L’Enfer du Théatre

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For many working in old European theatres, like the few remaining Victorian theatres in the UK, the understage space is nicknamed ‘Hell’. It is a term that is becoming less common as understage spaces fall into disuse and is absent in theatres without an understage at all. The space beneath the stage has always been important technologically and scenographically, but its less well-documented associations with an infernal underworld have a cultural resonance that reaches far beyond the history of the Victorian wood stage. This article explores the idea of the understage as a space that, even when it is not present, has an important aesthetic role in the theatre with cultural and historical precedents to be found in ancient Greek, medieval and Elizabethan theatres as well as Japanese Kabuki. In theatre, ‘Hell’ is the space that sits between the materiality of a technical theatre history and the experience of scenography. It is a persistent theatrical reminder that whatever is shown to an audience is also masking something. This article explores the history of the origin of this space and how the acceptance and rejection of its presence have shaped and influenced theatre theory and performance for centuries.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7-20
Number of pages14
JournalPerformance Research
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2021


  • scenography
  • theatre history
  • technical theatre
  • theatre studies
  • performance

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