Stage Directions and the Theater Historian

Alan C. Dessen

in The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre

Published in print October 2011 | ISBN: 9780199697861
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks of Literature

 Stage Directions and the Theater Historian

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  • Literature
  • Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)
  • Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights)


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A stage direction can be detailed and evocative, as with accounts of dumb shows, a few battle scenes, or scenes involving special effects or pageantry. More typically, however, is direction that lacks specific details but instead invokes a formula where the implementation of the onstage effect is left to the players or to the imagination of a reader. Questions about origins are linked to the issue of provenance (place of origin, derivation). Similar questions pertain to chronology (when were a play and its theatrical signals composed?). Although the theatre historian cannot discount provenance and chronology, what needs stressing is the presence in the extant stage directions of a widely shared theatrical vocabulary, especially from the 1590s on. Next to consider are the different functions of stage directions. This article considers various concepts related to stage direction, including traffic control (getting actors and properties on and off the stage), signals linked to the placement of the actors on the stage (an equivalent to the so-called blocking), and mid-scene entrances and exits.

Keywords: stage direction; provenance; chronology; theatrical vocabulary; traffic control; stage; actors; entrances; exits; signals

Article.  8238 words. 

Subjects: Literature ; Literary Studies (1500 to 1800) ; Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights)

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