Of Castles, Solars and Green Rooms
Not long ago I found myself spending a few days of holiday down near Southend on the Essex coast. One afternoon we climbed up the hill to visit the ruins of Hadleigh castle which stands overlooking the railway line and the Medway marshes of the Thames estuary. Built in 1215 by Hubert de Burgh in the reign of King Henry III, the castle was substantially rebuilt a century later by Edward III as part of the Medway defences against the French during the Hundred Years War. Edward III in fact made it his principal residence outside of London for much of his reign.
Little remains of Hadleigh castle today. It was built on an unstable outcrop of London clay and developed an unfortunate habit of collapsing at unexpected moments. Large quantities of the fallen stonework were sold and carted off in the Tudor period, you can still see the tiled hearth where the wreckers melted down the valuable window leads. John Constable painted an atmospheric picture of the ruins in 1829, and not long afterwards the entire southern portion of the curtain wall vanished in yet another giant landslip.
Today, only one of the original eight towers and part of the bastion gate remain standing. Victorian era archaeologists excavated the foundations and you can inspect the stone floorplan of the buildings which are neatly labelled with brass plates. One label caught my eye in particular. A small ante-room located at one end of the main banqueting hall was described as a Solar.
Now I was fairly sure that Solar was a Norman French contraction of the Latin word Solarium which originally meant a sundial, and that a Solar in this sense was what we would nowadays call a ‘sun-room’. But I was intrigued and subsequently checked the etymology in my reference books. A Solar it transpires was indeed a private withdrawing room normally located at one end of the great hall usually found in castles or fortified mansions. It was built with a casement on the south or eastern side of the building to catch the morning sun, and it was part of the private living quarters of the lord and lady of the castle.
My linguistic search then took an unexpected turn when I discovered that another old word for a solar was said to be Grianan which was a Celtic word derived from the Irish/Gaelic word Grian meaning ‘the sun’. The reference books noted that Grianan was often anglicised as Greenan.
Now I have spent decades of my life working as a theatre technician, and like many ‘theatricals’ I have often wondered about the derivation of the name Green Room which is the traditional name of the backstage room where actors and stage crew gather and relax between rehearsals and performances. History books of the theatre say that the origins of the term are lost in history although many explanations have been offered (see below). Could I have possibly just stumbled on the explanation ?
To me it makes excellent sense. At one time many forms of theatrical performance including masques and pageants were performed in the great halls of castles. The actors and their costumes were housed in a tiring room which was a ‘retiring’ or private withdrawing room located at one end of the hall where actors could disappear from view to make changes of costumes and masques. Could one of the old names for such a room, namely a Grianan have mutated into the Green Room of modern parlance ?
It is interesting to note that some of the earliest references to a Green Room in English do not in fact refer to theatres. The diarist Samuel Pepys writes in his entry for Sunday 7th October 1666 about visiting King Charles II at Whitehall Palace and of being received in the Green Room which was an antechamber of the main banqueting hall of the palace.
The color of the royal room was also addressed the next year when the Earl of Lauderdale wrote in a letter, “O it wold doe your heart good to see what a new world we have heir & how bravely all the Kings busines goes on. Now we have no green roome, all is fairely treated in Councell.”
Some early documents refer to the walls of backstage theatrical tiring rooms such as the one in the old Cockpit theatre in Drury lane (1616) being covered with green baize cloth to protect valuable costumes from being soiled by the crude whitewash of the walls. The interesting point here is that baize was a thick woven woollen cloth that was commonly sold bulk dyed in either one of two colours, red or green. This may help to explain one anomaly, that a number of early theatrical green rooms actually had their walls lined with red baize cloth and were never green to start with.
Green dyed baize cloth was often also a favoured material for stage curtains when picture-frame proscenium arch theatre came into fashion in the Restoration era. Everything behind the main curtain became known as ‘the green’, including the backstage social room where actors could relax and receive visitors.
One ingenious suggestion is that green rooms were places where freshly made-up actors went to sit quietly until their make-up which was still ‘green’ had dried and cured properly. Actors of the Restoration era often used a white lead-based face paint, so there may be some truth in this.
On balance though I favour the idea that a pre-existing linguistic attractor favoured the adoption of ‘green’ as a cognomen for a theatrical backstage room, and the old Celtic term Grianan in its anglicised form ‘Green-an’ is an excellent candidate.