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EARLIEST ENGLISH COMEDY AND TRAGEDY. 103
Thus the two branches of our drama sprang from one and the same root. A Morality, broken in two, supplies the elements of both. Its serious portions form the groundwork of English tragedy; its lighter scenes, of English comedy. But, between the Moralities and the appearance of our earliest Comedy, came the Interludes, which strongly resembled our modern Farce. Of these John Heywood was the most noted writer. He lived in the reign of Henry VIII., whose idle hours he often amused with his music and his wit. The controversial spirit of the Reformation age deeply penetrated the nascent drama. Moralities and Interludes abound, which are just so many rockets, charged with jest and sneer and railing, that the opposing sides launched fiercely at each other in the heat of the religious war. An idea of the Interludes may be formed from a single specimen. The four Ps describes in doggerel verse a contest carried on by a Pedlar, a Palmer, a Pardoner, and a 'Poticary, in which each character tries to tell the greatest lie. On they go, heaping up the most outrageous falsehoods they can frame, until the chance hit of the Pardoner, who says that he never saw a woman out of temper, strikes the others dumb. This tremendous bouncer nobody can beat, so the Pardoner wins the prize. The Greek and Latin drama, with the refined productions of Italy and Spain, had much to do with the moulding of our English plays into a perfect shape. Ralph Royster Doyster, a dramatic picture of London life, written before 1551, by Nicholas Udall, is—so far as we know—the first English comedy. And the old British story of Ferrez and Porrez, dramatized by Sackville and Norton, which was acted in 1561 by the students of the Inner Temple, is considered the earliest tragedy in the language. The introduction of human characters, instead of the walking allegories that trod the Moral stage, is the grand distinctive feature which marks the rise of the true English drama. There is something in the very words– abstraction and allegory—to make men yawn; and few were deeply moved at the sufferings or triumphs of Justice and Peace. But when real life was put upon the stage-when crimes were per
104 FURST ENGLISH THEATRES.
petrated, marriages managed, sufferings endured, difficulties overcome by actors who bore the names and did the deeds of human flesh and blood, a new interest was given to our plays, and the audience wept and laughed not at the performance, but with the performers. By a sudden and enormous stride, the English drama reached the magnificent creations of Shakspere in a few years after the production of its earliest perfect specimens. Not half a century after the court of Henry VIII. had been amused with the grotesque drolleries of John Heywood, Elizabeth and her maids of honour assembled to laugh at the fortunes and misfortunes of old Jack Falstaff, and to tremble in the shadow of the finest tragedies the English stage has ever seen. We must not suppose, however, that the Theatres kept pace with the wonderful improvement of the Drama. To form a true idea of the stage on which the Elizabethan plays were acted, we must carry our recollection back to those yellow-painted wooden caravans, that travel round the country fairs, and supply the delighted rustics, in exchange for their pennies, with a tragedy full of ghosts and murder, and thrilling with single combats between valiant warriors in tin armour, who fight with broadswords made of old iron hoops. The travelling stage was often set up in the court-yard of an inn. A wooden erection—little better than what we call a shed—there sheltered the company and their audience. When in 1576 the first licensed theatre was opened at Blackfriars in London, it was merely a round wooden wall or building, enclosing a space open to the sky. The stage, indeed, was covered with a roof of thatch; but upon the greater part of the house—as in modern days we call the spectators—the sun shone and the rain fell without let or hindrance. The rude attempts at scenery in such theatres as the Rose and the Globe, which were among the leading London houses, make us smile, who have witnessed the gorgeous scenic triumphs of Kean and his brother managers. Some faded tapestry, or poorly daubed canvas hung round the timbers of the stage, at the back of which ran a gallery—eight or ten feet high—to hold those actors who
scENERY IN SHAKSPERE's DAY. 105
might be supposed to speak from castle walls, windows, high rocks, or other lofty places. A change of scene was denoted by hanging out in view of the spectators a placard with the name of the place—Padua, Athens, or Paris—painted on it. A further stretch of imagination was required from the assembly, when the removal of a dingy throne, and the setting down of a rough table with drinking vessels, were supposed to turn a palace into a tavern; or the exchange of a pasteboard rock for a thorn branch was expected to delude all into the belief that they saw no longer a pebbly shore, but a leafy forest. An exquisitely comical illustration of this scenic poverty may be found in “Midsummer Night's Dream,” where the Athenian tradesmen rehearse a play, and act it before Duke Theseus. Funny as it seems, the picture was drawn from the realities of the author's day. The play of “Pyramus and Thisbe” requires the introduction of a wall upon the stage, that the lovers may whisper their vows through a chink in its masonry. So Snout the tinker is daubed with plaster, and coming on the stage, announces to the audience that he is to be considered the Wall; and for a chink, he forms a circle with thumb and fingers, through which the appointment to meet at Ninny's tomb is made by the ardent lovers. Then in comes one with a lantern, a thorn bush, and a dog, who calls himself the Man in the moon, and proceeds to light the midnight scene. An unbelieving critic, who sits among the onlookers, suggests that the man, the bush, and the dog should get into the lantern, since the appearance of the Man in the moon, carrying the moon in which he lived, was likely to cause some confusion of ideas. The notion of Wall and Moon shine announcing their respective characters to the audience, is, no doubt, a bit of Shakspere's native humour; but every day that our great dramatist acted in the Globe he saw as sorry makeshifts for scenery as the lime-daubed tinker who acted Wall, and the dim tallow candle, in sore need of snuffing, that sputtered in the lantern of Moonshine. At one o'clock—on Sundays especially, but also on other days —the play-house flag was hoisted on the roof, announcing that the performance was going to begin; and there it fluttered till the
106 SCENE IN THE PLAY-HOUSE.
play was over. Placards had already told the public what was to be the performance of the day. The audience consisted of two classes; the groundlings, or lower orders, who paid a trifle for admission to the pit; and the gallants, who paid sixpence apiece for stools upon the rush-strewn stage, where they sat in two rows smoking, and showing off their ruffs and doublets, while the actors played between them. The circle of the pit resounded with oaths and quarrelling, mingled with the clatter of ale-pots and the noise of card-playing. Nor did the occupants of the full-dress stools show better breeding than the unwashed groundlings. Noise, tobacco smoke, and the heavy fumes of ale, formed the main parts of the atmosphere, in which our noblest plays were ushered into fame. When the trumpets had sounded, a figure in a long black velvet cloak came forward to recite the prologue. Then the play began; and, if its early scenes did not suit the taste of the audience, a storm of noises arose; hisses, yells, cat-calls, cockcrowing, whistling drowned the actors' voices, and stopped the progress of the play. In short, Elizabeth's loyal subjects used or abused their lungs just as vigorously as those of Queen Victoria can do in Parliament, and out of it as well. The actors—attired in the costume of their own day—played in masks and wigs; and the female parts—the Violas, the Portias, the Rosalinds—were filled. by boys, or smooth-faced young men, in women's dress. All was over by three or four o'clock, and then the audience went home to an early supper. The players—of whom Shakspere was one—held no very exalted place in the society of the day. The very familiar way in which their Christian names have come down to us—as Will and Ben—shows that they were lightly esteemed by the courtiers and nobles; looked upon, if not exactly as menial servants in livery, yet as something not far above the jester who shook his cap and bells at the supper tables of the great. They were formed into companies generally under the patronage of some nobleman, at whose parties they acted in presence of the guests. Neither their acting nor their play-writing—they nearly all held the dramatist's pen—did so much for the more prosperous players as
HOW SHAKSPERE GREW RICH. 107
their shares in the Globe, or some other of the London theatres. The sum which managers paid before 1600 for a new play, never exceeded £8 or £10; when, a little later, the number of theatres increased, the price rose to £20 or £25, and the receipts of the second day became the author's perquisite. A few stray shillings might be also made by writing prologues to new pieces. It was the pennies of the groundlings, and the sixpences of the gallants, not the sale of his splendid dramas, that enabled Shakspere to buy his house at Stratford, and retire a rich man to die in his native town. Many a university man, however, like Jonson and Chapman, earned his manchets and his sack, his steaks and ale, by acting and writing for the stage. The two occupations were nearly always united; and the wiser brethren of the buskin and the sock added, as Shakspere did, a third and more fruitful source of income, by investing their early gains in theatre shares. Shakspere acted at the Globe, wrote for the Globe, and pocketed so much of the money taken at the doors of the Globe. A sensible and prudent man was this glorious dramatist, utterly unsympathizing with the ridiculous motion, hardly yet extinct, that a real poet must of
necessity be a reckless, improvident o