The New-Old Theatre

by Stephen Joseph, published in Scarborough Evening News, 2 February 1960

A new theory about the Elizabethan theatre will be of special interest to Scarborough people. For a long time it has been supposed that the Globe Theatre and the other public playhouses of Shakespeare’s day had a three-sided platform stage backed by a scenic wall containing an inner stage with a balcony over it. For indoor performances, the theory has been that the actors used an “end stage” - a platform at one end of the hall.

Recently, Leslie Hotson, the well-known Shakespearean scholar, showed how
Twelfth Night must have been staged for its first performance in the round. He now maintains that public playhouses and private halls presented all their plays in the round.

The central acting area, says Hotson, was a long rectangle with a “mansion” at either end.

The mansions’ were framed structures, with curtains, so that they could either be “solid” or “transpicuous”. The audience sat in galleries all round this stage, but there were two main blocks of spectators, either side of the stage, one where the groundlings stood, and the other where the nobles sat - on the stage.

This form of theatre in the round is not very different from that used by the Studio Theatre company at the Library Theatre, though they have adopted more comfortable seating arrangements and, for the benefit of modern plays, have abandoned the mansions.

In putting forward this revolutionary idea, Leslie Hotson makes an extremely convincing case. All the same, not everyone will agree with him. For instance, the famous dramatic critic Ivor Brown, reviewing the book in The Observer, attacks the notion of theatre in the round.

“An arena," he says, “may suit a circus; but a play has intimacies of its own, which the audience pays to appreciate. It does not parade performing elephants.”
This is a particularly interesting criticism for two reasons.

Firstly, advocates of Scarborough’s theatre in the round claim precisely that their theatre does give the actors a chance for subtle playing and offers just those intimacies which Ivor Brown demands.

Further, of course, elephants would find very little room in the Library Theatre - and might forget themselves when they discover it is rectangular and not round like a circus. (It is called theatre in the round because the audience are all round the acting area, not because of its shape!) However, the conventional Italian stage, which Ivor Brown defends, is frequently too big for subtleties of performance; indeed, the Opera House in Scarborough, started life as a circus, and still has its elephant war.

Most people seem to be intrigued by Hotson’s ideas, and there is no doubt that the theatre in the round is gradually gaining advocates. Recently, W. A. Darlington wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “The doom of the proscenium arch ls certain... because it is an outworn device.”

J. B. Priestley has long been an enthusiast for theatre in the round. John Neville has recently caused a stir by denouncing the big theatre managements for not experimenting with new forms of staging. Tyrone Guthrle’s open stage theatre in Canada is winning world acclaim.

New theatres in the United States are being built to accommodate different forms of staging. In this country we have an exciting example of the open end-stage in Bernard Miles’s Mermaid Theatre. The American impresario Clement Scott Gilbert has done a fine job of converting the Pembroke Hall into a permanent theatre in the round. John English’s Arena Theatre continues to use an unusual open stage. The Studio Theatre company now plays summer and winter in Scarborough, touring between times, and taking theatre in the round from Yorkshire to Devon.

All those mentioned are professional companies, but amateurs are also moving towards forms of open staging.

Scarborough Theatre Guild has even taken theatre in the round to Germany, and in Ealing an exciting flexible theatre is being built by the enterprising Questors.

All this activity is helping to create a lively modern drama which is winning audiences back to the theatre, How interesting to discover that theatre in the round is not so new as we thought it was - and that it may well have been the form of stage used in Shakespeare’s own theatre.

Copyright of Studio Theatre Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission. Transcribed by Simon Murgatroyd.