Performing words #7: permanent

I’m afraid this blog post will seem especially pedantic and churlish, because it is about the unexpected embedding of a strange word in conversations about early modern theatre history: the word ‘permanent’. Theatre history tends to distinguish between playhouses it considers permanent, and those it considers impermanent, despite the fact that no Elizabethan, Jacobean or Caroline playhouse survived longer than a couple of generations at most. We do call some other impermanent things permanent: the perm, for example, is in fact a more temporary and negotiable haircut than its name suggests. This post aims to deperm early modern studies.

Theatre historians have tended to be clear that some playing spaces were permanent, and some were not, and that the former started to appear in the 1570s. Andrew Gurr’s work has been instrumental for many working in theatre history, and repeatedly invokes the word ‘permanent’, writing of the 1570s as the period when ‘players [could] afford to invest in permanent playhouses’ (Shakespearean Stage, 3rd ed., p. 9). For more recent examples, we can see Bart van Es write that ‘The Theatre is generally credited as the first permanent purpose-built structure for performance but […] there had been earlier theatrical constructions’ (Shakespeare in Company, p. 1), or Elizabeth Zeman Kolkovich write of ‘the Theatre, the first permanent outdoor playhouse’ (Elizabethan Country House Entertainment, p. 12).

This language can also be found in scholarship on European theatre more generally, which may well be taking its cue from discourse around the London playhouses. Thus Ronnie Ferguson tentatively suggests that Italy ‘may’ have had ‘the first “permanent” indoor theatre in modern times’, referring to the Ferrara teatrino. Since this opened in 1530 and burnt down in 1531 this requires an even more relaxed definition of the word ‘permanent’ than that used in discussions of English theatre (‘Staging scripted comedy’, in Richardson, Gilson and Keen, Theatre, Open and Performance in Italy, p. 40). Ivan Cañadas suggests that London and Spanish playhouses from the 1570s onwards were characterised by something he calls ‘permanent playing’, which sounds exhausting (Public Theater, p. 8).

The word has got deep into the compositional bloodstream of early modern scholarship, and since I am quoting other people I should acknowledge that an especially mishap-prone scholar also found himself referring to ‘early commercial drama in permanent playhouses’ as well as to ‘London’s first permanent and purpose-built playhouse’ in what is an otherwise I feel certain probably quite adequate book (John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship, pp. 4 and 20).

All of these writers are employing the conventionally accepted terminology, and my intent is not to call out individual scholars for it, but to point instead to how widely this word is used. For a profession that prides itself on and defines itself by semantic precision, it seems strange to call any building permanent, least of all an architectural form with such a specific and well-defined historical lifespan. If these buildings are permanent, I’m tempted to ask, why aren’t they still here? Would we describe the Egyptian pyramids as permanent? That funny castle they insist on building at every Disneyland? Or the Millennium Dome? All of these buildings, and particularly the pyramids, have been around a lot longer than most early modern playhouses. Why do we call the latter permanent? Given how far it is from an obvious architectural term, we might ask what discursive or canonical work it is doing in our scholarship.

Though van Es and Kolkovich both describe the Theatre as the first permanent playhouse, our project would instead count the Theatre as somewhere between the fourth and the ninth playhouse in Elizabethan London. Indeed the sheer range of uncertainty encoded in its numerical position tells us much about how little we know about the history of these spaces. But wherever you place the Theatre in a history of playhouses, I’m not sure our profession has ever asked what makes one kind of building permanent and others impermanent. To return to van Es’ formulation, what is the difference between structural permanence and ‘earlier theatrical constructions’? What is it about the one-year old Ferrara teatrino that makes Ferguson want to suggest it as ‘permanent’? If these scholars aim to capture something about their owners’ intentions, what does it mean to assume that previous playhouse builders inscribed impermanence into their business plans?

One way to understand scholarly investment in this strange word is to turn to a core resource for our project, English Professional Theatre, a collection of documents on the London playhouses edited by Herbert Berry, William Ingram and Glynne Wickham. Just occasionally, it is possible to see tensions between the import of individual documents and the things that the book’s editors want them to say, particularly where the Theatre’s primary is concerned. So at one point in this book, Herbert Berry concedes that the Theatre was not the first playhouse, but then adds,

But if cost, size, permanence and influence are important, one can probably still think of Burbage’s building as the first playhouse[.]

This appears to be an example of a fine scholar pushing a firmly entrenched idea so far as to expose the tenuousness of its logic. It isn’t clear to me how any of the things that Berry lists magically makes a building earlier than those that preceded it.

The word “permanent” presumably entered scholarly discourse in an attempt to identify the novelty of longterm spaces set aside for performance, in distinction to the more occasional forms of playing available elsewhere in English theatrical culture. But it is an oddly unwieldy, even architecturally meaningless term. No playhouse was open for more than 48 years, and even this playhouse, the Curtain, was considered by contemporaries in 1611 to be defunct, and so its apparent longevity seems to disguise periods of disuse. The Curtain in any case never had a long-term occupancy from a single theatre company, and may therefore have been dark for periods of time. The Swan, on the other hand, is often held up by theatre historians as the epitome of the permanent playhouse, and even contemporaries singled it out as the most magnificent. It was a regular performance space for only nine years, and they weren’t even consecutive years: from 1596 to 1598, 1610 to 1614 and 1620 to 1621. It was only ever open for a maximum of four consecutive years. This permanent playhouse was only permanent in short intervals, which seems an unusual form of permanence.

Leaving aside the years in which they were open, these buildings felt temporary. One of the major reasons the City cited for closing them down was their liability, and indeed tendency, to collapse, “the peril of ruins of so weak buildings;” “sondry slaughters and mayheminges” occasioned by the “ruynes of Skaffoldes fframes and Stages.” For this reason, the authorities considered them very easy to pluck down, and proposed doing so in 1597. When we remember that one so-called permanent playhouse, the Theatre, was dismantled, moved and repurposed as the Globe, we remember one aspect of its impermanence. When we recall that the modern Globe has been open longer than the playhouse on which it is based, we remember another. Statistically, empirically and phenomenologically, these buildings were no more permanent than any other, and considerably more impermanent than most.

It is worth dwelling on this issue because theatre historians have been remarkably relaxed about the temporal import of the word ‘permanent’, whilst also using it to exclude certain playing spaces from their accounts. The universal scholarly reflex to call some playhouses permanent is doing some serious canonical work, shaping the kinds of narratives we’d like to hear, but it doesn’t accurately represent historical experience. Rather than segregate the outdoor playhouses from their indoor and inn counterparts, we might instead attend to the way these different kind of spaces opened over the same years, which promises to tell us much about theatrical culture in this period. The association of permanent playhouses with the 1570s also masks the fact that playhouses in this period had little or no longterm relationship with individual playing companies. Companies playing at London playhouses were no less on tour than when they travelled around the rest of the country: for the most part, they were simply touring across the capital.

Playhouses have been described as permanent for perhaps longer than they deserve, and I feel bad announcing their impermanence now, but let’s face it, as permanence goes, theirs did not last very long. Above all, the decision to call a playhouse permanent is really a statement about which playhouses scholarship cares about. It is an act of canonising, of declaring which playhouses and which kinds of playhouse matter. By avoiding the kind of thinking that sees some playhouses as more playhousey than others, a fuller reconstruction of the experience of theatrical culture can be achieved.

Andy Kesson



2 thoughts on “Performing words #7: permanent

  1. I wonder if another way to look at this is to think about other uses for the spaces. “Permanent” might suggest not that the playhouses themselves outlasted time (if that’s your criterion, oh Ozymandias, then we need to strike “permanent” from the dictionary) but that they were put to no other use than as playhouses (that is, they were “permanently playhouses” rather than “permanent playhouses”). But as you and many others have shown, most were not even that: unless we consider fencing exhibitions, debates, etc., to be in the same category as plays. Do we? Maybe: there does seem to me to be a categorical difference between a space designed and built to offer only the opportunity for spectatorship and a space that was built for another purpose but that could also be used as a spectator-space. (Probably this all comes back to my obsession with thinking about spectating rather than about playing.)

    And for that matter, was there a difference in how early modern playgoers thought about these spaces? Was there a difference between going to see a play at an inn and going to see one at the Theatre? I don’t know how we’d prove there was, other than by analogy: there certainly is, now, a difference between going to see a play in the RST and seeing one performed in Holy Trinity church, no? The dedication of a space for a certain purpose does condition how an audience responds to the use of that space. Maybe this isn’t an issue before the 1570s, but once these so-called permanent theatres are built, mightn’t the distinction matter?


  2. Thanks so much for the response! I’m suggesting less that we strike the word from the dictionary, but that we notice its ubiquity in our discourse. And yes, all three kinds of playhouse space (outdoor, indoor and inns) seem to allow for multipurpose use. So none of them are in that sense ‘permanent’ playhouses either.

    See my earlier posts in this series for your other questions, where you’ll see evidence that not only playgoers but also performers thought differently about different kinds of spaces. But that evidence is at least as likely to suggest that it’s the inns, not the Theatre, which are the sought-after or notorious locations. So yes, we have evidence for the perception of difference, but that evidence doesn’t map exactly onto your very interesting analogy of the RST and Holy Trinity Church.



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