The Elizabethan audience was a warm and enthusiastic kind drawn from people of all classes – the court, the middle – class gallants and their ladies, as well as the working class or the groundlings. Vargas notes that the Elizabeth audience was made up of people for who “playgoing had become a passion”. He further remarks that “Even frequent showers of choice English rain (for these playhouses had no roof) could not dampen the arduous of the Elizabethan playgoers”.
On the nature of the personalities and tastes of this lively and interesting audience, Downer (1950: 70) posits:
Although the larger portion of the audience was made up of the lower income groups, shopkeepers and craftsmen, the other classes were by no means unrepresented. The nobility came and occasionally rented stools on the stage to the annoyance of the spectators but to the profit of the managers. Respectful ladies were plentiful as well as the less respectable. Prentices and students mingled freely with the pick – pockets and nut – sellers. But in the main, the audience was middle – class, young (it required stamina to stand throughout a play), and respectable. Riots and crimes might occasionally be perpetrated in the theaters, and common vice make its appearance, but with less frequency than in other public gatherings. The child of a violent age, these audiences were pleased with violent delights, yet their taste was catholic. They enjoyed the bloody and bawdy, dueling and tumbler’s tricks, but they had also an incomparable ear for verse, an intellectual delight in word play, and a sympathetic reaction to spiritual suffering or exaltation.
The multiplicity of the composition of the Elizabethan audience which informs the diversity of its taste may have posed enormous task for the playwrights. Alan Downer is of the view that “the variety of the backgrounds, classes of intellectual levels in the Elizabethan audience was both a challenge to the playwrights and an unmatched opportunity for them”.
Restoration, 18th Century, and Victorian Audiences
The Restoration drama was a courtly affair, with a narrow and notorious audience. Every theatre historian appears to recognise and point this out. For example, MacGowan and Melnitz (1955: 220) express that:
Restoration comedy was written about and for a small and effete circle of Londoners – wits, rakes, and ladies of frailty. It was a decadent society that paid to see its vanities and vices paraded on the stage… instead of pleasing and profiting from a full and hearty audience such as Shakespeare knew, the restoration theater lived by and for the bemused playgoers of a fool’s paradise.
The meaning of the above is that the public was excluded from the drama of the period. The passions of the morally depraved gallants failed to appeal to the common people and most of them had to shun the theatre. With respect to the bawdy nature of this audience, Downer (1950: 193) writes:
Shadwell, in The Virtuoso (1676), describes the spectators who “come drunk and screaming into the playhouse, and stand upon the benches, and toss their full periwigs and empty heads, and with their shrill, unbroken voices cry, “Damme, this is a damn’d play”.
The theatre audience was a noisy type and because it composed mainly of aristocrats and the wealthy ones, the peace officers stationed at the auditorium found it extremely difficult to maintain order. In fact, as Downer observes, it took the efforts of outstanding performers like Thomas Betterton to “still the quarrelsome, exhibitionistic gentlemen and raucous cries of orange Moll and the girls who assisted her hawking the fruit which had replaced nuts as playhouse refreshment”.
However, Avery and Scouten (1973: 445) argue that the “Restoration audience was not of a single complexion”. They opine that “the range of social classes, professions, and cultural attainment was fairly great, and the taste of the spectators as well as their motives in attending the playhouses varied considerably”. It is on record that King Charles II and his noble men as well as a handful of intellectual attended performances regularly, yet it is widely accepted that in spite of the presence of an attentive group, the audience was actually dominated by a “disturbing breed”. Of this, Avery and Scouten comment:
The satirists strike at characteristics of audiences lamented by all players and playwrights: their inability to be quiet, to lend full attention to the play, and to subordinate their personal interests to the serious aims of authors and actors.
The above, notwithstanding, Brockett and Hildy (1999: 261) identify a kind of rapport between the actors and members of the audience. This has to do with instant arbitration by the audience on matters affecting performance. According them:
The relationships between audience and performers were close. Actors often took their grievances to the spectators, who sometimes refused to let performances proceed until explanations from alleged offenders were forthcoming. Riots precipitated by changes in casting, in the evening’s bill, or well – established costumes, were not uncommon. Thus, spectators believed firmly in their rights and did not hesitate to exert their power to correct any grievance, actual or supposed.
The 18th and 19th centuries were periods of a mixed-grill in terms of audience formation. By the end of the Restoration period, the aristocratic hold on the drama began to loosen. Drama of sense and sensibility ushered in by the 18th century paved way for a wider audience, “An audience not of gallants only but of citizens, merchants, and the rising middle class elements of English society” (Vargas, p.136). When the dramatic sensibility of the Captains of industries replaced the looseness and obscenities of the Restoration drama, the people thronged to the theatre. Vargas is of the opinion that the sentimental comedy of the period ensured that “Audiences were more in favour of shedding well – bred tear over the sufferings of a virtuous hero than of savouring a well – turned epigram or being amused by a satirical picture of the follies of the town”.
During the Victorian age, melodrama, farce, and extravaganza, “were pressed into service to dazzle the groundlings” (Vargas, p.158). Although enjoyed actually by a cross-section of society, these forms of drama, especially, the melodrama became a world of escape for the workers. The reason for this has already been explained elsewhere in the fourth module.