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Special Effects

Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Special Effects

“What stir is this? What tumult’s in the heavens?
Whence cometh this alarum and the noise?”
-Talbot, 1 Henry VI I.iv.98-99


Within the plays of William Shakespeare, the stage direction for an “alarum” or a call to battle appears ninety-one times; and “excursions,” or bouts of fighting, is seen twenty-one times.[1] The frequency of such commands is indicative of the popularity of stage combat, stirring action, and a certain amount of technical wizardry in early modern English theater. Spectacle was most likely appreciated by all members of an audience, groundlings and lords alike. Yet it is uncertain to what extent these technical aspects of an early modern production were rehearsed or perfected before being put to the test in a performance.

Clearly, the technical aspects of early modern shows added a volatile element to the theater which was already an unpredictable setting. The disastrous results of a probable lack of technical rehearsal can be seen in the burning of the Globe in 1613, during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, or All is True. The incident was recorded by Englishman Sir Henry Wotton, a witness to the event, who wrote:

Now, King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain Chambers [small pieces of ordnance] being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoak, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less then an hour the whole house to the very grounds.[2]

Elizabethan cannon; an illustration from the 1588 treatise, Three bookes of colloquies concerning the arte of shooting in great and small peeces of artillerie

Such a calamity shows how susceptible these wooden structures were to gunpowder, fireworks and cannons. It is also possible that this was the first complete performance of Henry VIII, which might have meant that there had been no prior technical rehearsal. If this was the case, this performance would have been the first time that the cannon had ever been used in the show. Luckily, no one was injured in the fire, although, according to Wotton, “one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle Ale.”[3]

While this scenario ended badly Shakespeare’s company, many sophisticated special effects were used in theaters to create a spectacle on stage, particularly during fight scenes and storms. Henslowe’s Diary lists “j chain of dragons; j gilt speare,” a “dragon in fostes” and a “hell mought” among its inventory,[4] and a cannon ball was found during the excavation of the Rose Theater by the London Museum of Archeology.[5] The most common form of special effect used throughout Shakespeare’s plays and those of his contemporaries, was a squib. This “normally consisted of a A fire-drake from John Bate, The Mysteries of Nature and Art (1634) strengthened-paper tube or coffin and contained two kinds of mixtures: roughly two thirds of the coffin contain slow composition or mealed powder and smaller section of the tube help corned powder which provided the final report.”[6] These were used to create shock and awe in the audience and would have been used as throughout various scenes. 

While the squib was the most basic form of special effect, other more advanced techniques were used throughout the theater. John Bate instructed people on how to make a fire lance in his The Mysteries of Nature and Art: “you must fill diverse cans open at both ends (and of a foot long or more, or less, as you think fit) with a slow composition, and bind them upon a staff of four or five foot long: prime them so that one being ended, another may begin: you may prime them with a stouple or match (prepared as before) make an oiser basket about it with a hole in the very top to fire it by, and it is done.”[7] These fire lances could be used as torches during night scenes.

Rockets, cannons with gunpowder, cannon balls, fireworks, smoke and squibs were all used as part of the performances in early modern theaters. A fire-drake, consisting of an apparatus where a dragon runs along a stretched rope as fireworks discharge, might even have been used. In Henry VIII a man with a red face is called “a fire-drake” and they were already being used for coronation celebrations at this time (V.iii.44).
John Melton recorded the use of special effects when he went to “see the Tragedie of Doctor Faustus. There indeed a man may behold shagghayr’d in the Tyringe house, and the twelve penny hirelings make artificial Lightning in the Heavens.”[8] Lightning would have been produced by stringing lightning rods from the tiring house to the pillars and setting off small fireworks on them. Thunder was usually made through a combination of rolling a cannon ball on a metal sheet and playing the drums to create a loud effect. Melton’s comments demonstrate that special effects were used on the early modern English stage.

The special effects that were being used on stage were realistic to early modern playgoers. In fact, some people even believed they were the work of the devil, put on stage through the use of magic and witchcraft. In attempts to dispel this myth, Reginald Scot wrote The Discovery of Witchcraft, in which he described how various special effects were produced so that people did not believe that witchcraft on occurring before them on stage. Instructing people on how “to cut off one’s head and to lay it in a platter,” he wrote, “To shew a most notable execution by this Art, you must cause a boord, a cloth, and a platter to be purposely made, and in each of them holes fit for a bodies neck.

The boord must be made of two planks, the longer and broader the better: there must be left within half a yard of the end of each plank half a hole; so as both the planks being thrust together, there may remain two holes, like to the holes in a pair of Stocks; there must be made likewise a hole in the Tablecloth or Carpet. A Platter also must be set directly over or upon one of them, having a hole in the middle thereof, of the like quantity, and also a piece cut out of the same, so big as his neck, through which his head may be conveyed into the midst of the platter; and then sitting or kneeling under the boord, let the head only remain upon the boord in the same. […]

‘To cut off one’s head’ in Scot’s
Discovery of Witchcraft (1584)

This is commonly practiced with a boy instructed for that purpose, who being familiar and conversant with the company, may be known as well by his face, as by his Apparel. In the other end of the Table, where the like hole is made, another boy of the bigness of the known boy must be placed, having upon him his usual Apparel; he must lean or lie upon the boord, and must put his head under the boord through the said hole, so as his body
shall seem to lie on the one end of the boord, and his head shall lie in a platter on the other end.”[9] The detail with which Scot explains this effect and the fact that the notes that it will “astonish” the audience, demonstrates the spectacle of special effects at this time. While this trick might seem tedious to a modern audience, it is clear from the description that it fascinated early modern theatergoers.

The quality and quantity of special effects often depended on the venue. Plays written for indoor spaces, such as Blackfriars, contained far fewer technical effects, since, according to author Andrew Gurr, these “indoor venues were not congenial to the use of fireworks attached to stage devils, nor the loud musical instruments and swords clashing on shields used in battle scenes.” Plays written specifically for Blackfriars, such as The Tempest, contain little in the way of fights or fireworks. The more subdued stage action in these shows was appropriate for a space which was not designed as a theater, and therefore, a technical rehearsal for such a show would have been neither a necessity nor a priority.[10]

No matter what type of play – history, comedy, tragedy – rehearsal time in early modern theater was severely limited, and group preparation was a luxury, not a requirement. Working within such time constraints would have prevented companies from devoting as much time to technical effects as they likely needed. With the introduction of purpose-built playhouses in 1576 with the Theater, acting companies were able to expand their technical repertoire in a way that had not been previously possible when traveling from place to place, performing in inns or private homes. Additions like the “Hell” below stage and the “Heavens” above stage provided new spaces for entrances and exits, while curtained-off areas behind the stage provided a place for the preparation of special effects.[11]

Scholar Bruce Smith has argued that “the Southbank amphitheaters were, in fact, instruments for producing, shaping and propagating sound”[12] particularly with their heavy use of oak and its reverberate properties. Given the volume that fireworks and cannons emit, the theater would most likely have produced sounds that were considered very loud to Elizabethans, who were not used to the sounds of planes and machinery as we are today. In addition to these sounds, many of these special effects would have produced an odor of gunpowder or dung (as feces were sometimes even used for burning), providing the early modern theatergoer with a multi-sensory experience while watching a play.

Links to the ASC 

There is not as much evidence for fireworks and squibs being used in the indoor theaters during Shakespeare’s day, as these venues were smaller and less rowdy spaces. The ASC continues in the traditions of Shakespeare’s company by employing sound effects to heighten the drama and spectacle of battle scenes.

As it was in the world of early modern theater, actors at the American Shakespeare Center must decide on the amount of technical rehearsal necessary for shows being produced in a given season. According to them, plays such as the Henry VI trilogy, produced by the ASC as part of their series “The Histories: The Rise and Fall of Kings,” call on a particular level of early modern theater experience. Actor Sarah Fallon stated that technical rehearsals are a necessity for the history plays because of the various sound effects and battles occuring in each. Indeed, due to the amount of what Mary Baldwin College professor Paul Menzer terms “carnage and cutlery” in each of these plays (combat, alarums, excursions, etc.), technical rehearsals are imperative when staging them. Furthermore, the ASC operates with a fairly small ensemble of actors, in the same way that early modern troupes did, so the actors and not a backstage crew are solely responsible for creating the necessary technical effects. This means that, as actor Tyler Moss puts it, “there is no down time [during the show]; you’re always working.” Indeed, a history play like 3 Henry VI, with its abundance of stage action, becomes a true ensemble piece both onstage and off, with weapons being handed on and off stage during entrances and exits. This level of requisite inventiveness draws a direct parallel with that same ingenuity required of members of Shakespeare’s own troupe.

[1] Statistics from .
[2] Sir Henry Wotton, from a letter to Sir Edmund Bacon, July 2, 1613, quoted in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 1842-1843. 
[3] Wotton, 1843.
[4] Philip Henslowe, Henslowe’s Diary: Second Edition, ed. R.A. Foakes (Cambridge: UK, Cambridge University Press, 2002), 320-2. 
[5] Julian Bowsher and Pat Miller, The Rose and the Globe: Playhouses of Tudor Bankside, Southwark Excavations 1988-91 (London: Museum of London Archaeology Service, 2009). 
[6] Phillip Butterworth, Theater of Fire (London: Society for Theater Research, 1998), 23. 
[7] John Bate, The Mysteries of Nature and Art London (London: Thomas Harper for Ralph Mabb, 1635). 
[8] John Melton in Astrolagaster (1620), sig. E4r. 
[9] Reginald Scot, Discovery of Witchcraft (London: Andrew Clarke, 
[10] Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa, Staging in Shakespeare’s Theaters (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 38.
[11] C. Walter Hodges, Enter the Whole Army: A Pictorial Study of Shakespearean Staging, 1576-1616 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 16-19.
[12] Bruce Smith, The Acoustic World of Early of Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 206.

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