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Were There Playgoers During the 1580s?

TO BEGIN BY TAKING the most extreme position: "no." There were no playgoers during the earliest days of London's public playhouses. In making this claim, I do not mean to deny that people attended plays during what Andy Kesson terms the "long 1580s": the period between the mid-1570s and the mid-1590s. My claim is instead that "playgoer" was not yet a clearly defined identity, in part because during this decade attending a play was not always understood to be a distinct activity from acting in a play. Consequently, performances of plays were only hazily conceived as commodities; only in the 1590s and after were they more consistently understood as experiences that players sold to playgoers.

Of course, it was certainly the case that people attended plays and that these people were talked about. "Antitheatricalist" writers describe them variously as "assemblies," "auditors," or "multitudes." (1) The language could at times become quite insulting: Stephen Gosson writes that "ye skumme of all people haue [plays] in admiration," and he describes "the common people which resorte to Theaters" as "but a[n] assemblie of Tailers, Tinkers, Cord-wayners, Saylers, olde Men, yong Men, Women, Boyes, Girles, and such like." (2) Other contemporary terms include Puttenham's "hearers or beholders," and "spectator," used by both Sidney and Spenser. (3) Yet all of these terms refer to those who attend plays only during the time of performance. In the 1580s, there is no noun that describes persons who habitually attend plays while they are not in the act of attending one. In other words, there is no term corresponding to our term "playgoer."

In contrast, nouns like "audience" and "spectator" are not identity terms. They do not mark one as a particular kind of person who performs a repeated activity; they only indicate what one is doing while in a theater. Later terms--such as "playgoer" (first used in 1777), "play-haunter" (first used in 1633), and "frequenter of plays" (first used in 1622)--make one's attendance at theaters an important aspect of one's identity. This last term--"frequenter of playes"--is well-known as one of Richard Baker's descriptions of the young John Donne. (4) But Baker, writing in 1643, has at hand a noun for an identity that was only nebulously defined when Donne was at the Inns of Court in the early 1590s. Regular attendance at plays was certainly noticed and discussed: "frequenting (of) plays" was a common formulation in use at the time. But only some time later could what Donne did (frequent plays) become a marker of who he was ("frequenter of plays").

So while you might "frequent a play" during the 1580s, you could not yet be a "frequenter of plays." While the OED's entry gives 1613 for the first use of "frequenter," a quick EEBO-TCP search discovers "frequenter[s] of" sermons, sacraments, taverns, brothels, and secret meetings in at least eighteen texts printed in England between 1548 and 1613. (As Callan Davies has shown, the closely related term "haunter" was used similarly, though invariably with "implications of moral judgement.") (5) As each of these activities indicates, "frequenter" referred to a person who consistently joined with non-kin others in a collective activity: whether commercial sex, a sermon, or a sacrament. The first application that I have found of the term to plays dates from 1622, when John Brinsley addresses the "inevitable danger to frequenters of plaies." (6) In his 1633 Histrio-mastix William Prynne uses the somewhat ungainly term "Play-frequenters" three times (as well as "Play-haunters" hundreds of times). "Frequenter of" is an awkward grammatical formulation, to say the least. But that awkwardness is not incidental; it indexes the novelty of (and distaste for) two post15808 ideas: first, that one's identity might derive from what one habitually does--in other words, that it could be performed--and second, that one's identity might be derived in part from one's habit of spending money to hang out with strangers to witness fictions.

I begin by presenting this terminological jumble to show how from the 1580s onward, Londoners were actively learning how to speak and think about the new activity of playgoing. To understand the novelty of regular performances for which admission fees were charged, we need to bracket our common-sense picture of "theater," according to which there are two groups of people required for a live performance--those who act, and those who attend--and that the first group can be called "players" and the second "playgoers." The clear differentiation of these two groups from each other is instead not a given of all modes of theater. I want to suggest that it is only after the 1580s that Londoners began to understand these two groups as wholly distinct.

Accordingly, we need to recognize just how new regular, public performances in playhouses were. After the construction of the Red Lion in 1567, a particular moment of growth--or at least growth in the discussion of playhouses--occurred between 1575 and 1577, when we hear of the presence of three more amphitheaters and two hall playhouses. In the immediately following years--not coincidentally, a period of antitheatricalist controversy--theatrical performances were thus fairly new kinds of commodities and were not always recognized as commodities at all. As we shall see, the lack of recognition by some of the so-called "antitheatricalist" writers suggests that the play event was not always conceived as one group selling a product to another, but instead as an activity in which all of those present--both players and playgoers--participated. This collaborative, participatory picture of theater inhibits the emergence of a playgoing public: a separate, identifiable (and therefore "public") group of people who understood themselves to be aficionados of theater, the kind of people that we now call "playgoers." (7) Andrew Gurr forwarded the term "playgoer" in 1988 to encompass (and to avoid choosing among) the period's own range of terms, including "spectator" and "audience." The term helpfully avoids conceptualizing those who attend a play as either a homogenous group of credulous gawkers or a heterogeneous group of judicious listeners. Yet the term can be misleading, especially when applied to the 1580s. As a noun, "playgoer" implies an identity inhabited by a person who habitually attends plays--an identity, I argue, that was not yet available. Instead, 1580s theater culture lacked either a strong sense of "playgoer" as an identity category or a firm conceptual distinction between player and playgoer. Because it is only after the 1580s that these categories become more fully defined, we can misconstrue the decade's culture of playgoing when we think of those who attend plays as "playgoers."

We can begin to measure the conceptual distance between the first years of London's playhouses and the late 1590s--by which point performances were more established as commodities, and players and playgoers were correspondingly more clearly distinguished from one another--by looking at a 1597 letter from John

Chamberlain to his friend and future diplomat Dudley Carleton. Discussing a new play, Chamberlain compares it to a particular commodity, wool:
   We have here a new play of humors in very great request, and I was
   drawn alonge to yt by the common applause, but my opinion of yt is
   (as the fellow sayde of the shearing of hogges) that there was a
   great crie for so litle wolle. (8)

Likely referring to George Chapman's An Humorous Day's Mirth, Chamberlain's letter registers the ambient chatter among Londoners who either attended plays or at least knew those who did. These people made their presence known by their "request[s]," "applause," and "great crie," all of which came to the ears of Chamberlain, who in later letters discusses plays but only rarely reports attending them. His comparison of the "new play" to "wolle" signals his understanding of what plays are: commodities to be purchased by playgoers. In 1597, one could hear about plays from people who liked them, and these aficionados understood themselves as consumers of plays even while outside the playhouse, where their conversations could be overheard by Chamberlain. These people, in short, were playgoers. Collectively, they composed what we might term a playgoing public: a group of people who attended plays, discussed plays, and (most importantly) understood themselves to be the kind of people who did so, even while they were not in the theaters. 1597 therefore marks a moment--though not necessarily the first moment--when the category "playgoer" can be discerned.

A precondition of the emergence of a playgoing public is the recognition that playgoing is a fundamentally different activity from playing. Yet playing and playgoing, as I will argue below, were at times only hazily distinguished in the 1580s, described as somehow aspects of the same activity. For all the clarity implied in the term "antitheatricalists," these writers turn out to be quite vague about what exactly they are against. Their occasional conceptual blurring of the activities of playing and playgoing indicates that the idea of a discrete playgoing public was still emerging. Only after the attacks on the combined practices cease--in part, one suspects, as an admission of defeat--will the practices of playing and play-going be able to be differentiated more fully.

This situation can help explain why plays of the 1580s public theaters tend not to conjure, name, or sustain a playgoing public through one of the means used in later decades: print. As Aaron Pratt points out in this issue, what we now call "1580s drama" was in a sense actually "1590s drama," because it was only during the later decade that many plays of the earlier decade were first printed. Yet perhaps terming this temporal duration a "lag" or "delay" would be to import later assumptions about the detachability of a playtext into an earlier period. The reasons why much of "1580s drama" was printed in the 1590s are complex and multiple. But one cause, I suspect, is that players, printers, and book-buyers seem to have been unsure that a playtext was fully separable from the event of performance. During the 1580s these distinctions that we now take for granted--between playtext and performance, playgoer and player--were only hesitantly beginning to emerge.

A close reading of some antitheatricalist writings of the late 1570s and early 1580s reveals that the distinction between player and playgoer was not always strongly marked. One of the curious features of these texts is a recurrent vagueness about whether their targets of attack are playing, playgoing, or both. John Northbrooke, for example, first denounces "Diceplaying, Dauncing, and vayne playes or Enterluds" before adding "ydlenesse" to the list and rehearsing it again: "these wicked & detestable vices of ydlenesse, Diceplaying, Dauncing, and vaine Enterludes."9 Importantly, Northbrooke's series of "vices" is not grammatically parallel; the vices shift from present participles (i.e., "Dauncing") to non-participle nouns (i.e., "Enterludes"). While the former denote particular activities, making it clear who is doing those activities, nouns like "playes" or "Enterludes" do not indicate exactly what activity Northbrooke objects to: playing, playgoing, or both? For Northbrooke, whether you are playing or playgoing--or dicing or dancing, for that matter--seems not to be a hugely important distinction, as both players and playgoers are engaging in "loytering & vaine pastimes" (D4r).

Antitheatricalists could conflate players and playgoers because commercial theater was a new kind of commodity that was often grouped with other activities of wastefulness and "ydlenesse"--such as Northbrooke's "Diceplaying" and "Dauncing"--in which all participants have equal standing. The particular analogy of plays to games of chance obscures an importantly novel feature of 1580s theater: unlike dicing and dancing, playgoing involved purchasing a commodity--theatrical experience. The analogy further implies that players and playgoers participate in the same kind of activity, just as diceplayers and dancers do. While today we can easily conceive of players and playgoers separately, anti-theatricalists could lump them together because these opponents of the theater are partially correct: while "playes or Enterluds" did involve the sale of a commodity, they also involved players and playgoers acting together in the same activity. By gathering together for a shared activity--which we now call theatrical performance--they collectively produced a new kind of place: the playhouse. These "sumptuous Theatre houses" afforded a new form of urban sociability: very different kinds of people could anonymously congregate for a short period of time in a setting that was under the explicit authority of neither the church (as at a sermon) nor the state (as at an execution). (10)

Accordingly, Stephen Gosson's objections to theater are fundamentally concerned with its publicity: at one point he grants that "Dauncers and Tumblers" are acceptable because "they gather no assemblyes" and only perform "priutlye." (11) Plays, on the other hand, are "not fit for euery mans dyet: neither ought they commonly to bee shewen" (C7v). Thus Gosson has no objections to private plays; the mere act of attending a play is not in itself the problem. It is the promiscuous gatherings of people--whether for plays or not--that are the object of his concern, which is registered in his terms for those who attend plays: "publique assemblies," "assemblyes," and "multitudes." (12) I am not claiming that Gosson-himself a former playwright--and other antitheatricalists thought that players and playgoers were indistinguishable: indeed, at one point he imagines a hypothetical situation in which "Players bee called to accounte for the abuses that growe by their assemblyes" (C7v). Even here, however, the term "their assemblyes" is ambiguous: does "their" refer to players, or playgoers, or both? In other words, is the offending "assembly" the troupe of players, or the people who gather on their account, or the two groups combined into a single "assembly"? The question of who exactly is included in these "assemblyes" is similarly raised by a 1578 regulation for the control of plague, which prohibits "all publique assemblyes vnnecessary, as players, ... and such like." (13) Both Gosson and the regulation seem to conflate those who are the occasion of the assembly and the assembly itself, as if together the players and the audience compose a single unit of offense.

A similar mingling of the categories of players and playgoers appears in antitheatricalists' accounts of women in the playhouses. Gosson, for example, explicitly describes playgoers as if they were themselves players onstage, performing in "a right Comedie":
   In our assemblies at playes in London, you shall see suche heauing,
   and shoouing, suche ytching and shouldring, too sitte by women ...
   Suche playing at foote Saunt without Cardes: Such ticking, such
   toying, such smiling, such winking, and such ma[n]ning them home,
   when the sportes are ended, that it is a right Comedie, to marke
   their behauiour. (C1v)

As if to prove the claims of theater's opponents that playgoers learn to behave badly by witnessing onstage representations, Gosson's playgoers seem to turn into actors. Of course, his description of their actions as "a right Comedie" employs the metaphor of the theater ironically; on one level, Gosson is clearly aware that he is applying the language of the stage to the actions of the audience. Nevertheless, the elaborate descriptions of bodily gesture ("ticking," toying, smiling, winking) suggest that Gosson has also begun to assimilate the two spheres. The fact remains that the audience members and the players are in at least one way very much alike; they are both doing the same activity: flirting. Similarly, Philip Stubbes's account of playgoers is at times quite vague about whether the actions of actors or playgoers are being described:
   marke the flocking and run[n]ing to Theaters & curtens, daylie and
   hourely, night and daye, tyme and tyde to see Playes and
   Enterludes, where such wanton gestures, such bawdie speaches: such
   laughing and fleering: such kissing and bussing: such clipping and
   culling: Suche winckinge and glancinge of wanton eyes, and the like
   is vsed, as is wonderfull to behold. Than these goodly pageants
   being done, euery mate sorts to his mate, euery one bringes another
   homeward of their way verye freendly, and in their secret conclaues
   (couertly) they play ye Sodomits, or worse. (L8r-v)

In language echoing Gosson's, Stubbes's account conflates the "wanton gestures" and "winckinge and glancinge" of the players and playgoers; grammatically, it is not clear which group is doing what, or whether both are in fact doing the same thing. Are the "wanton gestures" and "bawdie speeches" (which are, he claims "wonderfull to behold") contained within the "Playes and Enterludes"? Or are they activities of audience members that are merely occasioned by their representation? Or both? Such ambiguity, of course, suits Stubbes's broader point: playgoers will immediately do what they see players doing. In this sense, their actions are identical, making distinctions between the two groups unimportant.

To ask whether there were playgoers--and not just playgoing--in the 1580s is to ask what kind of difference early London theaters might have made in their world. In arguing that the identity of "playgoer" only emerged after this decade, I mean to indicate one point of impact: theaters helped to produce the novel idea that who you were could be determined (at least in part) by how you spent your free pennies. I have sketched the beginning of this story here, in which playgoers and players are not yet fully distinguished in either the decade's accounts of playgoing or in its terminology. I would place the end of this story--the point at which these categories become fairly distinct--at the emergence of a recognizable English theater history which, as Ellen MacKay notes, did not come into existence until Richard Flecknoe's "Short Discourse of the English Stage" in 1664. Early modern theater, MacKay argues, was far too fugitive, destructive, and disastrous for it to be organized into a discernable and recordable "teleological structure" that we recognize as "theater history." (14)

I would apply MacKay's emphasis on the fugitive ephemerality of early modern theater more narrowly, to the category of the 1580s playgoer. For by giving an account of what those who attended plays during the 1580s were not, I raise the question of whether we can say anything about who they were. I think that we can. But I would caution that anything we do say about these people as a group will necessarily rely upon back-projecting later notions of theatrical publics and connoisseurship, and indeed the very idea that people who went to plays composed a discrete group, defined by their common activity. These notions were not especially elaborated (if they existed at all) during the 1580s. We might, then, revise the answer to my title's question: in the 1580s, there was no clear notion of the "playgoer" as a particular kind of person, because becoming a playgoer entails a difficult process of identity formation, one achieved over time (in this case) in part through the publicly repeated purchase of theatrical experience, rendering it legible to oneself and to others as a commodity.


(1.) For example, "assemblies" is used in Philip Stubbes, The anatomie of abuses [Part 1] (London: 1583), [paragraph]6r, and Stephen Gosson, Plays Confuted in Five Actions (London: 1582), B5r and Dlr; "auditors" in Gosson, Plays Confuted, C5v; "auditorie" in A Second and Third Blast of Retreat from Plays and Theaters (London: 1580), Elr; and "multitude" in A sermo[n] preached at Pawles Crosse on Sunday the thirde of Nouember 1577 in the time of the plague, by T.W. (London: 1578), C7v.

(2.) Plays Confuted in Five Actions, E8r, Dir.

(3.) The arte of English poesie (London: 1589), Ii4v; The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (London: 1590), Vlr; The Faerie Qveene (London: 1590), Qlr.

(4.) Richard Baker, A chronicle of the kings of England (London: 1643), Vuuu2v.

(5.) Callan Davies, "An Elizabethan Haunting: Antitheatricality and Playgoing," Before Shakespeare (blog), June 13, 2016, 06/13/an-elizabethan-haunting-antitheatricality-and-playgoing/.

(6.) The third part of The true watch (London: 1622), b3r.

(7.) The most succinct definition a "public" is that of Kate Welch, who defines a "public" as a "form ... of association that allow[s] people to connect with others" on the basis not of "vocation, family or rank but rather ... on shared interests, desires and tastes" ("Making Mourning Show: Hamlet and Affective Public-Making," Performance Research 16.2 (2011), 75).

(8.) The Letters of John Chamberlain, vol. 1, ed. Norman Egbert McClure (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1939), letter of June 11,1597, 32.

(9.) A treatise against dicing, dancing, plays, and interludes (London: 1577), a3r. Subsequent citations are given in the text.

(10.) A sermo[n] preached at Pawles Crosse, C8r.

(11.) The schoole of abuse (London: 1579), D3v-D4r. Subsequent citations are given in the text.

(12.) As Callan Davies notes, Gosson's concern is shared by London's leaders, whose "acts of control" show a "concern about the gathering and movement of "multitudes"--a word not infrequent in these documents" ("Early Thoughts on the Archives," Before Shakespeare (blog), August 12, 2016, https://beforeshake

(13.) "Regulations for control of plague in 1578," fol. 168, Add. MS 48019, British Library. Thanks to Callan Davies for the transcription.

(14.) Ellen MacKay, Persecution, Plague, and Fire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 3.
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Title Annotation:FORUM: Drama of the 1580s
Author:West, Michael
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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