ON THE THEATRICAL ORIGIN OF THE
EXPRESSION "GREEN ROOM"
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. . .
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
"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
notion echoed by Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of
Familiar Expressions and the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase
Origins. 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." This whole line of inquiry, however, is mooted by the fact
that the term "green room" is of seventeenth-century
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. 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
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. 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. . . ."
The auditorium of the theatre in Brydges Street was lined
in green baize, according to a French
visitor. 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
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.
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
*Previously published in Proverbium, 9 (1992), pp. 31-36
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).
William and Mary Morris, Morris Dictionary of Word
and Phrase Origins, 2nd. ed. (New York: Harper and
Row, 1988): 262.
Alfred H. Holt, rev. ed. (New York: Dover
Publications, 1961 ): 115.
Robert Hendrickson, ed., (New York: Facts on File,
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.
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.
Charles Earle Funk and Charles Earle Funk, Jr., Horsefeathers and Other Curious Words (New York
Perennial Llbrary, 1986 ): 179-180
dismisses the glare theory on the authority of Sir St.
Vincent Troubridge, a historian of the theatre.
L. C. 7/1 and L. C./5/137. Quoted in Allardyce
Nicoll, A History of English Drama1660-1900, 4th ed., Restoration Drama: Vol. 1 (Carnbridge:
Cambridge UP, 1952): 363.
Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1647 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970): 20-21.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham
and William Matthews (Berkeley: U of California P, 1970):
Eleanore Boswell, The Restoration Court Stage 1660-1702 (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966
Pepys VIII, 463.
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Royal Opera
House Covent Garden, Survey of London, Vol. V
(London: Athlone Press, 1970); 31-32.
Dramatic Miscellanies (Dublin, 1784); rept.
New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971): III, 273-274.
Phyllis Hartnoll, The Oxford Companion to the
Theatre, 4th ed. (London: Oxford UP, 1983): 352.
The Complete Works of Thomas Shadwell, ed.
Montague Summers (London: Fortune Press, 1927): III, 346.
"Chapter 16: The Green Room," Old Theatre Days and
Ways (London: George G. Harrap, 1935): 152-163.
Theatre Tapestry (London: Jarrolds, 1978):
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").
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.
Peter Thomson and Gamini Salgado, The Everyman
Companion to the Theatre (London: J. M. Dent, 1985):
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.
Balthasar de Monconys, Journal des Voyages de
Monsieur de Monconys (Lyons, 1666): Pt. 2, 25-26.
Quoted in Emmett L. Avery and Arthur H. Scouten, The London Stage 1660-1700: A Critical Introduction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1968): xli.
George B. Bryan
Department of Theatre
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405