Reading the riot acts and scenes of London's violent theatrical past

International collaboration casts light on early modern social history. Matthew Reisz reports

March 3, 2011

On 13 January 1583, seven spectators were killed and many more injured when part of the scaffolding collapsed during Sunday bear-baiting at Paris Garden in London.

Five days later, a pamphlet listed the names and professions of the deceased, but argued that the tragedy was a sign of God's displeasure at entertainment on the Sabbath and called on the government to close down the dicing houses and cockfighting pits.

On 12 November 1632, representatives of one theatre company petitioned the Master of the Revels for the return of a boy actor called Stephen Hammerton who had been "stolen" by a rival troupe.

Several other accounts detail how apprentices wrecked the Phoenix Playhouse - also known as the Cockpit - on 8 March 1617. One notes that they had also "pulled downe seuen or eight houses and defaced fiue times as many, besides many other outrages as beating the sheriffe from his house with stones and dooing much other hurt too long to write...I make no question but we shall see some of them hangd the next weeke."

Such intriguing fragments of social history, and of London theatrical life at the time of Shakespeare and beyond, have just been made available in a free online database. The resource, titled Early Modern London Theatres, is the work of an international research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The project also received support from Records of Early English Drama, based in Toronto, Canada, which is producing a number of complementary databases.

Early Modern London Theatres brings together all the material relating to the eight theatres in Middlesex and Westminster up to 1642, which is cited by later writers. In the words of the principal investigator, John McGavin, professor of English at the University of Southampton, "it shows how we got our information about the early theatres, from whom and when".

There are already plans to extend its coverage to theatres on the South Bank of the Thames, such as the Globe.

Search facilities, provided by the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King's College London, make it easy to follow up references to the Plague, individual theatres or material from particular sources such as the Privy Council.

There is also a learning zone aimed at older school pupils and students, featuring a tutorial using the 1617 riots as an example.

This, explained Professor McGavin, teaches the crucial lesson that "history is a selection of documents and interpretations. All the things we think of as natural and true have gone through a filtration process. What emerges from the reports is the extraordinary complexity of motivation in an event such as the riots.

"We're lucky that the student protests have made it so topical."

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