Playwrights and the Sirenicals of Jacobean England, the experience of going to see the plays and the Crystal Mirror of renaissance drama.
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I promised that we’d talk a little more about the social lives of the roaring boys and all those thesps in London, and about Ben Jonson. But first we are going to start where we left off – with Thomas Dekker.
Because Dekker was also the author as we said of many pamphlets, and one of those is a comic pamphlet he wrote to an imaginary young visitor to town about how he should spend his time while in the city. How much it reflects truth is a guess, but given Jonson’s opinion of him it might be almost autobiography. He starts off by advising a good long lie in, then keeping your hair long to frustrate your enemy’s rapiers; leaving your name carved in woodwork to advertise your presence in town and dressing to kill. There’s a lot about delivering a lot of loud mouthed bragging about possible or imagined exploits in the wars and exploration to make you look exotic, where to get a good lunch and how to avoid paying, how to make an entrance at the theatre – arrive late basically – and make sure you sit ostentatiously on the stage smoking a pipe. Try doing that on Drury Lane these days and see where you get. Off to the Tavern after the play, again cutting a dash, making a nuisance of yourself and with the waitresses, then avoiding paying the bill. Roaring Boys seems a good description. It’d bring me out in spots.
The image of conviviality in the world of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre is an attractive one – all these talents sitting around drinking sack and being generally, you know, witty and stuff, and maybe the most famous of these is Ben Jonson, the Mermaid Tavern and the Fraternity of Sireniacal gentlemen. A few words about Ben Jonson first, although really it’s almost impossible to just say a few words about Ben Jonson, he has a hell of a history.
He was born poorly, his own description, a clergyman’s son brought up by his widowed mother and a second husband, a brickie, somewhere around Charing Cross; he went to school as a day boy at Westminster school, where he was taught by the great Elizabethan antiquarian William Camden – about whom we must also speak sometime. He couldn’t take to his father’s trade though; one lawyer talked about the young Ben following his father around with his trowel, reciting verses from Homer. Brickies are given to doing that, to be fair. Anyway, bricklaying wasn’t for him so in 1591, probably about 20 years old, he went to find freedom and adventure in the wars, and served in the army for a year in the low countries. On his return, he started work not on the building site, but in the theatre as a journeyman player. He married in 1594 to Anne Lewis. His rise to prominence really started in 1598 with his play Every Man in his Humour, put on by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with Shakespeare and Richard Burbage in leading roles. By 1603 he was living apart from Anne, and living with Esme Stuart, the son of James’ erstwhile favourite, in Blackfriars in London, which is interesting. It might be that he used this connection because when James I arrived in London, he wrote furiously and started off with his career at court producing masques; he did a lot of masques, often in collaboration with Inigo Jones with whom he sometimes had a rather vitriolic partnership; Jonson frequently ridiculed Jones. The height of Jonson’s career took him through to the 1620s with masques, plays and poetry, when his productivity began to decline; he suffered a series of strokes during the 1620s, but continued to work and remained well known. He felt rather ignored though by the court of Charles I who seem to have considered him yesterday’s news, and died in 1637, to be buried in Westminster Abbey.
He had his run ins with both his colleagues and the authorities did our Ben; he played with Catholicism, and spent a stint in prison around the Gunpowder plot – though he claimed to have gone voluntarily to prison help out a friend who had been accused. He was a convivial, garrulous, combative type with a big mouth; during his trip to Scotland, his host William Drummond took notes while Jonson laid about him at the reputation of all and sundry, including our Bill.
He was involved in a couple of well known groups; the Sons of Ben, for example, a literary club in the 1620s after his reputation had been established for a decade and more. They met in the Apollo room at the Devil Tavern, and Jonson had a marble slab above the mantle with his ‘Rules of Conviviality’. But the most famous club was that which started meeting sometime after 1611, at the Mermaid Tavern. The Mermaid Tavern was a popular place for banquets and guild meetings, and lay between Fish Street and Bread street in London; one of the draws of the Mermaid was the quality of its fish suppers apparently, being cheek by jowel with merchants of Fish street. It was also competently run, by its publican, William Williamson, who
‘was known an honest man and of good government and would not suffer music and illegal games in his house’
This was important – despite our image of the wild roaring boys and nightlife of the renaissance, the truth was that Taverns could frequently get in trouble with the authorities if they didn’t run a tight ship. Having said that, the patrons didn’t always play fair with their tavern hosts. Williamson himself had to fight off a bit of legal grief after the excesses of another drinking club in 1600. This was the uninvitingly named Damned Crew, organised by a bone fide, honest to badness no holds barred roaring boy called Sir Edmund Baynham. Sir Edward had been a soldier in Ireland. And we know what that means here at the history of England, do we not, because we’ve covered it, they were not the bringers of truth, light and justice.
On the first Friday of every month, then, a diverse group of leading lights in London would arrive at the Mermaid, under the eyes of the organiser, Thomas Coryate, a famous traveller and wit, who acted as the MC and a sort of buffoon to get things going. I’ve often though that the group arse plays a much undervalued and yet critical role, I have played it many times. Anyway, this was the Fraternity of Sierenical Gentlemen, and upstairs they’d go to a private dining room for an evening of wit and wonder. The room into which they were invited would probably have been highly decorated, and historian Michelle Callaghan speculates that it was probably painted from top to toe with Mermaids; this, and the name of the Tavern, probably explain why the Fraternity was called the Sirenicals – after the French for Mermaid, Sirene.
This was not a literary club exactly; it was a drinking club, but while the object of drinking clubs I have been involved in tend to focus on drinking to the name of Cardinal Puff, or Ibble dibble with one dobble and 2 dibbles calling ibble diddble 3 with… and so on, and alarmingly frequently end in some sort of obliteration, drinking was not the only focus. The idea was that this was a place to meet influential people, to shamelessly promote your talent through your wit and versifying. The club we mentioned before, the Sons of Ben, that was more in the line of a literary club. To be honest, I don’t know if the idea of drinking clubs needs any sort of historical roots – I mean how complicated can it be – but people do trace them back to all those fraternities that were common in the 15th century associated with the church and towns, and which withered after the Reformation – and needed replacing. Sadly of course, unlike any fraternities, drinking in Taverns was an overwhelming male affair, unless for women accompanied by their husbands, or women there to do a job.
Accordingly, the background of the Sierenicals was varied. Though – we don’t know exactly who they are, though there is apparently one letter from Coryate which gives us a clue. I am sorry to say that it is not the opinion of those with large brains that the Bloody Bard was among them, the Bard of course, as you know, being a stranger to comedy. But there were courtiers, including Inigo Jones who was officially surveyor of the king’s works, and Richard Connock, who sat on Prince Henry’s council of revenue; there were secretaries, like John Donne the poet, at this time in the service of Sir Robert Drury; lawyers and members of parliament, such as the noted wit and organiser of the revels at the Inns of court, Richard Martin; there were also businessmen, like Sir Lionel Cranfield would you believe, prior to his parliamentary toasting; and there were men of letters, such as Jonson.
They probably also included the playwright Francis Beaumont, because he wrote a warm letter to Jonson, remembering the glory days
. . . what things we have seen
Done at the Mermaid! Heard words that have been
So nimble and so full of subtle flame,
As if that everyone from whence they came
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolved to live a fool the rest of his dull life.
If you want to hear a bit more about the Sierenicals, by the way, let me recommend a podcast, That Shakespeare Life, produced by Cassidy Cash. Episode 161 is an interview with Michelle Callaghan about that very subject.
You might have noted that I really haven’t talked much about women, and I am sorry about that, but of course as you know women were not allowed by law to act. Which is odd, because they were allowed to do so in Spain for example, where it was a perfectly honourable profession; and the smart set at court in London loved performing in masques, as they did in country houses and & all. But apart from that – a compete no no. Further more, the way that women generally appeared as characters tends to fall into a few, rather formulaic and misogynistic types, which reflect the attitudes of the day. There’s the feisty rogues like Moll Cutpurse who we’ll hear about in a sec. who have aged relatively better because at least their story involves holding their own in a male world. More often there’s the compliant and dutiful wife doing their duty for their male family members whatever the cost. There’s the woman as victim like Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, murdered simply for marrying outside her station. Or there’s the evil scheming woman, a familiar trope. I am told there are exceptions; Beatrice-Joanna in Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, which I’ll have to take on trust because I’ve never seen it; and I am told that is one of the many reasons why Shakespeare is so admired, because some of his female characters have a little more complexity and agency.
There were also a couple of exceptions, though small, to the writing thing. One of them was Emilia Lanier, born Bassano. After her father died, she was not content to simply lean into the world of marriage allotted to her, so she turned down many such offers – she was something of a beauty by all accounts and managed to wrangle herself an introduction to court through the Countess of Kent. And was duly a hit – but to stay there, was forced to become the Mistress of the Lord Chamberlain. When the inevitable pregnancy came about she was sort of married off I suppose is the word – though fair do’s it seems that marriage was perfectly amicable. So far so enterprising, but very much within accepted female roles. But; Emilia, as it happens, is thought to be a good candidate for Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, and that points towards possibly, the path Emilia did then follow, of becoming a poet. I don’t think though that those who know these things consider her a great poet; but one of the things that marks her out apart from her gender was her defence of women against the traditional role among the religious as the source of original sin, and in defence of women’s talents – and incidentally the inequity of the privilege of gender at birth.
I think I also read somewhere that it’s been suggested she wrote some plays with Billy the Bard; and that does lead to some interesting speculation. Writing was very often very collaborative, pouring out all those plays, and it’s speculated that maybe women in the background were involved in writing, unseen, unrecognised. Who knows.
The other example of involvement is our Roaring Girl, a play by Thomas Middleton about the aforementioned Moll Cutpurse. Moll was a real life person, Mary Firth. She was, so I am told, from an early age, not interested in the life mapped out for her as a woman
She could not endure the sedentary life of sewing and stitching, her needle, bodkin and thimble, she could not think on quietly, wishing them changed to a sword or a dagger and cudgels;
So she took up in Bankside, dressing in men’s clothes when she felt like it, smoking a pipe and becoming an expert swordswoman and excellent shot. She mixed freely with the Bankside ho polloi as well as theatre people. The authorities did not approve, and described her as ‘a bully, whore, bawd, pickpurse, fortune-teller, receiver and forger’. She was never a whore though, and had long term relationships with Captain Hind, who was admittedly a notorious highwayman, but also a well-off Watchmaker.
Moll loved the fact that there was a play about her, and often went to go and see, sitting in the audience. The play itself includes within it a suggestion that hey – maybe the Cutpurse will appear on stage!? So one day, in 1612, d’you know what? Moll decided that alright, she would just do that. So she did. She was hauled off to the Bawdy Courts for wearing men’s clothing and ordered to do penance as a result of her bit of fun. She turned up to the allotted time and place in St Pauls for said penance and started pouring her heart out along with buckets of tears, but she was clearly as drunk as a lord. So everyone stopped listening to the sermon going on and listened to Moll’s hair-raising stories instead. As a result, Moll then spent 6 months in the Bridewell House of Correction, beating hemp and thinking about her sins. In her 50s, Moll acted as a spy and courier for the Royalist cause in the civil war, and apparently shot General Fairfax in the arm. But she avoided the noose, and died in 1659.
One thing that women could do – was go to the theatre, and they did so in numbers, maybe a full equal, 50% share, although no woman of substance would go unaccompanied. Now your Elizabethan and Jacobean play was a riot and make no mistake. I have a couple of anecdotes, file 45b subsection #256, ‘David’s theatre anecdotes’. Ready? I have been going the theatre ever since I was a nipper, Leicester Haymarket for the first 18 years of my life, after a trip to the Berni Inn for a fish & chips usually, with the folks. We were very staid- always got dressed in the best bib & tucker to go and see the art, you know how it used to be, full battle armour. Once we when to Me and my Gal I think it was, anyway the one with the Lambeth Walk – Robert Lindsey in his Citizen Smith days. Anyway, during the Lambeth walk the actors came down into the audience started a big conga and it was great – everyone joined in, conga’d round the Haymarket – what a blast!
Except the Crowthers. Who resolutely refused to move. Stayed right where we were, me and my Mum and Dad, carefully avoiding eye contact, stonily looking straight ahead. I was dying inside. Ladies and Gents, the Crowthers were not channelling the spirit of early modern theatre. The second anecdote is less horrific; I went to see Inspector Calls. At Heineman we sold copies of that play by the absolute lorryload – because it was a set text – GCSE I think. Anyway I went to the Inspector expecting the same old sitting in serried ranks drinking in the culture as normal – unless I’d been at one of those hideous west end theatres where I’d be sweating buckets, worrying about whether the pain from the tiny seat would ever fade and calling the bank manager to warn her about the price of the tickets – scandalous those places – but anyway, the normal fare was not what I got. It was stuffed full of GCSE sitting teenagers and they were having a riot – shouting stuff out yelling to each other, laughing and joking – bloody great it was, and thus to the point of these long, long, rambling anecdotes – that’s a little what theatre must have been like back then! There was taking part, gentle listeners, taking part.
First of all there was a right old scrum around the place before you got in; places were first come first served. As I’m sure you are all aware in most theatres there was seating in the 3 tier galleries, but in the pit everyone was standing – the groundlings. As we have already said, the normal rules of a highly stratified society were exploded – everyone was there, of all types and walks of life, excepting the top strata of nobility. When you got to the theatre, you’d be surrounded by a cloud of sellers of all sorts of stuff – including beer and pies of course, so what’s not to like, and there was no Kermodian code of conduct. If you drank too much beer you’d have to go and pee in the buckets provided which must have been a nightmare for all concerned, let along the women. There’d be cutpurses and pickpockets and conners, all sorts – not just outside either, inside to boot. There was a story told by Henry Peacham in 1622 about a woman that insists on going to the theatre over her husband’s objections, cost he’s worried she’ll be robbed. She promised to be careful, but lo and behold her purse was stolen. Well, where did you put the purse? he asked
‘Under my petticoats, between them and my smock.’
‘What!’, quoth he, ‘did you feel nobody’s hand there?’
‘Yes’, quoth she, ‘I felt one’s hand there but did not think he had come for that. . .’
Maybe I shouldn’t laugh, it is of course sexual harassment but hey she seemed pretty sanguine about the experience. More than pushing and shoving and the scrum of life, there was participation. Before the play started, trumpets would be sounded at three intervals, like the bell these days. Now we are talking about patriotic times, no sign of the disdainful metropolitan elite here, and where I would think even the last night of the proms would look terribly understated. If Henry V was going to fight in France there’d be cries of encouragement. As the playwright Thomas Heywood put it
What English blood seeing the person of any bold English presented and doth not hug his fame and honour his valour…?
And there were reactions to the great scenes. Stephen Gosson, a theatre writer, reported of a scene where Bacchus woo’d Ariadne
‘The beholders rose up, every man stood on tiptoe and seemed to hover over the prey, when they swore, the company swore, when they departed to bed, the company presently were set on fire…’
Villains were hissed and boo’d, heroes were cheered. Actually this was a tradition even in the 19th century; Charles Dickens related how in Hamlet’s To be or not to be soliloquy people yelled out telling him to get on with it, kill himself and have done – how delightful! Good plays got loud applause and shouts of approval, with bad one’s things might get thrown at the stage. At the end of the play a jig or dance was performed by which stage things started disintegrating as those who were drunk or antsy took it out on their neighbours, the doors were opened and out you went.
Where did it all go wrong, everyone, where-did-it-all-go-wrong? That puts me in mind of another anecdote actually – a waiter turned up at George Bests’ hotel room when he was in his prime but under fire by the press for his lifestyle. There he found George, champagne in hand, lying on the bed laughing with his girlfriend of the time, best hotel suite. The waiter, thinking of the newspaper headlines, sadly shook his head, looked at handsome George having vats of fun, and said ironically ‘Oh George. Where did it all go wrong?’ Really not sure of the relevance of that anecdote, except that all good things do come to an end, and such is the case for the glories of English renaissance theatre. Some of it was simply about people; the leading lights died, as people do you know, and those that came after didn’t flourish quite as well. Edward Alleyn the actor died in 1626, leaving £10,000 for Dulwich College, so he’d done well out of acting then. Dekker was still writing pamphlets in 1638 but was no longer well recognised; Ben Johnson was maybe the last of the golden age, but was out of favour for some time by his death in 1638 and anyway even one of the sons of Ben humbly asked him in a poem to recognise that his gifts had failed him.
Tastes had moved on; Charles I’s court was much more formal than his father’s relaxed, bohemian, friendly and slightly louche court and ran his court very differently, much more formal. Grand and elaborate masques were in – raucous and rumbustious plays were out. Children can find their parents embarrassing I am told. Something of the excitement maybe had died; I am busking here, but drama was no longer quite so new and fresh and extraordinary. Tastes had changed away from the grand style, the historical epics, from Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’, which I am told is a thing with Marlowe; I did then find out what the mighty line is so here goes for my attempt at being a thesp. When Faustus meets Helen he says
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss
This is called Iambic Pentametre, folks five beats to a line, two syllables to each beat and the accent on the second beat. By Golly. Let’s give that a go shall we with one line
Not sure I got that quite right. Any advice welcome before I contact Rada don’t you know darlings. Hove actually.
Anyway, they had moved away from that sort of thing, and focussed instead on light, amusing comedies. Thomas Heywood, in his apology for Actors written in 1612 had said
A play’s a true transparent crystal mirror,
To show good minds their mirth, the bad their terror.
Maybe that wasn’t quite so true anymore maybe it was more simply a pastime. And it not only has the changing and maybe declining thing, of course, it has a hard stop. The civil wars happen, and the world was turned upside down. In 1642 Radical, puritan protestant views meant that the religious finally got their way, and in 1642 parliament banned plays because they were full of ‘lascivious merth and levity” which is, to be fair, true and a good point. In 1648 the theatres themselves were actually pulled down, and we’ll have to wait for another flowering of English theatre under the Restoration, when they made up for lost time.
Well that brings me to the end I guess, and I am very conscious of all the stuff I have not covered – I haven’t really covered the plays and developments of form, style and meaning and all of that because I’m not really competent to do so, sorry – no, I mean – wah wah oops. But I have done my best. What does it all mean, gentle listeners, any last reflections? One thing that strikes me is the extraordinary diversity of what goes on. Some RSC director talked about the fact that they had complete freedom of form; they stole ideas from all over the place, but there were relatively few rules so they could busk, and busk they did – obviously whoever it was, said it much more eloquently than that.
I also read, Laurence Manley this was, that in a way Protestantism was a core part of this, ironically, the extremists being responsible for its cancelling. On the one hand, the divines raged against this new format which threatened the social order, encouraged licentious living and sin, and they were joined by secular authorities in panicking about this ‘third authority’ that seemed to have been created – where people could think about complicated issues of authority, morality, behaviour – and have a blast at the same time. Partly all this invective and attempts to repress were exactly what liberated drama. Stay with me on this; the idea is that quite early on, an explicit treatment of religious themes, the kind of religious, and pious story telling of the Mystery Plays and Urban cycles was not appropriate for the boozing, crime infested, bucket of wee populated, uncontrolled environment of the London theatre. So, liberated from the requirement to educate and inform they so longer did, they had to look to entertain, and other territory. And they found it.
It turns out that those in authority were absolutely right of course, in worrying about this third authority. Because the London theatre did give people things to think about in an atmosphere that was much less controlled than the players travelling to county towns or performing in the lord’s hall – or most certainly that the controlled atmosphere of the court masque – or that ultimate source of education – the pulpit. Here I must say, I am definitely relying on the thoughts of others – when I go to the theatre I just want a good supper, a good story or a bit of a laugh, and then off to bed. But for the more intelligent and reflective souls I understand are out there, the plays in our period covered an extraordinary range of topic – current events and controversies for example; so, while pious religious instruction was off the agenda, religious controversy still makes an appearance. For example, Archbishop Whitgift in 1589 sponsored a play that was delivered by both boys and adult companies, probably including the Queen’s Men, to run a series of performances ridiculing the extreme puritan fake character Martin prelate. It was apparently, rather crude and OTT, so much so that Francis Bacon complained bitterly. Admittedly, this was part of the process of removing overt religion from the stage – the Privy Council issued new censorship instructions which deal with players who
Handle in their plays certain matters of divinity and state unfit to be suffered
But religious controversy and themes continued to be covered, if obliquely. I’m told Malvolio for example is supposed to be a puritan send up isn’t he? I never liked Twelfth Night, always felt sorry for Malvolio. Ho Hum. And Marlowe, I am told in The Massacre in Paris was careful to place the Catholic atrocities of St Bartholomew’s day next to the various Huguenot treacheries, forcing protestants to examine their own instincts and values.
Anyway, we were on themes that appeared on the London stage that took over from overt religious education; so current events and controversies, the history of England, the history of the ancient world, lands and people across the globe; or things closer to home and daily life – love, marriage, gender and sexuality, class, crime, in Othello people now ruminate maybe race – the triumph of renaissance theatre is its ability for people to re-interpret and invent it for new ages. All this was communicated through a variety of dramatic forms – episodic heroic plays like Tamburlaine I & II, morality tales like Dr Faustus, cautionary tales of the fall from grace like Edward II, and Revenge comedy, not something with which I am personally acquainted, but I am told the Jew of Malta is an example. These are all Marlowe aren’t they? I’m also told though that Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is another example, and that they’ve been linked back for inspiration to a Roman tradition by Seneca.
So I was talking about renaissance drama as a third authority. All of this then, these themes, these thrillingly presented ideas in a diverse and wildly socially and euphorically mixed atmosphere, gave the opportunity for independent thinking, for self awareness, reflection and the examination of maybe previously unexamined values and assumptions; if Socrates Johnson was correct in considering the unexamined life not worth living, he would surely have recommended renaissance theatre, though I’m not sure Bob Ghengis Khan would have agreed. At the same time, it has to be said, this subtly subversive theatre also supported many of those things that humanism had traditionally been about. It offered Counsel for the mighty in religion and politics; it complemented and provided an ornament of monarch, nobility, nationhood, and often sought and drew a wildly patriotic response; it was accessible and designed for popular consumption – more so than the state was comfortable with, to be honest. But overall maybe one of its greatest achievements was that it provided a Conscience; it gave the space and encouragement for ethical innovation and individualism.
Right that is definitively it now, I have noodled long enough, and indeed far too long I am sure many of you would say. It is not my specialist subject – but then to honest I’m not sure what is – but I know it is a subject on which many feel very passionate, so I am sorry for the various inanities, errors, evasions and omissions. But I hope you enjoyed it, I certainly feel more educated as a result, and that has to be a good thing surely.
 Donaldson, I Ben Jonson, ODNB
 Callaghan, Patrons of the Mermaid Tavern, ODNB; and Michelle Callaghan in the ‘That Shakespeare Life’ Podcast from Cassidy Cash, EP 161 https://www.cassidycash.com/ep-161-the-mermaid-tavern-with-michelle-ocallaghan