From ‘Wooden O’ to ‘A Dream Made Concrete’
: The Fall and Rise of the Open Stage in British Theatre Architecture from 1576 to 1976 and a little before and after

  • John Bush

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This Dissertation traces the history of the type of theatre that does not have a performance space that is separate from its audience – hereinafter described as an ‘open-stage’ theatre – and examines how this form of theatre has fluctuated in and out of fashion over the centuries but is now the dominant form in contemporary British theatre architecture. Following a Literature Review and outline of the research methodology, the development of the open stage is traced briefly from classical antiquity to the public and ‘private’ playhouses built in Elizabethan and Jacobean London. Theories concerning the origin of the Elizabethan playhouse are examined and it is concluded that there is some validity in the theory that London’s first public playhouses were predicated on early (but misguided) images of Roman theatres in the first illustrated editions of Vitruvius’s De architectura. The parallel development of the ‘Italianate’ proscenium-arch theatre is explored in relation to its influence upon later English theatres of the Restoration, which gradually began to adopt the features of their Italian and French cousins. The various forces that converged towards the end of the nineteenth century to end the dominance of the proscenium wall and its separation of the stage from the auditorium, are traced through the movement to ‘restore’ the Elizabethan stage, the growth of ‘Naturalism’ in the writing of drama, and experiments in directing and scenography, particularly in continental Europe. Despite the above developments, the advice being offered to architects and would-be theatre builders in Britain in the immediate post-war period was still in favour of building theatres with a stage and auditorium joined (or separated) by a proscenium opening, and the reasons for this are discussed in detail in Chapter 5.Chapter 6 outlines the ‘catalysts for change’, including the influence of particular events, individuals, and organisations – and changing public attitudes – that resulted in the building of a new generation of theatres with more ’open’ stages and auditoria of various types, the more important of which are described in Chapter 7. In conclusion, the path of these developments is summarised, and conclusions are reached about the reasons for the endurance of the open stage, and observations are made upon the effects of societal changes on the physical form of theatre architecture during the study period.
Date of Award9 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorYun Gao (Main Supervisor)

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