The Play-house to be Let (staging)

by William Davenant (LIF, Aug. 1663; pub. 1673)

This ‘play’ is a composite entertainment of diverse pre-Restoration material presented off-season in late summer 1663. It comprises two of Davenant’s Commonwealth ‘operas’ – The History of Sir Francis Drake (pub. 1659) and The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (pub. 1658) – topped and tailed respectively by a version of Molière’s Sganarelle, ou le Cocu Imaginaire and a parody “In Verse Burlesque” of Caesar and Cleopatra. This material is preceded by a first ‘act’ that introduces the meta-dramatic subject of the LIF management seeking to raise extra funds in the “dead Vacation” by letting the theatre to interested parties.[1] It is intriguing to theatre historians for the information it provides, albeit comically distorted, about the ordinary operations of a Restoration theatre, and because it seems designed by Davenant to show off the theatre’s resources (to a mainly citizen audience); thus providing a fairly clear statement of scenic and staging capacities in the first few years of the Restoration. Surprisingly, for a piece that seems to have had few performances and for which there are no eyewitness reports, it has garnered some favourable comment over the years. Langbaine thought it “handsomely tackt together”, Summers found it to be “an adroitly contrived and highly comical entertainment”, and more recently both Langhans and Lewcock have admired its theatrical versatility.[2] However, the play is rarely considered by non-historians, probably because its ad hoc mix of old and new is difficult to categorise. The only certain post-Restoration components are the first act, the inter-act linking dialogue and stage directions, and some directions in Act 5. However, the play raises interesting questions about early Restoration staging and scenic practice, although there is no published analysis of its staging requirements. Langhans’s analysis in his doctoral dissertation is the fullest but it lacks his usual clarity.[3] The following commentary not only details the play’s staging requirements, it also explicates the interpretive methods I apply elsewhere on this website.

In the first years of the Restoration the allocation of old plays Davenant had the rights to perform was miserly: he even had to petition the King for the rights to perform his own pre-Restoration plays.[4] Given this and the general lack of new plays at this early date it is not surprising that Davenant sought to recycle older material. By 1663 he had already staged The Law Against Lovers (1662) – adapted from Measure For Measure and Much Ado About Nothing – and had made use of translations from various hands. The Play-House to be Let is a product of this general situation. The fact that it recycles old scenery as well as old material may well have been its raison d’être. The scenery in question was that for Davenant’s operas, Sir Francis Drake and The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru. These works together with the first part of The Siege of Rhodes were presented at the Cockpit, Drury Lane in the period 1658-9. The Play-House to be Let was first published in the 1673 Works edition of Davenant’s plays. There are some differences between the original editions of the operas (1658/9) and the versions in the Works, but they are not substantive. The later version omits some non-dramatic sideshows such as gymnastic ‘tricks of activity’. It also omits directions present in the original editions of the operas for the front curtain to rise at the start of the piece and fall at the end. However, we should recall that this sumptuous folio is very much a reading edition that strictly has no need for such theatrical indication. In the LIF performance, the curtain directions would have been retained to preserve Davenant’s intended effect of surprise and delight when the scenery is first revealed. These intentions are stated in his description cum stage direction at the start of the First Entry of Sir Francis Drake: “The preparation of the opening of the Scene is by a prelude and Corante. Afterwards the Curtain rises by degrees to an ascending Ayr, and a Harbour is discern’d”.[5] This direction is included in the Works edition and I think should be taken as indication of how these operas would be presented within the framework of The Play-House to be Let.

No scene drawings or designs for the operas are extant, but we are fortunate in that the texts provide copious scene descriptions and stage directions, to the extent that it is possible to recover much of the original staging with a fair degree of confidence. The original staging was of course at the Cockpit, this discussion assumes that the staging at LIF must have been largely the same, for any refashioning with its attendant expenses would have defeated the presumed object of cheaply recycling existing material for off-season presentation to an unfashionable, citizen audience.

As both operas were designed for the Siege of Rhodes stage they originally used that scenic arrangement, namely fixed wings, three changeable backshutters, and a relieve space five feet six inches deep. Examination of the scene descriptions for both operas shows that concern for theatrical economy is already evident, in that the later opera, Sir Francis Drake, recycles the earlier opera’s wings, their descriptions being almost identical. However, Davenant does not separate wing and shutter descriptions and it is possible to confuse the two. Davenant’s descriptions of the scenery are reproduced below; I have abbreviated description of the shutters while presenting that of the wings scenes in full:

The First ENTRY. [The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru]
…a Lantdchap of the West-Indies is discern’d […]
This Prospect is made through a Wood, differing from those of European Climats, by representing of Coco-Trees, Pines, and Palmitos; and on the boughs of other Trees are seen Munkies, Apes, and Parrots; and at farther distance, Vallies of Sugar-Canes.

The First ENTRY. [The History of Sir Francis Drake]
…a Harbour is discern’d, […] The narrowness to the entrance of the Harbour may be observ’d, with Rocks on either side; and out at Sea a ship towing a Prize […]
This Prospect is made through a Wood, differing from those of European Climats, by representing of Coco-Trees, Pines, and Palmitos. And on the Boughs of other Trees are seen Munkies, Apes, and Parrots.[6]

Looking at Sir Francis Drake in isolation it would be easy to fall into the error made by Langhans and suppose that wings are implied by the description “Rocks on either side”, but in each case above, description of the wing scenes begins with “This Prospect is made”.[7] When reading further scene descriptions for these operas it is important to recall these fixed tree wings. We also need to bear in mind that the backscene descriptions may refer to painted shutters or to scenes of relieve. Distinguishing scene type is not always straightforward. The use of the phrase ‘at a distance’ or similar may provide a clue to identifying a scene of relieve but, in the examples above, a case could be made for either being such a scene. At this point we can use the fact that it was impossible on Webb’s Rhodes stage (or Hall stage) to present successive relieve (discovery) scenes. If we can show that a particular scene is a relieve scene, then the scenes which immediately precede and follow it must be shutter scenes. We also need to think of the descriptions and directions in terms of practical stagecraft, even showmanship. For this reason alone I think that the examples above describe shutter scenes: in general it makes little theatrical sense to reveal the full scenic potential of the stage at the outset; better by far to delay and limit the use of relieve scenes, so adding to their impact.

In The Playhouse the order of presentation is Sir Francis Drake (Act 3) followed by The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (Act 4). I have edited Davenant’s prolix descriptions to focus on the scenic information; the comments after each description enable a tentative scenery plot to be constructed.

The Second ENTRY [Sir Francis Drake]
The SCENE is chang’d. In which is discern’d a Rockie Country […] A Sea is discover’d, and Ships at distance, with Boats rowing to the shore, and Symerons upon the Rocks.
The Prospect having continu’d a while, this Song is sung by a Steersman in the foreostm [sic] Boat, and the Chorus by Marriners rowing in it.[8]

This is one of the more problematic scenic descriptions to decipher. As with other analyses on this website, it is best to start by taking scene headings and stage directions at face value until otherwise indicated. The presence of singing mariners, the fact that the sea is “discover’d”, and the information that the ships are “at distance” points strongly to this being a scene of relieve. This also fits my contention that the first scene is a shutter scene. The difficulty is the mariners: five and a half feet maximum depth is a snug fit for the steersman and his crew, irrespective of all the other elements that create the full picture. The scene is brief: after the song there are only 50 lines of dialogue, a dance, and a final offstage chorus of mariners (marked “within”). Might then the author or printer have simply omitted an earlier instruction ‘within’, thus allowing everything to be painted on a shutter?  Such an instruction would certainly make this scene easier to stage, but again I believe we should accept what is in front of us.[9] Langhans thinks at least one actual boat would have been required. The difficulty is in fitting a real or prop boat within the confines of the relieve space. More room would have been available at LIF but the Drake text refers to the original Rhodes stage whose relieve space is a maximum of 7ft wide x 5½ft deep. This depth comprises a gap of 2ft 6in between shutter grooves and first relieve, and two gaps of 1ft 6in between first and second relieves and second relieve and backcloth. The size of a three-dimensional boat depends on how many rowing sailors are required for the chorus, I would suggest a minimum of four (two per side) and a maximum of six. A steersman and three pairs of sailors rowing in unison could just about fit into a stage boat five feet long (assuming smaller body sizes in the 17th century). The width of the boat depends on the disposition of the relieve scenes, which could be cut and layered in a variety of ways. However, assuming a boat is presented side-on to the audience and that relieve scenery is used in the positions stated by Webb’s drawings, the only possible place the boat could fit according to the drawings is in the gap between shutters and first relieve. In realisation, however, we would have to modify the stated scenery; otherwise, the boat would not appear to be on the sea. A ground row could be attached to the boat, or waves could be painted on its side. The second suggestion seems weak and I am ruling out the first suggestion because it modifies the disposition of the stage as we know it. Similarly, positioning the boat on a diagonal might make it difficult to integrate it scenically with the end-on planes of relieves and backcloth. These problems would be alleviated with a fully scenic staging that works with rather than against the flat scenic planes. A possible solution, therefore, would be to use a ground row in the first relieve position (foreground) depicting a painted boat breasting the waves. Behind this the mariners would sit on benches at right-angles to the relieve plane. The second relieve position (middle distance) would feature rocks and Symerons on one side, and a seascape with perhaps a painted boat or two on the other. The backcloth would depict the remaining elements of the description: the sea, distant ships, and remaining boats. More space would have been available at LIF, but I think it is clear that the room required by the actors militates against the use of a wave machine in the original production, an idea suggested by Arthur Nethercot and taken up recently by David Thomas.[10]

In sum, the second entry is most likely to be a scene of relieve; therefore the first and the third must use shutter scenes. This is nothing about the description of the third entry to suggest otherwise:

The Third ENTRY.
…the Scene changes, and represents a Peruvian Town, pleasantly scituated, with Palmeto-Trees, Guavas, and Cypresses, growing about it, whilst English Land-Souldiers and Sea-men seem to be drawn up towards the West end; whilst the Peruvians are feasting their Guests, and Two of their Boys bearing Fruit towards the Strangers.[11]

The fourth entry might demand a relieve scene, but either is possible:

The Fourth ENTRY.
…the Scene is chang’d; wherein is discern’d upon a Hill, a Wood, and in it a Tree […] English Souldiers and Marriners are reposing themselves under it. At distance the Natives are discern’d in their hunting of Boars; and at nearer view, two Peruvians are killing a Stagg.[12]

In isolation the fifth scene might be thought to be a relieve, even one employing a rising sun machine:

The Fifth ENTRY.
…the Scene is chang’d, in which is discover’d the rising of the Sun through a thick Wood, and Venta-Cruz at great distance on the South side.[13]

However, the description of the next scene change (within the Entry) complicates matters:

The Scene is suddenly changed into the former prospect of the rising of the Morning, and Venta Cruz; but about the Middle, it is vary’d with the discov’ry of a Beautiful Lady ty’d to a Tree, adorn’d with the Ornaments of a Bride, with her hair dishevel’d, and complaining, with her hands towards Heaven: About her are likewise discern’d the Symerons who took her prisoner.[14]

The question here is whether the lady is real or painted? If the former holds it should be recalled that at the Cockpit in 1659 she must have been represented by a male actor. The fact that that no other female character makes an appearance of any kind in either of the two operas considered here inclines me to agree with Summers and Harbage that Davenant intended a painted lady.[15] Visser and Thomas suggest to varying degrees that an actor was used.[16] Visser is short on detail but he makes the interesting suggestion that the stage direction for the lady to be revealed could have been satisfied by partially opening the backshutters. There is no evidence in the period of this study for such an operation, but neither is there any objection to it on technical grounds. Visser does not elaborate on the scenic environment within which the lady is discovered, nor how partial the opening would need to be – quite wide one imagines, as the audience must be able to see the captors as well as the lady – nor does he explore this idea in any detail. However, theatrical issues aside, this solution does not sit that happily with the text. Davenant was well versed in scenic matters and he is not shy of technical descriptions in any of his operas. If Visser is correct, I think the scene description would simply have stated that the lady is discovered, omitting the preamble. What it says is that there is a sudden change from the Venta-Cruz “prospect” to another that has a different subject in the middle. The most literal explanation is that two shutters were employed: the original Venta-Cruz shutter was withdrawn to reveal the lady and her captors painted against the same background. This would not necessarily have been a more expensive solution, since if we follow Visser and Thomas an actor or a manikin would have to be discovered in a painted scenic environment of some kind even with partially opened shutters. The literal interpretation may seem odd to modern perceptions, but it provides a better match to the stage direction, the descriptive phrasing, and the subsequent action. Unlike the mariners and their boat in the second entry, there is no specific indication of a relieve scene being required in the fifth entry description, so the distant view of Santa-Cruz with its rising sun is probably part of a shutter painting. However, when the scene changes to reveal the lady there is nothing to suggest any qualitative difference about the new scene. The language used by Davenant to describe the bride and her captors is the same as for the third entry, which we know must be a shutter scene. These detailed descriptions have a painterly quality quite unlike the matter-of-fact tone of the second entry, which simply tells us there are boats rowing to shore and a group of sailors sing a song. However, this is slight suggestion not evidence; evidence against an actor being used is the fact that the lady never makes an entrance even when Davenant creates the perfect opportunity for her to do so. On the next page she is rescued by Drake’s men. Her father and bridegroom – characters making their first and only appearance – are invited to join in the celebrations but the lady never appears:

Enter the Father of the Bride, and her Bridegroom; the Bridegroom dancing with Castanietos, to express the joy he receives for his liberty, whilst the Father moves to his measures, denoting the fright he had receiv’d from the Symerons, when he was surpriz’d at his nuptial Entertainment.[17]

Had Davenant intended the lady to be represented by an actor he would surely have directed her to enter here. The sight of the distressed beauty relieved would have provided a more satisfying end to the episode than the virtually anonymous dancing men. The piece was originally written for a simple stage and for a scenically inexperienced audience. The effect of suddenly revealing and covering two similar paintings might have made quite a theatrical effect. Davenant might even have been demonstrating how scenery could be used on its own to develop a narrative.

The last entry follows immediately and could be either a shutter or a relieve scene:

The Sixth ENTRY.
…the Scene is chang’d; wherein is discover’d the Prospect of a hilly Country, with the Town Panamah at a distance, and Recoes of Mules, in a long train, loaden with Wedges of Silver and Ingots of Gold, and travelling in several Roads down a Mountain. There likewise may be discern’d their Drivers and Guards.[18]

We thus have a total of seven distinct scenes intended originally for a stage – as in the LIF model – that could accommodate only three backshutters and one scene of relieve. It is inevitable, therefore, that some scenes would have to be loaded during performance, as discussed in earlier chapters. However, as long as we avoid the solecism of successive relieve scenes, load new shutters at the ends of entries, and prepare new relieves behind shutters in view, a possible scenery plot for either production of Sir Francis Drake is easily made. The scenes in order are:

 1. Harbour
2. Landscape with sea view (relieve)
3. Peruvian town
4. Landscape (relieve)
5. (i)  Landscape with sunrise
5. (ii) Landscape with sunrise and bride
5. (i)  Landscape with sunrise
6. Landscape with mules

I have indicated two relieves, though more could be accommodated. The only other theatrical constraint to be noted concerning the allocation of relieve scenes is that there should be sufficient time to strike the old scene and replace it before the next relieve scene is specified. This operation is bound to take more time than a change of shutter scene. How long is difficult to say for certain, as it depends on the scene in question, but in this case there are around 40 lines of text, a dance, and a three verse song in between the two relieve scenes of entries 2 and 4. All told, this would provide sufficient time for the scene shift. It should also be noted that all ‘entries’ (in both operas) are preceded by music, and typically an entry does not start until the music has “continu’d a while”. The music also allows time to complete any necessary scenery adjustments prior to the next stage action. A possible LIF staging of The Play-house to be Let is provided in the accompanying scenery plot.

The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru comprises Act 4 of The Play-house to be Let. The required staging is of a similar kind and presents similar problems to those rehearsed above and needs little additional comment. The main difficulty is the original one, namely how these scenes intended for the small Cockpit theatre were presented on the later, post-alteration LIF stage. A brief inspection of the scenic requirements of the rest of The Play-house reveals that Act 1 has no scenic requirements, Act 2 requires a single setting of a street, and Act 5 accommodates a royal canopy and a parade ground. In fact the problem of what to show in Act 5 is reflexively made the subject of the dialogue:

The Fifth ACT.
Enter House-Keeper, and Player.

Play.
Now we must have one voyage more from
Peru to Alexandria (which in good troth,
Is but a step to swift imagination)
And then we may sleep in our empty Inn
Until next Term.

Hous. K.
We have no Scene of Alexandria.

Play.
A Canopy of State to shew the Majesty
Of those who are presented will serve turn.[19]

The two actors remain onstage to act as chorus to a dumb show of Caesar and Cleopatra entering with their trains. No sooner are they arranged onstage than a gypsy dance begins. The stage direction reads, “The Dance being ended, the Gypsies depart, and the Scene changes into a Parrad or Court du Guard”. There are no further scene changes after this. The fact that the scene changes are discussed and that the canopy of state is on for such a short time, suggests that they were not technically challenging items. Indeed, Alan Dessen & Leslie Thomson’s A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama, 1580-1642 states that a canopy in pre-Restoration plays might be carried onstage by bearers and held in position until the end of the scene.[20] The scene handlers in The Play-house would have been kept busy with the multiple backscene changes in the two operas, but they would not have been troubled by the wing shutters. Allowing for two sets of wings in Act 5 the whole play needs only four sets, the others being a street setting in Act 2, and tree wings in Acts 3 & 4. Nothing is required for Act 1 because it is set in a supposedly empty LIF at the time of representation in summer 1663. The novelty would have been to present a bare stage with no scenery showing, though wings and shutters for other acts would have been loaded in their frames in the offstage position. The opening stage direction plays on this conceit: “The SCENE opens, and upon two Stools are discover’d the Tire-woman and Chair-woman, one shelling of Beans, and the other Sowing./ Enter Player and House-Keeper”.[21] The ‘scene opens’ here refers to the whole scenic stage which was uncovered when the curtain was raised. The same locution is used by Pepys when he reports on seeing The Siege of Rhodes for the first time (July 2, 1661): “The King being come, the scene opened; which indeed is very fine and magnificent”.

Magnificence was not the intention of The Play-House to be Let. Davenant’s medley starts with a riddling prologue and ends with ‘Caesar’ inviting the audience to join him at the local tavern. It was presented off-season when the fashionable audience was out of town and was intended as robust citizen entertainment. The epilogue refers to the absence of “the severer Criticks” who might “hurt our play”, and indeed Pepys, who was something of a snob when it came to mixing with cits, was not tempted to break one of his periodical vows “against all plays”.[22] The production also provided an opportunity for Davenant to advertise the capacities of his new theatre to this important segment of his audience. As Orgel & Strong put it, the play is “an anthology of scenic possibilities”.[23] The tone of the play, the timing, and the audience composition suggest that the aim of the production was not to impress aesthetically, as Davenant would do with later productions (admired even by the cultured Evelyn), it was rather to impress with variety. For this reason I do not think it would have mattered how Davenant accommodated the old scenery designed for a smaller stage; this was a special production, outside the regular season. Some modifications must have been required, whether he decided to revert to a Cockpit-sized stage, or whether he made the old scenery fit the new arrangements. Either way he seems to have had plenty of time to recover from this interesting venture, possibly up to eight weeks, as there is no further recorded performance at LIF until October.

This discussion has focussed on the scenery because the staging of The Play-House to be Let is otherwise straightforward and presents no problems for the LIF model. Interestingly, there are nine references to ‘door’ in the play, all occurring in the post-Restoration Act 1. Three of these are in stage directions and make use of the oppositional ‘enter/exit at one door, enter at the other’ format. The use of a balcony is also implied in Act 2 when Davenant directs “Sganarelle’s Wife looks out of the Window”, she sees her husband apparently flirting and says “I will goe doone [and] surprise de villaine”.[24]


[1] Davenant, Works, 1673, p.67, p.71.
[2] Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatic Poets, Oxford: 1691; Scolar Press reprint, 1971, p.109; MontagueSummers, The Playhouse Of Pepys, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1935 p.155; Edward Langhans, Staging Practices in the Restoration Theatre 1660-1682, unpublished PhD thesis, Yale, 1955, pp.299-307; Dawn Lewcock, ‘Aphra Behn On The Restoration Stage’, unpublished PhD thesis, Anglia Polytechnic University Cambridge, 1987, p.85.
[3] Op cit pp.299-307.
[4] See Robert D. Hume, ‘Securing A Repertory’, in A. Coleman & A. Hammond (eds.), Poetry & Drama 1570-1700, London: Methuen, 1981, pp.158-9.
[5] Works, op cit p.87.
[6] Ibid. p.103-4 & 87.
[7] See Langhans, Thesis, op cit p.301.
[8] Works, op cit p.90.
[9] There are oddities to modern readers, not the least being that the mariners maintain their rowing throughout the scene, and remain mute when their offstage mates are in full voice.
[10] Nethercot, Sir William D’Avenant: Poet Laureate and playwright-manager, University of Chicago Press, 1938, p.333; Thomas (ed.), Documentary History, op cit p.85, 96. Another of Nethercot’s suggestions followed by Thomas is the idea that the First Entry featured a model ship with moveable sails and a wind machine to match descriptions in the dialogue (Nethercott, ibid.; Thomas, ibid.). However, the dialogue is more likely to be describing offstage, diagetic events and Nethercot cites no authority for ideas that are at best optimistic given the staging conditions.
[11] Works, op cit. p.92.
[12] Ibid. p.94.
[13] Ibid. p.96.
[14] Ibid. p.98.
[15] Summers, Playhouse, op cit p.52. Harbage, Cavalier Drama, op cit p.212.
[16] Visser, ‘John Dryden’s Amboyna At Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 1673’, Restoration and Eighteenth Century Theatre Research, vol.15, no.1, Loyola University of Chicago, May, 1976, p.4; Thomas (ed.), Documentary History, op cit p.85 & 99.
[17] Works, op cit pp.99-100.
[18] Ibid. p.100.
[19] Ibid. p.115.
[20]Cambridge: CUP, 1999, p.41.
[21] Works, op cit p.67.
[22] Ibid. p.119; Pepys: see entry for June 13.
[23] Inigo Jones 1, op cit p.9.
[24] Works, op cit p.78.

7 thoughts on “The Play-house to be Let (staging)

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