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The London Playing Bust of the Early 1580s and the Economics of Elizabethan Theater.

THE EARLY 1580s, to judge by the available evidence, was not a good time for the London theater scene. James Burbage and John Brayne, who in 1576 had built one of the first custom-built playhouses in England, the Theatre, were struggling to maintain ownership of their playhouse after mortgaging the lease in 1579. The first Blackfriars, an indoor playhouse for boy companies that had opened around the same time as the Theatre, was also going through complicated legal troubles that forced it to close in 1584. The Lord Mayor and aldermen closed the playhouses for fear of plague several times in 1580-81, after years of relative calm that had allowed professional theater to thrive, and the number of written allusions to plays and players falls off significantly in the early 1580s relative to the late 1570s, indicating a retrenchment of the London theater industry following the expansion of the previous decade.

This rough patch for Elizabethan players and theatrical entrepreneurs has been largely ignored in popular histories of the Elizabethan stage, which tend to treat most of the sixteenth century as a vague, undifferentiated period of primordial development. The 1580s are glossed over as a bridge period between the opening of the Theatre in 1576 and the glories of Shakespeare and the Chamberlain's Men. According to the standard narrative, peripatetic troupes of strolling players had long performed in innyards and open spaces, putting on morality plays and interludes for whatever money they could get. In 1574, Leicester's Men received the first royal patent ever given to a playing company, and soon after that moralistic London authorities cracked down on plays within the city (banning them outright in some versions), prompting the players to decamp to the suburbs and build the Theatre and other custom-built playhouses. Only after this, the story goes, was the theater commercialized and professionalized, allowing the players to settle down and paving the way for the golden age of Elizabethan drama.

Like so many other popular historical narratives, this one is not totally wrong, but it is vastly oversimplified. I would argue that it omits or glosses over many key factors, and greatly underestimates the economic sophistication of the London theater industry before the 1590s. There is ample evidence that professional drama in London had already been commercialized for more than three decades before the first permanent playhouses were built in the 1570s, and that throughout the sixteenth century it grew and developed in a series of boom-and-bust cycles, not unlike those later experienced by nascent industries such as railroads in the nineteenth century. The unprecedented proliferation of playhouses in the mid-1570s was not the cause of the commercialization of the London theater, but just one key development in the middle of a long process, and it was followed by the "bust" period of the early 1580s. In order to fully understand the boom and bust of the 1570s and 1580s, it's helpful to look at the broader context of sixteenth-century London, and at an earlier period of rapid growth for London theater.

This earlier boom period took place more than thirty years before the building of the Theatre and other custom-built suburban playhouses. While professional players were active in London throughout the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the first official attempts to control or regulate them are not recorded until the early 1540s. The earliest came on April 11, 1542, when Lord Mayor Michael Dormer ordered the aldermen to prevent "any commen playes or enterludes" within livery company halls, and six days after that Edmund Bonner, bishop of London, issued an injunction prohibiting all "common playes or interludes" in churches or chapels. A year later there was another multi-pronged crackdown. On March 30, the Mayor and Recorder complained to the Privy Council about "the licentiows manner off playours," and on April 10 the Privy Council committed to ward twenty joiners who had made a disguising on a Sunday morning, along with four players of the Lord Warden who had played contrary to orders. On April 1, the Common Council made Ambrose Chapman, citizen and draper, sign a bond saying he would no longer stage any disguisings or plays in Carpenter's Yard in St. Botolph's parish, and the following day, the Court of Aldermen made three citizens sign similar bonds promising not to permit interludes or common plays in their "dwelling houses" : William Blytheman, citizen and clothworker; George Tadlowe, citizen and haberdasher; and Thomas Hancock, citizen and vintner. (1)

Why did the authorities suddenly start trying to regulate stage playing in 1542? The most immediate factor was the religious turmoil caused by Henry VIII's break with Rome, which resulted in a proliferation of written polemics as well as stage plays with an overtly religious bent. The 1542 prohibitions by the Lord Mayor and the Bishop of London came a month after the Canterbury Convention of bishops had protested against "the contempt of God's Word" in plays. The 1543 order against Blytheman, Tadlowe, and Hancock also suppressed all plays in London because somebody had been setting up playbills on the Lord Mayor's gate "ageynst doctor Wilson & doctor Weston," two prominent conservative Catholic clergymen, and George Tadlowe had numerous connections to Protestant causes.

But why had those authorities not tried to control plays before 1542? One obvious reason was that it simply had not been popular enough before then to be worth the authorities' time. The sixteenth century was a time of rapid population growth for London, which helped it become a world-class city but also brought many problems, including increased crime, unemployment, homelessness, and plague outbreaks. (2) London authorities had a legitimate interest in trying to control these problems, even if they sometimes (arguably) went too far. One way they did this was by controlling leisure activities, especially those that caused people to gather in crowds. Starting in the 1470s, the London authorities made numerous attempts to control or regulate tennis, bowling, football, and other "unlawful games" that were becoming increasingly popular, and the evidence shows that these attempts did result in significant (though temporary) dips in those activities. (3) By the 1540s, theatrical audiences, fueled by population growth as well as the religious turmoil noted above, had finally become large enough to attract the attention of authorities and cause them to crack down.

But there was another major development happening at this time, related to the above two: playing in London was being commercialized, making it more independent and market-oriented than before, and harder to control. Before the 1540s, evidence for professional drama in London primarily involves civic drama and players being hired for specific occasions such as livery company feasts, as described by Anne Lancashire in London Civic Theatre. (4) Only in the late 1530s and early 1540s do we start to see evidence of players performing on their own initiative, with the anticipation (but not the guarantee) of making a profit. Instead of having a ready-made venue and audience, as at a livery company feast, these players had to hire out a place to play, attract their own audience using playbills or other forms of advertising, and charge this audience admission. All of these phenomena start to appear in the record in the early 1540s. Livery companies had long recorded payments to players for performances, but between 1537 and 1547 we find several companies recording payments from players who were hiring out their company halls to perform in for paying audiences; the 1542 order prohibiting plays in livery company halls comes right in the middle of that period. Also, the 1543 order against Blytheman, Tadlowe, and Hancock ordered "bylls for playes or interludes wythin this Cytye" to be pulled down, the earliest known reference to playbills in England. The previous day's order against Ambrose Chapman accused him of "allure[ing] & gathering]" a "multitude of people" to Carpenter's Yard for plays, so he had apparently advertised as well.

All of these factors--religious conflict, rapid population growth, and the commercialization of the stage--helped fuel a boom in London professional theater in the 1540s. This produced an official backlash, as described above, which probably slowed the growth of the commercial stage in the short term but did little to stop its long-term growth. One relevant feature of this growth over the next several decades is that players kept graduating to larger venues, presumably because their audiences were growing bigger. Of the three men made to sign bonds in 1543, the order against William Blytheman specified that he was not to have plays in "the Erie of Northumberlondes place," a large medieval building with a hall where plays were still being performed more than twenty years later. The other two men from that order, George Tadlowe and Thomas Hancock, both ran taverns (the White Horse and the Pope's Head) across the street from each other on Lombard Street, and it was presumably in these that they had been hosting plays. Over the next several decades, though, there are fewer and fewer references to taverns as playing venues, while starting in the 1550s some antitheatrical orders mention inns, which were typically larger than taverns, and often had yards big enough for a stage and audience.

This brings us to the momentous changes of the 1570s and the subsequent difficulties of the early 1580s. As I noted at the start of this essay, the standard narrative of Elizabethan theater history says that an attempt by the London authorities to suppress playing in the mid-1570s--specifically a 1574 Common Council order that placed many restrictions on playing--drove the players out of the city to the suburbs, where they built open-air playhouses such as the Theatre and the Curtain and subsequently thrived. Various elements of this narrative have been challenged, notably by William Ingram's The Business of Playing, which puts the theatrical events of the mid-1570s in a broader social and economic context. (5) Ingram points out that the 1574 act specified that any innkeeper or other person hosting plays within the city had to pay licensing fees, and that this money was to go to the poor in the hospitals of the city (St. Thomas's, St. Bartholomew's, Bethlehem, Bridewell, and Christ's Hospital). It is difficult to see why the Common Council would make these hospitals financially dependent on fees from plays if they really intended to drive the players out of the city entirely. As Ingram suggests, it is much more likely that the Common Council's goal was not to ban plays in the city, but simply to regulate and make money from them (to "monetize" them, in modern business parlance), and that the players' exodus to the suburbs was an unintended consequence.

But the players did not all move to the suburbs, as the traditional narrative would have it. The first two London playhouses to appear in the records after the 1574 order were those in St. Paul's and the Bell Savage inn; both were in the city, and both were in operation by the end of 1575, months before any of the suburban playhouses opened. The playhouse in St. Paul's, and the slightly later first Blackfriars, are usually explained away as being in religious "liberties" not under the direct control of the Lord Mayor, aldermen, and Common Council. But this was not true of the Bell Savage, and the three other London inns that became playhouses in the mid15708--the Bull in Bishopsgate Street, and the Bell and the Cross Keys in Gracechurch Street. These four inns were all in the city, subject to the direct control of the Lord Mayor, aldermen, and Common Council, yet they continued to host plays regularly into the 1590s. Interestingly, none of these four inns is recorded hosting plays before 1575; they all first show up in the theatrical record in the mid-1570s, around the same time as the suburban Theatre and Curtain. Even more interestingly, James Burbage and John Brayne, the owners of the Theatre, had their company perform in these city inns--they were scheduled to perform at the Bell on January 1, 1578, and Burbage was arrested for debt on June 23,1579, as he was walking down Gracechurch Street to the Cross Keys for a play. (6) This makes little sense if Burbage and Brayne really built the Theatre to escape the hostile city authorities, and it further undermines the idea that the open-air suburban playhouses "replaced" city inns.

A much better explanation for the facts, I suggest, is that the London theatrical world was undergoing another major boom period in the 1570s, and all these playhouses were built to take advantage of the increased demand and larger audiences. An astonishing nine new playhouses opened in and around London in the second half of the 1570s--St. Paul's, the first Blackfriars, the four inns (the Bell Savage, Bull, Bell, and Cross Keys), the Theatre, the Curtain, and the Newington Butts playhouse. Only the last three of these were built in the suburbs; the other six were in the city, despite its supposed hostility to players. The proprietors of all these venues must have had reasonable expectations of attracting enough of an audience to make money. After the Common Council passed the 1574 ordinance, four innkeepers in the city--William Howson of the Bell Savage, Matthew Harrison of the Bull, Henry Haughton of the Bell, and Richard Ibbotson of the Cross Keys--decided that it was worth their while to comply with the new restrictions, pay the fees, and possibly make infrastructure improvements, and those inns became part-time playhouses. (7) Sebastian Westcott of St. Paul's and Richard Farrant of the Chapel Royal similarly built playhouses within the city, though it is not clear whether they were subject to all the same restrictions. In fact, the 1574 ordinance may have encouraged all these men to build their playhouses, by clarifying the rules and costs for those who wanted to host plays in the city.

The builders of the three suburban playhouses--James Burbage and John Brayne for the Theatre, Jerome Savage of Warwick's Men for Newington Butts, and possibly Henry Lanman for the Curtain--took a different tack. They bet that the playgoing audience in London had now grown large enough to support amphitheaters made specifically for plays, capable of holding many more people than inns or other city venues. Avoiding the new fees from the 1574 ordinance was undoubtedly one factor in the decision to build these amphitheaters in the suburbs, but a bigger factor must have been the lower cost of land and leases outside the city. These were capital-intensive projects, and Burbage and Brayne, at least, had to borrow quite a bit of money. Of course, St. Paul's, Blackfriars, and the four inns had the advantage of being right in the middle of a huge and growing population, and the further one got from the city walls, the harder it would have been to attract an audience. But the city was so densely packed (and expensive) that it made sense to go outside the city to build more expansive playing venues, and this turned out to be a good bet. The inns would continue to host plays for almost 20 years, but by the mid-1590s audiences had outgrown them for good, and they ceased to be used as playhouses.

The 1570s were an exceptionally favorable time for professional players: London's population continued to boom with the country at peace, the granting of royal patents starting in 1574 leant players respectability, and the only plague closure during the decade was one in the winter of 1574-5, when there probably would not have been much playing anyway. (8) Between 1575 and 1580, a multitude of references to plays, playhouses, and playgoers, both printed and in official records, testify to the broad popularity of plays with all segments of society. These include attacks on The Theatre and the new suburban playhouses by preachers such as Thomas White, John Northbrooke, and John Stockwood; references in popular literature such as George Gascoigne's Glasse of Government (1575) and John Florio's First Fruites (1578; "Where shall we go? To a play at the Bull, or else to some other place"); and the records of Bride-well Hospital, which record inmates who had attended performances at all four inn-playhouses plus the Curtain. (9) The good times could not last forever, though. Lots of people put money into the theater, as shown by the nine playhouses that opened within such a short period of time, and some of them took risks that they might not have taken in less heady times. It is not unreasonable to see the situation as a bubble that was bound to pop at some point, or at least deflate.

No single event deflated the bubble, but a series of things happened in 1580 and 1581 that put a major damper on the boom. On February 21, 1580, a Middlesex jury indicted James Burbage and John Brayne for "great affrays, reviling, tumult and near insurrections, and divers other malefactions and enormities" at the Theatre. (10) On April 6 an earthquake shook London during a performance at the Theatre, prompting much public comment; four days later there was a riot at the Theatre, drawing the attention of the Lord Mayor; and a few days after that, Robert Leveson and Law rence Dutton of the Earl of Oxford's players were imprisoned in the Marshalsea for getting into a fight with some Inns of Court men. Worst of all, a few days later on April 17, the Privy Council sent a letter to the justices of the peace of Middlesex (where the Theatre and Curtain were located) banning plays until Michaelmas (September 29) due to fear of the plague, and on May 13 they sent a similar letter to the justices of the peace for Surrey (where the Newington Butts playhouse was). This five-month plague closure was followed in 1581 by another one that started on July 10 and was supposed to go to the end of September, but which apparently extended into December. (11)

These closures due to plague were the first since the building of the playhouses, and they cannot have been easy on the players, especially after several years of good times. On December 3, 1581, a group of playing companies petitioned the Privy Council that "in respect of their pore estates, having noe other meanes to sustayne them, their wyves and children but their exercise of playing," they should be allowed to start playing again; the councilors agreed, as long as there was no playing on Sundays. (12) James Burbage and John Brayne were especially hard hit because they had borrowed a lot of money to build the Theatre and had mortgaged the lease on the property to John Hyde for 125 [pounds sterling] on September 26, 1579, for a period of one year and one day. The plague closure that began in April 1580 made Burbage and Brayne unable to repay the mortgage when it came due (and their indictment in February probably did not help either); Hyde agreed to let them pay 5 [pounds sterling] a week, but they only did that for four or five weeks. After much more legal wrangling, James Burbage's son Cuthbert eventually got the lease back from Hyde, but Burbage and Brayne very nearly lost it.

The first Blackfriars playhouse also ran into major problems in the early 1580s. Richard Farrant, musician and Deputy Master of the choristers of the Chapel Royal, had built the playhouse in late 1576 in space he leased in Blackfriars, and he used it for public play performances by boys from the Chapel Royal. Owner Sir William More tried to evict Farrant in 1580 when he found out that the space was being used as a playhouse, but Farrant died around December 1, leaving the lease to his wife Anne. In a petition to More dated December 25, 1580, Anne Farrant lamented that her husband had died "greatly indebted" and that she didn't have "the revenue of one groat." In about September 1581, she sublet the playhouse to William Hunnis, master of the Chapel Royal, and John Newman, but they paid their rent only sporadically, suggesting that the playhouse was a financial failure. After dueling lawsuits between Anne Farrant and Hunnis and Newman in 1583-84, the playhouse was shut down in 1584 after More seized the property.

We know about the details of the financial troubles of the Theatre and Blackfriars because of the lawsuits that resulted, but it appears that other theater people in London suffered similarly during this period. The December 1581 petition by the playing companies, referred to above, is evidence for this, as is the fact that written references to playing and specific playhouses all but dry up in 158082, apart from the prohibitions by the Privy Council and a few anti-theatrical tracts such as Stephen Gosson's Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1582). But this low point for London playing did not last forever, of course. The formation of the Queen's Men in 1583, from an all-star roster of some of the best actors in London, gave the industry a boost, and by 1587 things were going well enough for Phillip Henslowe to partner with John Cholmeley to build the Rose, the first new playhouse in a decade and the first one to be built on the Bankside. Henslowe expanded the Rose in early 1592, just before the nearly two-year plague outbreak that closed the playhouses for long stretches of time and radically reordered the London theatrical world.

Narratives are powerful things, and some of the narratives created by nineteenth-century theater historians still retain their grip on the field, in one form or another. Most of those that have survived are still useful, but it is all too easy for historians of the Elizabethan theater to repeat stories that "everybody knows," or to become too attached to a narrative because it seems right. The standard narrative of the development of the Elizabethan theater has rightly emphasized the importance of the Theatre and other playhouses that opened in the mid-1570s, but it has also given the false impression that those playhouses represent the beginning of Elizabethan theater, before which there was only uncommercialized, quasi-medieval theatrical activity. To some extent this misperception derives from the relatively sparse state of historical knowledge in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when these narratives were developed and took hold. Now that we know a lot more about how London theater developed in the sixteenth century, it is apparent that the building of the Theatre was just one step in a long process of growth, development, and commercialization, and that this process did not proceed at a uniform rate. In this essay, I hope to have shown what this process was like, at least in its broad outlines. By focusing on the now-forgotten theatrical difficulties of the early 1580s and the historical context that helps us make sense of it, I hope to have demonstrated that looking at Elizabethan theater history through an economic prism can be helpful, and can highlight aspects of that history that do not get the attention they deserve.


(1.) The facts in this and the next two paragraphs are discussed in more detail in David Kathman, "The Rise of Commercial Playing in 1540s London," Early Theatre 12, no. 1 (2009), 15-38.

(2.) See, for example, chapter 1 of Paul Griffiths, Lost Londons: Change, Crime and Control in the Capital City 1550-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

(3.) I discuss these attempts in "'The Madnes of Tenys' and the Commercialization of Pastimes in Sixteenth-Century London," forthcoming in Games and Theatre in Early Modern England (edited by Tom Bishop, Gina Bloom, and Erika T. Lin), detailing how the popularity of tennis in London between 1470 and 1530, as measured by the sale of tennis balls, waxed and waned in close concert with official attempts to ban or regulate it.

(4.) Anne Lancashire, London Civic Theatre: City Drama and Pageantry from Roman Times to 1558 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

(5.) William Ingram, The Business of Playing: The Beginnings of the Adult Professional Theater in Elizabethan London (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992).

(6.) David Kathman, "Inn-Yard Playhouses," in Richard Dutton, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 157.

(7.) Herbert Berry, "The Bell Savage Inn and Playhouse in London," Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 19 (2006): 121-43; David Kathman, "Alice Layston and the Cross Keys," Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 22 (2009): 144-78; David Kathman, "Inn-Yard Playhouses"; David Kathman, "London Inns as Playing Venues for the Queen's Men," in Helen Ostovich, Holger Schott Syme, and Andrew Griffin, eds., Locating the Queen's Men, 1583-1603 (London: Routledge, 2009), 71-72.

(8.) See E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923), 4:268-78.

(9.) See Kathman, "Inn-Yard Playhouses," 156-58; and Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4:196-201.

(10.) Herbert Berry, "Playhouses," in Glynne Wickham, Herbert Berry, William Ingram, eds., English Professional Theatre 1530-1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 341.

(11.) Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4:478-80.

(12.) Ibid., 4:484.
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Title Annotation:FORUM: Drama of the 1580s
Author:Kathman, David
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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