Theses Doctoral

Doors, Noises, and Magic Hats: The Tools of Spatial Representation on the Seventeenth-Century Stage

Lash, Alexander Keith Paulsson

This dissertation demonstrates that seventeenth-century dramatists and theatrical practitioners invented a dazzling series of specialized technologies for representing space. I argue that ubiquitous stage technologies, such as doors, props, musical instruments, and curtains, were used to create a dynamic sense of location—both fictional locations within the represented action and the audience’s location within a specific theater structure. Scholarship on the early modern spatial imaginary has tended to focus on broader cultural changes in how English people understood the world around them, in part through the massive growth of London as an urban center, and in part through England’s burgeoning empire and increasing contact with the world beyond its shores. At the same time, theater scholars have increasingly emphasized the material conditions of theatrical production, including the composition of theatrical companies, the features of different theater buildings, and the nature of costumes and cosmetics. My research extends this theater historical work to show how the details of theatrical practice shaped perceptions of space, including the space of the theater itself as well as the rapidly expanding sense of both urban and global space outside the theater’s walls.

My chapters are organized around the different tools used to represent particular types of place, while also tracing a chronological development marked by both continuity and change. In part, this means looking back towards the theatrical traditions out of which this drama sprang, as when I show how the disposition of stage doors in Roman New Comedy or the use of props in medieval morality plays were redeployed by playwrights such as Ben Jonson or Thomas Dekker. I also argue for a more complex relationship than we have assumed between the spatial arrangements of the prewar Shakespearean stage and that of the Restoration. While the introduction of painted scenery is typically taken to mark a break in how space was represented onstage, I establish that playwrights in this era continued to experiment with many of the same spatial techniques used by their precursors in the prewar theaters. By carefully tracing how the same spatial tools – the movement of actors in and out of the doors, the management of discovery spaces, and the positioning of musicians and sound machines – continued to be used alongside the painted scenery, I help us see more clearly how those tools were already active in shaping the perception of theatrical space in the pre-1642 theaters.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Howard, Jean E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 5, 2019