Sarah Dustagheer exposes the innovation of The Tempest, Shakespeare’s ‘first’ play in two parts

Posted to General with 1 Comment on 14.11.12 by Harry Jelley

The Tempest: Shakespeare’s ‘first’ play – part 1
It is 1611.  You are sitting in the Blackfriars theatre, north of the river Thames, near the City walls.  It is a small hall space, very different from the large amphitheatres such as the Globe just across the river.  No need to worry about being rained on here.  You look around…as usual the audience have decided to come and show off the latest London fashion under the candlelight which lights the theatre: the auditorium shimmers and glitters with expensive materials and jewels.  Some of the wealthier women have used crushed pearl to paint their faces, as is the trend, and their skin glistens in the light.

The place is packed – every seat is filled and, unlike the Globe, there is no standing.  You have chosen one of the seats on stage – you don’t mind paying a little more to be close to the action!  Today the King’s Men perform a new play by their leading playwright, Shakespeare.  He’s written for the Blackfriars since 1609 when the company took over the venue: they use it for the winter and return to their longstanding home, the Globe, for the summer months.  But although Shakespeare has written other plays for this space, rumour has it that today’s play is the first to fully exploit the playing possibilities of the Blackfriars.  So you are looking forward to see what all the fuss is about.  The concert performed just before the play finishes – music works so well in this small indoor space, a whole range of instruments are played here that you just would not be able to hear at outdoor playhouses.  It is little wonder that so many playwrights like to use lots of music in their Blackfriars plays.  The sounds of the concert are still in your ears but, then, suddenly, rudely, this is disrupted – the loudest noise, thunder, lightning, you are in the midst of a storm….. The Tempest has begun

The Tempest: Shakespeare’s ‘first’ play – part 2
We often hear about The Tempest as Shakespeare’s last play – his goodbye to the stage, drowning books and breaking staff (the playwright’s pen).  Of course, this argument conveniently forgets that Shakespeare went on to write two more plays: Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, both collaborations with John Fletcher.   For me, Shakespeare is contemplating ending and loss in The Tempest, perhaps the end of his career.  But I also think that he was able to embody his plays with more than one idea, to occupy multiple positions. One of Shakespeare’s preoccupations in The Tempest was how to adapt his writing to the performance conditions of the Blackfriars playhouse.   His company had performed at the Globe from 1599 but in 1609 things changed: they acquired the Blackfriars and began performing in this new venue during the winter.  The new playhouse was a small, candlelit hall, with very favourable acoustics for music.  Its audiences included London’s social elite, who paid a minimum admission price of six pence – this was the highest ticket price at the Globe.  And, for the first time in the history of English theatre, this was an audience who paid more to sit closer to the stage.

The Tempest awards these higher paying members of the audience with regular and detailed, visual effects.  The play opens with a dramatic storm scene in which the Mariners appear in ‘wet’ clothes.  Later on King Alonso and his lords are presented with a banquet by ‘strange shapes [who] dance about it with gentle actions of salutations’.  The banquet is a prelude to another eye-grabbing moment: Ariel’s surprise entrance, dressed as a harpy.  Next, the marriage contract between Miranda and Ferdinand is celebrated by Juno who ‘descends’ from above the stage, a ‘majestic vision’ which impresses bridegroom Ferdinand. Characters are frequently in awe of the visions before them, potentially a reflection of the first audience’s response to a play they had paid more to see close up.

Under the candlelight, the wealthy audience flaunted their best jewellery and clothing: contemporary accounts describe those who ‘glistered’ and ‘glittered’ at the Blackfriars.  The Tempest showcases an array of detailed and decorated costume and in this way Shakespeare enabled his actors to create an onstage visual display to match the auditorium. The play includes Prospero’s ‘magic garment’, the ‘fresh’ and ‘newly-dyed’ garments of the shipwrecked nobles and, of course, Ariel dressed as a ‘harpy’.  Later on in the play, Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo are tricked by the ‘glistening apparel’ Ariel brings on.  It is highly likely that these did indeed ‘glisten’ in the theatre’s candlelight, along with the other costumes in The Tempest, matching the impressive fashions of the Blackfriars audience.

As well as appealing to the eye, The Tempest makes the most of the acoustic environment of the Blackfriars.  For a playhouse which suited a wide range of instrumentation, Shakespeare wrote his most musical play.  There is only one ‘silent’ scene in The Tempest (3.1); in every other scene music or sound effects are part of the onstage action. Music underscores moments of magic such as when the banquet appears, or when Prospero promises to break his staff.  Ariel’s magical ‘tabor and pipe’ unnerve Stephano and Trinculo, causing Caliban to inform them: ‘[t]he isle is full of noises,/Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’.  Shakespeare created an aural landscape for The Tempest’s island, making the most of the musical and sound effects possible indoors.

Some think of The Tempest as Shakespeare’s last play but, for me, it is a ‘first’ play – the first truly and specifically written for the environment of the Blackfriars.  After two years of the company’s residency at the indoor theatre, Shakespeare had developed a clear sense of what this playhouse demanded and in The Tempest he delivered just that.  Perhaps Shakespeare’s company also thought of The Tempest in terms of ‘firsts’.  Seven years after his death they chose to publish his collected works, known as the First Folio, and placed The Tempest as the first play in the collection.  In 1611, The Tempest really opened up a ‘brave new world’ of indoor performance for the King’s Men who performed at the Blackfriars until 1642.

  • David Stevens

    I enjoyed your article. To me the Tempest will always be one of my ‘firsts’ , that is one of my favourite plays. The production we have just been privileged to watch at the RST Stratford with Jonathan Slinger, Sandy Grierson, Emily Taafe, Felix Hayes, Bruce MacKinnon and Amer Hlhel etc etc as directed by David Farr is certainly up there as a ‘first’ and helping confirm that the use of the space for plays being put on at this outstanding and glorious theatre since the transformation will ensure that the RSC will be the first choice to go to the theatre for many of us for the foreseeable future.

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