Ancient Theatre 
Medieval Theatre
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century

Email Us


THERE never was such a general passion for dramatic entertainments as during the Elizabethan period; the art was thoroughly studied and understood, as how could it be otherwise under the reign of such dramatists as Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Shakespeare? The actors lived in their fine old substantial city houses, or in grand country manors, such as Edward Alleyn inhabited at Dulwich, esteemed and sought after by the best people, and if commonly prudent, died rich and honored. Their worst enemy was the plague; while it raged, and that was pretty frequently, all theaters were closed, and they had to migrate into the country, which was not profitable.

But as Puritanism advanced, the prosperity of the theatrical profession began to decline. In 1622 there were but four principal companies--the King's, which acted at the Blackfriars and the Globe; the Prince's, at the Curtain; the Palgrave's, at the Fortune; the Queen of Bohemia's, at the Cockpit. 1629 was the first year in which a female performer was seen in the English theater. The innovation was introduced by a French company, but the women were hissed and pippin-pelted off the stage. This was at the new theater just opened in Salisbury Court. Three weeks afterwards they made a second attempt, but the audience would not tolerate them. King Charles and his Queen had a great love for dramatic entertainments; the latter frequently took part in the Court Masques, which brought down upon her the brutal language of that canting fellow Prynne. Yet in 1635 Sir Henry Herbert, the Master of the Revels, under whose jurisdiction all theatrical affairs were then placed, mentions only the King's company under Lowin and Taylor at Blackfriars, the Queens under Beeston at the Cockpit, the Prince's under Moore and Kane at the Fortune; in the next year he adds a fourth, doubtless Salisbury Court, to the list, which house was probably closed on the previous date.

On the 6th of September, 1642, the theaters were closed by ordinance, it being considered not seemly to indulge in any kind of diversions or amusements in such troublous times. In 1647 another and more imperative order was issued, in consequence of certain infractions of the previous one, threatening to imprison and punish as rogues all who broke its enactments. Close upon the heels of this second came a third, which declared all players to be rogues and vagabonds, and authorized the justices of the peace to demolish all stage galleries and seats; any actor discovered in the exercise of his vocation should for the first offense be whipped, for the second be treated as an incorrigible rogue, and every person found witnessing the performance of a stage play should be fined five shillings. Verily, the reign of Praise-God Barebones had commenced. But not even these stringent regulations were found sufficient, and in the next year a Provost-Marshal was appointed, whose duty it was to seize all ballad singers and suppress all stage-plays. It is mentioned in Whitelocke's Memorials, that on the 20th of December, 1649, some stage players were seized by troopers at the Red Bull, their clothes taken away, and themselves carried off to prison. What a change from the palmy days of Elizabeth and James! Happy were those who had passed away. The following, from Davies' "Miscellanies," is a striking picture of the condition of actors at this time:

"When the civil wars shut the doors of the theaters, many of the comedians, who had youth, spirit, and vigor of body, took up arms in defence of their royal master. When they could no longer serve him by the profession of acting, they boldly vindicated his cause on the field. Those who were too far advanced in age to give martial proofs of their loyalty, were reduced to the alternative of starving, or engaging in some employment to support their wants. During the first years of the unnatural contest between King and Parliament, the players were not unwelcome guests to those towns and cities which espoused the royal cause; but in London, where bigotry and opposition to the King were triumphant, they experienced nothing but persecution. A few of the nobility, indeed, who loved the amusements of the stage, encouraged the players to act in their houses privately; but the watchful eyes of furious zealots prevented all public exhibitions, except, as the author of Historia Histrionica asserts, now and then such as were given with great caution and privacy. Some time before the beheading of the unhappy Charles, a company of comedians was formed out of the wreck of several, who played at the Cockpit three or four times; but while they were acting Fletcher's Bloody Brother, the soldiers rushing in, put an end to the play, and carried the actors to Hatton House, at that time a sort of prison for royal delinquents; where they were confined two or three days, and, after being stripped of their stage apparel, were discharged. Much about this time, Lowin kept the Three Pigeons at Brentford, where he was attended by Joseph Taylor. Here they lingered out an uncomfortable existence, with scarce any other means of support than those which they obtained from the friends of royalty, and the old lovers of the drama who now and then paid them a visit and left them marks of their bounty. Upon these occasions Lowin and Taylor gave their visitors a taste of their quality. The first roused up the spirit and humor of Falstaff. Again the fat old rogue swore that he knew the Prince and Poins as well as he that made them. Hamlet, too, raised the visionary terrors of the ghost, and filled his select auditors with terror and amazement. To entertain their guests we must suppose they assumed various personages, and alternately excited merriment and grief. How often were those honest fellows surprised into a belief of the good news that the King and Parliament had come to treaty, that peace would be restored, and the King return to his capital in triumph. How would their countenances then be lighted up with joy, the glass cheerfully circulate, and the meeting be dismissed with: 'The King shall have his own again.' Their honest friend and associate, Goff, the actor of women's parts at Blackfriars and the Globe, was the usual jackall to summon the scattered comedians together, that they might exhibit at Holland House, or some nobleman's seat, within a few miles of the capital."

But not even "the saints" were immaculate; one Robert Cox found means to bribe the officers appointed to look after such affairs, and gave short interludes and "drolls" at the Red Bull to crowded houses, under the guise of rope-dancing entertainment. It was vile buffoonery, and could scarcely be dignified by the title of dramatic performance, and was therefore more likely to be tolerated by their saintships than the noble productions of Shakespeare and Beaumont; and therein they are closely followed by the Mawworms of the present day, who grin at the dreary and doubtful jokes of a circus clown, and gaze approvingly at the lightly-skirted young ladies with one toe on the bare-backed steed and the other in a horizontal line, but would consider it sinful to listen to the noble with of Touchstone, and highly indelicate to look upon Rosalind in her forester's dress. With a company consisting only of himself, a man, and a boy, Robert Cox contrived, in spite of ordinances, to travel all over the country, to perform at the Universities--which, for want of better things, eagerly welcomed his--and to make a large fortune by his mummeries.

But even the partisans of the Commonwealth were beginning to grow a little weary of the Cimmerian gloom and intellectual paralysis in which they lived, and having obtained the countenance of Whitelocke, Sir John Maynard, and other persons of distinction, Davenant, in 1656, opened a sort of theater at Rutland House, Charterhouse Yard, where he began with the representation of what he called an opera ("The Siege of Rhodes"). This was followed by other works of a similar kind. In 1658 he went a step farther, and opened the Cockpit with a performance he described as "The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru, expressed by instrumental and vocal music, and by the art of perspective in scenes, at the Cockpic in Drury Lane, at three in the afternoon." We see he carefully avoided the word "play," that red rag of bull-headed fanaticism. It is said that Cromwell's hatred of the Spaniards, who in this piece were held up to execration, had much to do with my Lord Protector giving his consent.

Two years afterwards came the Restoration, and a new order of things dramatic. Theaters began to revive, and plays were openly performed at the Red Bull, the Cockpit in Drury Lane, and the theater in Salisbury Court.

This article is reprinted from English Actors: From Shakespeare to Macready. Henry Barton Baker. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1879. pp. 27-35.


Find more articles on ELIZABETHAN THEATRE: 

eLibrary Logo

© 2003 TheatreDatabase.com