Describe the characteristics of a typical theater in 1598.
Even before Shakespearean times the English had been writing and performing plays for several centuries. They probably were first housed in churches and then moved to the marketplaces of towns. Actors usually traveled from town to town improvising a space to perform their dramas or setting up a theater in the large houses of nobles. It was not until the middle of the sixteenth century that permanent buildings arose to house companies of actors such as those who performed Shakespeare's plays. In 1576 James Burbage, the father of Shakespeare's fellow actor Richard Burbage, built The Theatre on the outskirts of London. It was followed by The Curtain, which housed Shakespeare in 1597 and 1598. In 1599 the famous Globe theater was built in the London area called Southwark.
Elizabethan theaters were usually three stories tall in the shape of a polygon. They had three main parts, the building itself, the stage and, what was called the "tiring house" or backstage area. The building included a flag flying from its peak which indicated there was a performance that day. In Shakespeare's time, the color of the flag told the audience the genre of the play. Black meant tragedy, white was a comedy and red indicated a historical play such as Richard III.
The building was made of wood. In the case of the Globe, Shakespeare and his men used timbers from Burbage's theater which was closed in 1596. The roof would have been made of thatch (dry vegetation such as straw). It is widely believed that the fire which destroyed the Globe in 1613 was caused when the thatched roof caught on fire from the sparks of a cannon which was shot off during the performance of Henry VIII. The inside of the theater had availability for those who wished to stand in the uncovered yard surrounding the stage or sit in the covered balcony. "Groundlings," or those who stood in the yard, paid one penny for admission and those in the balcony paid two pennies. More expensive seats could be found in what were called the "Gentlemen's Rooms" or "Lord's Rooms." These rooms were usually quite close to the side of the stage so that Shakespeare's words could be more clearly heard.
The stage protruded out into the yard so that the groundlings could gather around in a semi-circle. The stage was partially covered with a roof which would have been painted with suns, moons and stars and contained a trap door from which actors playing spirits or angels could be lowered by wires or sometimes floated above the actors on the stage. The stage itself also had a trapdoor from which things could be raised or lowered. Shakespeare rarely used elaborate props or scenery on stage other than something needed by the plot. The center gallery above the stage was probably used as the balcony for Act II, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet. The Rose, built in 1587, was one of the first theaters to stage scenes on multiple levels.
The third part of the theater was the tiring (an old form of attire) house or backstage area. It contained both machinery and dressing rooms. It also had three curtains so that actors could enter the stage from left, right or center. When actors pushed large props such as thrones or desks onstage from behind the curtains, the audience knew the scene was indoors. Likewise, when these pieces were removed it signaled to the audience that the scene had shifted outdoors. The major theaters of 1598, including The Curtain and The Rose would have included all of these facets even before the building of the Globe in 1599.