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A common feature of theatres and even television studios throughout the Anglophone world is the green room, defined as "a room in a theatre provided for the accommodation of actors and actresses when not required on the stage. . . ,"[1] but whence came the term? Several explanations have been offered, adding to the confusion of scholars and non-specialists alike. Some of them, seemingly reasonable, lack proof; others, largely fanciful, are wholly insupportable. Of the latter type, several examples will suffice.

"The greenroom took its name from the fact that its walls were often painted green to rest the eyes of actors after exposure to bright stage lights,"[2] a notion echoed by Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions[3] and the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins.[4] A more venerable source of this peculiar notion than these is Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which reports, "Originally such rooms were painted green to relieve the eyes from the glare of the stage."[5] This whole line of inquiry, however, is mooted by the fact that the term "green room" is of seventeenth-century provenance.[6]Actors left the green rooms of that day to enter stages illuminated by candles or oil lamps. The intensity of stage lighting in the seventeenth century was considerably less than that of the twentieth, or even the soft glow of nineteenth-century gaslight, so the attendant effect on actors' eyes was correspondingly less injurious.

Although it cannot be denied that as a color, green is generally restful to the eyes, there surely is no connection between the choice of that color and the glare of stage lights.[7] The origin of the green room lies rather in the history of English theatrical architecture and perhaps in the transformation of the tiring room into the scene room and/or green room.

The first public playhouse erected in London seems to have been the Red Lion (1567), about which little is known. It is likely, however, that this theatre, like its immediate successors such as the Globe, had a tiring house (or room), a place in which the actors donned their costumes (attire) and awaited their calls to the stage. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing if tiring rooms were hung or carpeted with green cloth at this early date.

If they were, one may hazard a guess that the choice of the color green may be related to the livery worn by members of one of the professional companies that after 1572 were required by law to be patronized by members of the nobility. Actors, therefore, on special occasions wore the liveries, identifiable primarily by color, of the Lord Chamberlain (George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon), the Lord Admiral (Lord Charles Howard), the Earl of Leicester (Robert Dudley), the Earl of Derby (Ferdinando Stanley), the Earl of Pembroke (William Herbert), and others.

On 23 July 1661 when only members of the Royal Family were permitted to keep theatrical troupes, the Lord Chamberlain issued an order to provide "foure yards of Bastard Scarlett for a Cloake. . . and a quarter of a yard of Crimson Velvett for the Cape of itt. . ." to certain members of the King's Men.[8] A similar allocation has not yet been located for the rival company, the patron of which was James, Duke of York. This provision of livery for actors was merely continuing a tradition dating from 1572, for in that year manager James Burbage (1530-97) addressed a letter to his patron in which he assured the Earl of Leicester that he did not "meane to crave any further stipend or benefite at your Lordshippes hands but our lyveries. . . ."[9]

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 5:1997 & Issue 6:1997, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.


The auditorium of the theatre in Brydges Street was lined in green baize, according to a French visitor.[24] The second Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was opened on 26 March 1674; some years later another Frenchman, Henri Misson, noted, ''The Pit is an Amphitheatre, fill'd with Benches without Backboards, and adorn'd and cover'd with green Cloth."[25]

That traditional green came to dominate the theatre is attested by Lawrence:


About the meridian of the eighteenth century no London theatre was reckoned complete without its green curtain, its special green boxes, its green baize carpet for its tragic heroes to die upon, or its green-coated stage attendants to come on at the end of a scene and remove the furniture.[26]

In summation, what can be said amidst the speculation about the origin of the green room? Solely and indisputably, green rooms were in use in London theatres in the last half of the seventeenth century and perhaps earlier. There seems to be no connection with continental European theatres where the equivalent of "green room" is foyer des artistes, Konversationszimmer, sala degli artisti, salón de artistas, artistenfoyer, and artistfoyer. Why were they green? No one yet knows for certain, but theatre artists undoubtedly will continue to honor the tradition of the green room despite their general ignorance of its history.




*Previously published in Proverbium, 9 (1992), pp. 31-36

  1. OED, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989). This venerable source errs by twenty-three years in citing the earliest reference to a green room: Colley Cibber's Love Makes Man (1701).

  2. William and Mary Morris, Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1988): 262.

  3. Alfred H. Holt, rev. ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1961 [1936]): 115.

  4. Robert Hendrickson, ed., (New York: Facts on File, 1987): 234.

  5. Rev. by Ivor H. Evans (London: Cassell, 1970): 488. Naturally the concern for the effect of the glare on the actors' eyes does not appear in anv of the nineteenth-century editions of this book, but it may be noted in the 1953 edition.

  6. Even as reliable a source as Joel Trapido et al., eds., An International Dictionary of Theatre Language (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985): 355 appears not to have perceived this fact.

  7. Charles Earle Funk and Charles Earle Funk, Jr., Horsefeathers and Other Curious Words (New York Perennial Llbrary, 1986 [1958]): 179-180 dismisses the glare theory on the authority of Sir St. Vincent Troubridge, a historian of the theatre.

  8. L. C. 7/1 and L. C./5/137. Quoted in Allardyce Nicoll, A History of English Drama 1660-1900, 4th ed., Restoration Drama: Vol. 1 (Carnbridge: Cambridge UP, 1952): 363.

  9. Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1647 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970): 20-21.

  10. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews (Berkeley: U of California P, 1970): II, 58.

  11. Montague Summers, The Restoration Theatre (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1934): 55.

  12. Eleanore Boswell, The Restoration Court Stage 1660-1702 (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966 [1932]): 18.

  13. Pepys VIII, 463.

  14. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Survey of London, Vol. V (London: Athlone Press, 1970); 31-32.

  15. Dramatic Miscellanies (Dublin, 1784); rept. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971): III, 273-274.

  16. Phyllis Hartnoll, The Oxford Companion to the Theatre, 4th ed. (London: Oxford UP, 1983): 352.

  17. The Complete Works of Thomas Shadwell, ed. Montague Summers (London: Fortune Press, 1927): III, 346.

  18. "Chapter 16: The Green Room," Old Theatre Days and Ways (London: George G. Harrap, 1935): 152-163.

  19. Theatre Tapestry (London: Jarrolds, 1978): 146.

  20. Nigel Rees, Why Do We Say . . ? (Poole, Eng.: Blandford Press, 1987): 183 repeats the nonsense about the green room and the glare of stage lighting but relates the expression "see you on the green" not with the green room but with rhyming slang ("greengage" = "stage").

  21. The Lord Steward was responsible for catering refreshments for the actor and providing fuel and candles for performances at Court, and much of this work was actually done by the Board of Green Cloth. One wonders if this green cloth was baize and if the theatrical companies conspicuously utilized the fabric as a means of currying favor with the monarch and his functionaries.

  22. Peter Thomson and Gamini Salgado, The Everyman Companion to the Theatre (London: J. M. Dent, 1985): 381.

  23. Boswell 15. Appendix E (pp. 300-302) lists orders by the Master of the Great Wardrobe to disburse funds for the purchase and installation of vast amounts of green baize stage carpeting.

  24. Balthasar de Monconys, Journal des Voyages de Monsieur de Monconys (Lyons, 1666): Pt. 2, 25-26.

  25. Quoted in Emmett L. Avery and Arthur H. Scouten, The London Stage 1660-1700: A Critical Introduction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1968): xli.

  26. Lawrence 152.

George B. Bryan
Department of Theatre
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405

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