The first of three celebratory episodes about English Renaissance Theatre! Talking about dramatic tradition and the new playhouses that begin to appear in London – and the horrified reaction of the establishment.
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Map of Theatres in London
Now then everyone, to the chagrin of many, I tend to see the end of a reign as an opportunity to pause, look up a bit and look around. Smell the roses as it were. Often this has been an excuse to delve into the arcane mysteries of social and economic history; the glories of the poor law, the foreign country of early modern religion and sexual mores, economy, the monarchical republic of the Parish, that sort of thing. This time, however, have decided to wander into territory that is spread with personal thorns, and which I approach in fear, terror and deep, deep misgivings. I speak, ladies and gentlemen, of culture, a genre with which I have no more than a nodding acquaintance, unless Motorhead can be said to be culture. Which I guess they are, in a way. But more specifically, I am going to venture into an area in which I have spectacularly little expertise – Renaissance English theatre. So I start with an apology. I know that many people love Shakespeare and Marlow and all that with passion, that there are reams written of the subject and the world around it. I am probably going to annoy you with inanities, errors, omissions and all that, and if so I am sorry. Anyway, that’s what’s going to happen, and not only that, but it’s going to take not one, not two but three, yes three episodes to get it all done. I’m so sorry words cannot express my regret, and I am seeking help with my behaviour. Also, before I go ahead, I ought to issue a trigger warning to episodes after the new tradition, so might I please warn that there’s a scurrilous joke about St Peter in what follows.
Right, so, as regards English renaissance theatre, I have seen the words’ Golden Age’ used. Humpf. What are we talking about with all this Golden Age malarky then? Well, somewhen early in Elizabeth’s reign to somewhere towards the middle of Charles’ reign, England experienced a remarkable transformation in its approach and availability of the dramatic arts, and a culture that flowered alongside it, was a lot of fun for a while. It sort of petered out maybe in the 1630s, and was brought to an abrupt end by the Civil Wars and the Long Parliament who cancelled it. So that’s what I’m going to talk about; where this thing came from, what it was like, some of the characters to whom it gave a home. I am not going to talk about the plays really except en passant, and you won’t get a biography in any depth of the likes of Marlow and Shakespeare, but you know, they’ll probably put a head round the door.
There’s a context to the theatres that sprung up from about the 1560s, and the actors, playwrights, entrepreneurs and patrons that serviced a wildly enthusiastic audience, this golden age thingy didn’t come from nowhere. Firstly there is the economic context; as I have covered in some grinding detail, for about a century between say 1550 ish and 1630 ish, England experienced a steadily growing population, which fed economic change. Prices rose and we have inflation, a most alien concept to the 16th century mind, wages fell, there was under and unemployment. Essentially, if you had land, you were made, you were getting more for your produce, paying lower wages so costs were lower, you had more disposable income, you could, if you so desired, have a hooley. Or maybe build that extension to your house to get a bit of privacy, or build that brick chimney you’d been dreaming of. Of which more in a few episodes time – so sorry again. Or, I don’t know, go to the theatre. If you didn’t have land and were a wage labourer times were tough, you might have to take to the road and, shock horror, leave the parish where you were supposed to stay. On the way, you’d fuel fear of rising crime, vagabondage, a breakdown in morals, all manner of horrid things. You might get your ears pierced, and not in a good way. So, socially, it was a time of turmoil and change – and for some, opportunity. The other salient fact is the population of London, which went just a little bit bonkers growing from about 80,000 people in 1550 to 215,000 in 1601 and 350,000 in 1662. I mean this doesn’t sound to be a mega cosmopolis to the modern lug, but at the time it was an absolute warren. And look, it all grew up with a minimum of control, regulation, planning, sewage so parts of it are an absolute steaming heap.
To turn to the more cultural stuff, the theatre of Marlow, Shakespeare and Jonson did not spring from the desert like flowers in the rain either. It sprang from many things. First and most obvious of course was a tradition of drama from days medieval, embedded very often in the religious cycle of the year and its associated feasts; in the town Guilds and fraternities and the mystery play cycles, designed to educate people in Christianity’s story. The traditional story has been that the Reformation and those puritans closed all that down – it’s now generally accepted that in fact feasts and celebrations continued longer than had been believed, but often transmogrified into other forms – national celebrations of Elizabeth’s B’day for example, and as we’ll see, more secular type clubs.
And there are other important dramatic traditions that pre-existed; the great house tradition of the lord and their minstrels, the jester and fool, and the ‘Interlude’, a short performance between the courses of a festive meal where the lord entertained their tenants. Lords also rather encouraged this tradition of their own player, tumblers and musicians, and they might travel round the countryside on their own when their lord didn’t need them, entertaining, drawing crowds making the odd shilling; obviously, some thought they were little better than vagabonds, because there are people like that so there was something of a tradition of these groups calling themselves by the name of their patron to give them a sort of respectability – for example the Earl of Leicester’s Men.
All these kinds of private venture events have been described by an historian as ‘liminal’.
I can confess to you all that the word liminal is much used in social history, and has always been a matter of some impatience and unworthy irritation on my part. What on earth does it mean? I only use the word really just to share my irritation; it seems to me a word that looks mighty impressive but obscures rather than illuminates. But I have come to realise that’s just me being stolid; it means I guess, peripheral, out of the mainstream – along the shoreline of society as it were, which is a concept that needs a word, and so someone came up with liminal, derived from the Latin for threshold. Anyway, so I have now joined the company of the obscurantist.
Liminal then – celebrations like these popular festivals and interludes were often occasions where the normal social rules were inverted – at some there are Bishops of Misrule for example, or the Boy Bishop. Drama gave the opportunity to stretch things, to enact disturbing events and situations of conflict, politics, controversial ideas, poke fun at the great lord and lady and you social betters. It’s been described as a social safety value, a chance to blow off steam. Which it was, but bear in mind that another way of looking at this is that it re-emphasised what the rules were that were being broken, the ceremonies and festivities re-inforced community and what I believe we now call normative behaviour. Normative, I am told by my children is not a good thing. I have always I am sorry to say, been deeply normative. I shall try to do better in future.
However specific communities dealt with their festivals post reformation, other forms carried on in specific types of institution. The tradition of Lords hosting players and organising masques in their Great Chambers or Halls carries on from medieval times well into the late 16th and early 17th centuries; Great chambers were designed to be used for such events and for dancing. For example and evidence, there’s a surviving cartoon of the life of Henry Unton which survives – Unton died in 1596. It shows a masque being performed in front of him by a circle of alternate black and white cherubs and pairs of women in exotic dresses with red painted faces. An orchestra of 6 plays music in the centre of the circle.
This might be a good point to briefly break aside and talk a little about masques, since they come up from time to time and have done since we spoke of Anne of Denmark back in the day, and I’ve never really explained them. They trace traditions back to various sources; to guisings, where masked figures would make a presentation with music, setting the scene for the evening’s entertainment; and back to a popular tradition, where masked figures from the community would appear in the lord’s hall in a well, sort of surprise, to sing and dance on a special occasion or festival. And some say they can be traced back to Italy and the tradition of public pageants. By our stage basically it’s a sort of singing and dancing spectacle, based around some allegorical story, something with a message, designed to paint the patron in a good, glorious and generally uplifting light. At court, there would be elaborate set designs and costumes – which is where famous collaborations like Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones come in. In both the household of a great Lord and at court, professionals would often be brought in to perform the singing and speaking parts; but participation by the household, or court, family, and friends men and women was very much part of it, especially the dancing. Oddly though, they were viewed very differently to plays – taking part in a play was considered rather demeaning, and always provided by companies of Players brought in. not posh members of the household.
Anyway, digression over; we were talking about institutions where drama was performed. Interestingly, the Inns of Court was one arena, where very grand and elaborate festivals were held at Christmas ‘revels’. While no nobleman would have been dead acting in a public play at somewhere like the Rose or the Globe, it was perfectly acceptable at the Inns of Court – Robert Dudley presided as the Lord of Misrule at the 1561/2 Twelfth Night version; another place was the Royal Court, where plays and later masques were constant and active. One of the features of these institutions was that because of their nature, they retained a good degree of latitude to put on works that pushed against official royal policy – as part of the courtiers’ and renaissance tradition of providing counsel and comment on matters of royal policy or deliberating in religious debate; one of them for example even suggested that marriage was the right tactic for a Queen to take, which of course wouldn’t normally go down well with her Maj. Another about king Arthur pits the King against the bellicose advice of his council, and seems to be questioning the social cost of action against possible Catholic traitors, which was of course, deeply topical and controversial.
Now this I contend is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly because these are traditional themes that universities as well as Nobility and courtiers carried out; a Humanist tradition demand for providing good and honest counsel to the Prince, and mentioned. And then Martin Bucer, the famous religious reformer, well famous to his mum anyway, had advised Thomas Cromwell that Protestant theatre might be used to
Renew all forms of piety and virtue among the people
But official policy under Elizabeth took an increasingly restrictive view of such an idea. As early as 1559 a royal proclamation required local authorities to review in advance
All manner of interludes to be played openly or privately
To permit none to be played wherein either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the common weal shall be handled or treated.
Well despite the spirit of restriction and control these proclamations embody, a feature of the English renaissance theatre was its extraordinary diversity – extraordinary for early modern Europe that is to say. Playing their part in this pageant and riot of creativity and fun there are peers of the realm, members of universities, court officials, ex students with MA’s, and those with BA’s, college drop outs, members of the Inns of Court, the sons of various trades – scriveners, glovers, butchers, yeomen farmers, dyers, stationers. The diversity reflects many of the changes in the 16th century – the humanist revival of the classics, the academic cultivation of eloquence, increasing wealth for some and associated commercialism of popular culture, the vibrancy of religious debate through the reformation, and maybe above all the growth of the number of Grammar Schools. By 1600, England had 360 Grammar schools, one for every 12,000 people, a proportion that would not be passed even in Victorian times. This education and opportunity, immersion in culture of the curriculum, ballads, libels, newsprint and broadsheets and so on helped generate the playwrights and actors that would give theatre its expression.
To see the emergence of the infrastructure and business of drama, We might start then by going back to those travelling companies of Players such as the Earl of Leicester’s men They might not just travel round the countryside, but, as you’d expect head off to London. But there were no permanent playhouses outside court. But in 1567 for example, a record survives of John Brayne, a grocer, paying out a substantial sum of £8 for scaffolding at the Red Lion in Stepney. This is interesting for a small digression; although the Red Lion in this case was a farm, the name the Red Lion is a common pub name, often claimed to be based on the arrival of James VI of Scotland as king of England in 1603; a Red Lion was of course an emblem of the Scottish royal house. However, maybe this reference suggests not – and that it predates Jimmy’s arrival and was instead based on the emblem of the John of Gaunt who also had a red lion? Who knows, who can tell, anyone for the last choc ice then.
Anyway, we also know that the earl of Leicester’s men played regularly at the Cross keys in Gracechurch street in London. While we are on the pub name thing, the crossed keys are also a common name for boozers, because they are the symbols of St Peter, the apostle of Jesus who traditionally guards the gates of Heaven, and who was a notorious tippler while taking a break at the pearly gates. That second bit isn’t true by the way, and I apologise to anyone offended. That’s the last digression, or we’ll never get anywhere in this episode, and will all die of old age. I can already feel my brain dribbling out of my ear.
However, these examples of places for public performance were probably temporary structures rather than permanent playhouses. For the first recognised permanent theatre established to run a continuous schedule of plays we need to go to 1574, and the earl of Leicester’s Men, who were granted the first official letters Patent from the queen. The letters were the result of a bit of a Barney with the City of London corporation, which was charging players to play; the Letters Patent overrode the cities liberties, which is cheeky. The remit then of the players was
to use, exercise, and occupy the art and faculty of playing comedies tragedies interludes stage plays and such other like as they have already used and studied or hereafter shall use and study as well for the recreation of your loving subjects as for our solace and pleasure . . .
Well that’s nice. Solace and pleasure, thanks queenie, thanks Dudders old man. Then there’s a bit of guff about the city of London followed by the rules
provided the said comedies tragedies interludes and stage plays be by the Master of our Revels… before seen and allowed
Fair enough, guv’ censorship is it? Okey dokey. Well, the city of London fulminated, as you do when you are crossed, and warned that there’d be
the inordinate haunting of great multitudes of people, especially youth, to plays, interludes and shows, leading to affrays, quarrels, and evil practices of incontinency in great Inns,
not only that, but they worried about alluring maids, as you do
alluring maids, especially orphans and good Citizens’ children under age, to privy and unmeet shows, the publishing of unchaste, uncomely and unashamed fast speeches
Fast speeches, eh? Even worse than slow podcasts. Anyway, as night follows day John Brayne’s brother in law then got in on the act, but was even more ambitious. He took a 21 year lease on some land in the East End of London for a theatre. For the name he gave his new Theatre I will go to the Open. The first Open golf tournament, as you will know, was held in Ayrshire in 1860. When I once mentioned the British Open to one of my Brexit voting friends, he rather fiercely reminded me that it is called ‘The’ Open. All the others have to call themselves something to distinguish them from the one and only original. I am pleased to say that he said this with an accompanying grin, however, before you send me angry messages about Brexiteers. Anyway, so given this is the first permanent theatre we know about in blighty, it was to be called The Theatre, just like The Open. Very soon there was a second one called The Curtain, on a road which is still called Curtain road, as it ‘appens. It might have been a group of actors who built The Curtain too, rather than an impresario. Anyway so – we were off. Alluring maids watch out.
The first theatres ran a lot of other entertainments too – probably including bear baiting, sword fights and that sort of thing, but they were constantly being closed down and hassled by the City authorities. Hell hath no fury like a city corporation scorned, and Who of course were worried by those poor alluring maids and stuff, so the next venture appears to have been made on the other side of the river, in Bankside, just across London Bridge in Southwark, where the air was more free – though every bit as smelly it has to be said, but outside the city of London is the point. Southwark had always been a bit more free and easy – there were the Winchester Geese for example, the prostitutes who worked the liberty of the Bishop of Winchester. The stews and bathhouses were down there, and all manner of goings on by dodgy people.
The new Theatre was built there on Bankside by a businessman whose family came from Sussex, the Henslowes. Philip Henslowe had gained his freedom of the city as a Dyer, but probably never worked as a Dyer; he seems to have used the family money to make various investments and buy land. Although he’s not a knight, he’d certainly be described as a gentleman, and had connections at court – which would prove handy in protecting his investments and keeping the theatres from too much official interference. The new Theatre was built on the site of a rose Garden call the little Rose – and so the new Theatre was called the Rose Theatre. Philip Henslowe will be a feature of the London Theatre world until his death in 1616 and he clearly makes a deal of cash doing so; he was a businessman was Henslowe, proper professional and all, and although he clearly knew the actors very well he made them sign contracts. His step daughter Joan married a famous actor called Edward Alleyn, and Henslowe kept careful accounts which have become known as Henslowe’s Diary, which tells us a lot of what we know about theatre in the 1590s.
The number of theatres around London and Southwark steadily grew – by the 17th century there were about 9 of them, including, built in 1599, the super famous Globe. You can of course see a reconstructed Globe in Southwark to this very day, thanks to the efforts of Sam Wannamaker. Every year I think I must go to the Globe, only to find out that it’s all booked up. This year, because Jane has got involved and is much better at organising than I, I will get there. And there will be much rejoicing. In 1608, Henslowe built a further development – a ‘private’ theatre in Blackfriars. ‘Private’ means that it was covered, because most of the other theatres, except the one at the King’s court in Whitehall, the Cockpit-in-Court, were open to the elements. By spending the extra cash Henslowe could attract a more upmarket clientele, such as those who saw the first performance of Webster’s Duchess of Malfi by Thomas Webster in 1612.
The design of theatres had been on the medieval model – temporary structures often built in barns or halls – the theatre in hall model. There might be a couple of choices for layout – either a stage at one end with seating on 3 sides, or a stage in the middle surrounded by the audiences. Britannica tells me that the Confrérie de la Passion in gay Paris was the first purpose-built public theatre in Europe since Roman times, the Théâtre de l’Hôtel de Bourgogne in 1548, and this followed the theatre-in-the-hall model. The Theatre at Blackfriars in 1576 was also from an adapted hall. So Britannica then also claims that The Theatre of 1576 had the first truly innovative design in a public playhouse. It was polygonal with perhaps as many as 20 bays and contained three levels of seating covered by a roof. The central area of the polygon was open-air, and the audience there stood around a large stage, about 5 feet high, which was integrated into several of the bays at one end of the building. Behind the stage was a tiring-house, the backstage area of the playhouse. I think there might also be a gallery, you know, for Juliets and folks like that. We don’t know much about the acting style, but the design of the theatres and the noise in the spectators’ galleries and groundlings strongly suggest no noodling and wondering airily to oneself behind pillars – and a lot of stride to the front and declaim in stentorian tones.
There seems to be some uncertainty about scenery and costume; in Italy, there was a tradition of using painted scenes with perspective with a back drop, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case in Elizabethan theatre, though I am told Jacobean theatre began to get more elaborate. But mainly since there are so many episodes and scene changes in the drama the scenery had to be rather more basic. So, there might be a throne you know to say ‘hey we are in a grand throne room – you can imagine all the other grand architectury stuff yourself, just join the dots losers, what do you want – spoon feeding!?’ sort of thing, probably without the insults. And people say things like hey ‘we are off to Rome now’…so you know, verbal clues and all that. Incidentally, I learn that all this episodic stuff, moving days, and moving places was strictly against the old rules. Apparently Aristotle, when he wasn’t on the bottle, had decreed that all the action should take place in ‘the compass of a single day and in one place’. D’you know, the more I hear about Aristotle – I’m working up to a history of Science at some point – the less I like the bloke. He was a regular old tartar as far as I can see and had Europe in his thrall for centuries on end with all these petty and bossy rules.
Renaissance theatre of course went all over the place in terms of setting, and the costumes could be very grand and became more so as time went by; but they didn’t go in for historical or geographical accuracy, and basically wore the clothes of Renaissance blighty. On occasion they might use a sort of trigger, trope, short hand; so if they were in Rome – they’d chuck on a toga over their doublet and hose. Did the job. Realism therefore in none of this figured very highly. When they exited stage left pursued by a bear, there was no bear.
The actors performing in these theatres still have to be formed into companies sponsored by a noble patron; it’s worth noting by the way that the Patron gave the company no financial security, none what so ever not a sausage, not even a chipolata, or one of those cocktail sausages on a stick. But of course without said Patron they could not have existed, so you know, nerks, and a good prestigious Patron could open up opportunities to perform at court and that sort of thing, so it was important to your money making potential. It seems there became a bit of a hierarchy in the companies; so there were companies for the Earls of Pembroke, Warwick, Derby, Essex, Worcester, Sussex, and Lord Strange; but two of the most prestigious were the Lord Admiral and the Lord Chamberlain. The Companies were formed when a group of investors, maybe half a dozen or so, got together and became ‘sharers’ all taking a financial stake. The sharers might include Actors to boot – so William Shakespeare became a sharer, but then our Billy was an unusually serious kind of man when compared to many of his peers, who kept his head down, plied his trade, built up his fortune and all that. Shakespeare unusually and I think maybe uniquely worked exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s men; William was probably an actor as well as playwright, but the leading actor of the company was the famous Richard Burbage. Ben Jonson seemed to have also tried at one stage to become a sharer, but our Ben was a very different character to William, completely financially incontinent, and soon got out of that. The typical company might be composed of around 15 people or so, mainly actors, but there’d be someone to look after the wardrobe, and then a Bookman. They might also have some apprentices attached, but there were to be no women sadly – the young apprentices would often play the women’s roles. Now the Bookman was important, looking after all the scripts, making copies for each actor, working with the Master of the Revels to get approval, and lodging scripts with the Stationers Office, which was the only way to try and keep some sort of copyright over your work.
Now the Privy Council worried constantly about all these companies and the impact they would have on the minds and morals of the people. They worried that they would become an alternative source of authority, and look that is a problem is it not? I mean there are probably many people in the world that think Braveheart or U571 are accurate depictions of history for crying out loud. In 1615 an author explained the problem, that
God only gave authority of public instruction and correction but to two sorts of men: to his ecclesiastical ministers and temporal magistrates. He never instituted a third authority of players, or ordained they should work in his ministry, and therefore they are to be rejected with their use and quality
I can see his point; I mean I’m not sure what God did institute by way of authority, but I doubt actors would specifically be high on the list, could be wrong. If you were to select an actor as your primary source of authority, it might be interesting to see who you’d chose though – I can see a good parlour game there. I might choose Norman Wisdom for no particular reason. Your suggestions on a postcard…
Any way back to the question of authority. They were worried about all the social mixing going on in the theatres, all the posh and um, vulgar – their words – rubbing shoulders together and indeed rubbing lord knows what other parts of the human anatomy, even women and alluring maids. And then the content of the plays were often – well – enough to make your chin wobble. Incidentally, the chin wobbling analogy, frequently used in this podcast at various times, comes from my Granny, who’s chin always famously wobbled when she picked up a good hand of cards. Just by the by. So for example, the Elizabethan and Jacobean player attacked the august and super noble and clean living Merchants of London for usury and hard dealing, and its clergy for incompetence and corruption, as in the plays The Ladies of London in 1581, or A looking Glass for London in 1594. To the horror of the authorities and establishment they were clearly guilty of publicising
The faults and scandals of great men, as magistrates, minsters and such as hold public places
and seriously we can’t have that sort of thing going on, where would that all end?
 Girouard, M ‘Life in the English Country House’ p89
 Cook, J Roaring Boys, location 311
 Manley, L Theatre in Doran, S (ed) ‘The Elizabethan World’ p542