Monday, October 25, 2010

For ABC WEDNESDAY

“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.

34 comments:

Paul C said...

If I was still in an English classroom, I would invite my students to read this delightful and informative post.

Karen S said...

I took the dreaded Shakespeare class from a wonderful professor who made the whole Globe theatre experience come alive in his lecture. Thanks for reminding me of it. Wouldn't it be fun to go back in time...

OJ Gonzalez-Cazares said...

I had no idea about the Bear-baiting!!! and I thought bull fighting was inhumane... (my first and last experience was in Las Ventas, Madrid, and have to admit it was beyond me; I had to get out if it). Your posts are always super informative, interesting and easy to read!! I feel enlighted after reading you. Have a great week.

R. Burnett Baker said...

What an interesting post... You've taught me something I really enjoyed learning! Maybe there are no nuts cracking today, but those damned cell phones.....!

Rick

Berowne said...

Paul C: "this delightful and informative post."
OJ Gonzalez: "Your posts are always super informative, interesting and easy to read!!"
Rick: "What an interesting post."
My thanks for some great comments.

EG Wow said...

Thanks! This post is OUTSTANDING!

Barbara said...

Wonderful choice for 'O'. Because the RSC Theatre has been closed for a couple of years whilst they've pretty much knocked it down and rebuilt it, the company has been using The Courtyard Theatre, which is a prototype for the new theatre. The outside of The Courtyard is metal which has now weathered to a red hue. When they were performing Henry V there last year they changed the lines from 'wooden O' to 'rusty shed'. The crowd loved it!

Sylvia K said...

Another fascinating and informative post as always! And, as always, I enjoyed it very much. Love the history that you share! Have a great week!

Sylvia

Berowne said...

Barbara: "When they were performing Henry V there last year they changed the lines from 'wooden O' to 'rusty shed'. The crowd loved it!"
Wonderful bit of information; thanks.

Berowne said...

Sylvia K: "...as always, I enjoyed it very much."
Just as I enjoy your comments very much. :-)

Roger Owen Green said...

Love the illos, and learning about the origins of "box office."

You might find
this post
re Henry V interesting.

ROG, ABC Wednesday team

Mara said...

I've walked past the new Globe Theater but haven't had the chance to see a play there. I really must some day.

Rinkly Rimes said...

I've seen the outside of the Globe but I can see I missed a lot by not going in. Thanks for your account and for the lively illustrations.

Tumblewords: said...

Outstanding! Some parts of this remind me of the 'Parliament'. :)

Berowne said...

My thanks to Roger O G, Mara, Rinkly Rimes and Tumblewords. Always great to have your comments.

mommymayonnaise.com said...

Another new thing to read and learn. Now I know where was the term of "box-office" came. Thank you for sharing this with me
Risma

Joy said...

Your descriptions make the sounds and the teeming crowds at the Globe come alive.

Hildred and Charles said...

Great post, - just chock-a-block with interesting information. Good to look back on the Origins of modern theatre.

Rambling Round said...

Very interesting! Would you believe that my brother constructed a model of this theatre out of toothpicks, popsicle sticks and cardboard back in high school? He did, and the teacher put in on exhibit in the library. Years later, a tornado destroyed the school, and his masterpiece was gone forever!

Strummed Words said...

Thanks for all the info on the Bard and English history. O to be in England now that fall is here.

Oakland Daily Photo said...

Boy, ABC Wednesday this week has been incredible. So far each post has been fascinating and informative. Thanks for the trip to Elizabethan London.

Jingle said...

that's beautiful take on o,
love the arts.
refreshing taste.

MorningAJ said...

Interesting post. I'd love to see a play at the new Globe but I can't afford it. I've just done a quick calculation and a tenth of my day's pay wouldn't even get me a prgramme these days. In fact, if I wanted to take someone with me to see the play I'd need to work for about a day and a half!

Gordon said...

An informative and interesting post and so well written and illustrated.

Pagan Sphinx said...

That was fun! I have one other thing to say, besides: Londoners had good taste in nuts!

Ciao,
Gina

Pagan Sphinx said...

Sorry, I wanted to ask if you found those awesome images on the web or if you scanned them from a book.

Berowne said...

To Pagan Sphinx: They're from a book.

jabblog said...

Most interesting! The late Sam Wanamaker spent much time recreating The Globe theatre.

Elizabeth said...

"Pardon, gentles all, the flat unraised spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object.
Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?
Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?"

Compared with standing around the collection of wooden wagons of the players that preceded it, James Burbage's Wooden O, must have seemed very luxurious to the 1576 theatre-goers.Let's not forget that if you had a whole shilling to spare you could even hire a wooden stool and sit on the stage with the action going on around you!

Likewise,once the blown trumpet heralded the start of the play, although there was no scenery,Will was a master at transporting his audience in their imagination to where the action took place, to forget the 'unworthy scaffold' of the stage (constructed of scaffold and trestles) and visualise the casques (helmets) of the French battlefields.

Ah, Berowne - 'When he speaks,
The air, a chartered libertine, is still.' x

mrsnesbitt said...

Wow! It is so encouraging to read posts like yours - truly inspirational and so creative - a real ABC follower!
Thanks so much for contributing such a well thought out post. I really appreciate the hard work and thinking behind it.

Denise
ABC Team

Berowne said...

As usual, Elizabeth contributes some excellent additional comments -- in this case to our wooden O topic. My thanks.

Berowne said...

My thanks to Denise -- mrsnesbitt, if you prefer -- for such an enthusiastic comment.

Francesca Di Leo said...

a very entertaining and informative post. thanks for sharing.

Angela Lloyd said...

An informative and interesting post and so well written and illustrated.

 
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