Today in London’s theatrical history: Actors nicked in Clerkenwell, & jailed, 1649.

It is mentioned in Whitelocke’s Memorials, that on the 20th of December, 1649, some stage players were seized by troopers at the Red Bull Theatre, in Sekforde Street or Woodbridge Street (then Red Bull Yard), Clerkenwell; their clothes were taken away, and themselves carried off to prison. The elevated and prestigious role the theatre had attained in the days of the monarchs Elizabeth and James had altered greatly with the increasing power of the puritans, and the devastating civil war.

There were several orders issued by Parliament, and late under the Commonwealth, during and after the Civil War, closing down theatres and banning most plays for encouraging immorality and frivolity. To a certain extent, as with bans on other aspects of popular culture in the era, there was a limit to the success of these orders, although it was easier to close down a theatre, a fixed visible building, than to, say, prevent private citizens celebrating xmas. AS the piece below suggests, there may have been a sympathy of the acting profession generally with the royalist side in the civil war, although how much this may have been created or inflated by hatred and resentment of the puritan view of their way of life is open to question. Maybe it was more of a cultural leaning generally; although it is worth remembering how much actors and theatres often depended on royal or aristocratic patronage for funding.

Regular complaints against the hardships on actors and the professions who depended on the theatre for a living, and petitions for relief of the anti-theatrical ordinances, op up through the 1640s, including this one.

The following, from Davies’ “Miscellanies,” is a striking picture of the condition of actors at this time, interestingly coloured by a strongly pro-royalist bias:

“When the civil wars shut the doors of the theatres, many of the comedians, who had youth, spirit, and vigour of body, took up arms in defence of their royal master. When they could no longer serve him by the profession of acting, they boldly vindicated his cause on the field. Those who were too far advanced in age to give martial proofs of their loyalty, were reduced to the alternative of starving, or engaging in some employment to support their wants. During the first years of the unnatural contest between King and Parliament, the players were not unwelcome guests to those towns and cities which espoused the royal cause; but in London, where bigotry and opposition to the King were triumphant, they experienced nothing but persecution. A few of the nobility, indeed, who loved the amusements of the stage, encouraged the players to act in their houses privately; but the watchful eyes of furious zealots prevented all public exhibitions, except, as the author of Historia Histrionica asserts, now and then such as were given with great caution and privacy. Some time before the beheading of the unhappy Charles, a company of comedians was formed out of the wreck of several, who played at the Cockpit three or four times; but while they were acting Fletcher’s Bloody Brother, the soldiers rushing in, put an end to the play, and carried the actors to Hatton House, at that time a sort of prison for royal delinquents; where they were confined two or three days, and, after being stripped of their stage apparel, were discharged. Much about this time, Lowin kept the Three Pigeons at Brentford, where he was attended by Joseph Taylor. Here they lingered out an uncomfortable existence, with scarce any other means of support than those which they obtained from the friends of royalty, and the old lovers of the drama who now and then paid them a visit and left them marks of their bounty. Upon these occasions Lowin and Taylor gave their visitors a taste of their quality. The first roused up the spirit and humor of Falstaff. Again the fat old rogue swore that he knew the Prince and Poins as well as he that made them. Hamlet, too, raised the visionary terrors of the ghost, and filled his select auditors with terror and amazement. To entertain their guests we must suppose they assumed various personages, and alternately excited merriment and grief. How often were those honest fellows surprised into a belief of the good news that the King and Parliament had come to treaty, that peace would be restored, and the King return to his capital in triumph. How would their countenances then be lighted up with joy, the glass cheerfully circulate, and the meeting be dismissed with: ‘The King shall have his own again.’

Their honest friend and associate, Goff, the actor of women’s parts at Blackfriars and the Globe, was the usual jackall to summon the scattered comedians together, that they might exhibit at Holland House, or some nobleman’s seat, within a few miles of the capital.”

But not even “the saints” were immaculate; one Robert Cox found means to bribe the officers appointed to look after such affairs, and gave short interludes and “drolls” at the Red Bull to crowded houses, under the guise of rope-dancing entertainment. It was vile buffoonery, and could scarcely be dignified by the title of dramatic performance, and was therefore more likely to be tolerated by their saintships than the noble productions of Shakespeare and Beaumont; and therein they are closely followed by the Mawworms of the present day, who grin at the dreary and doubtful jokes of a circus clown, and gaze approvingly at the lightly-skirted young ladies with one toe on the bare-backed steed and the other in a horizontal line, but would consider it sinful to listen to the noble with of Touchstone, and highly indelicate to look upon Rosalind in her forester’s dress. With a company consisting only of himself, a man, and a boy, Robert Cox contrived, in spite of ordinances, to travel all over the country, to perform at the Universities–which, for want of better things, eagerly welcomed his–and to make a large fortune by his mummeries.

But even the partisans of the Commonwealth were beginning to grow a little weary of the Cimmerian gloom and intellectual paralysis in which they lived, and having obtained the countenance of Whitelocke, Sir John Maynard, and other persons of distinction, Davenant, in 1656, opened a sort of theater at Rutland House, Charterhouse Yard, where he began with the representation of what he called an opera (“The Siege of Rhodes”). This was followed by other works of a similar kind. In 1658 he went a step farther, and opened the Cockpit with a performance he described as “The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru, expressed by instrumental and vocal music, and by the art of perspective in scenes, at the Cockpit in Drury Lane, at three in the afternoon.” We see he carefully avoided the word “play,” that red rag of bull-headed fanaticism. It is said that Cromwell’s hatred of the Spaniards, who in this piece were held up to execration, had much to do with my Lord Protector giving his consent.”

Ironically, before the Civil War, the Red Bull Theatre, where the actors were arrested, had had a bit of a reputation for satirical theatre against the king. In 1638 the Theatre had got into trouble for putting on a play satirising William Abell, one of the most powerful monopolist merchants of the City. “The most unhappy, hated object of three kingdoms”, Abell was also instrumental in attacks on opponents to king Charles I’s policies in the City. Of course popular opposition to the king and the pre-civil war elite is not incompatible with opposition to the puritan ascendancy; you could be against both politically, and satire generally tends to take on the authorities whoever they are.

The Red Bull was also famous for its stroppy and disruptive audiences, and for several incidents – in 1610, 1622 and 1638 – when there were riotous occurrences either in or around and associated with the theatre.

Now, theatre audiences between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries were notoriously rowdy, disrespectful and easily provoked; not only eating, shouting, arguing, with each other during the performance, but also interrupting the actors, heckling, picking pockets…

There is disagreement among historians about how much also theatre audiences were prone to erupt into rioting, or riots were prone to start in or outside theatres. But there were enough incidents between the 1590s and the 1610s for the association to be commonplace – the perception of the London authorities was that playhouses were hotbeds of possible sedition and trouble. Add to that a widespread (though not universal) puritan perception of plays as encouraging immorality and of theatres as facilitating it… Interestingly, the perception of theatre audiences as troublesome may have extended to the playwrights and theatre management; Eric Dunnum reads much of the presentation of the idea of drama within early modern London theatre as an attempt to discourage action of any kind from the audience. The authorities blamed the theatres for encouraging riots, and threatened to close the playhouses down – in response, Dunnum suggests, early modern playwrights sought to ‘construct’ a non-reactive audience, who would not act in any way in response to drama.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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