Elvira (staging)

by George Digby, Earl of Bristol (November 1664; pub.1667)

There is no record that this play was performed on a particular date, nor is there any reference to theatrical production on the title page of the first edition published in 1667. The only indication of a LIF production is its inclusion in a list of LIF plays performed around this time drawn up by The Master of the Revels, Sir Henry Herbert.[1] The play is a translation from Calderón, as were two others made by Digby, ’Tis Better than it Was, and Worse and Worse both performed at LIF between 1662 and 1665. Unfortunately, neither was published, but Pepys saw the latter on July 24, 1664 and pronounced it as “very pleasant” and “just the same manner of play […] as “The Adventures of Five Hours”. Pepys’s reactions are important, because, for reasons that will soon become apparent, the play occasionally reads poorly and it may be difficult to imagine theatrically. The fact that Digby published only this play suggests he thought a lot of it. He had a right to; the play is fast moving and the language less ‘stiff’, to use Evelyn’s term, than Tuke’s. Genest reports it, “a very good C. – it abounds in intrigue and bustle; and the language is very fair”.[2] Modern commentators find less comedy. Robert D. Hume, for example, calls it “a very serious play”, but I think this view takes the heroic posturing of the formal dons more seriously than was originally intended. As interesting as a discussion of genre reception and the play’s dramatic merits might be, this site is concerned with issues of physical staging and on these terms this play is one of the most problematic in the LIF repertoire.

Excluding Tuke, none of the playwrights encountered so far have supplied full or consistent scenic information within their plays. The complaint has been too little information; with Elvira the opposite applies. By my count, Digby supplies a total of 47 scenes. None is numbered but only six go unmarked, all the rest are clearly fictionally located. The sheer number of scenes, stated locations, and scene changes has fazed commentators. Edward Langhans finds 43 scene changes, “with possibly fifteen different settings employed”.[3] Peter Holland and Dawn Lewcock play it safe, referring to “over forty” and “some forty” scenes respectively, but they are more specific when it comes to the number of settings that a realisation would require: Holland suggests “a dozen”, while Lewcock plumps for “not more than six”.[4] Of the 40 located scenes, 25 employ the format ‘scene changes to X’, where X is the stated location; 14 use the ‘Enter X as in Y’ formula familiar from pre-Civil War plays; and one (3.9) mixes the formats: “Scene changes, and enters Don Julio, and Don Fernando as in the private Apartment”.[5]

The ‘as in’ headings are clustered at the start of Act 3 and throughout Act 5; there is no indication in the play to suggest that this is anything other than a random effect, the responsibility either of Digby or of the printer. The fact that nine of the ‘scene changes’ headings are followed by a stage direction that repeats the heading in the ‘enter X as in Y’ format opens up the possibility that a lazy typesetter may have been conflating Digby’s headings and opening directions into the format with which he was most familiar. The distribution of the ‘as in’ headings, the belts-and-braces approach of the 3.9 heading and the repeating stage directions argue against Holland’s interesting suggestion that an ‘as in’ heading implies no scene change at that point. Though why he thinks that the first five settings of Act 3 should be played in front of the ‘prospects of Valencia’ scenery is puzzling: all nine scenes in this act are interiors, as indeed are all from 2.9 to 4.3.[6] All commentators agree, however, that the play could not have been staged as it stands: its 47 scenes and 12 named settings demand some rationalisation. The settings may be reduced to six, as Lewcock suggests, by combining all scenes set within a single house; however I prefer to maintain a distinction between Julio’s rooms and Blanca’s in Julio’s house, because so much of the play is set there (23 scenes) and combining them might affect an audience’s ability to follow the plot.

My revised settings are, inn room, Blanca’s chambers, Julio’s chambers, Zancho’s house, street, garden, and laboratory. A single inn setting combines Fernando’s inn room and Don Pedro’s lodgings. The proposed settings for Julio and Blanca each consolidates up to four named rooms within their individual ‘apartment’: chamber, antechamber, closet, and bedchamber. Two relieve scenes are implied by the text – the garden and the laboratory – and wing settings may be reduced to four by allowing one house setting to serve Zancho’s and Julio’s as in the proposed staging for The Adventures of Five Hours. Hence, the wing settings are inn, house, street, and garden. The laboratory is set within Julio’s house and as will become apparent it is to be viewed in the relieve area with the house wing setting showing.

There is only one special requirement. Act 2 requires two characters to hide behind hangings in Blanco’s antechamber. This play is one of three LIF plays to specify hangings.[7] They were a feature of the pre-Civil War stage, appearing in stage directions as ‘curtain’ or ‘arras’ (Hamlet being the obvious example). Although this is the first completely new play to use them, they had already been seen at LIF in Davenant’s Shakespearean chimera The Law Against Lovers and a revival of his pre-Civil War play The Wits, both of which call for hangings in their stage directions.[8] On the stage for which The Wits was written, the hangings would probably have covered one of the two or three door spaces available.[9] On a Restoration stage, the choice is either across doors or somewhere in the vicinity of the backshutters. In Elvira doors are used extensively in scenes set in Blanca’s rooms, and special cuts in the shutters are an unnecessary complication; so I propose a development of an older staging solution whereby a hanging might run across a central door opening.

For Elvira I suggest the use of a pair of split hangings running just behind the shutter grooves. Technically all such an arrangement would require is for the hanging on each side to have two draw strings running on simple pulleys, one pulls the nearest hanging into the offstage position, and the other pulls the opposite hanging into the onstage position. Effectively, this adds another shutter pair with the result that the full scenic requirement of the play can be accommodated by four shutter scenes, two relieves, four wing settings, and one pair of hangings, with minimum violence done to Digby’s demands. The scenery plot uses hangings as the setting for Blanca’s chamber. Using this method only four mid-act shutter replacements need to be made in the whole play and Digby’s stated scene changes need not be the technical nightmare suggested by some commentators.

There is, however, one spectacular scenic heading from this play that is usually used as a stick with which to beat the author in ‘demonstration’ of his naivety, over-exuberance, or “theatrical maladroitness”:[10]

Scene changes to the Laberatory

Here is to open a curious Scene of a Laberatory in perspective, with a Fountain in it, some Stills, many Shelves with Pots of Porcelaine, and Glasses, with Pictures above them, the Room paved with black and white Marble with a Prospect through Pillars, at the end discovering the full Moon, and by it’s light a perspective of Orange Trees, and towards that further end Silvia appears at a Table shifting Flowers, her back turned.[11]

In respect of the whole play text, all three charges may apply to varying degrees. Digby was not a professional playwright and Elvira is occasionally naïve in its staging demands (there can be no doubt it would have been simplified for any LIF production). However, the only difference between Digby and other early playwrights is that where others betray their naivety by not thinking scenically, Digby’s error is an excess of scenic zeal. The laboratory heading (4.12) is certainly exuberant, but it is not necessarily as excessive as Holland and others have thought. This will become clear if we separate its elements. There is little doubt this must be a relieve scene, the question is how are the various objects disposed?  It is possible that the whole scene is to change here, wings included. However, if we are to follow Digby’s description the floor is a problem: it is simply not possible to cover the whole stage with a chequered floor cloth without holding up the action. It is possible, though, to set a floor cloth behind the shutters in the interval between the last relieve scene, the garden (4.6), and this. The six pages involved have 162 lines of dialogue and a fair amount of mimed action. Just reading the lines takes seven minutes, stage action would add time, but seven minutes looks ample for trained staff to strike the garden set and replace it with the laboratory. Following Digby, then, this looks wholly like a relieve setting. In its simplest form, the setting may be broken down as follows.

First is a chequered floor cloth; the central space is occupied by the table and the actress; the shelves with their various objects are painted on wing elements (“Laberatory in perspective”) within the discovery space, and the pillars, moon, and orange trees are painted on a backcloth. The only difficulty is the fountain. Digby’s word order suggests it is part of the laboratory, that is an object in the relieve space rather than paint on the backcloth, although painting would be the easier solution. Any doubts that so many elements could be painted coherently in a single scene should be dispelled by reference to two drawings in the Chatsworth collection probably by John Webb, that show similar prospects. In both we see a view of spacious garden grounds through pillars with a fountain at the centre, all that is lacking is the moon. Getting past the wordiness of Digby’s direction, all that would need to be set in the discovery space in the seven minutes allowed is an eight-foot square floor cloth, a backcloth, some wing elements, and a table. Having reduced the setting to its simplest we may consider some elaboration. The orange trees and fountain are strikingly similar to a garden scene described in 4.4: “Enter Blanca and Francisca as in the fine Garden with Orange-trees and Fountains”.[12] Although the garden setting is almost certainly a relieve scene it is not clear whether the orange trees and fountains are wings on the main scenic stage or painted on a backcloth. If the latter, however, such a backcloth might also have backed the laboratory, with the addition perhaps of a relieve row of cut-out pillars, and even a transparent moon disc backlit with candles suspended from the fly grid.

Digby’s scenic demands undoubtedly need to be simplified, as do other aspects of his requirements. In the laboratory scene there is no doubt that the forestage is used briefly in exactly the manner Richard Southern suggests was conventional in all Restoration plays; it becomes in his words “a transpicuous hall”.[13] However, there is no evidence to suggest that this anomalous state persists in Elvira or any other play in this study, with the possible exception of John Caryll‘s Sir Salomon, or The Cautious Coxcomb. On the contrary, it is used briefly and tactically in Elvira and several other plays as a theatrical ‘cheat’, as I hope to demonstrate.[14] After Zancho has found his way to the Laboratory, surprising Elvira in the process, he is confronted by Julio who has set this trap for him, they fight, and Elvira interposes. Thereafter, four other characters enter the stage separately (in three groups) and observe the action.

From Digby’s stage directions it is clear that he regards the forestage as an inner part of Julio’s house separate from the laboratory (helped in the proposed staging by the use of ‘house’ wings). After Julio has confronted Zancho the other characters enter the forestage in separate groups tell the audience that they have heard a commotion in the laboratory and are making their way there. They are then instructed to ‘pass over’ the stage in some way and exit and re-enter at another door, after which they observe the action and pass further comment. These directions place all the actors within the scenic area. Elvira is within the relieve space when she is disturbed by Zancho, and after Chichon ‘steals’ across the stage Digby states “Exit Chichon, and re-enters at the further end of the Laberatory and stands close”.[15] Elvira is by now keeping Julio and Zancho apart in the middle of the scene, while Fernando, Blanco, and Francisca observe from two wing entrance positions.

This staging is not perhaps the subtlest possible, but it is a highly effective solution that resolves a complex series of stage actions. It is clear that the staging of Elvira demands a short sequence of spatial anomaly where two different parts of the stage represent two locations within the same house. Of course, this is not a novelty, on the old platform stage it was possible, for example, for characters to process around the stage before ‘entering’ the same fictional location as other characters already in position. As such, this highly effective, tactical use of an older convention is worlds apart from the wholesale anomaly proposed by other commentators.[16]


[1] See London Stage, op cit p.85.
[2] Rev. John Genest, Some Account of The English Stage, From The Restoration In 1660 To 1830 (10 vols.), vol. 1, Bath: H. E. Carrington, 1832, p.63.
[3] See Staging Practices in the Restoration Theatre 1660-1682, unpublished Ph.D thesis, Yale, 1955, p.290.
[4] Holland, The ornament of action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p.46; Lewcock, ‘Aphra Behn On The Restoration Stage’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge, 1987, p.104.
[5]London: E. Cotes, 1667 (Chadwyck-Healey), p.46.
[6] Ornament of action, op cit p.46.
[7] The others are The Mall and The Mistaken Husband, both King’s company plays from 1674.
[8] The Wits (2.1): “Young Pall. beckons Luce from behind the Hangings” (Works, op cit p.178); Law Against Lovers (1.1): “Beatrice, Viola, Juliet, step behind the Hangings” (Works, op cit p.275).
[9] Tim Fitzpatrick & Wendy Millard also suggest a hanging could traverse an angle on a stage with a polygonal tiring-house wall, but this solution probably applies only to outdoor playhouses (see ‘Hangings, Doors and Discoveries: Conflicting Evidence or Problematic Assumptions?’, Theatre Notebook, vol.54, no.1 (2000), pp.2-23).
[10] Holland, Ornament of action, op cit p.46.
[11] Op cit p.60.
[12] Ibid. p.50.
[13] See John Loftis (et al eds.), The Revels History of Drama in English, vol. 5, 1660-1750, London: Methuen, 1976, p.93.
[14] See my commentaries on Mustapha and Juliana.
[15] Op cit p.61.
[16] For example, see Colin Visser, ‘The Anatomy Of The Early Restoration Stage, Parts 1 & 2’, Theatre Notebook, Vol.29, Nos.2 & 3, 1975.
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