Elizabethan Theater and the Hollywood Studio System

You don’t often hear Shakespeare and Hollywood mentioned in the same breath, but there is a stark similarity between the way Hollywood began and operated for decades and the way that Elizabethan theater transformed the world of drama. It is also notable that the breakdown of the repertory theater system as the foundation of drama in exchange for the blockbuster mentality mirrors what happened to Hollywood after the collapse of the studio system.

The classic Hollywood studio system that existed from the 1920’s to the early 1960’s essentially operating like a factory churning out any other product. Clark Cable worked for MGM and Jimmy Cagney worked for Warner Brothers which is why you never saw them on the screen together. (Unless you look really closely during Mutiny on the Bounty and spot Cagney as an extra in a crowd scene.) Oh sure, occasionally one studio would lend an actor out to another studio, but basically the guys employed by Columbia never acted alongside the guys employed by Paramount. The studio system churned out movies by the busload, essentially completely a different movie nearly every day.

The breadth of topics of the movies during the studio system make today’s movies look like one trick ponies. Likewise, during the Elizabethan period plays covered a wide gamut. Most people are only familiar with the works of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe but in fact there were hundreds of dramatists producing thousands of plays, most of which have been lost to antiquity. In fact, there were more plays to put on than actors to populate them.

This created the repertory system in which a single theater, The Globe being just one of them, employed not only a stable of actors, but also scenic designers and costumers not unlike the way the Hollywood studios did. Although the star system was not really analogous to what took place in Elizabethan drama, there are other parallels. There were popular actors who excelled in certain roles, for instance. So while John Wayne fulfilled a need to play a tough western or war movie star, virtually playing the same character over and over again, during Elizabethan times there were also actors who were always called upon to play the slapstick role or the villain or the romantic lead. (Needless to remind you, the biggest difference between Hollywood studio’s system and Elizabethan repertory was that Shakespeare couldn’t call upon the equivalent of Greta Garbo; no women allowed.)

While there were some Elizabethan actors who were stereotyped in this way, most of them were called upon to play a variety of roles. This versatility is reflected not just in the character actors who excelled during the Hollywood studio system, but even most of the stars. Gable might be called upon to play screwball comedy in one movie, a pirate in the next, a gangster in the next, and a tender leading man in the next. As for Jimmy Cagney, well, he might be a cold-blooded gangster smashing a grapefruit into a Mae Clark’s face in one movie, dancing up a storm in a showbiz musical the next, and playing Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Comedy the next.

Elizabethan theater and Hollywood might appear at first glance to be separated by more than just three or four centuries, but in fact the similarities are more striking than the contrasts.