Green: Before the Movement, the Room

Photo by James Sadlier — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Before there was the Green movement, there was the Green Room. Why?

It’s one of those nagging questions that was asked recently. In theatres around the world, the off-stage room where actors can relax when not needed onstage can be the artists’ foyer or salon. However, in English this space is always the Green Room.

Even though we know the history and tradition of most theatre terms and designations, there does not appear to be a mutually agreed upon origin for this term.

The best history sources aren’t latter-day books, but the then current plays. In Thomas Shadwell’s The True Widow of 1678 presented at London’s Dorset Garden Theatre a character replies: “No, Madam: Selfish, this evening, in a green room, behind the scenes, was before-hand with me”. This might be the first use of the term as a direct reference to the room as we know it.

A clearer reference is in Colley Cibber’s 1701 play Love Makes A Man, or The Fop’s Fortune (that’s a solid addition to anyone’s great titles series), “I do know London pretty well, and the Side-box, Sir, and behind the Scenes; ay and the Green-Room and all the Girls and the Women-Actresses there.” This is a better reference as it tracks with many stories of shenanigans — of theatrical and/or genuine love — that take place in green rooms.

Cibber, by the way, also might have been the person who introduced the wonderful English word, “bamboozle” in his 1703 play, She Would, She Would Not. (His playwriting seemed to be on a consistent theme.)

From one of the English world’s great theatre cities, comes an article from William Hageman in the Chicago Tribune on the origins of the term as posted in KadmusArts Culture News.

Hageman floats the following possible derivations:

  • As a dominant color of 17th century English theatres, with green curtains, green boxes, green carpet, the color become associated with acting. So, a green room was the room reserved for actors.
  • Green was a reference to limelight, which was the stage lighting used for leading performers.
  • During Elizabethan theatre, actors waited in a room full of plants — the thought being that the moisture in the room was beneficial to an actor’s voice.
  • “The green” is an old theater term for the stage, perhaps from the tradition of performing outside on the green; so, moving inside, the green room became the location for actors to wait before going on.
  • Before the development of modern make-up, stage make-up was mixed from ingredients that had to set before it could be applied. This curing process for the “green” makeup took place in a room offstage. This room became the green room.

Will the answer be found?

In the meantime, the next time you hear about a green initiative, a green commitment, a green job, or a green energy, go take a break in the green room where all green talent will soon come to light.

- Bill Reichblum

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One Response to “Green: Before the Movement, the Room”

  1. Ann Jareckie
    March 10th, 2009 19:04

    Perhaps Green Room pertains to freshness or readiness for the stage: Actors who are rehearsed, costumed, made-up—and are at the ready call of the stage manager’s call. Just a thought.

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