare’s company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. These were followed by other structures, with a polygonal design which has been compared to Roman amphitheaters, arenas for bearbaiting and inn yards. Indoor theaters in London, such as two theaters created from the former Blackfriars Dominican Priory (first theater 1576–1584; second, 1596–1642) provided more expensive entertainment. This was taken to an extreme in the lavish masques created by Ben Jonson and architect Inigo Jones for the court of James I in England (Butler 2009).
Impact and Legacy
The prevailing notion of a theater today is a custom-made building, producing some kind of enacted secular narrative. To a considerable extent, this model derives from the Renaissance. Indoor theaters saw the elaboration of lavish scenery, with courts competing to procure the services of the finest architects and craftsmen. The new courtly genres of pastoral, opera, and masque exploited this kind of display and spectacle frequently dominated text (Román 2001). From being partly improvised and collective, the play in indoor theaters became a more prefabricated product, spatially removed from the audience. Perspectival scenery supplanted the limited stages of medieval theater, and realistic illusion took the place of verbal description and symbolic properties. The expense of the form linked it to patterns of wealth and power: though configurations have changed (the cheap pit has become the expensive stalls), different parts of a theater remain a marker of social status.
At the same time, the popular theater maintained many older traditions: the commedia dell’arte and traveling companies across Europe preserved the practices of medieval players (such as multi-skilled performers), while the character types of earlier drama can be clearly seen in the plays of Shakespeare and Lope de Vega. In Renaissance theaters, illusion on stage echoes the frequent theme of illusion in dramatic texts. Renaissance drama is rife with metatheatrical metaphors, elaborating the idea that “All the world’s a stage” and exploring the gap between outward show and inward sincerity and truth (Maus 1995). Both theater design and dramatic writing evoke a deep self-consciousness about the illusory experience of theater and life itself.
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