New Place, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Featured in episode 123: The History of New Place

Here are three images to help you visualise Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-Upon-Avon, New Place.

The first is a view of the site as it stands today. The side of the house you can see is the next door property, Nash’s House, which houses the current New Place Exhibition. The garden area in the foreground is part of the site of New Place, where the house once stood. This is only part of the garden, which stretches back towards the river Avon to make an extensive garden.

The second picture is a sketch drawing by George Vertue from contemporary descriptions when he visited Stratford-upon-Avon in 1737. By this time the Shakespeare period house had already been demolished.

The third picture is an artist’s impression of what the Shakespeare period house might have looked like, based on the archeology carried out on the site by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

You can find out more details about the site and how it can be visited on their website:

Mystere des Trois Doms.

Featured in episode 61: For the Money: The Medieval Commercial Theatre

Ever wondered what a medieval play script looks like? This image is a page from the script for ‘Mystere des Trois Doms’.

This play was produced in 1509 at Romans-Sue-Isere, France. The account register for the production survives and provides a view of how the author, town authorities and the players interacted to produce the final version. The script, which has also survived, is judged to be a second copy, including amendments and censorship, of the original script. From these layered details in the script and the accounts a time line for the production has been created.

In July 1508 the Cannon Pra was commissioned by the town authorities to write the play and six council members were appointed to oversee the work. In mid-August the first draft was reviewed by the council members and there was a problem. A known playwright M. Chevalet, was commissioned to collaborate on the work. But again, there seems to be problems and just ten days later he resigned from the collaboration. Three months after the first commission a copyist was paid a first instalment of a fee for copying the players parts. In total he received fifteen florins for his work. In early December the first full copy of the play, which is about eleven thousand lines long, was completed and bound. On December 23rd the copyist was paid for completing the players parts and rehearsals begin, presumably with an immediate break for Christmas.

During February 1509 the council committee of six reviewed the original play and made amendments, which lead to the author and a copyist making a new set of players part copies, starting on the 1st March. Rehearsals continued, presumably incorporating changes as they become available, and in early April a new master copy was started. The performance of the play took place over three days and each day’s performance was allocated to a different copyist to transcribe. On May 9th the construction of the stage set started and on the 11th M. Chevalet was re-engaged to review the roles of the two Tyrants in the play as they included violent acting and strong language. He took two days over the review and was paid 27 florins for his total contribution to the play. The play was performed on May 27th, 28th and 29th.

You can double click on the image to enlarge the pictures.

The Castle of Perseverance.

Featured in episode 58: The Castle of Perseverance

The first thing to note is that this image is orientated with north towards the bottom of the page, the reverse of how the cardinal points of the compass are usually shown in Northern Hemisphere society. This has led scholars to two possible conclusions, which may not in themselves be contradictory. This orientation suggests that this is a sketch or plan of an actual production, either as envisioned by the author or perhaps as it was seen by the scribe who copied the manuscript. Another suggestion is that this is a literal interpretation of the trope of the world turned upside-down, letting the audience know that this was not a representation of the lived world, but of something closer to the imagined and invisible world of God.

The most prominent part is the castle in the centre of the illustration. It’s a single tower with brickwork illustrated on the top part, below crenelations. The sides of the tower, drawn as two shallow arcs, extend below the brickwork, suggesting the tower was on legs, making room below the tower for the bed or bench that is illustrated.

There are four labels written above, below and to each side of the castle and additional notes within the double ring that encloses the castle. The wording above the castle, and I’m paraphrasing all of this into modern English, says that ‘this is the castle of Perseverance that stands in the middle of the place, but let nobody sit there, for letting of sight: for there shall be the best of all’.

The meaning here is not clear. The concern seems to be to keep the space clear so that lines of sight are not disturbed. Does the last part mean there is a reserved space for special guests ‘the best of all’. No one has come up with a definitive answer.

Below the castle it says ‘Mankind’s bed will be under the castle and there shall the soul lay until he rises to play’. Which seems clear enough so we agree that there was space under the castle for the entrance and exit of Mankind and his soul.

To the sides of the castle it says ‘Covertice’s cupboard by the feet of the bed shall be at the end of the castle’. So a reserved space close to the bed, but not exactly where it is written on the plan. Maybe.

Between the two circles that enclose the castle it says that ‘This is the water about the place if any ditch may be made where it shall be played, or else that it be strongly barred all about and let not over many Stytlerys be within this place.’

The role of the Stytlery is obscure. It’s another point over which many pages have been written trying to trace the etymology of the word to define exactly what it meant for a theatre production. I’ll cut through that to get to the point that they seem to be people who were there to control the crowd. The implication is to umpire, to marshal, to set in order, to control. So maybe people who knew the play and could marshal the crowd to the best vantage point for the current action or could move a block of people who were disturbing a sight line for others. Yet what we seem to have here is a plea for not too many Stytlerys in this area. We either misunderstand the use of the word, or maybe it had some further meaning in the specific theatre context. Whoever they were they are only referred to three times in all the medieval plays we have so are now very obscure.

The wording outside the circle to the right says ‘he shall play Belyal and prepare with gunpowder in burning pipes in his hands, in his ears and in his arse for when he goes into battle. The four daughters shall be clad in cloaks: Mercy in white, Righteousness in red all over, Truth in sad green and Peace all in black. They shall play in this place together until they bring up the soul’. Seems like Belyal the demon was a high point of the show and quite a spectacle – good luck to the actor with that one.

The five notes beyond the outer circle of the picture are labels relating to the scaffolds that are the home kingdoms of God, the Devil, The World, Flesh and Greed and their followers.

So we have some fixed features to orientate around, the castle, the bed beneath it and the ditch. We also have the scaffolds, but no suggestion as to what they looked like. What the drawing does not tell us is anything about where the audience sat or stood, except for possibly where they are to be excluded. The wording about the water filled ditch, which offers an alternative if the digging of a ditch is not possible, supports the detail from the Banns that suggests this was a touring production that needed to be adapted to local conditions. It is also seen as proof of an attempt to keep control of who could see the play and therefore control the collection of fees and protect the income generated from the performance. The wording relating to the scaffolds is outside the ditch, but this could just be a necessity of the space in the diagram rather than suggesting they were constructed outside the ditch. The scaffolds would have provided some degree of shieling from any persons standing outside the ditch, and if a fence was being used instead of the ditch then this too would have prevented sight of the play by those outside to some degree.

You can double click on the image to enlarge the pictures.

The Castle of Perseverance.  Questions of Performance.

Featured in episode 58: The Castle of Perseverance

The first image features ideas about how ‘The Castle of Perseverance might have been presented. As I discussed in the Podcast episode there are plenty of ideas about how this might have worked, but few firm answers. The second image takes a similar view of the style of presentation, but is not specific to ‘The Castle of Perseverance’. You will note that both feature the ditch circling the playing area and the audience seated inside this area. That configuration is disputed by some scholars and the third image, a picture of a 1969 production of Noah and Flood, shows the audience seated between the scaffolds on a raised platform and illustrates the suggested alternative approach.

You can double click on the image to enlarge the pictures.

The Stage Set From Valenciennes 1547

Valenciennes passion play of 1547 illustration by Hubert Cailleau

Featured in episode 53: Medieval Stage Effects

Hubert Cailleau was a stage designer and miniaturist working in the town at the time and he made sketches of the stage designs and they remain some of our best evidence of set design from this period. They show the different scenic three-dimensional backdrops that were used for the different locations in the plays. These locations stretched across the stage from stage right to left. Starting from stage right we have Paradise. This is a pillared portico type room topped by a large disc carved with an image of God on his throne surrounded by angles. Nazareth comes next, represented by a gateway in the city walls, with a low gate and fence in front, which creates an acting space in front of the walls of the city.

The temple is another portico room, but this one is topped by an ornate roof, coloured blue in the illustration. Inside there is an altar supporting the ark of the covenant, all of which is visible to the audience. Jerusalem is next, represented with a city wall and gate, but much grander than Nazareth. Next is the palace, which is perhaps the grandest building set on a high plinth with pillars and with a suggestion of gold trimmings and a throne fit for a king. The house of the bishops is another gate in a wall, but this also shows the representation of the top of a palace behind the wall, giving a real feeling of depth and a hinterland to the scenery. The same city wall continues to the golden gate, an imposing gateway with tall, sturdy looking doors. In front of this is a square patch of blue with a fishing boat sitting in it to represent the sea. Clearly this is showing a functioning pool of water. Limbo is represented by a prison building housing several souls awaiting judgement and finally on the far stage left we get to the gates of hell represented by a dragon’s mouth from which devils are exiting. Inside the dragon’s mouth people struggle to get out of a boiling cauldron and in the level of the tower immediately above this, two unfortunates have been strapped to a wheel. On the roof above them three dragons breathe fire, and all of this orchestrated by lucifer, who sits on another dragon above the whole scene.

You can double click on the image to enlarge the picture.

The Martyrdom of St Apollonia

The Martyrdom of St Apollonia by Jean Fouquet (c.1420 – 1481. Painted c1452.

Featured in episode 52: Medieval Rehearsal and Performance.

Jean Fouquet was a French painter and miniaturist working in the mid-fourteen hundreds and one of his works is a manuscript illumination depicting the play of the martyrdom of St Apollonia. This illustration is thought to date from about 1452 and depicts the saint tied to a trestle. She is undergoing torture by having her teeth pulled and we can see one man holding her tightly by her long, thick hair and others binding her legs with thick rope while the torturer pulls on a long string hooked around her tooth. To the right side of the picture there is a figure in ecclesiastical dress who is holding a promptbook in one hand and a long baton in the other. He could be mistaken for a bishop directing the torture, but other features in the picture tell us this is an illustration of a saint’s play, not a depiction of the original story. In the background we can see the scaffolding supporting unmistakably theatrical scenery. Some spectators sit in parts of the scenery and there are devils to the left and angles to the right, an arrangement that conforms to the theatrical conventions of the day. So definitely a representation of the theatre and the character of the Ordinary directing the scene from on stage is very clear.

The South Theatre,  Jerash, Jordan

The South Theatre in the town of Jerash was built between 81 and 96 CE. The theatre, which is in a relatively good state of preservation, could seat up to five thousand spectators. The stage is in the classic Roman design with the three doors. The theatre is still used today for special productions. These photos were taken in November 2019.

The Theatre, Petra, Jordan

No trip to Jordan is complete without a visit to Petra. Beyond the tourist hotspot of the Treasury Building is a long valley surrounded on either side by funerary monuments and other buildings. Tucked into the side of the valley, about half a kilometre from the centre of Petra, is a theatre, built in Roman style by the ruling Nabatean people in the 1st Century CE. It is estimated that the theatre could hold up to 8,500 people. Most of the theatre was carved out of solid rock and seems to have been constructed so that a large number of the tombs in the valley could be seen by the audience while seeing a performance. These photos were taken in November 2019.

The Gaiety Theatre, Shimla, India

Shimla, in the foothills of the Himalayas, was the summer capital of the British Raj in India. The Gaiety theatre, designed by Henry Irwin, opened in May 1887. Originally the theatre was part of a complex of new buildings, but when subsidence was discovered a few years after construction all the buildings apart from the theatre were demolished. With a capacity for 300 people the theatre hosted many visiting British actors and others, most famously Rudyard Kipling and Baden Powell, and also many Indian performers. The theatre is still in use today. These photos were taken in November 2013.

The Ancient Theatre, Taormina, Sicily

The partial ruins of the Greek period theatre in Taormina, are from an expansion undertaken in the 2nd Century and is the second largest of its kind in Sicily (after the theatre of Syracuse). Most of the original seating has been lost, but the wall which surrounded the whole cavea is preserved, and the proscenium with the back wall of the scena and its appendages are preserved. From the fragments of architectural decorations that remain it is clear that the theatre was very grand in it’s heyday. It is set on high cliffs looking out to sea – quite spectacular. These photos were taken in September 2008.

The Theatre of Syracuse, Sicily

The Greek theatre on the hills above Syracuse could date from as early as the 5th Century BCE. Sicily appears to have been a centre for dramatic productions, perhaps only being behind the Athenian festivals in order of importance. Better records evidence a rebuilding between 238 and 215 BCE, where it was given the shape that can still be seen today. Early Roman modifications indicate it was still used as a theatre, but a later set of changes suggest it ended it’s life as a gladiatorial space and accommodated water games. A final set of refurbishments date to the fifth century CE, suggesting the theatre had an almost one-thousand year life span before it fell into disrepair. These photos were taken in September 2008.

The Ear of Dionysius Cave, Syracuse, Sicily

Near to the ancient Greek theatre of Syracuse is a limestone cave known as ‘The Ear of Dionysius’. The name was given by the painter Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1571-1610), who heard the legend that local tyrant Dionysius 1st (432-367 BCE) used the cave as a prison for his political enemies and was able to listen to their subversive plans thanks to the acoustic qualities of the cave. The echo is remarkable and is said to form a 16*repeat in it’s sweetest spot. These photos were taken in September 2008.

The Roman Arena, Verona, Italy

Built in the first century the Roman amphitheater in Verona is still used for opera productions. When I visited in June 2010 the site was being set up with scenery and large props dotted around the outside of the walls. Judging from the Egyptian style props it was a production of Verdi’s Aida that was being got-in. Estimates put the capacity during the Roman period as high as 30,000. For modern production the capacity is about half of that number.

Juliet’s Balcony and Statue, Verona, Italy

A visit to Verona will include a stop at ‘Juliet’s Balcony’ and statue. It’s nothing but a ploy, and a rather kitsch one at that, to attract tourists, but has to be admired for it’s success. Both times I have been there it was very crowded and you can see from the shine on the statue there is a particular part of Juliet’s body that is rubbed frequently for good luck! The house dates from the 13th century, but the balcony was added less than a hundred years ago. The only possible connection with the Romeo and Juliet story might be that the house was owned by the Capello family, who have a similar name to Juliet’s (Giuletta’s) family, the Capelletti family, in one of the oldest surviving versions of the story from the mid-1300’s. Today the house contains a small museum of Renaissance period artifacts and the bed used in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation of the Shakespearean version of the story.