Team players, home and away

The Shakespearean Playing Companies
March 28, 1997

Paid for oppressing the Players per mr maiors order Pounds 0/10s/0d." This voice from the past sets the pulse racing. Was there some ancestral Major bent on arts cutbacks, a hereditary foe to the stage? But no, it is the Mayor of Exeter in 1630/31, licensing or blocking a touring company, and paying them off for a private performance. Even so, this entry has the genetic code of Andrew Gurr's masterly survey of the great era. It is a story of spectacular but ominous success, set against conflict between Court and City, London and the provinces. All the conflicts came down to the closing of the theatres in 1642, "the gradual shift of power from Elizabeth's Council to the king's bed chamber lords, and most challengeably to Charles himself and finally to its total takeover by Parliament, was in the end the main change that destroyed the companies."

The playing companies are studied through a general narrative from the 1560s on, followed by detailed accounts of each of the 40 companies that played in London during the period. All the court performances are listed, and so are all travelling records from the available counties in Records of Early English Drama. Not until the Reed project is concluded, some 20 years on, will it be possible to claim a full coverage of town and country records. The present synthesis is an authoritative updating of Chambers and Bentley.

The problem for the historian is always to hold on to the spine of plot, while making casts around the time-continuum. Gurr solves the main problem with a freeze-frame of Settled Practices in 1594. The patterns of playing were laid down then, with the establishment of two major companies, and modified over the years to come. Gurr gives an illuminating survey of company practices, and disposes of some myths. He does not accept that travelling entailed the use of shorter texts. The number of actors on tour was substantial; it was the stage helpers who got left behind. There is no correlation between the plague years and an increase in recorded playing in the provinces. For most companies, touring was probably a routine break rather than a forced response to closures. Though there is no direct evidence, Gurr thinks it likely that much company travel was by sea.

The travel records often turn up evidence of civic animosity. Provincial authorities did not much like touring companies, and required documentation from the sponsoring grandee. The City was still more opposed and successfully excluded playhouses from its territory. "Since the Mayor and his corporation were all citizen-employers in the great guilds that controlled all the workers of London, they had a vested interest in closing down shows that drew their employees away from their work." Others saw actors as the bringers of crime, disease, vagrancy, irreligion, and social unrest.

As civic opposition intensified, the Court's favour increased. The formal need was for performances at Court during an ever-growing "season": James was a great patron, and Charles, who took over the "King's Men" from his father in 1625, still more so. Charles I was buying and reading play texts when Sir Thomas Bodley was excluding them from his library. Court favour was central to the prosperity of the stage. When the Fortune was destroyed by fire (1622), it, like the Globe (1613) was soon rebuilt. "The speed and richness of its reconstruction testifies to the stability and the financial security that investment in playhouses now clearly offered." By 1620 the drama had been absorbed into the Establishment culture. But the social gap between the open-air amphitheatres (popular) and indoor hall-theatres (gentry and aristocracy) began to yawn after 1629. Gurr is particularly good on the characteristics of the two sorts of playhouse, and their implications. The playing companies had always to shape their compliance towards differing sources of power, and in the end authority turned decisively against them.

Time and again the present emerges, like a giant reversal of Schliemann. The 1594 settlement granted a duopoly to two companies, the Admiral's and the Lord Chamberlain's, in two approved playhouses, the Rose and the Theatre. It is not a world away from the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company: subsidy (or favour) is control. A duopoly is inherently competitive, and this enhances both quality of playing and balance-of-power mechanisms. The Privy Council had hit upon a principle of control that was playing well four centuries later.

For the actors, London was "home". The players had become London-based, and touring was for the second team. The form is familiar to our own State companies. Actors are attached to their 0171/0181 phone numbers. There was high unemployment, and in the late 1580s it was claimed that the town was infested with 200 idle players. This sounds close to the 70-80 per cent of Equity now on welfare (which the Department of Social Security is keen to "oppress"). But the rewards were substantial for those who became "sharers" and thus had a stake in the company. In the 1590s, the surviving lists of actors in Strange's Men show the sharing profession to advantage. Sharers' names were preceded by "Mr"; not so the other players, who were merely hired hands. This is like the cricket-team lists of a few decades ago, the amateurs (gentlemen) distinguished from the professionals (players). A history of English acting could well be focused to a single word, player.

Other practices peer at us from the past, scarcely inflected by time. Local residents objected to the Blackfriars theatre (a site, as Gurr says, equivalent to the West End) on the grounds that it would lower property values. Parking during performances was a problem, with coaches and crowds clogging the city as far as Ludgate. The playhouse was "a great annoyance for the clensinge of the streetes". The Privy Council's solution was to order playgoers to leave their coaches at St Paul's churchyard or the Fleet conduit, or send them away for the duration of the performance. The order was obeyed for three weeks. The Hope theatre was condemned as "stinking", a problem mirrored in the current renovation of Sadler's Wells. Even the going rate for playwrights has not changed much. The standard fee for a new play was Pounds 6: compare that with the BBC rate for an original 60-minute TV drama by an established writer, Pounds 6,790.

That most conservative of institutions, the stage, had in Shakespeare's day evolved into a form we can recognise. Andrew Gurr has written a fascinating and indispensable guide, that handles all aspects of a great story - technical, legal, social, financial - with great acuity and balance. It is also a first-class read, and takes its place on the shelf between Chambers and Bentley.

Ralph Berry is author of Shakespeare in Performance: Castings and Metamorphoses.

The Shakespearean Playing Companies

Author - Andrew Gurr
ISBN - 0 19 812977 7
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £55.00
Pages - 483

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