Praising the Proscenium

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I followed up my recent blog about the tension between thrust (and open) stages and proscenium arch theatres with a longer article published in The Stage today making basically the same points. Then, perhaps immodestly, I mentioned my article in a tweet. To my great surprise this provoked a reference to a well-argued Guardian blog published only three days ago by Dan Rebellato, a playwright and lecturer in Drama at Royal Holloway College, which makes very much the same point.

Headed ‘What’s so wrong with proscenium arch theatre?’ it takes issue with three basic points: these are accusations that ‘the proscenium arch was designed for a theatre based on lavish illusion, which we no longer have the taste for. Second, that it embodies a middle-class set of social and cultural behaviours, normalised as the unwritten rules of How To Watch Theatre. Third, that it promotes passivity – which today’s audiences, used to interactivity and with shorter attention spans, will not tolerate.’ Refuting each of these points of view, Rebellato, like me, concludes that ‘The proscenium, with its vertically stacked audiences and focused eyelines, creates conditions for potent, simultaneous collective experiences as much as any other performance configuration.’ Also like me he does not dogmatically assert that no other form of auditorium is acceptable. But his article should remind readers that virtually all great theatrical performances – and productions not only of Shakespeare but of all other playwrights from 1642 to the 1950s – took place in proscenium arch playhouses. These are the buildings in which Betterton and Garrick, Siddons, Kemble and Kean, Phelps, Irving and Terry, Evans and Ashcroft, Gielgud and Olivier had their triumphs. The playhouses varied in their configuration. In the early nineteenth century, partly under the influence of the Patent Theatres Act, Drury Lane and Covent Garden became too large, provoking a move (which necessitated a change in the law) towards the building of small auditoria, such as Sadler’s Wells, the Princess’s, the Old Vic, and many others.

Similarly during the past half century playhouses influenced by the move away from the proscenium have by no means followed the same pattern. Though the stage of the Globe is open, it is not a thrust like that in the Courtyard. The Olivier is closer to the Globe than to what we can expect to see when the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre opens. And the designers of the National had the wisdom and the breadth of vision to include three differently designed auditoria – the Olivier, the Lyttleton, and the Cottesloe – within their complex. In arguing that the proscenium arch still has its uses, I am asking for an undogmatic acceptance of the merits of diversity.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • http://www.offbook.blogspot.com Ty Unglebower

    Nicely said.

    I am an actor, and have performed in various (though obviously not all) forms of staging. The proscenium arch remains my favorite.

    But what of that? I see no reason why so much umbrage is taken at any given type of staging by so many people. To dismiss one way as bourgeoise and claim another is somehow more democratic or modern? Silly distraction, if you ask me.

    Theatre is a virtually limitless medium. Those who prefer to watch as well as perform on any of the different kinds of staging should have no trouble finding room under its umbrella.

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