Tuesday, 29 May 2012

From Sturdy Beggars to Famous Players

Hollar's view of London, 1647, showing the second 'Globe' theatre on Bankside
The Origins of English Theatre
Before the sixteenth century, most English drama was of a religious or didactic nature - albeit often comical and irreverent in places, to hold the audience's attention. Court masques of the early Tudor era may have retold great English historical events or classical stories, sometimes using actors known as 'mummers', but the concept of theatre as mass secular entertainment did not yet exist.

Design by Inigo Jones for a Knight in a Masque
The Vagabond Act
In 1572 the Vagabond Act was drawn up to repress the unpleasant sight of 'sturdy beggars' on street corners, where townsfolk feared they might be tempted to steal or begin a brawl, as beggars often did, and also to help those temporary poor who would accept help from local town councils. The Vagabond Act announced that all

'Fencers, Bearewards, Common Players, Minstrels, Jugglers, Pedlars, Tinkers and Petty Chapmen ... shall be taken and adjudged to be deemed Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars' (my italics).

After an earlier Act, the punishment for any beggar refusing to accept relief or local work was to be publicly whipped and chased from the town. It might also have been used to deter those beggars who were sick from entering a town and spreading disease there. Some might even have been previously wealthy people who had lost their lands or money and had no home:

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark!
The beggars are coming to town:
Some in rags, some in tags
And one in a velvet gown.

Before this punitive Act, the 'common players' of England were free to wander the country, acting their plays in return for board and lodging in every town they visited. But after 1572, the only way these wandering players could escape a flogging, fine or imprisonment was to show a proper Licence, usually only given to a troop under the protection of a powerful patron.

How the Great Companies were Formed
It's not surprising, then, that most players in the late 1500s either had to form a new troop or attach themselves to an established theatrical company in order to earn a living, and that these companies were often named after the wealthy patrons who supported their endeavours: the Lord Admiral's men, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the Queen's Men etc.

A map of London showing the Playhouses: Joseph Quincy Adams. Image credit C. W. Redwood. Click here to see an enlarged version.
Their patron was unlikely to provide his players with a dedicated playhouse of their own, however. Early company players still had to roam the land most of the year, playing in the larger taverns, town halls or country houses, all in the name of their respected patron. But in the later years of the sixteenth century, dedicated playhouses like the Theatre (1576) and the Curtain (1577) began to appear for the first time in London, deliberately built out in fields north of the city boundaries to avoid the repressive edicts of the City Fathers. These seem to have given plays and playing a more respectable and settled air than they had enjoyed with the wandering players of earlier times, though most saw them as places of ill-repute where gambling, drunkenness and prostitution were rife.

Bulls, Bears and Stage Murders
The late 1500s was a time of great social growth and mobility in London. More people meant more large-scale entertainment was required, to keep the masses happy in their leisure time. There was money to be made in entertainment, and bear-baiting pits competed with playhouses to pull in the crowds.

Soon the old playhouses proved too far out to attract larger audiences, and the bustling area of Southwark's Bankside became the new playground for those with a few pennies to spend on a day out. Grisly on-stage murders and historical battle reenactments became popular, and players had to be able to stage a realistic sword-fight as well as speak clearly enough over the ruckus for those who had paid for a seat in the galleries.

Richard Burbage, an early theatrical impresario and friend of William Shakespeare: his old 'Theatre' was dismantled, moved across the Thames, and became 'The Globe'
These new dedicated theatres turned some players and company directors into wealthy business men. The principal players in each company tended to be those who held 'shares' in their newly-built theatres, many of them reaping vast rewards from choosing to invest in this brand-new form of entertainment - the secular play!

Rags to Riches
But of course new plays had to be written to satisfy the quickly jaded tastes of these sophisticated London audiences, and that is where Tudor playwrights like the young William Shakespeare learnt their trade. By the turn of the century and Queen Elizabeth's death, 'going to the play' was established as one of the most lucrative forms of mass entertainment, so that the Jacobean era opened on a wealth of new talent and experimentation on the London stage.

How things had changed for these former vagabonds of the open road! Far from being whipped out of town as 'sturdy beggars', the players of early seventeenth century England were more likely to be wealthy and famous men, cheered in the street and ardently pursued by the bored wives and daughters of the mercantile and professional classes.

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Many thanks for visiting my website and commenting! Victoria.