Performing words #8: playhouse

This week Sony have relaunched the original Playstation, a game console first released in 1994. The Playstation entered a busy market for such consoles, dominated by the Nintendo-Sega duopoly, a market the Playstation changed forever by its experiments with technology, storytelling and a potential new demographic for gaming. But the Playstation is important for our purposes because its name is essentially the same as ‘playhouse’, the Elizabethan word for a theatre. Since both ‘house’ and ‘station’ mean ‘place’, both Playstation and playhouses offered spaces for play.

Scholars have tended to think of early modern playhouses in terms of large, outdoor, roofless buildings like the Globe itself. Indoor playhouses such as St Paul’s and Blackfriars and the inn playhouses such as the Bell and the Bull are rarely as visible in theatre history conversations. The word ‘house’ may be causing difficulty here, since its conventional meaning in modern English is ‘a building for habitation’, as The Oxford English Dictionary puts it. But the OED‘s second meaning for the word is a ‘portion of a building’. The room in which the first Blackfriars was built was already called a ‘house’ in legal records, a reminder that the word had the same meaning in conventional early modern English as it does in less common parts of modern English, such as when an actors asks the box office front-of-house manager what the house looks like tonight. In such expressions a house is the portion of the building where performance takes place.

The Playstation analogy asks us to think again about the word ‘play’ too. Though modern English tends to reserve ‘play’, as a noun, for theatrical entertainment, in early modern English the word was diverse in its forms and implications. Records regularly show us Tudor audiences attending plays that turn out to be tennis or bowling competitions. The 1586 precept ‘Against playing of interludes and bowling’ shows is that these two pursuits were part of a continuum, just as bowling alleys now are often found next to cinema multiplexes. Thus a ‘playhouse’ is a space, of any architectural form, for play, of any recreational form. Though we think of them as playhouses in the narrow modern sense, places like the Curtain and the Blackfriars allowed you to combine or choose between theatrical performance, bowling, gambling, tennis and fencing.

The Playstation, too, sold itself as a place where you could play games, listen to music or watch TV, even as it also drove innovation in the kinds of stories games might tell, the way that they might look and the audiences they might reach. For those of us who think of the Playstation as a relatively new technology, this throws into relief how brief the life of an Elizabethan playhouse was. The Playstation is three years older than London’s modern Globe, but the modern Globe is now almost twice as old as the building it looks back to. What might this tell us about how old or new the playhouses felt to those who frequented them?

Andy Kesson

2 thoughts on “Performing words #8: playhouse

  1. Pingback: Christmas, Newyeares tyde: A summary of works done and attendance given, 2018 | Before Shakespeare

  2. Pingback: Martin the Minstrel and the Playhouses of Suffolk – Middling Culture

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