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Theatrical City

Evidence for a Roman theatre, south-west of St. Paul’s, is now very clear; it was located little more than 150 feet east of the Mermaid Theatre, which is situated by Puddle Dock. Further evidence can be found for a theatre at Whitechapel in 1567; it was just beyond Aldgate, with a stage some five feet high and a series of galleries.

This was in turn followed by the erection of the Theatre in the fields of Shoreditch. It was constructed of wood and thatch, well enough designed to merit the description of this “gorgeous playing-place erected in the Fields.” Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Hamlet were performed here. Certainly it must have proved popular because, a year later, another theatre was built two hundred yards away; it was known as “The Curtain” or, latterly, “The Green Curtain” in deference to the colourful sign painted on its exterior. Theatres, like taverns and shops, were well illustrated to catch the attention of the citizens.

These two early theatres set the standard for those more famous playhouses which play so large a part in Elizabethan cultural history. These playhouses were always outside the walls of the city (unlike the “private” theatre of Blackfriars), and the two theatres in the northern fields were constructed upon land once belonging to Holywell Priory; as the name suggests, there was a “holy well” in the immediate vicinity. It may be that they were deliberately sited close to the location where sacred plays had once been staged. This might also account for the presence of a theatre in the old priory of the Blackfriars. Londoners have always been aware of the topography of their city and its environs, so that on many occasions and in many contexts the same activity can be observed taking place in the same location. The situation of the twelfth-century “theatrum” is not known, but it is at least reasonable to suggest that it lay where the Rose, the Swan and the Globe eventually emerged in the 1580s and 1590s.

There has been speculation about the origins of early theatre architecture, and some have supposed that it was established upon the pattern of the yards of galleried inns where itinerant groups of minstrels or actors would perform. They were known as “inn-playhouses”; there were two in Gracechurch Street, the Bell and the Cross Keys, while another stood on Ludgate Hill. The latter was known as the Belle Sauvage or the Bell Savage and, like the others, soon acquired a distinctly unsavoury reputation. In 1580 an edict from the Privy Council commanded the officers of London “to thrust out the Players from the City” and to “pull down the playing and dicing houses within the Liberties” where the presence of actors encouraged “immorality, gambling, intemperance … Apprentices and Factions.” The theatre, then, may provoke that unrest which seems always to have been present beneath the surface of the city’s life. It also provided occasion for the spread of those terrors of London, fire and disease.

Other theatrical historians have concluded that the true model of the Elizabethan theatre was not the inn-yard but the bear-baiting ring or the cockpit. Certainly these activities were not incompatible with serious drama. Some theatres became bear-rings or boxing rings, while some cockpits and bull-rings became theatres. There was no necessary distinction between these activities, and historians have suggested that acrobats, fencers and rope-dancers could also perform at the Globe or the Swan. Edward Alleyn, the great actor-manager of the early seventeenth century, was also Master of the King’s Bears. The public arena was truly heterogeneous.

The popularity of Elizabethan drama characterises Londoners who attended it, both in their affection for colourful ritual and in their admiration of magniloquence. The taste of the crowd for intermittent violence was amply satisfied by the plays themselves, while the Londoners’ natural pride in the history of their city was recognised in those dramatic historical pageants which were part of the diet of the playhouses. When Shakespeare places Falstaff and his company in East Cheap, he is invoking the life of the city which existed two centuries before. Spectacle and violence, civic pride and national honour, all found their natural home in the theatres of London.

There were, of course, familiar complaints. When Burbage attempted to reopen the theatre of Blackfriars in 1596, the “noblemen and gentlemen” who lodged in the old monastery buildings complained about the “vagrant and lewd persons” who would congregate there; they also declared that “the noise of the drums and trumpets” would hinder church services in the vicinity. When the Blackfriars was eventually reopened, visitors attending plays by Shakespeare or by Chapman were obliged to leave their coaches by the west end of St. Paul’s or by the Fleet conduit, and proceed the rest of the way on foot; this was designed to prevent further tumult.

The Fortune Theatre in Golding Lane, now Golden Lane, was famous for its “inflamations” with “squibs … thunder … artificial lightning.” The costs were a penny for standing room only, twopence for a chair and threepence for “the most comfortable seats which are cushioned.” During the performance, according to Thomas Platter’s Travels in England, “food and drink are carried around the audience.”

During the Puritan Commonwealth the theatres were closed; it was said that the people had seen enough public tragedy and no longer required any dramatic version; instead theatrical entertainments were performed clandestinely or under cover of some other activity. The Red Bull Playhouse in Clerkenwell—only a few hundred yards to the north of Smithfield—remained open for rope-acts and the like, but also managed to make room for “drolleries” and “pieces of plays.” So great was the appetite for these spectacles among ordinary Londoners that one contemporary wrote: “I have seen the Red Bull play-house, which was a large one, so full, that as many went back for want of room as had entered.” There were continual complaints about plays and actors, even after various inhibitory proclamations of 1642 and 1648, so we may assume that the more spirited Londoners continued to find at least “pieces” of drama.

It might be thought then that the citizens would agree with one of their number, Samuel Pepys, who declared after the Restoration that the theatre was “a thousand times better and more glorious than ever before.” He was referring to the newly licensed theatres of Dorset Gardens and Drury Lane, but the new theatres were nothing like the old; as Pepys went on to remark, “now all things civil, no rudeness anywhere.” The drama had been refined, in other words, in order that it would appeal to the king, the court and those Londoners who shared the same values. Just as the “Cockney” dialect was now being denigrated, so the popular theatre of previous decades was dissolved.

And yet the more “Cockney” Londoners did also manage to attend the new plays; they were not necessarily welcomed in the boxes or the pit with the more prosperous citizens, but they took over the gallery from where they could shout insults or pelt fruit upon both stage and respectable audience. Cockney theatre-goers were only one aspect, however, of the generally partisan and inflammatory aspect of the urban audience. “Claques” would attend in order to cry up, or drown out, the latest production; fights would break out among the gentlemen “of quality,” while there were often riots which effectively concluded all theatrical proceedings. Indeed the riots themselves were somewhat theatrical in appearance. When in the mid-eighteenth century David Garrick proposed to abolish “half-price” seats, for those who entered after the third of five acts (the whole performance beginning at six o’clock in the evening), the day appointed for that innovation found the Drury Lane Playhouse filled with a silent crowd. P.J. Grosley composed A Tour of London in 1772, and set the scene. As soon as the play commenced there was a “general outcry” with “fisty-cuffs and cudgels,” which led to further violence when the audience “tore up the benches of the pit and galleries” and “demolished the boxes.” The lion, which had decorated the king’s box, was thrown upon the stage among the actors, and the unicorn fell into the orchestra “where it broke the great harpsichord to pieces.” In his London Journal of 19 January 1763, Boswell remarks that “we sallied into the house, planted ourselves in the middle of the pit, and with oaken cudgels in our hands and shrill-sounding cat calls in our pockets, sat ready prepared.”

Such behaviour in the capital’s theatres continued well into the nineteenth century. A German traveller of 1827, Prince Pückler Muskau, later caricatured by Charles Dickens as Count Smorltork in The Pickwick Papers, reported that “The most striking thing to a foreigner in English theatres is the unheard-of coarseness and brutality of the audiences.” The “Old Price” riots of 1807 lasted for seventy nights, and the private life of Edmund Kean—accused of being both a drunk and an adulterer—led to four nights of violent rioting in the playhouse of Drury Lane. What was termed “party spirit” did on more than one occasion prompt fights both among the spectators and the players. The presence of foreigners upon the stage was another cause of uproar; when the “Theatre Historique” arrived at Drury Lane from Paris, there was a general rush for the stage. Mobs surrounded the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket, in 1805, when a comedy entitled The Tailors caused offence among the fraternity. Professional boxers were brought into the auditorium by rival groups, as early as 1743, in order to slug it out. This was city drama, in every sense. And yet, in the city itself, the real drama was still performed upon the streets.

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