“O” as in “The Wooden O”
Right at the beginning of the play “Henry the Fifth,” an actor steps toward the center of the stage and mentions a “wooden O.” This is the wooden O:
It’s Shakespeare’s theatre; it’s made of wood and it’s in the shape of an O. It’s interesting to compare the conditions of theatre-going then, over 400 years ago, with today’s staged presentations.
The place held several thousand play-goers and often it was packed. Why? Because it was such a novelty. There had never been such a thing in Britain before. Earlier theatres, of a sort, had existed; there were presentations that usually had to do with scenes from the Bible, but never before had there been a commercial playhouse dealing with subjects like everyday life, love and death – comedies, tragedies and histories – with human failures and triumphs.
Londoners ate it up.
And it wasn’t expensive. The theatre group, Shakespeare’s company, produced their works for everyone. You could get in to see a play, if you didn’t mind standing, for a penny. However, that wasn’t quite as cheap as it sounds. The average working stiff in those days made just ten of those pennies as a day’s wage, so he would be blowing ten percent of his daily salary to get in.
The members of the audience would drop their coins into a box as they entered – hence, the term “box office.”
As you probably know, the standees were known as “groundlings.” There could be as many as 500 for a performance and they were what we’d call “interactive.” In other words, they kept up a running commentary on what was taking place on the stage and they let the actors know what they thought. Fortified with drinks, food and snacks, they often made life miserable for the thespians. Vendors wandered through the crowd during the performance selling beer, apples, oranges and nuts; hazelnuts seem to have been preferred.
Modern excavations on Elizabethan theatres have found layers of hazelnut shells covering the floors of the sites. At the time, actors complained that as they delivered a great, philosophically nuanced soliloquy, they often had to put up with the rat-a-tat sound of nuts being cracked open.
As I’m sure you know, you can see a play as a groundling in the present-day reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, and a great many folks do, but you won’t get in for a penny.
The Elizabethan playhouse, by the way, was painted in marvelous colors. The performances usually had no, or very little, scenery, but no one minded because no one had ever seen a performance with scenery so they didn’t miss it.
A key point to note about the Globe was its location. The theatre, the plays, the actors, were all regarded by right-thinking Londoners, as well as by the authorities, as not really respectable. So the place had to be outside the city proper. As a result, modern theatre-goers would be a bit shocked if they somehow managed to time-travel back to that era to see a Shakespeare play. The playhouse, the wooden O, would be found in one of the sleaziest parts of greater London, cheek by jowl with whorehouses and other low-class places of entertainment.
For example, the bear-baiting pits. Bear-baiting was a great sport of the day (it was a favorite entertainment of Queen Elizabeth). A chained bear would be set upon by huge mastiffs who would try to tear the bear apart. Some of the bears were famous (and mentioned by Shakespeare in his plays) because they defeated the dogs instead.
It is simply a fact that some actors, delivering the most passionately romantic lines of a play, were often accompanied by the muted roars of the bear-baiting activity taking place next door.
In later years, the company opened a new playhouse, the Blackfriars, which was more like the theatres of our time. It was inside, for one thing; it had a roof and it even had lighting – chandeliers with candles – none of which existed in the Globe. This was an upscale operation. Admission cost more: there were no groundlings and nobody got in for a penny.
William Shakespeare, unlike many other genius artists, was ultimately financially successful. He never got paid much for his plays – a few pounds each, and there was no such thing as residuals – but his share in the theatre operation meant that when he retired to his home town Stratford he was regarded locally as a wealthy man.
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