Trouble with Pictures 2: the ‘Playhouse’ drawing

Section of a theatre, Codrington Library, AS, II.81

This sectional drawing of a theatre labelled simply ‘Play House’ has attracted much comment. Many theatre historians believe there is connection between it and Thomas Killigrew’s Drury Lane theatre of 1674, but surprisingly few have analysed it in detail. Among non-specialists there is widespread, uncritical acceptance of the drawing as being both of Drury Lane and representing a model for all Restoration theatres. Such misapprehensions are fostered by its ubiquitous reproduction in textbooks with often loose or even misleading attributions.[1] Since the drawing was rediscovered in 1913 among the papers of Sir Christopher Wren it has come to exert an influence beyond the bare facts of the primary evidence it represents. There are, however, some difficulties with the attribution to the 1674 Drury Lane theatre. First, the drawing has been torn through twice, which suggests it may be a rejected study. It is unsigned and undated and, aside from tradition, the only support for Wren as the architect of Drury Lane is Colley Cibber’s autobiography of 1740, which refers to an event 66 years in the past when Cibber was three years old.[2] The main difficulty, however, is that the scenic arrangement shown in the drawing is incomplete. One of the staples of Restoration dramaturgy was the backshutter discovery. Such a discovery was effected by withdrawing the backshutters to reveal or ‘discover’ upstage a farther part of the stage complete with its own scenic backing.[3] As the drawing does not show any scenic element upstage of what most commentators interpret as backshutters – the final three vertical lines upstage of the proscenium pilasters – a stage built to such a design would be incapable of staging many plays known to have been performed at Drury Lane. Most new plays written for Drury Lane demand at least one discovery, and several call for a discovery to be followed immediately by another.[4] Such successive discoveries imply a minimum of two farther scenic elements upstage of the shutters shown in Wren’s drawing: another pair of shutters and a final backscene.[5] The lack of scenic information in the drawing has led to many different interpretations of the layout and function of scenic elements at Drury Lane and Restoration theatres in general. The drawing is a vital piece of primary evidence and should not be dismissed; however, care needs to be exercised when citing it in support of conjectural reconstructions of Restoration staging.

[1] See for example, J. L. Styan, Restoration Comedy in Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986, pp.20-1.
[2] An Apology For The Life Of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian, London: John Watts, 1740, p.338.
[3] Early Restoration discoveries were also occasionally effected by means of the front curtain, or a curtain at the shutter line (see Lewcock, ‘Computer Analysis Of Restoration Staging, 1: 1661-1672’, Theatre Notebook, vol.47, no.1, 1993, p.26).
[4] The first successive or double discovery at Drury Lane was in Nathaniel Lee’s Sophonisba in 1675. In that year six new plays were performed at Drury Lane, of which only two do not demand a discovery. However, the other four demand 19 (Francis Fane’s Love in the Dark, calls for eight), and two plays demand successive discoveries (see Lewcock, ‘Computer Analysis, 2’, Theatre Notebook, vol.47, no.2, 1993, p.144).
[5] I use the term ‘backscene’ to refer to the final scenic element in view and to avoid defining at this stage whether it was a backcloth, a drop, or another shutter. However, in period usage the term applied to the backshutters. A stage direction in Boyle’s Guzman (1669), for example, reads “The Garden in Tryphon as a Back Scene”, where it is clear that the reference is to the shutters alone.

One thought on “Trouble with Pictures 2: the ‘Playhouse’ drawing

  1. Pingback: Section of a playhouse attributed to Sir Christopher Wren | Restoration Theatre

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