"THIS populace that watched with joy the cruel torment of a bear or the execution of a Catholic, also delighted in the romantic comedies of Shakespeare. This people, so appallingly credulous and ignorant, so brutal, childish, so mercurial compared with Englishmen of today, yet set the standard of national greatness. This absurdly decorated gallant could stab a rival in the back, or write a penitential lyric. Each man presented strange, almost inexplicable, contrasts in character, as Bacon or Raleigh, or Elizabeth herself. The drama mingles its sentiment and fancy with horrors and bloodshed; and no wonder, for poetry was no occupation of the cloister. Read the lives of the poets--Surrey, Wyatt, Sidney, Spenser, Raleigh, Marlowe, Jonson--and of these, only Spenser and Jonson died in their beds, and Ben had killed his man in a duel. . . . Crime, meanness, and sexual depravity often appear in the closest juxtaposition with imaginative idealism, intellectual freedom, and moral grandeur. . . ."
-- NEILSON and THORNDIKE, Facts About Shakespeare
THE theatre as a public amusement was an innovation in the social life of the Elizabethans, and it immediately took the general fancy. Like that of Greece or Spain, it developed with amazing rapidity. London's first theater was built when Shakespeare was about twelve years old; and the whole system of the Elizabethan theatrical world came into being during his lifetime. The great popularity of plays of all sorts led to the building of playhouses both public and private, to the organization of innumerable companies of players both amateur and professional, and to countless difficulties connected with the authorship and licensing of plays. Companies of actors were kept at the big baronial estates of Lord Oxford, Lord Buckingham and others. Many strolling troupes went about the country playing wherever they could find welcome. They commonly consisted of three, or at most four men and a boy, the latter to take the women's parts. They gave their plays in pageants, in the open squares of the town, in the halls of noblemen and other gentry, or in the courtyards of inns.
Regulation and licensing of plays. The control of these various companies soon became a problem to the community. Some of the troupes, which had the impudence to call themselves "Servants" of this or that lord, were composed of low characters, little better than vagabonds, causing much trouble to worthy citizens. The sovereign attempted to regulate matters by granting licenses to the aristocracy for the maintenance of troupes of players, who might at any time be required to show their credentials. For a time it was also a rule that these performers should appear only in the halls of their patrons; but this requirement, together with many other regulations, was constantly ignored. The playwrights of both the Roman and the Protestant faith uses the stage as a sort of forum for the dissemination of their opinions; and it was natural that such practices should often result in quarrels and disturbances. During the reign of Mary, the rules were strict, especially those relating to the production of such plays as The Four P's, on the ground that they encouraged too much freedom of thought and criticism of public affairs. On the other hand, during this period the performance of the mysteries was urged, as being one of the means of teaching true religion.
Elizabeth granted the first royal patent to the Servants of the Earl of Leicester in 1574. These "Servants" were James Burbage and four partners; and they were empowered to play "comedies, tragedies, interludes, stage-plays and other such-like" in London and in all other towns and boroughs in the realm of England; except that no representation could be given during the time for Common Prayer, or during a time of "great and common Plague in our said city of London." Under Elizabeth political and religious subjects were forbidden on the stage.
Objections to playhouses. In the meantime, respectable people and officers of the Church frequently made complaint of the growing number of play-actors and shows. They said that the plays were often lewd and profane, that play-actors were mostly vagrant, irresponsible, and immoral people; that taverns and disreputable houses were always found in the neighborhood of the theaters, and that the theater itself was a public danger in the way of spreading disease. The streets were overcrowded after performances; beggars and loafers infested the theater section, crimes occurred in the crowd, and 'prentices played truant in order to go to the play. These and other charges were constantly being renewed, and in a measure they were all justly founded. Elizabeth's policy was to compromise. She regulated the abuses, but allowed the players to thrive. One order for the year 1576 prohibited all theatrical performances within the city boundaries; but it was not strictly enforced. The London Corporation generally stood against the players; but the favor of the queen and nobility, added to the popular taste, in the end proved too much for the Corporation. Players were forbidden to establish themselves in the city, but could not be prevented from building their playhouses just across the river, outside the jurisdiction of the Corporation and yet within easy reach of the play-going public.
This compromise, however, did not end the criticism of the public. Regulations and restrictions were constantly being imposed or renewed; and, no doubt, as constantly broken. In the end this intermittent hostility to the theater acted as a sort of beneficient censorship. The more unprincipled of the actors and playwrights were held in check by the fear of losing what privileges they had, while the men of ability and genius found no real hindrance to their activity. Whatever the reason, the English stage was far purer and more wholesome than either the French or Italian stage in the corresponding era of development. However much in practice the laws were evaded or broken, the drama maintained a comparatively manly and decent standard. There was no Calandra, no Aretino or Machiavelli of the Elizabethan stage.
Companies of actors. In 1578 six companies were granted permission by special order of the queen to perform plays. They were the Children of the Chapel Royal, Children of Saint Paul's, the Servants of the Lord Chamberlain, Servants of Lords Warwick, Leicester, and Essex. The building of the playhouses outside the city had already begun in 1576. One of the popular catches of the day runs:
- List unto my ditty!
- Alas, the more the pity,
- From Troynovant's old city
- The Aldermen and Mayor
- Have driven each poor player.
This banishment was not a misfortune, but one of the causes of immediate growth. There was room for as many theaters as the people desired; a healthy rivalry was possible. In Shoreditch were built the Theater and the Curtain. At Blackfriars the Servants of Lord Leicester had their house, modeled roughly after the courtyard of an inn, and built of wood. Twenty years later it was rebuilt by a company which numbered Shakespeare among its members. In the meantime, the professional actor gained something in the public esteem, and occasionally became a recognized and solid member of society. Theatrical companies were gradually transformed from irregular associations of men dependent on the favor of a lord, to stable business organizations; and in time the professional actor and the organized company triumphed completely over the stroller and the amateur.
Playhouses. the number of playhouses steadily increased. Besides the three already mentioned, there were in Southwark the Hope, the Rose, the Swan, and Newington Butts, on whose stage The Jew of Malta, the first Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, and Tamburlaine had their premieres. At the Red Bull some of John Heywood's plays appeared. Most famous of all were the Globe, built in 1598 by Richard Burbage, and the Fortune, built in 1599. The Globe was hexagonal without, circular within, a roof extending over the stage only. The audience stood in the yard, or pit, or sat in the boxes built around the walls. Sometimes the young gallants sat on the stage. The first Globe was burned in 1613 and rebuilt by King James and some of his noblemen. It was this theater which, in the latter part of their career, was used by Shakespeare and Burbage in summer. In winter they used the Blackfriars in the city. At the end of the reign of Elizabeth there were eleven theaters in London, including public and private houses. Various members of the royal family were the ostenstible patrons of the new companies. The boys of the choirs and Church schools were trained in acting; and sometimes they did better than their elders.
Composition and ownership of plays. Scholars and critics have inherited an almost endless number of literary puzzles from the Elizabethan age. A play might be written, handed over to the manager of a company of actors, and produced with or without the author's name. In many instances the author forgot or ignored all subsequent affairs connected with it. If changes were required, perhaps it would be given to some well known playwright to be "doctored" before the next production. Henslowe, who had an interest in several London theaters, continuously employed playwrights, famous and otherwise, in working out new, promising material for his actors. Most dramatists of the time served an apprenticeship, in which they did anything they were asked to do. Sometimes they made the first draft of a piece which would be finished by a more experienced hand; sometimes they collaborated with another writer; or they gave the finishing touches to a new play; or revamped a Spanish, French, or Italian piece in an attempt to make it more suitable for the London public.
The plays were the property, not of the author, but of the acting companies. Aside from the costly costumes, they formed the most valuable part of the company's capital. The parts were learned by the actors, and the manuscript locked up. If the piece became popular, rival managers often stole it by sending to the performance a clerk who took down the lines in shorthand. Neither authors nor managers had any protection from pirate publishers, who frequently issued copies of successful plays without the consent of either. Many cases of missing or mutilated scenes, faulty lines or confused grammar may be laid to the door of these copy brigands. In addition to this, after the play had had a London success, it was cut down, both in length and in the number of parts, for the use of strolling players--a fact which of course increased the chances of mutilation.
Performances. Public performances generally took place in the afternoon, beginning about three o'clock and lasting perhaps two hours. Candles were used when daylight began to fade. The beginning of the play was announced by the hoisting of a flag and the blowing of a trumpet. There were playbills, those for tragedy being printed in red. Often after a serious piece a short farce was also given; and at the close of the play the actors, on their knees, recited an address to the king or queen. The price of entrance varied with the theater, the play, and the actors; but it was roughly a penny to sixpence for the pit, up to half a crown for a box. A three-legged stool on the stage at first cost sixpence extra; but this price was later doubled.
The house itself was not unlike a circus, with a good deal of noise and dirt. Servants, grooms, 'prentices and mechanics jostled each other in the pit, while more or less gay companies filled the boxes. Women of respectability were few, yet sometimes they did attend; and if they were very careful of their reputations they wore masks. On the stage, which ran far out into the auditorium, would be seated a few of the early gallants, playing cards, smoking, waited upon by their pages; and sometimes eating nuts or apples and throwing things out among the crowd. At first there was little music, but soon players of instruments were added to the company. The stage was covered with straw or rushes. There may have been a painted wall with trees and hedges, or a castle interior with practicable furniture. A placard announced the scene. Stage machinery seems never to have been out of use, though in the early Elizabethan days it was probably primitive. The audience was near and could view the stage from three sides, so that no "picture" was possible, as in the tennis-court stage of Paris. Whatever effects were gained were the result of the gorgeous and costly costumes of the actors, together with the art and skill with which they were able to invest their rôles. The inn-court type of stage required a bold, declamatory method in acting and speaking; and these requirements were no doubt speedily reflected in the style of the playwrights.
England was the last of the European countries to accept women on the stage. In the year 1629 a visiting company of French players gave performances at Blackfriars, with actresses. An English writer of the time called these women "monsters"; and the audience would have none of them. They were hissed and "pippin-pelted" from the stage. Boy actors were immensely popular, and the schools were actually the training ground for many well known comedians and tragedians. The stigma of dishonor rested, however, upon the whole profession, playwrights, players, and on the theater itself. The company in the pit was rough, likely to smell of garlic and to indulge in rude jests. The plays were often coarse and boisterous, closely associated with bear-baiting and cock-fighting. Playwrights and actors belonged to a bohemian, half-lawless class. The gallants who frequented the play led fast lives, and were constantly charged with the corruption of innocence.
Comparison between an Elizabethan and an Athenian performance affords interesting contrasts and similarities. The Athenian festival was part of an important religious service, for which men of affairs gave their time and money. Every sort of government support was at its disposal, and manuscripts were piously preserved. All this was contrary to the practice of the Elizabethans, who tried to suppress the shows, lost many of their most precious manuscripts, and banished the plays to a place outside the city walls. In both countries, however, the audiences were made up of all classes of people who freely expressed their liking or disapproval. In each country the period of dramatic activity followed close upon the heels of great military and naval victories; and the plays of both countries reflect the civil and national pride.
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