Noises Off: Shakespeare and Special Effects

Monica Scroll

If you’ve spent a lot of time at the theater, you may have seen a huge range of sophistication and flash (sometimes literally) in effects. Some plays and stagings call for a veritable extravaganza (Phantom, anyone?) and some are spare and stark, requiring little more than actors.

April 23rd is believed by many to be both William Shakespeare’s birthday and death day (different years, obviously), so I thought this was an appropriate time to explore something I’ve wondered about before—what were stage effects like in Shakespeare’s day? It probably won’t surprise you to hear that actors and directors have been creative in their use of available materials, probably going back as far as there’s been theatre in any sense. Here are some ways Shakespeare’s actors brought his stories to life at the Globe Theatre:

Trapdoors! The Globe was designed with dramatic entrances and exits in mind, including unexpected appearances from the underworld and descents from the skies. To enable these effects, there were trapdoors in both the floor and ceiling of the Globe stage, allowing actors to pop in from above or below as needed. Of course, this involved harnesses and ropes if you were making an entrance from the Heavens, so it was probably a bit less nerve-wracking to haul yourself up from Hell.

Blood! There was a lot of this, as Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories outnumbered his comedies. A quote from the excellent Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead sums it up:

Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory. They’re all blood, you see.

Not all blood in reality, of course, but enough that effects using animal blood and organs were commonplace. This could range from a simple blood pack hidden on the actor’s person to a completely bloodied dummy that would replace the “dead” actor on a turntable.

Shakespeare Bottom.png

Historians can neither confirm nor deny the use of actual enchantments to achieve other animal-related effects in Shakespeare’s plays.

Fireworks! This was used for lightning bolts sometimes—a lit firecracker could be dropped along a wire stretched from ceiling to floor, the sparks simulating a bolt of lightning from the heavens. If this sounds dangerous to you, you have a healthy sense of self-preservation, because it was, especially given the noise and fumes that could result and the dodgy ventilation of the time. Other fire-related effects could be achieved somewhat less explosively by adding various powders to candle flames.

Cannons! Here there were a few different uses. Cannonballs were sometimes used for thunder effects, rolled back and forth inside a wooden box or across the floor of the aforementioned Heavens above the stage. There was also an actual cannon, which was not used in combination with the cannonballs but could provide some sound and fury, especially during those bloody histories.

The cannon effect of most enduring significance occurred during a performance of Henry VIII in 1613, which involved cannon fire that was represented without real cannonballs, but with real gunpowder. This literally brought down the house, if your definition of that includes “burning to the ground.” The Globe was rebuilt the next year, making this probably one of the most expensive special effects ever.

The technology of stage effects has improved considerably in the last four centuries, of course, but the simplest effects are still often the best choice. Some things, of course, remain beyond possibility—for instance, this note from the original radio scripts of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which would be challenging enough if it weren’t for a show that relies entirely on audio effects:

F/X: HUGE ARM SWEEPS DOWN AND PICKS THEM UP. THE MONSTER ROLLS HIS EYES WHICH TURN RED, GREEN, THEN A SORT OF MAUVY PINK. IT RUNS ITS TONGUE ROUND ITS LIPS, BLINKS A COUPLE OF TIMES AND THEN MENTALLY REGISTERS THAT IT HAS JUST REMEMBERED WHAT 10 ACROSS IN THE GALACTIC TIMES CROSSWORD WAS TODAY, MAKES A MENTAL NOTE TO WRITE IT IN WHEN IT’S NEXT GOT A COUPLE OF MINUTES

Clearly, working in theatre of any kind requires a healthy sense of fun and a certain disregard for personal risk. Three cheers for Shakespeare and all the others who wrote his plays and brought them to the stage!

[Here are a few quick reads on Shakespearean stage effects, and just for fun, a primer on the authorship question! I couldn’t resist joking about it, but most scholars think it isn’t the big deal some make it out to be.]

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