Page images
[graphic][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small]

AMONGST those innumerable by-ways in London which are familiar to the hurried pedestrian, there is a well-known line of streets, or rather lanes, leading from the hill on which St. Paul's stands to the great thoroughfare of Blackfriars Bridge. The pavement is narrow, the carriage-way is often blocked up by contending carmen, the houses are mean ; yet the whole district is full of interesting associations. We have scarcely turned out of Ludgate Street, under a narrow archway, when the antiquary may descry a large lump of the ancient city wall embedded in the lath and plaster of a modern dwelling. A little farther, and we pass the Hall

of the Apothecaries, who have here, by dint of long and earnest struggle, raised their original shopkeeping vocation into a science. A little onward, and the name Printing-house Yard indicates another aspect of civilization. Here was the King's printing-house in the days of the Stuarts; and here, in our own days, is the office of the “Times" Newspaper, the organ of a greater power than that of prerogative. Between Apothecaries' Hall and Printing-house Yard is a short lane, leading into an open space called Playhouse Yard. It is one of those shabby places of which so many in London lie close to the glittering thoroughfares; but which are known only to their own inhabitants, and have at all times an air of quiet which seems like desolation. The houses of this little square, or yard, are neither ancient nor modern. Some of them were probably built soon after the great fire of London ; for a few present their gable fronts to the streets, and the wide casements of others have evidently been filled up and modern sashes inserted. But there is nothing here, nor indeed in the whole precinct, with the exception of the few yards of the ancient wall, that has any pretension to belong to what may be called the antiquities of London. Yet here, three centuries ago, stood the great religious house of the Dominicans, or Black Friars, who were the lords of the precinct; shutting out all civic authority, and enclosing within their four gates a busy community of shopkeepers and artificers. Here, in the hallowed dust of the ancient church, were the royal and the noble buried ; and their gilded tombs proclaimed their virtues to the latest posterity. Where shall we look for a fragment of these records now ? Here parliaments have sat and pulled down odious favourites ; here kings have required exorbitant aids from their complaining subjects; here Wolsey pronounced the sentence of divorce on the persecuted Katharine. In a few years the house of the Black Friars ceased to exist; their halls were pulled down; their church fell into ruin. The precinct of the Blackfriars then became a place of fashionable residence. Elizabeth, at the age of sixty, here danced at a wedding which united the houses of Worcester and Bedford. In the heart of this precinct, close by the church of the suppressed monastery, surrounded by the new houses of the nobility, in the very spot which is known as Playhouse Yard, was built, in 1575, the Blackfriars' Theatre.

The history of the early stage, as it is to be deduced from statutes, and proclamations, and orders of council, exhibits a constant succession of conflicts between the civic authorities and the performers of plays. The act of the 14th of Elizabeth, "for the punishment of vagabonds, and for relief of the poor and impotent," was essentially an act of protection for the established companies of players. We have here, for the first time, a definition of rogues and vagabonds; and it includes not only those who can “give no reckoning how he or she doth lawfully get his or her living,” but “all fencers, bearwards, common players in interludes, and minstrels,

of greater degree ; all jugglers, pedlers, tinkers, and petty chapmen; which said fencers, bearwards, common players in interludes, minstrels, jugglers, pedlers, tinkers, and petty chapmen, shall wander abroad, and have not licence of two justices of the peace at the least, whereof one to be of the quorum, where and in what shire they shall happen to wander.” The circumstance of belonging to any baron, or person of greater degree, was in itself a pretty large exception; and if in those times of rising puritanism the licence of two justices of the peace was not always to be procured, the large number of companies enrolled as the servants of the nobility offers sufficient evidence that the profession of a player was not a persecuted one, but one expressly sanctioned by the ruling powers. The very same statute throws by implication as much odium upon scholars as upon players ; for amongst its vagabonds are included “all scholars of the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge that go about begging, not

being authorised under the seal of the said Universities.”* There was one company of players, the Earl of Leicester's, which within two years after the legislative protection of this act received a more important privilege from the Queen herself. In 1574 a writ of privy seal was issued to the keeper of the great seal, commanding him to set forth letters patent addressed to all justices, &c., licensing and authorizing James Burbage, and four other persons, servants to the Earl of Leicester, “ to use, exercise, and occupy the art and faculty of playing comedies, tragedies, interludes, stage-plays, and such other like as they have already used and studied, or hereafter shall use and study, as well for the recreation of our loving subjects, as for our solace and pleasure, when we shall think good to see them.” And they were to exhibit their performances “as well within our city of London and liberties of the same,” as “throughout our realm of England.” Without knowing how far the servants of the Earl of Leicester might have been molested by the authorities of the city of London, in defiance of this patent, it is clear that the patent was of itself insufficient to insure their kind reception within the city ; for it appears that, within three months after the date of the patent, a letter was written from the Privy Council to the Lord Mayor, directing him “to admit the comedy-players within the city of London, and to be otherwise favourably used." This mandate was probably obeyed; but in 1575 the Court of Common Council, without any exception for the objects of the patent of 1574, made certain orders, in the city language termed an act, which assumed that the whole authority for the regulation of plays was in the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen; that they only could license theatrical exhibitions within the city; and that the players whom they did license should contribute half their receipts to charitable purposes. The civic authorities appear to have stretched their power somewhat too far ; for in that very year James Burbage, and the other servants of the Earl of Leicester, erected their theatre amidst the houses of the great in the Blackfriars, within a stone's throw of the city walls, but absolutely out of the control of the city officers. The immediate neighbours of the players were the Lord Chamberlain and Lord Hunsdon, as we learn from a petition against the players from the inhabitants of the precinct. The petition was unavailing. The rooms which it states “one Burbadge hath lately bought” were converted " into a common playhouse ;” and within fourteen years from the period of its erection William Shakspere was one of its proprietors.

It would not be an easy matter, without some knowledge of minute facts and a considerable effort of imagination, to form an accurate notion of that building in the Blackfriars—rooms converted into a common playhouse in which we may conclude that the first plays of Shakspere were exhibited. The very expression used by the petitioners against Burbage's project would imply that the building was not very nicely adapted to the purposes of dramatic representation. They say, “which rooms the said Burbage is now altering, and meaneth very shortly to convert and turn the same into a common playhouse.” And yet we are not to infer that the rooms were hastily adapted to their object by the aid of a few boards and drapery, like the barn of a strolling company. In 1596 the shareholders say, in a petition to the Privy Council, that the theatre, " by reason of its having been so long built, hath fallen into great decay, and that, besides the reparation thereof, it has been found necessary to make the same more convenient for the entertainment of auditories coming thereto.” The structure, no doubt, was adapted to its object without any very

* It is curious that the act against vagabonds of the 39th of Elizabeth somewhat softens this matter; for in its definition of vagabonds it includes "all persons calling themselves scholars, going about begging." It says nothing, with regard to players, about the licence of two justices; and requires that the nobleman's licence shall be under his hand and seal.

† Lord Hunsdon's name appears to this petition, but the Lord Chamberlain's does not appear.

great regard to durability ; and the accommodations, both for actors and audience, were of a somewhat rude nature. The Blackfriars' was a winter theatre ; so that, differing from the Globe, which belonged to the same company, it was, there can be little doubt, roofed in. It appears surprising that, in a climate like that of England, even a summer theatre should be without a roof; but the surprise is lessened when we consider that, when the Globe was built, in 1594, not twenty years had elapsed since plays were commonly represented in the open yards of the inns of London. The Belle Savage* was amongst the most famous of these inn-yard theatres ; and even the present area of that inn will show how readily it might be adapted for such performances. We turn aside from the crowds of Ludgate Hill, and pass down a gateway which opens into a considerable space. The present inn occupies the east and north sides of the area, the west side consists of private houses of business. But formerly the inn occupied the entire of the three sides, with open galleries running all round, and communicating with the chambers. Raise a platform with its back to the gateway for the actors, place benches in the galleries which run round three sides of the area, and let those who pay the least price be contented with standingroom in the yard, and a theatre, with its stage, pit, and boxes, is raised as quickly as the palace of Aladdin. The Blackfriars' theatre was probably therefore little more than a large space, arranged pretty much like the Belle Savage yard, but with a roof over it. Indeed, so completely were the public theatres adapted after the model of the temporary ones, that the space for the “groundlings” long continued to be called the yard. One of the earliest theatres, built probably about the same time as the Blackfriars', was called the Curtain, from which we may infer that the refinement of separating the actors from the audience during the intervals of the representation was at first peculiar to that theatre.

In the petition to the Privy Council in 1596 it is stated that the petitioners “are owners and players of the private house or theatre in the precinct or liberty of the Blackfriars." Yet the petition of the inhabitants of the precinct against the enterprise of Burbage, in 1576, states the intention of Burbage to convert the rooms which he has bought "into a common playhouse," and it alleges the inconvenience that will result from the “ gathering together of all manner of vagrant and lewd persons, under colour of resorting to the plays.” Here then is an apparent contradiction,-the Blackfriars' theatre is called a private house and also a common playhouse. But the seeming contradiction is reconciled when we learn that for many years a distinction was preserved between public and private theatres. The theatres of inn-yards were undoubtedly public theatres. The yard was hired for some short period, the scaffold hastily run up, and the gates closed, except to those who came with penny in hand. Such were the theatres of the Belle Savage in Ludgate Hill, the Cross Keys in Gracechurch Street, and the Bull in Bishopsgate Street. But, as we learn from a passage in an old topographer, in which he expressly mentions the Belle Savage, the penny at the theatre-gate was something like the penny at the porch of our cathedral show-shops of the present day,—other pennies were demanded for a peep at the sights within. “Those who go to Paris Garden, the Belsavage, or Theatre, to behold bear-baiting, interludes, or fence-play, must not account of any pleasant spectacle, unless first they pay one penny at the gate, another at the entry of the scaffold, and a third for quiet standing.”+ The Paris Garden here mentioned was the old bear-baiting place which had existed from the time of Henry VIII., and perhaps earlier. The Belle Savage, rude as its accommodations doubtless were, had yet its graces and amenities, if Stephen Gosson be not a partial critic: “ The two prose books played at the Bel-savage, where you shall find never a word without wit,

* The old writers spell the word less learnedly than we--Bel-savage.

† Lambarde's “ Perambulation of Kent,” 1576.

never a line without pith, never a letter placed in vain.”* The Theatre also mentioned by Lambarde was a public playhouse so called. It was situated in Shoreditch, without the City walls. In Aggas's map we see a tolerably continuous street, leading from Bishop's Gate to Shoreditch Church ; but on each side of this street there is a wide extent of fields and gardens ; Spital field to the east, and Finsbury field to the west, with rude figures, in the map, of cows and horses, archers, laundresses, and water-carriers, which show how completely this large district, now so crowded with human life in all its phases of comfort and misery, was in the days of Elizabeth a rural suburb. Stow, in the first edition of his “Survey," 1599, mentions the old Priory of St. John the Baptist, called Holy well. “The church thereof being pulled down, many houses have been there builded for the lodgings of noblemen, of strangers born, and other. And near thereunto are builded two public-houses for the acting and show of comedies, tragedies, and histories, for recreation. Whereof the one is called the Curtain, the other the Theatre, both standing on the south-west side toward the field.”+ In a sermon by John Stockwood, in 1578, the Theatre is called a " gorgeous playing place." Stubbes, in 1583, rails bitterly against these public playhouses : “Mark the flocking and running to Theatres and Curtains.” The early history of the less important theatres is necessarily involved in great obscurity. There were playhouses on the Bankside, against the immoralities of which, particularly as to playing on Sundays, the inhabitants of Southwark complained to the authorities in 1587 ; but it is not known when Henslowe's playhouse, the Rose, which was in that neighbourhood, was erected. The Swan and the Hope, also theatres of the Bankside, were probably, as well as the Rose, mean erections in the infancy of the stage, which afterwards grew into importance. There was an ancient theatre also at Newington, which offered its attractions to the holiday-makers who sallied out of the City to practise at the Butts.

In the continuation of Stow's “ Chronicle," by Edmund Howes, there is a very curious passage, which carries us back from the period in which he was writing (1631) for sixty years. He describes the destruction of the Globe by fire in 1613, the burning of the Fortune Playhouse four years after, the rebuilding of both theatres, and the erection of "a new fair playhouse near the Whitefriars.” He then adds," And this is the seventeenth stage, or common playhouse, which hath been new made within the space of threescore years within London and the suburbs, viz. : five inns, or common hostelries, turned to playhouses, one Cockpit, St. Paul's singingschool, one in the Blackfriars, and one in'the Whitefriars, which was built last of all, in the year one thousand six hundred twenty-nine. All the rest not named were erected only for common playhouses, besides the new-built Bear-garden, which was built as well for plays, and fencers' prizes, as bull-baiting ; besides one in former time at Newington Butts. Before the space of threescore years abovesaid, I neither knew, heard, nor read of any such theatres, set stages, or playhouses, as have been purposely built within man's memory." It would appear, as far as we can judge from the very imperfect materials which exist, that in the early period of Shakspere's connection with the Blackfriars' it was the only private theatre. At a subsequent period the Cockpit, or Phönix, in Drury Lane, was a private theatre; and so was the theatre in Salisbury Court,--the “new fair playhouse near the Whitefriars" of Howes. What then was the distinction between the private theatre of the Blackfriars, of which Shakspere was a shareholder in 1589, and the permanent and temporary public theatres with which it entered into competition ? It is natural to

* « School of Abuse," 1579.

| Mr. Collier, who originally pointed out this passage, by comparing the printed copy with Stow's manuscript in the British Museum, found that “activities" (tumbling) were mentioned as performed at these theatres, as well as plays.

« PreviousContinue »