Today in London history: a somewhat xenophobic riot, Haymarket theatre, 1738.

“Monday 9. Was a great Disturbance at the New Theatre in the Haymarket, where some French Players newly arriv’d from Paris, attempting to act the Comedy of L’Embarras des Riches, met with such rude Treatment, and were so interrupted with hissing, catcalling, ringing small Bells, knocking out the Candles, pelting, & notwithstanding the Guard of three Files of Musqueteers that they were forced at last to quit the Stage with Precipitation. The French Ambassador left the House at the Beginning of the disturbance; the Haymarket was full of People, and the Mob in the Street broke the Windows of the House all to Pieces.”
(Gentleman’s Magazine, October, 1738)

London in the middle of the eighteenth century was a relatively cosmopolitan city, and that a significant number of non-native Londoners were Protestant refugees or of Huguenot ancestry. Many of the trades catering to the culture of affluence were practiced by crafts-people from the continent, including the wigmakers whom the letter writer threatens to unleash. The writer’s true feelings are revealed in the comment about French people in London making a fortune now that there was peace. There was obvious bitterness about the state of affairs that saw peace benefiting Britain’s enemies, even if they were immigrants to the country.

A vivid example of this bitterness is seen in the riot that greeted a French Company at the Little Haymarket in 1738. The riot occurred at an auspicious time. There was a growing discontent with the policies of Robert Walpole’s administration that had failed in the early 1730s to implement a highly unpopular excise scheme. By 1738 there was much opposition to the country’s foreign policy; in particular, the administration’s ambivalent relations with Spain. In March 1738 there were debates in the House of Commons over how to deal with Spanish naval activities in the Atlantic and Caribbean and in May parliament took steps to strengthen Britain’s naval squadrons in opposition to Walpole’s policy. Within a year, the failure of the Convention of Prado (an unpopular initiative to begin with) to stop Spanish incursions against British shipping, would lead Walpole to reluctantly declare war on Spain.

More directly associated with theatre, there was significant opposition to the Licensing Act of 1737, passed by the administration of Robert Walpole. While the Act was not universally decried, it did put people on the alert for abuses. There were substantial concerns about freedom of speech and what the act might bode for the liberty of the press.

The actual effects of the Licensing Act upon London theatres were immediately discernable. Two plays were censored, and two theatres, Goodman’s Fields and the Little Theatre in the Haymarket were closed down.  One consequential effect was an increase in the level of unemployment in the theatre. Moreover, unemployed English actors had been imprisoned for debt. In the midst of these developments came the news that a French company was being granted a license to perform at the vacant Little Theatre in the Haymarket. The company in question, led by Francisque Moylen, had arrived in London in early October 1738 and numbered some seventy persons. In the press the connection was made immediately between the official sanction of the company and the recently enacted prohibitory power of the administration through the Lord Chamberlain’s office. A correspondent to the Daily Advertiser remarked that it “seem[ed] to be a little unnatural that French Strollers should have a Superior Privilege to those of Our own Country.” A piece in the London Evening Post continued the attack.

With this sort of pre-publicity, it was not surprising that the theatre was extremely crowded when the Company eventually appeared on Monday, October 9th. Benjamin Victor, a theatrical writer and occasional administrator, arrived early and had a place “in the Centre of the Pit.” Victor provides an extremely vivid account of the evening’s events. Amongst the audience members assembling in the pit, he noted there were the justices

DeVeil and Manning, two Westminster magistrates. Justice DeVeil had been prominent during the Footman’s riots at Drury Lane theatre the previous year.

As was often the case with an evening’s theatrical entertainment, people began gathering in the house several hours before the performance was scheduled to begin. “The Leaders, that had the Conduct of the Opposition” were in the pit and “called aloud for the Song in Praise of English Roast Beef, which was accordingly Sung in the Gallery by a Person prepared for that purpose.” The whole house joined in on the choruses and “saluted the Close with three huzzas!” Whether or not everyone present actually sang, as Victor claimed in his rather enthusiastic eye-witness account of the events, others reported that there was a remarkable sense of unanimity amongst the audience. This is not something that was often a part of theatre riots. In most theatre riots there were divisions along class lines, attenuated by the tripartite seating arrangements. Very often sides were aligned according to the theatre section in which they sat. However, that was not the case on this occasion.

“Never appear’d at any Theatre a greater Unanimity,” wrote the correspondent for the London Evening Post.

At this point, with the play still some time off, Magistrate DeVeil decided to cal1 this exuberant display on the part of the audience a riot and made preparations to read the Riot Act. However, in the close quarters of the theatre auditorium his judgment was immediately disputed, and a public discussion was “carried on with some Degree of Decency on both Sides” as to whether or not this was actually the case. DeVeil then explained that he was there by the King’s command to maintain the monarch’s authority and was backed by a Company of guards, waiting outside the theatre. While no doubt DeVeil was concerned with the rapidly escalating demonstration, and was anxious to exert some sort of authority over the situation, these were the wrong words to use under the circumstances. Victor noted however, that there was a reasoned response from the audience to “these most arbitrary Threatenings” and “Abuse” of the King’s name. Purportedly they replied back to DeVeil:

That the Audience had a legal Right to shew their Dislike to any Play or Actor; that the common Laws of the Land were nothing but common Custom, and the antient Usage of the People; that the Judicature of the Pit had been acknowledged and acquiesced to, Time immemorial; and as the present Set of Actors were to take their Fate £rom the Public, they were free to receive them as they pleased.

There are a variety of important eighteenth century themes woven into this response. At the heart of the issue was the belief on the part of the audience that they had a legal right to show their displeasure based on principles of common law and precedent. Once again we see the idea of judgment as being a right and responsibility on the part of the audience. The ‘rule of law’ was a cherished idea in the minds of Englishmen and central to their political identit~.)~L egal matters were the subjects of much interest for the contemporary observer, including questions about the status of common law versus parliamentary statute.

This initial interaction between the magistrate DeVeil and the audience was a detailed example of the bargaining that was involved with’ the reading of the Riot Act in the confined, well lit theatre space. In outdoor demonstrations the Riot Act was sometimes read in absentia and was not guaranteed the same degree of focus as it was most times in the theatre. The confines of the auditorium made the reading of the Act even more theatrical than was the case outdoors. This is not to Say that negotiating didn’t take place outdoors, but that inside the theatre the process was enacted in a place that was constructed for performance. On this occasion Victor was able to pin down accurately the essentials of the bargaining that took place.

This initial encounter between DeVeil and the audience was only the beginning of a series of statements and counter statements from both sides in the dispute. Moreover events soon overtook the discussion. Near six o’clock, just prior to the beginning of the performance, the honoured guests of the evening arrived, including the French and Spanish Ambassadors with their wives, and Lord and Lady Gage as well as Sir T- R- (possibly Sir Thomas Robinson), who “all appeared in the Stage Box together!” Very soon after their arrival the stage curtain was raised, revealing several files of Grenadiers, with fixed bayonets , bracketing the performers onstage. “At this the whole Pit rose, and unanimously turned to the Justices, who sat in the Middle of it, to demand the Reason of such arbitrary Proceedings?” Again the justices were caught in the spotlight.

They claimed to know nothing about the troops being called onstage. Outraged members of the pit insisted that Colonel DeVeil, who earlier had acknowledged that he was their commanding officer, should order the troops off the stage. He quickly acquiesced and then disappeared.

With the troops routed, volleys of sound, both vocal and instrumental, greeted the initial dramatic performance. The level of noise drowned out any spoken words and a grand dance of 12 men and 12 women was begun. However “they were directly saluted with a Bushel or two of Peas, which made their Capering very unsafe.” The entertainment, Arlequin Poli par L’Amour was then attempted, but that, too, was impossible above the noise.

Finally magistrate DeVeil again made his presence known, standing on his seat in the pit, motioning for silence, and making the following proposal to the house:

“That if they persisted in the Opposition, he must read the Proclamation; that if they would permit the Play to go on, and to be acted through that Night, he would promise, (on his Honour) to lay their Dislikes, and Resentments to the Actors, before the King, and he doubted not but that a speedy End would be put to their acting.”

The audience replied “No Treaties, No Treaties!” indicating their impatience with diplomacy.

DeVeil then ordered the Guards to be readied and proceeded to ask for a candle to read the Riot Act. Victor suggests that DeVeil was only stopped by the reasoning of an individual close by him in the pit, who warned that the appearance of soldiers in the pit would lead to violence and the loss of life. Turning ”pale and passive,” DeVeil heeded the proffered advice. The performance onstage was restarted, but the uproar in the house resumed as well, and soon after the resumption of the programme, the French and Spanish ambassadors left amidst cheers from the house. Eventually, after the audience’s repeated insistence, the great curtain was finally brought down and the performance was over .

During the course of the riot inside the theatre, there had been little violence, either against the theatre property, or between individuals. Victor points to this with pride in his closing remarks on the riot. He was informed by a “Person of Distinction” that his name was seen on a list “lying on the Table of a great Duke” of individuals opposing the French players. When asked about it, Victor replied “that as the Opposition was conducted without Mischief” he was “honoured by being in that List.” Outside the theatre was a different matter. The torch of protest was passed, so to speak, and “the Mob in the Street broke the Windows of the House all to pieces” Furthermore the Spanish ambassadors, having been driven from the house, had the traces to their coaches cut.

In this instance, Victor no doubt summarises the spirit of many of the protesters, comparing the event to the heights of Britain’s military greatness: “I will venture to Say, that at no Battle gained over the French by the immortal MARLBOROUGH, the Shoutings could be more joyous than on this Occasion.” While Victor’s hyperbole situates the riot in the context of Britain’s conflict with her traditional enemies, France and Spain, the riot had also been a successful skirmish against the administration and a government that would pass a law so contrary to the spirit of British freedom as the Licensing Act.

As has been noted above, during the French Strollers riot there was a strong spirit of common cause among the various sections of the audience and the demonstration was a cooperative effort between the pit and the gallery, with the elite in the boxes offering little support to the French performers. The combined wrath of the audience was directed at a very select target, one in absentia, an administration that had exerted itself in a significant restrictive manner regarding the stage.

It was directly prompted by the Ambassadorial parties and their hosts, the soldiers onstage and Justice DeVeil, and finally by the blatant unfairness of a French Company being allowed to perform when the administration was preventing and indeed imprisoning English actors, even though only for debt.

(from GENTLE RIOTS? THEATRE RIOTS IN LONDON, 1730-1780, Richard Gorrie)

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s theatrical history: Paul Robeson stars as black revolutionary Toussaint Louverture in CLR James play, 1936

“I was tired of hearing that the West Indians were oppressed, that we were black and miserable, that we had been brought from Africa, and that we were living there and that we were being exploited.” (CLR James)

“James’s treatment of ‘the most glorious victory of the oppressed over their oppressors in world history’ will remain an inspiration, because of its universal theme, for the foreseeable future.” (Christian Hogsbjerg)

In 1791, inspired both by the ideals of the French Revolution and the horrors and toil of their existence, slaves on the Caribbean island of San Domingo rose in revolt. For twelve years they fought off the white French masters, and armies from France, Spain and Britain, ultimately founding the independent black republic of Haiti. A number of outstanding military leaders masterminded the war for Haiti’s freedom: most famously, Toussaint L’ouverture, who emerged from the struggle as its most clear thinker and general, though he was betrayed into the hands of the French before the final victory and died in a French prison.

Hollywood, the socialist Paul Foot once noted, ‘made a film about Spartacus, the leader of the Roman slave revolt, because Spartacus was beaten. Toussaint L’Ouverture was victorious, so they haven’t made a film about him’. His being black may have something to do with it…

There may be no Hollywood blockbuster (I’m guessing it’d end up with Matt Damon in blackface anyway), but there is a French TV movie

And there was once a ground-breaking play…

In 1934 the fantastic Trinidadian Marxist polymath CLR James, then living in London, finished writing his play Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. The playscript was long presumed lost, (although James did revise the text in the 1960s), until the rediscovery of a draft copy in 2005. James was to go on to write the classic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938.

Born in Trinidad in 1901, Cyril Lionel Robert James was to become a marxist activist and theorist, leading pan-Africanist, cricket commentator, and cultural thistorian. He had arrived in England in 1932, and became engaged not only in literary challenges to racism, in revolutionary politics and the African and West Indian independence movements, in resistance to fascism… James’s play about a revolutionary leader defeating brutal oppressors was both a historical drama and a response to the news of the day.

Toussaint Louverture was staged on March 15th and 16th 1936 at London’s Westminster Theatre; another black communist, the incredible Paul Robeson, starring in the title role, one of the world’s most famous actors and singers– making it an event of international interest. The League of Coloured Peoples (discussed on this blog the other day), of which James was an active member, helped sponsor the performance. This was the first time black professional actors had starred on the British stage in a play written by a black playwright, and interestingly despite his long acting career and lifelong anti-racist stance, was to be the only time Robeson starred in a play by a writer of African descent. Just the idea of a meeting of the work these two giants of the twentieth century is enough to send shivers down the spine…

James wrote the play in 1934, but it remained unproduced until 1936, when the script came into the hands of Robeson, who had been looking for a chance to portray the Haitian leader on stage. Back in 1926, Robeson had told an interviewer that he dreamed “of a great play about Haiti, a play about Negroes, written by a Negro, and acted by Negroes . . . of a moving drama that will have none of the themes that offer targets for race supremacy advocates.” In 1935 Robeson had even discussed the idea of a film about the Haitian revolt with the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, who had become fascinated with the Haitian story. Sadly this film never happened (is there an alternative universe where Eisenstein filmed Robeson in James’s play! – imagine…)

For an interesting and detailed description of the plot, themes and staging of he play, it’s worth reading Christian Hogsbjerg’s introduction to his published edition of Toussaint Louverture.

“The cast assembled around Robeson was remarkable, featuring as it did other black professional actors from throughout the African diaspora, including Robert Adams, who played Dessalines. Adams, born in British Guiana, had, like James, been a distinguished schoolteacher who produced and acted in amateur productions before coming to Britain. He had worked with Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River and Midshipman Easy, and in 1935 he made his London stage debut in Stevedore. Also recruited from Stevedore was the Nigerian Orlando Martins, who played the role of Boukman. Black amateur actors—including other veterans of Stevedore, such as John Ahuma, Rufus E. Fennell, and Charles Johnson—were included, while the remaining cast was recruited through the Stage Society itself, many of whom were experienced professional actors or rising stars such as Harry Andrews.

The play was staged at the 730- seat Westminster Theatre, on the fringes of London’s West End in Palace Street. The owner of the Westminster Theatre during this period was A. B. Horne, and it was managed by Anmer Hall. Michael Sidnell notes that Hall learnt that “Sunday performances were a way of getting a hearing for new or neglected plays without going to great expense.” With its quite liberal management, it is not surprising that the Westminster Theatre was a home for the radical Group Theatre, and James’s Toussaint Louverture had followed a series of plays by “the Auden Group,” most notably Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog beneath the Skin. The famous theatre critic Herbert Farjeon noted at the end of the 1930s that “the Westminster Theatre has probably housed during the present decade a higher percentage of interesting plays than any other theatre north of the Thames.” In 1955, the Westminster Theatre produced an all- African play, Freedom, which toured Europe and was filmed in Nigeria in 1956 with a cast of thousands.

Those wishing to see the performance had to pay at least one guinea, the basic annual membership subscription to the Stage Society. As well as the Sunday evening performance on 15 March, there was a matinee the next day, and for this final performance James himself was called upon to step in for Rufus E. Fennell, the actor playing the “small part” of Macoya. “I was in it by accident. . . . I wanted to sit in the back and watch the play . . . not to be mixed up in it. But I dressed myself up and played it.” Overall, though the production went well, James would always remember it was Paul Robeson who stole the show.” As James, interviewed in November 1983, recalled, “The moment he came onto the stage, the whole damn thing changed. It’s not a question of acting . . . the physique and the voice, the spirit behind him—you could see it when he was on stage.”

Reviews were said to be mixed (twould be interesting to know on what grounds – the explicit radical, anti-racist, and anti-imperial message may have coloured the artistic opinions of white reviewers), but by all accounts Robeson’s performance was typically outstanding. The first performance received an ovation. Broadway made noises of interest, and a couple of critics suggested the play would adapt well to screen, though in the end neither a Broadway run or a film materialised.

James was, according to Christian Høgsbjerg, (who discovered the manuscript in the papers of the former trotskyist Jock Haston, a sometime comrade of James in 2005), “acutely conscious of the need to challenge the mythological British nationalist narrative of abolition, one that glorified the role played by British parliamentarians such as Wilberforce. Indeed, in the original version of the playscript C.L.R. James mentioned Wilberforce himself in passing, but then later in a handwritten revision… decided to remove the explicit mention of the abolitionist Tory MP… to help bring home the essential truth about abolition — that it was the enslaved who abolished slavery themselves — to a British audience who would almost certainly be hearing such a truth for the first time.”

The play mingled elements of classic theatre (eg the use of the rebellious slave army as a kind of chorus, in the ancient Greek tradition) – though radically subverted “the final scene of revolutionary history sees what James would in 1963 describe as “the entry of the chorus, of the ex- slaves themselves, as the arbiters of their own fate,” making for an ending to a drama that no Greek tragedian or even someone with the far- reaching imagination of Shakespeare could have envisaged” – with modern alternative theatrical ideas and ideals. The mix of music dance and drama evokes the latest methods in European theatre, like the work of Brecht, while also deliberately echoing African culture.

James portrayal of Toussaint is of a tragic hero, as a revolutionary leader who ends his days in prison, having failed in the end to follow through the struggle to complete independence for Haiti (a task his lieutenants were left to finish), and paid the price for it. Having not begun the slave revolt, but emerged from it and been shaped by it, he became its outstanding strategist and thinker, but didn’t have enough faith in the black rebels’ ability to make their own future. Believing they should make a semi-colonial peace with revolutionary France, in the end he contrasted this with too much faith in the European enlightenment, and was betrayed, captured and imprisoned by the French republic. James was again bringing past, present and theory together in his raw discussion of the ideas of revolutionary leadership, charismatic thinkers and hero-figures, and the ability of the oppressed to shape their own destiny: vital questions then, as in the 1790s, as now…

The story of Haiti’s successful slave revolt is inspiring at any time, but in the 1930s, with almost all of Africa still under the colonial control of white European powers, putting on the play in the heart of what was then the most powerful empire of all was a bold move. The context of the times is crucial – fascism, based securely in the idea of racial hierarchies and white superiority, was rising; Italy had Just invaded Ethiopia (James was also a founder of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then called, and the parallels of Haiti with Ethiopian resistance to Italian invasion were obvious and stark); but also political opposition and revolt against the colonial powers across Africa was beginning to coalesce. This could not ever be seen only as a play about incidents from the past; it was also a clarion call for massive social change from below for in the present and the future. It’s worth noting that the audience very likely included a range of vital figures in the future development of black self-determination across three (if not more) continents, with Pan-African figures as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Eric Williams being part of James’ immediate circle.

As Christian Hogsbjerg points out, the staging of the play also illustrates “the radical counterculture that has always existed in the “dark heart” of the British Empire”, and forms a brief bright illustration of the black radical traditions, leftwing ferment and literary bohemianism which all met and flowered so productively in both James and Robeson. James’ background in the Caribbean added a specific motivation for telling Toussaint’s story (which he had been researching for several years, spurred on by inadequate and racist accounts of Haiti and dismissals of black people as inferior to whites). If the project was “fundamentally inspired by James earlier environment, the colonial Caribbean society in which he was born and grew to intellectual maturity,” (Hogsbjerg) it also reflected how James had evolved politically since he left the West Indies – moving from “a continuing identification with imperial Britain” to a Pan-Africanist viewpoint and then on to Marxism.

But Christian Hogsbjerg also discusses how the staging of the play itself, not just the subject matter, formed both a break and a link with theatre traditions. A link to black West Indian theatre: “Although James’s play has been celebrated as a pioneering production in the history of black British theatre, and an important moment in the history of African and Caribbean theatre, Toussaint Louverture also stands as an outstanding contribution to what the late Trinidadian dramatist and scholar Errol Hill once described as “the revolutionary tradition in black drama,” a “tradition of writing and producing plays that deal directly with black liberation.” This revolutionary tradition dates at least as far back as the Haitian Revolution itself, for after Toussaint seized the power to rule as black Consul in Saint- Domingue, James noted in The Black Jacobins that “the theatres began to play again, and some of the Negro players showed a remarkable talent.”

But also a defiant two fingers to the racially dubious portrayals of black people on the British stage – of ‘nigger minstrels’, or credulous childlike figures needing a white authority figure.

Interestingly, nearly 30 years later, James also adapted his account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, into a play:

“James felt the victory of many national liberation movements internationally in the postwar world meant that, as he later recalled, “the idea I was expressing should be differently expressed . . . writing about the struggle for independence in 1956 or 1960 was very different from what it was in 1936.” As James told Reinhard Sander, “After twenty- five years the colonial revolution had made great strides so about that time I began to rewrite it [the play] in view of the new historical happenings.” The play version of The Black Jacobins was first performed at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1967, directed by Lyndersay amid the tumult of civil war to an enthusiastic reception. It has since been staged numerous times, and this later script has necessarily formed the basis of scholarly discussion of “James’s play.” The later play essentially followed the same chronological structure as Toussaint Louverture. There is the same humour, the lively music, drumming ebbing and flowing into the action, and there are still moments of rare dramatic power. Yet by the 1960s James had experienced for himself, in Trinidad with Eric Williams and in Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah, both the excitement and the disappointment generated by movements for colonial liberation in the Caribbean and in Africa. If Toussaint Louverture was about the vindication of national liberation struggles written in the age of colonialism, in The Black Jacobins James and Lyndersay explored what lessons the Haitian Revolution might hold for national liberation struggles in the age of decolonisation.”

Christian Hobsbjerg’s book, which includes the full script of the play, the programme, photographs, and reviews from the 1936 production, a contextual introduction and editorial notes on the play, and selected essays and letters by James and others, is published by Duke University Press. Tis a bit expensive however… 

Have a look at Hogsbjerg’s blog

And you can watch an abridged performance of the play put on by Bowdoin College (Maine, USA) students in November 2014.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in theatrical history: footmen riot after being denied entrance to Drury lane playhouse, 1737.

As previously recounted on this blog, theatres were a leading arena for riots during the seventeenth century. 1737 saw significant disturbances, sparked by restrictions on the right of entry for footmen – the liveried servants of wealthy gentlemen.

Servants were a distinctive part of the eighteenth century theatre audience. From the time of the Restoration, they were regular patrons of the playhouse, arriving early, sometimes in mid-afternoon, to claim places for their mistresses and masters.

In the 1690s, actors discontented with Charles Rich’s management at Drury Lane theatre, established their own company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields with a special licence from the Lord Chamberlain. According to Colley Cibber the new company did well with “the People of Quality” to the detriment of the deserted manager.

To compensate for the loss of part of his audience Rich, “was resolv’d, at least, to be well with their Domesticks, and therefore cunningly open’d the upper Gallery to them gratis: For before this time no Footman was ever admitted, or had presumed to come into it, till after the fourth Act was ended. This additional Privilege… he conceived would not only incline them to give us a good Word in the respective Families they belong’d to, but would naturally incite them to come al1 Hands aloft in the Crack of Our Applauses.”

The innovation achieved its purpose and quickly became an established routine. “The quality” would send their servants in the afternoon to hold a place for that evening’s performance. Once mistress and master arrived, the servants would then retire to their own gallery until the end of the evening’s programme.

However, the practice was not always popular with other theatre-goers… When the footmen’s employers were late in arriving to take their seat, noise and confusion were created as places were being exchanged; the disruption was made more chaotic by the footmen’s habit of not allowing the play to begin until they were settled in their places. This disturbing situation was exacerbated when patrons were more than a little late, leaving their servants in their seats through one or two acts of the main piece, where often they loudly carried on, much to the annoyance of their neighbours.

Other theatre-goers, having two groups to focus their animosity upon, the elite and their servants, found the footmen to be the easier target when protesting the annoyance this caused.

It’s worth noting that there was a hierarchy amongst eighteenth century servants – footmen in livery being near the top (only a rich gentleman’s personal servant would rank higher). In part the footman’s status was due to their being a conspicuous sign of wealth and status for their employers. This was a position that footmen guarded jealously and sometimes abused, which included outrageous behaviour in the playhouse. While trading on the status of their ‘masters’, they were also cheekily able to get away with collectively cocking a snook at other gentlefolk. The class antagonisms and hierarchies expressed becoming very tangled. Throughout the eighteenth century there were numerous conflicts arising from attempts to expel or exclude servants as a group from various public spaces, such as pleasure gardens, and literature is filled with comment on the immorality and disorder that inevitably prevails when the lower classes are allowed access to pleasure and places of leisure. Disputes about the footmen’s occupation of their gallery have to be seen in this context.

In the 1730s, the obnoxious behaviour of servants became increasingly offensive to other theatre-goers. A correspondent to the “Occasional Prompter”, a theatre column in the Daily Journal, described the turn which things had taken. The snobbery in the tone of the letter is barely concealed…

“Not content with assuming their Masters Province, they have, for a long Course of Time, encouraged each other to look upon themselves, during the Time of their sitting to keep Places, as Representatives of those who sent them; and of course, as GOOD as any present in the house.”

Footmen were accused of talking loudly, distracting others in seats around them. Beer was brought in. The servants also sometimes hilariously refused to take off their hats, creating more noise, confusion and complaints. Gentlemen in the pit tried to command quiet, but were answered with hoots of derision.

On another occasion in February 1735, at the King’s Opera House, footmen came into the passages with lit torches. “Offending “the Ladies” and others, with the fumes from their links, they were ordered out of the passageway, but refused to leave, instead confronting “the Centnels” of the house. However, armed troops came to the aid of the latter and it was reported that “in the Fray one of the Footmen was stabb’d in the Groin, and in the Body, and its thought will die of the Wound”.

Problems with footmen at the theatre came to a head through the winter of 1736 – 1737, flaring up as ‘riots’ inside Drury Lane theatre on two separate occasions. The accounts of the dispute describe it as a reaction on the part of London’s theatre-going footmen to the end of their special status within the theatre and the loss of their gallery privileges.

The riots show elements of class conflict as well as the use of traditional popular political tactics and rhetoric on the part of the participants.

The first disturbance took place on Monday February 21, 1737, as a reaction by the footmen to [theatre owner] Fleetwood’s denying them access to their gallery. However, a letter to the Daily Advertiser indicates that the dispute began the previous Saturday and did not originally arise between the manager Fleetwood and the footmen. Instead the conflict developed out of antagonisms between the theatre-going servants and “Gentlemen in the Pit” who were “determined to make the footmen behave with Decency and proper Civility. The confrontation began with members of the pit demanding that the footmen remove their hats when the Ladies and Gentlemen, for whom they were saving seats, began to arrive. The footmen refused and one is reported to have said, “that he would not take off his Hat for anybody” and would knock down anyone who tried to see he did… striking “one of the Gentlemen going to rise.”

After this the confrontation turned into a general ruck: a dozen men from the pit climbed into the boxes and forced the footmen out. However, this meant that the footmen were not able to do the job that their mistresses and masters had sent them to do. And “upon proper Submission from some of them, the Gentlemen suffered them again into the Boxes to keep their Places.

Meanwhile word of hat had happened inside spread to the footmen assembled outside the theatre, and as they came in, they were overheard by audience members making plans to bombard the Pit from the gallery. These threats were in turn communicated to the rest of the pit; “upon which the whole Pit instantly rose, and with one Voice demanded of the director of the Theatre, that there should be either no Footman’s Gallery or no Pit.”

Worried about inconveniencing the ‘quality’, Fleetwood eventually gave in to the pit’s demands and closed the gallery. But the footmen soon broke through the doors, and after sitting through an act of the play, began their threatened barrage of fruit and words .

The well-known magistrate Colonel DeVeil (presiding in the Bow Street office just around the corner from the playhouse) was in attendance, as he often was; he made his way to where the footmen were assembled, and despite threats “to knock his Brains out,” he read out the Proclamation, “admonishing them to retire and desist from so unlawful an Undertaking; for that he came as a Friend, and not as a Foe, to warn them of their Danger. This Admonition, and reasonably reading the Proclamation, had its desired Effect, for they all went off in a few Minutes after the Proclamation was read.”

However, Fleetwood was set on keeping to the new policy. A few weeks after this first encounter, there was another disturbance at Drury Lane involving footmen. On Friday March 4, at the end of the main piece, in trying to make their way to their traditional section, three or four footmen assaulted one of the doorkeepers. Several other house employees came to help; “however, they were mistaken for interlopers by members of the pit, who joined with the footmen in their attack”. The next day, March 5, the footmen returned to continue their protest, during a command performance for the Prince and Princess of Wales. Some 300 footmen disrupted the play, and once again Justice DeVeil made his way to proclaim the Riot Act. “However, on this occasion, fearing the consequences, DeVeil didn’t read the proclamation, but instead arrested a number of those involved on other charges, who were then taken to “a room adjacent to the Playhouse.” After a lengthy examination several of the ringleaders were taken to Newgate. Two were later tried at Hick’s-Hall [the Middlesex magistrates court in Clerkenwell] and were sentenced to hard labour for six months.”

On Thursday March 10, following an announcement the day before, because the riots had “become a Topick of publick Discourse” the Daily Advertiser published ‘a true and exact Account of the Disturbances” as well as an anonymous letter purportedly sent to Fleetwood by representatives of the footmen on March 5 :

“Sir,

We are willing to admonish you before we attempt Our Design; and Provide you will use us Civil, and Admitt us into Our Gallery, which is Our Property, according to Formalities; and if you think proper to Come to a Composition this way, you’ll hear no further; and if not Our Intention is to Combine in a Body in Cognito. And Reduce the play house to the Ground. Valuing no Detection we are
Indemnified.”

The writers express the footmen’s view that their gallery belonged to them, based on precedent and tradition, and makes an offer to settle the dispute, though with an underlying hint of violent threat.

The threat however carried no weight with the theatre managers, “and with the force of the law assembled against them the footmen were ultimately denied their traditional perquisite in London’s two patent houses.” Footmen noticeably continued to attend the theatre, though possibly their employers now paying for their tickets. But their spirit of disorder was not completely subdued. “In one instance soon after the riot, a servant, keeping places on the stage, hearing audience members in the pit calling to footmen in the boxes to take off their hats, “leapt from his Seat, and opening the Curtain, cry’d out with a loud Voice, bidding the said Footmen keep on their Hats.”

The Footman’s gallery was, however, kept on at the King’s Opera House in the Haymarket. Some twenty-five years later it would seem that there were complaints about the behaviour in that gallery. A notice appeared in the Public Advertiser explaining that because patrons sitting in the Crown Gallery had had their clothes “spoiled, at different Times this Winter, by the Indecency of the Footmen” the manager of the King’s Opera was humbly hoping that “the Nobility and Gentry” would not take it amiss if he had to shut the Footman’s Gallery.”

The collective spirit of the footmen became so culturally significant within the theatre that it impinged upon the material presented onstage. A prologue, spoken by the popular comic actor William Penkethman early in the century, pointed to the power of the footmen assembled in their gallery. “Pinky,” especially revered for his prologues and epilogues, made a lengthy appeal to the “dear Brethren of the Upper Tire [tier]”, reminding them that he was a servant too. He warned all poets “Who writes not up to you [meaning the upper tier], ’tis ten to one will fail,” and then went on rhetorically:

“Your thundring plaudit It is that deals out Fame,
You make Plays run, tho’ of themselves but Lame:
How often have we known your Noise Commanding,
Impose on your Inferior Masters Understanding…”

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Much of the above was shamelessly purloined from:

Gentle Riots? Theatre Riots in London, 1730-1780 by Richard Gorrie

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s theatrical history: Riot at Covent Garden Theatre against ticket price rises, 1763.

“One Way only is left us, to obtain redress, which is, to assemble at the Playhouses, and demand, with Decency and Temper, an Explanation on this Grievance, which, I am certain, cannot be supported; and owes its Establishment to an Opinion, that every Imposition, not openly opposed, acquires the Sanction of prescription.”

‘The mischief done was the greatest ever known on any occasion of the like kind: all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads. The damages done amount to at least 2000. Four persons concern’d in the riot have been committed to the Gatehouse.’ (The Gentleman’s Magazine)

On 24 February 1763 a mob protesting the abolition of half-price admissions stormed the theatre in the middle of a performance of the opera Artaxerxes.

Visiting the eighteenth century theatre was a very different experience to today. Performances were not received in polite respectful silence – far from it. Audiences were often noisy, rowdy, heckled the actors regularly, brought in food, drink and smokes; started fights and even duels, and on numerous occasions, broke out into rioting. “Depending upon one’s definition of a riot there were thirty-six major disturbances in London’ s three major theatres between the years 1730-1780, or more than one every two years.”

According to Professor Richard Gorrie, riots were an integral part of the total eighteenth-century theatrical experience. “London theatre during the eighteenth century was the site of a highly interactive and wide ranging cultural activity and the theatre riot was a prominent, and not unexpected, part of that encounter.”

The riots had a wide range of causes, but the spark that kept provoking disorder was repeated attempts to put up entry prices.

In the early part of the eighteenth century it was customary to sell theatre seats at full-price if you wished to see the entire show (typically a shorter play, the main feature which might be a play or an opera, and possibly several entr’actes). If you only took your seat after the third act of the main attraction, you could generally get in for half-price. This obviously suited those with less ready cash, amongst others. But in late January 1763 the management of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and the Drury Lane Theatre, (the only two theatres fully licensed to show plays), who were effectively running a ticket-pricing cartel, decided to alter this arrangement, and started charging full-price regardless of whatever point in the performance the audience arrived.

In part the aggro that followed arose from a feud between flamboyant and opinionated critic Thaddeus Fitzpatrick the pamphleteer said to be the eminence grise behind the riots) and theatre actor-manage David Garrick, (then running Drury Lane Theatre). Fitzpatrick had criticised Garrick in public and then in print and the latter had satirised him in his plays in return, at first in jest but increasingly bitterly. “Reporters and later historians decided that Fitzpatrick had disrupted the performances at both theatres as a clumsy tactic in this war of wits”. However, this is only a part of the story…

The price changes didn’t go down well with the more plebeian element of London’s theatre audience. Pamphlets were published, and audience members rioted at Drury Lane theatre on January 25th, and a more muted disturbance took place the same night at Covent Garden, which was quickly dispelled when the manager, John Beard, temporarily gave in to the rioters’ demands.

Earlier in the day handbills had been distributed around the various taverns and coffee houses, and other public places, addressed to the ‘Frequenters of the Theatres’; it was a call to arms to protest the new pricing policy.

When the play opened, part of the audience made a great clamour, calling for the theatre managers to appear an account for themselves: “I call on you in the name of the public to answer for your RASCALLY impositions” came the challenge, with the word rascal repeated through the house according to one source.” The theatre next became a sort of parliament… On one occasion the audience were asked to vote on the continuation of the play, but a minority had already started to break up the benches and props… The guard had to be called and the rioters dispersed.

There was clearly a particular concerted effort being made to disrupt performances: there was often much audience traffic between the two theatres during an evening, with boisterous groups of patrons moving rowdily from one venue to the other (though riots generally did not take place simultaneously at both theatres or spread from one house to the other).

However, a month later Beard tried again to implement the new prices. “Once again a handbill was printed and distributed “at all the public places in London:

‘To the frequenters of theatres,
Gentlemen,
In defiance of the regulation which your resolution and steadiness, lately established at Drury-lane theatre, and in which it was universally understood, that the managers of the other theatre had fully acquiesced, there appeared this day advertised, the opera of ARTAXERXES, with this remarkable notice, viz. Nothing under the full price CAN be taken. It now therefore behooves you, gentlemen, to enforce your decision, and convince the directors of Covent-Garden, that a point once determined by the tribunal of the public, must and shall forever remain a law, subject to no alteration, but by their own authority.

I am gentlemen,
Your Humble servant,
An enemy to imposition.’

However on February 24th, the rioters returned in force to Covent Garden, this time to a performance of Artaxerxes. While women were often a part of theatre riots and generally left or were ushered out only when the situation became violent or destructive, on this occasion it was noted in the press that very few women were present in the first place, perhaps pointing to a more confrontational attitude on the part of the protestors. Beard now refused to back down, and insisted on charging full-price, and in spite of the singers’ best attempts to get on with the opera, the stage was stormed, and the opera stopped. A great noise greeted the drawing of the curtain, and from the beginning of the evening members of the audience demanded that Beard appear to answer their charges. A significant amount of negotiating back and forth took place, with, at one point, someone in the pit declaring that the management “ought to submit in this to the town…”

By 9.30 p.m. when the management were showing no signs of giving into audience demands, the rioters had enough, and started to tear down the chandeliers and the pillars supporting the gallery. They caused £2,000 worth of damage – this at a time when a servant-girl’s annual wage would amount to little more than £4. In addition, several employees of the theatre were hurt. The theatre was dark for four nights.

The Public and Daily Advertiser of the following day contained a statement from Beard with the management’s side of the dispute, arguing that the production expenses of opera justified the change in ticket pricing. Furthermore, after presenting his case to the public, he hoped that no one would think the innovation exorbitant.

The print by L.P. Boitard (see above) to commemorate the Fitzgiggo riot (as it came to be known, taking its name from Thaddeus Fitzpatrick) shows the singers attempting to repel the audience members climbing on to the stage.

The delay occasioned by the extensive repairs gave Beard a chance to temper his stand. By early March Garrick had visited Beard at Covent Garden to see if he was going to insist on full prices as they had agreed in their posted bills. If they were going to remain united, Garrick was prepared to endure another onslaught of protest. However Beard said he had consulted friends who had advised him “to give it up.” With this knowledge, Garrick was prepared to give up the ‘pricing innovation’ as well.

However he was not as quick to drop the charges against the rioters and this rancorous issue was still unresolved at the theatre the following evening. A spirited crowd gathered and once again the orchestra was commanded to play the popular favourites of “Hearts of Oak,” “Britons Strike Home,” and “Rule Britannia.” A clamour followed which precluded any performance and Beard was summoned.

Initially the manager did not guarantee that al1 charges would be dropped, but finally “for the sake of public tranquility” he gave in to the protesters on every point.

Gentle Riots, Theatre Riots in London 1730-1780, Richard Gorrie, is a wondrous read and invaluable reading on the subject…

And London’s theatre audiences would continue to riot in defiance of price rises

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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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

Today in London’s theatrical history: playing Bottom on a Sunday gets Mr Wilson into trouble, 1631.

The branches of protestant Christianity generally lumped together and described (particularly when discussing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Britain) as puritanism were in fact widely variable.

But we’re not going to go into that… What follows may include a lot of simplification.

Puritans were generally concerned to reform and ‘purify’ the existing church, or to separate themselves as an elect apart from those they considered unsaved or unsaveable.

One well-known aspect of puritan belief was their attack on popular culture; a widespread attempt to close down many of the festivals, holidays, pastimes, performances and other daily pleasures that had characterised everyday life for centuries. Puritans were far from alone in campaigning to shut down the teeming rambunctious whirlwind of drink, dancing, sex, satire and abandon that made life bearable – catholic and protestant authorities were also often jointly keen to clean up daily life and its immoralities. The puritans were pretty dedicated however…

Puritan activists had tried and failed in the late sixteenth century to capture and reform the national church according to their program… However to some extent they fell back on what has been called the “puritan reformation of manners” – attempting to impose their moral reforms on the communities around them at a local level. This took the form of denouncing what they saw as the excesses of popular culture, trying to enforce restrictions as to how people were allowed to behave in their daily and weekly life, especially their pleasures. Most notably on Sunday, the Sabbath, the day Christians considered holy, a day puritans thought should be spent in worship of God only. But Sunday was most people’s only day off, so where they could, large numbers would spend the day in pleasure, whether taking part in games and sports, drinking, meeting up and hanging out… The puritans did not originate the idea of the Sabbath as holy, or a day that should be upheld morally, it had a long history on various branches of Christianity

So on a local level, puritans attempted to enforce the ‘holiness’ of the Sabbath; in the early 17th century, they were successful in London (and elsewhere) in making links with constables and justices, through whom they administered their moral agenda, which became translated into ‘county and corporation orders’…

Attempts to repress culture they considered immoral and ungodly took many forms, and formed a constant barrage of local laws, agitation, denunciation… Another aspect of life many (though not all) puritans took a dim view of was theatre. Between the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth century, sections of puritan opinion waged a propaganda war against the putting on of plays; when a Parliament with a substantial ‘godly’ element came to power as the English Civil War was fermenting and breaking out, the banning of theatre in 1642 was among its early acts relating to social policy.

For many of the Godly, theatre encouraged disorder, immorality, sexual banter and frivolity. Philip Stubbes in his Anatomie of Abuses, (1583), levelled a barrage of charges against plays: “Do they not maintain bawdry, insinuate foolery, and renew the remembrance of heathen idolatry? Do they not induce whoredom and uncleanness? Nay, are they not rather plain devourers of maidenly virginity and chastity? For proof whereof mark but the flocking and running to Theaters and Curtains, daily and hourly, night and day, time and tide, to see plays and interludes, where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such laughing and fleering, such clipping and culling, such winking and glancing of wanton eyes, and the like is used, as is wonderful to behold.”

It wasn’t just the content of the plays themselves, it was also the nature of the threatres, spaces where crowds of man and women gathered together, jostling and unruly, encouraging intimacy, levity, intermingling… But the huge popularity and attention given to plays was also time and energy that should be directed to more serious matters – theatre is mocking godliness, in that “the attention which the plays commanded is not unlike worship… there are analogies between dramatic and and religious expression in the ritual participation of actor and audience, in the use of heightened language and dressing up…” (Margot Heinemann). Theatre is setting itself up as dangerously close to a mockery of true religion.

Puritan repression could fall not only on the licensed theatres. On the 27thSeptember, 1631, a Sunday, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was privately performed in the house of John Williams, the Bishop of Lincoln, in London, “by order of the right reverend prelate, and for the amusement of himself and divers knights and ladyes…”, beginning about ten at night and ending about two or three in the morning.

Putting on plays on Sunday was bad enough – a definite breach of the Lord’s Day; however there is also a suggestion that Mr Wilson, the actor playing the character of Bottom (said to have been the brains behind the event), had perhaps offended against other mores.

The Puritans had become a powerful force in London life by this time, though still in opposition to the hierarchy of the established church. Their political influence led to an inquiry into the affair. Puritan preacher John Spencer condemned the bishop, wrote at least one letter a letter of reproof from John Spencer, a Puritanical preacher, to a lady who was amongst the audience; and Mr Wilson was punished.

Although puritans are sometimes labelled as being humourless, as the writer of the Chambers Book of Days commented: “there is something rather humorous in what was decreed to the performer of Bottom the weaver”:

‘We do order that Mr. Wilson, as he was a special plotter and contriver of this business, and did in such a brutish manner act the same with an ass’s head, shall upon Tuesday next, from six o’clock in the morning till six o’clock at night, sit in the porter’s lodge at my lord bishop’s house, with his feet in the stocks, and attired with an ass’s head, and a bottle of hay before him, and this subscription on his breast:

‘Good people, I have played the beast,
And brought ill things to pass;
I was a man, but thus have made,
Myself a silly ass.”

Mr Wilson was described as a ‘cunning Musition’… It has been suggested that he could be John Wilson, known as having written songs for theatre company the Kings Men from 1614, and as being a lutenist in this company in 1635. He was later a professor of music at Oxford in 1656.

To some extent, its thought that this may have been an episode in an ongoing culture war, which also played out in political faction fighting in London in the tense years pre-civil war. Bishop Williams was a major player in church and state hierarchies, an opponent of the high church authorities like Archbishop Laud, and tolerant towards puritanism, but a liberal, who tried to steer a middle course in the civil war years… Whether this played part in the puritan denunciation of the play in September 1631 is hard to discern.

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

Today in London’s theatrical history: Old Price Riots begin, 1809.

As we commented in a previous post London’s eighteenth/early nineteenth century theatre audiences were often rowdy, unruly, fond of breaking down the supposed line of separation between performer and spectator. They often disrupted plays or actors they took a dislike to, organised themselves to resist attempts to control them and impose order and quiet, and violently objected to any rise in ticket prices…

The most famous struggle that erupted from this disorderly audience was the Old price Riots, which began on 18 September 1809. Over sixty-seven nights of protest at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, often collectively referred to as the OP war, crowds protested against a rise in seat prices, a reduction of the size of the gallery (all working class people could afford), and the increase in the size of private boxes taken by the rich.

The audience divided themselves into the supporters of the cheaper ‘old price’ tickets, the ‘OPs’, and those who supported the management, the NPs.

As the name ‘Old Price’ suggests, the riots were sparked by the dissatisfaction of London’s theatregoers with the new price of admission to the theatre. As had been the case throughout the eighteenth century, these theatregoers believed in the common ownership of theatre prices, and were prepared to act to defend low prices as a matter of principle. “Theatre protest was intertwined with long eighteenth-century multi-class metropolitan political expression and theatre-going in this period was not the passive, solemn experience we take for granted today. In these lively, volatile metropolitan spaces the justification for and exclusiveness of new theatre pricing regimes, the resentment of theatre monopolies, and the suspicion of impositions along class lines had been issues before”… in the 1763 Half-Price Riots at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the 1755 Drury Lane riots against Garrick’s Chinese Festival… 1743, 1750, 1770, and 1776 saw comparable, violent protests at Drury Lane…

Theatre in the 18th century played an entirely different social role than it does today – open to all classes, it addressed them and catered for them… The theatre was hugely popular in late Georgian Britain: every fair-sized town had a theatre; schools, the armed services, different trades, aristocrats and gentry all had their own amateur groups. There was no assumption that visiting the theatre was, or should be, an elite activity. The opposite view, in fact, prevailed – there was a conscious and widespread feeling that it was and should be open to all, and almost that it was a service, that should be open to everyone, rather than being a money-making concern.

The auditorium of a Georgian theatre was encircled with tiers of enclosed seats known as boxes, with a gallery above. The gallery was the cheapest; the first row of the boxes the most expensive. The floor of the theatre was furnished with simple benches and called the pit. The best view of the stage was from here, and it was only later that theatre managers realised that they could put the most expensive seats there and call them the stalls.

Theatre programmes often started at about 6.30pm and could go on until after midnight. The main play was preceded by songs, dances and perhaps a tightrope walker or juggling act, with a shorter play (usually a comedy) at the end. The scenery was spectacular, particularly for pantomimes, and often painted from eye-witness drawings. Tickets were half price if you came at the interval.

In London there were two Theatres Royal: Covent Garden and Drury Lane (the ‘major’ theatres). They were the only two royal patent theatres sanctioned to stage five-act spoken word drama within Westminster, even though, in reality, the Lord Chamberlain’s jurisdiction extended to the whole of London and its environs. In the 1790s Drury Lane was completely rebuilt and Covent Garden renovated. Both were enlarged to seat approximately 3,000 people.

In December 1808 Covent Garden burned down, with a loss of thirty lives, the destruction of Handel’s organ and much scenery and costumes. Forced to fund an entirely new theatre, the management solicited donations from the rich – including £10,000 from the Duke of Northumberland – and borrowed extensively. More space was devoted to boxes for richer patrons, the most expensive private boxes being luxurious with curtains. They hired the top soprano, Angelica Catalani, at an enormous fee to attract wealthier patrons. Prices in the gallery remained the same, but had a restricted view.

While Covent Garden was being built, the other major theatre, Drury Lane, also burnt down (in March 1809). Covent Garden was now the only theatre permitted to perform plays.

A crowd of thousands was waiting to get in to the theatre when it opened on 18 September 1809. Perhaps only a quarter managed to do so. But many were there not to spectate – they had grievances, and were determined to air them. These included “the removal of the cheapest section of the house, the one shilling gallery, to a ‘pigeon hole’ on high; the expansion of private boxes and the enclosure from prying eyes of areas only affordable to the elite; and the cessation of sales of half-price tickets after the third act, a custom that had hitherto opened up the theatre to a multitude – if not the very poorest – of Londoners and made the space egalitarian in its usage.” Added to this, rumours of financial mismanagement and embezzlement, anger that increased prices seemed to be paying for expensive foreign actors as lead players…

When the theatre’s actor-manager/owner John Kemble, appeared on stage, he was received with applause, but when he began to speak he was drowned out by roars, hisses and hoots whistles, shouts, calls, songs, and stamps which continued right through Macbeth.

Magistrates were called from Bow Street magistrates’ office to read the Riot Act, which would have allowed them to force the crowd to leave. The crowd did not disperse promptly, only a few were removed, and, as they had begun, the audience closed their performance with stirring renditions of ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia!’ But a debate began as to whether a paying audience could legally be ordered to disperse.

After the disruption of the opening night, Bow Street officers patrolled the corridors of Covent Garden Theatre (this lasted into the new year). Invited in by the Theatre’s doorman, James Brandon, they were tasked with keeping order and removing anyone disrupting the plays.

But the disturbances continued. The OPs arrived with ‘musical’ instruments – frying pans, tongs and a dustman’s bell, and performed the ‘OP dance’, a kind of wild welly dance, on the benches, accompanied by shouts of ‘OP!’ Horns and bells were sounded.

Kemble closed the theatre for six days to allow a neutral committee to decide on the prices. But they supported the new prices, so when the theatre re-opened the OPs returned with banners, placards, songs and chants. Running races along the benches and mock fights were started, and the ‘OP rattle’, (satirically inspired by the rattle watchmen carried) used to drown the actors out.

Policing became a crucial issue. Many OPs were arrested, night after night, and prosecuted privately by the theatre staff… There was a close relationship between the theatres and the Bow Street magistracy. Bow Street had become central to the state’s maintenance of public order and morality, in an era when the French revolution had sown a fear of radicals and of the disorderly working classes had among the British establishment.

Heavy policing and repression of rights became, if anything, more of a central issue as the weeks of Old Price protest went on. By October, the Ops were rioting “not because of an increase in admission price by itself but rather because of a perceived affront to their freedoms and associated customary rights as ‘Free-Born Englishmen.’”

For their part, the authorities began to see the OP riots as more even of a threat than the Gordon riots (according to Attorney General Vicary Gibbs, who intervened to support the Theatre’ position, denounce the OPs as rioters and label the dispute ‘the greatest riots that had every disgraced the Metropolis.)

By early October 1809, anyone found in possession of or using horns or bells within the theatre to be arrested; as was anyone distributing handbills among the audience, and soon, outside the theatre,

OPs repeatedly changed tactics so as to avoid arrest, and, in response, officers amended their grounds for arrest. Arrests in the pit, the corridors, the gallery, the one-shilling gallery, and the private boxes of Covent Garden Theatre continued unabated. As the protest moved into November 1809, men and women were brought before the Bow Street magistrates charged with having caused or incited disturbance, riot, and tumult for singing ‘God Save the King,’ using rattles, blowing whistles, gesturing, walking about, sneezing loudly, and wearing the words ‘O.P’ or ‘N.P.B’ (No Private Boxes) in their hats.

When arrested, men and women were brought to Bow Street, and there the magistrates expressed themselves by demanding bail. Bail ranged from £100 to £500, plus sureties.

With this kind of noise going on throughout the performance, Kemble employed boxers to throw people out. This back-fired however: when the doorkeeper, Brandon, detained a well-known radical barrister, Henry Clifford, he was found guilty of false arrest. This gave the advantage to the OPs, and although Kemble had originally vowed not to give in, by 14 December 1809 he had met Clifford for dinner and agreed peace terms. The following night Kemble apologised for raising the prices, and for employing the boxers. Charges against the rioters were dropped. The OPs had won.

It would be too simplistic to frame the Old Price Riots in terms of class struggle. More accurately “a multi-class rejection of perceived elite chicanery was a crucial feature of the OP war.”

Just as those from every class attended the theatre, so OPs were drawn from all classes. Apprentices, clerks, both skilled and unskilled workers, business and professional men and even an earl’s daughter were among those arrested throughout the two and a half months of riots.’

However the theatre’s location was perhaps crucial. Many of the OPs lived near to the theatre, in Westminster, an area then known for its radical ethos, fond of electing radical MPs and constantly teeming with riotous mobs and home to pubs full of debating reformers…

A common idea of what kind of space the theatre was, and for who, lay at the heart of the riots. “Private boxes, for example, were novel, constructed zones of ambiguity whose mechanics – private, hidden, aloof, seemingly beyond reproach – upset values the OPs saw as central to London theatregoing, to see and to be seen in a public theatre, open exchange, and the equality of all under the law.”

In some ways this aspect reflected the conservative and reactionary aspects of the Old Price campaign. While there was an egalitarian spirit, it was also balanced by a dose of moral judgmentalism – private boxes were opposed as being set up to encourage infidelity. The OP campaign also brought up bilious gouts of anti-semitism and xenophobia – ‘foreign’ talent hired to adorn the Theatre, and the hiring of some jewish boxers to act as bouncers, were seized on and turned into additional outrages to be protested. So in some ways the OPs wanted to be seen, and can be viewed, as patriotic defenders of the status quo – “a multi-class public suspicious of novelty”.

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

Today in London’s dramatic history: Garrick refuses justices’ request to change the Beggars Opera, 1773.

In September 1773, the actor and impresario David Garrick got into a dispute with the Westminster magistrate John Fielding, over Garrick’s plan to shortly begin staging John Gay’s Beggars’ Opera (see our previous post). Fielding was trying to persuade Garrick not to put the play on, as the Opera ‘made people laugh at scenes which they ought to condemn’, thus corrupting the morals of the ‘lowers orders’. Writing to Garrick, Fielding suggested changing the ending of the play, proposing that the protagonist Macheath should be hanged instead of being reprieved.

Fielding was keen to censor immorality on the stage – a long tradition in London, where the authorities saw theatres as potential hotbeds of unrest. From Elizabethan times to the nineteenth century the Lord Chamberlain’s office oversaw theatres and regularly closed down plays seen as unruly or immoral. Nor was the widely held view among magistrates and government that the ‘mob’ that gathered to watch plays could easily become a riotous crowd and a political challenge entirely unjustified… Gradually however, the protection of public morality became a bigger concern for the censors.

Fielding claimed that stagings of the Beggars’ Opera had always resulted in a wave of crime and immorality in the city. Critics replied that he had the cart before the horse – John Gay’s Opera was commenting on the state of the world, not responsible for it.

In reply to Fielding, Garrick ‘in return pleasantly remarked, that it did not seem his interest at present to carry conviction to such lengths’…

Commentators of the time were amused by the request, since Fielding himself was thought to be immured in vice, and to tolerate and profit from the bribes from, any number of rackets in the area he nominally policed… As William Augustus Miles pointed out in a letter to Fielding, ‘not endeavouring to suppress the open practice of all manner of vice and immorality in his own neighbourhood, before he made application to Mr Garrick for the suppression of the Beggars’ Opera… considering the uniform practice of your life… your being intrenched up to your very chin in all manner of vice… the request to Mr Garrick was neither decent nor plausible, and what a man, the least conversant with your character, can hear without a mixture of laughter and indignation…. Do you imagine that to expose vice is the same as to encourage it?’

Ironically, although Garrick refused to play Fielding’s game, Fielding could easily have thought Garrick would be up for it, since he was well-accustomed to re-writing famous dramas. He continued the Restoration tradition of adapting Shakespeare’s tragedies to give them happy endings or editing out classic scenes, although he did bring some whole chunks of Shakespeare’s texts that late 17th century playwrights had excised. Garrick also took a dim view of the unruly culture of the theatre-going crowds, who were fond of making a racket, heckling, entering and leaving noisily when they liked, and carrying on in what sounds like a most enjoyable fashion to break down the strict separation of audience and viewer. However Garrick’s attempts to reform the audience – refusing admittance behind the scenes and on the stage and attempted to discontinue the practice of reduced entry fees for those who left early or came late, but these changes resulted in riots. Theatre crowds were made of sterner stuff back then and took no shit when it came to price rises or controls on their behaviour… (We will hopefully come back to this on 18th September).

Fielding’s attempt to censor, or persuade Garrick to censor the Beggars Opera itself inspired drama. Shortly after, an anonymous play was staged in London, called “The Bow Street Opera in Three Acts. Written on the Plan of the Beggars’ Opera”. It featured deeply satirical and scathing attacks on the politics an hypocrisy of the justice system, aimed directly at Fielding, who was portrayed as ‘Justice Blindman’ (he had been blind since an accident at the age of 19), but very much in the style of John Gay, also relating a thinly veiled account of the career of radical demagogue and bogy of the establishment (at least until he joined it), John Wilkes.

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

Today in London’s literary history: Playwright Christopher Marlowe murdered, 1593, Deptford.

 “Almost into every Company he Cometh he perswades men to Atheisme, willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and vtterly scorning both God and His ministers.”

Playwright, poet, genius… he was the leading literary figure of his day. Until his violent death… In the late 1580s and early ‘90s, he had established a reputation as late Elizabethan England’s most original and influential playwright. At the height of his fame, aged only 29, Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in Deptford on 30 May 1593.

After his death, and building up in the subsequent centuries, a web of myth and legend has grown up around Marlowe, and his death. According to most historical opinion, he had worked for the state as a spy (recruited when he was at Cambridge: a cliché that would run and run); he was accused, a few days before his death, of holding atheistical opinions, and, it was hinted, he was homosexual. After his death, this picture of him was quickly promulgated, and used to blacken his name (and clear his killers).

Various theories have been put forward as to the circumstances of his death, with suggestions that he was caught up in the power struggles of the Elizabethan secret state, or that he was a freethinker, linked to a network of atheists and proto-enlightenment figures… or both of the above.

Marlowe had been arrested on Sunday 20th May 1593, on a charge of atheism, which was heresy, a serious crime for which the ultimate penalty was to be burned at the stake. Despite the seriousness of the charge, however, he was not immediately imprisoned or tortured on the rack, as his fellow playwright Thomas Kyd had been. He was granted bail on condition he reported daily to an officer of the Court. But he was killed just a few days later.

Marlowe was stabbed to death in a room that had been hired for a private meeting in a respectable house in Deptford (not in a tavern as the story usually goes), owned by Dame Eleanor Bull, a lady with Court connections. Besides Marlowe three men were said to have been present; Robert Poley: longtime government agent, who carried the Queen’s most secret and important letters in post to and from the courts of Europe; Ingram Frizer, personal servant and business agent of Marlowe’s patron, the wealthy Thomas Walsingham, (cousin of the recently deceased Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, who had created the espionage service which protected Queen Elizabeth’s life from the on-going Catholic assassination plots. Thomas Walsingham had assisted his illustrious cousin as his right-hand man and was himself a master-spy); and Nicholas Skeres: also part of the Walsingham spy machine.

Since Marlowe also enjoyed both the friendship and the patronage of Thomas Walsingham, (at whose estate, Scadbury in Kent, he was staying at the time of his arrest, having gone there to escape the plague in London), Walsingham therefore can be seen to be connected with all four of these men.

The official Coroner’s Report reveals what was supposed to have happened, but at the time it was not released to the ‘public’. Marlowe was rumoured to have been killed in a tavern brawl: the story was that Marlowe and the others quarrelled about the bill, Marlowe attacked Frizer, and Frizer stabbed him in self-defence.

“… after supper the said Ingram & Christopher Morley were in speech & uttered one to the other divers malicious words for the reason that they could not be at one nor agree about the payment of the sum of pence, that is le recknynge, there; & the said Christopher Morley then lying upon a bed in the room where they supped, & moved with anger against the said Ingram ffrysar upon the words aforesaid spoken between them, and the said Ingram then & there sitting in the room aforesaid with his back towards the bed where the said Christopher Morley was then lying, sitting near the bed, that is, nere the bed, & with the front part of his body towards the table & the aforesaid Nicholas Skeres & Robert Poley sitting on either side of the said Ingram in such a manner that the same Ingram ffrysar in no wise could take flight; it so befell that the said Christopher Morley on a sudden & of his malice towards the said Ingram aforethought, then & there maliciously drew the dagger of the said Ingram which was at his back, and with the same dagger the said Christopher Morley then & there maliciously gave the aforesaid Ingram two wounds on his head of the length of two inches & of the depth of a quarter of an inch; where-upon the said Ingram, in fear of being slain, & sitting in the manner aforesaid between the said Nicholas Skeres & Robert Poley so that he could not in any wise get away, in his own defence & for the saving of his life, then & there struggled with the said Christopher Morley to get back from him his dagger aforesaid; in which affray the same Ingram could not get away from the said Christopher Morley; & so it befell in that affray that the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid to the value of 12d, gave the said Christopher then & there a mortal wound over his right eye of the depth of two inches & of the width of one inch; of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then & there instantly died; & so the Jurors aforesaid say upon their oath that the said Ingram killed & slew Christopher Morley aforesaid on the thirtieth day of May in the thirtyfifth year named above at Detford Strand aforesaid within the verge in the room aforesaid within the verge in the manner and form aforesaid in the defence and saving of his own life, against the peace of our said lady the Queen, her now crown & dignity…”

With his death now officially recorded, the body of Christopher Marlowe was hurriedly buried in an unmarked grave in St. Nicholas churchyard, Deptford. Ingram Frizer went to prison to await the Queen’s pardon, which arrived with brutal efficiency just twenty-eight days later. On his release, Frizer immediately returned to the service of his master,Thomas Walsingham, in whose service of Walsingham for the rest of his life.

If the whole story seems like a whitewash, well yeah, maybe it was… Three connected spies supported each other’s stories and an official cover-up follows… That wouldn’t happen these days though, eh? Although it is possible that they really did fight over a bill. But, if Marlowe was targeted for assassination, why?

It seems likely that his death, if it was planned murder, was connected to either his alleged work as a spy, or his supposed heretical views on religion, and links to a nebulous group of freethinking intellectuals. Perhaps he was killed because, already under threat of arrest and torture, the secret service who had employed him feared he might reveal something incriminating.

But Thomas Walsingham, to who all four present had close ties, is thought himself to have had links with the circle of freethinkers that grouped themselves around Sir Walter Raleigh, Henry Percy (the “Wizard” Earl of Northumberland), and Ferdinando, Lord Strange, which is labelled today The School of Night. Rumours of atheism, heresy, and black magic came to be associated with this group. In reality, they were, more prosaically, a band of advanced thinking noblemen, courtiers and educated commoners, including mathematicians, astronomers, voyagers who had explored the New World, geographers, philosophers and poets.

They had to meet behind closed doors, and were stigmatised as atheists and magicians, because the Ecclesiastical Authorities feared the spread of interest in scientific discovery, which was undermining accepted teaching, such as about Earth being at the centre of the universe. A most important member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s circle was the advanced thinker, brilliant mathematician and astronomer,Thomas Hariot. He was in the patronage of both Raleigh and the Earl of Northumberland, the latter nicknamed the “Wizard Earl” for his love of experimenting with chemistry for which he had laboratories built into all his houses. These Free Thinkers discussed a wide range of subjects and were avid in their pursuit of all knowledge. Such men, in the eyes of the church, were dangerous. The Earl of Northumberland had at an early age dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge. He was eventually imprisoned in the Tower of London by King James I for almost sixteen years on a charge of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot; Sir Walter Raleigh was also eventually jailed, charged, also by King James, with conspiring with the Spaniards. In fact, King James had a paranoid fear of these brilliant men because he suspected them of exercising magical powers, which the superstitious King held in terror. Both were accused of the “vile heresy” of Atheism.

Connection to this group may have led Marlowe to his downfall. He was arrested in May 1593, because he was implicated by fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. Kyd had himself been picked up on the orders of the dreaded Star Chamber (the high court which dealt with matters of heresy and was the English equivalent of the Holy Roman Inquisition. The only court empowered to use torture to obtain confessions, and operated without a jury, it was the all-powerful legal arm of the most reactionary elements of Church and State), as he had been involved in writing the collaborative play Sir Thomas More, recently rejected by the censor because it contained scenes of riots considered to be inciting, (in the light of apprentices riots that year). Among Kyd’s papers they found incriminating evidence in the form of a treatise discussing the Holy Trinity, which was immediately labelled as “Atheism”. Kyd was racked – under this torture he stuck to his original claim of innocence and claimed this paper belonged to Marlowe, who had been writing in the same room with him and had left it there, and it had got mixed up with Kyd’s own papers “unbeknown to him.”

Kyd was released, a broken man – he died a year later, but not before further blackening Marlowe’s name in an attempt to clear himself, regain this own reputation, and save himself from destitution. Since by then Marlowe was already dead, he was free to slag him off without fear of reply, as a man who was “intemperate and of a cruel heart, the very contraries to which my greatest enemies will say by me”.

After Marlowe’s death Richard Baines, an informer, recounted in a note to the Privy Council blasphemous statements he alleged Marlowe to have uttered, implicating him in the capital crimes of scorning Scripture and the Church, of homosexuality, and of coining (forging coins). According to Baines, Marlowe attacked religion itself, took the piss out of Christ, Moses and other major biblical figures; hinted at a sexual love of men…

Read the full Baines note here – it’s a cracking list which we find it hard to disagree with…

But did Marlowe really say any of it? It is tempting for us, as modern-day atheists, with all our sexual fluidity, to celebrate this image of Marlowe, the gay wit, the freethinking rebel. But most of the beliefs credited to him could just as easily be fabricated, since the only evidence emanates from his enemies. Piling on the accusations is a classic tactic – it is impossible to know how much of it represents what he might have really thought.

On the other hand, we like the sound of him arguing “that the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe.” A remarkably clear statement. Some of the other sayings Baines attributes to him really do smack of someone arguing pissed over a few pints: “Moyses was but a Jugler, & that one  Heriots being Sir W Raleighs man can do more then he… Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest… That St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ  and leaned alwaies in his bosome, that he vsed him as the sinners of Sodoma.”

There is of course, also the inevitable theory, a modern creation, (though pre-dating the internet) that the whole killing was a fake, set up by elements in the secret service, and that Marlowe in fact escaped abroad, to continue spying, and – some say – to write any number of works generally credited to Shakespeare. In the same way as Jim Morrison and Elvis are sometimes still knocking around in secrecy.

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

Today in London’s radical past: the Beggars’ Opera premieres, satirising the rich, 1728

The Beggar’s Opera was a three act ballad opera written in 1728 by John Gay with music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. It is the only example of the once thriving genre of satirical ballad opera to remain popular today. The lyrics of the airs in the piece were set to popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias, church hymns and folk tunes of the time.

The Beggar’s Opera premiered at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre on 29 January 1728, and ran for 62 consecutive performances, the longest run in British theatre history up to that time. The work became Gay’s greatest success and has been played ever since; it has been called “the most popular play of the eighteenth century.” In 1920, the Opera began an astonishing revival run of 1,463 performances at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London, which was one of the longest runs in history for any piece of musical theatre at that time. The Beggar’s Opera had a wide influence on later British stage comedies, especially on nineteenth century British comic opera and through to the modern musical.

The piece satirised Italian opera, then very popular in London, especially with the upper classes. Instead of the grand music and themes of opera, the work uses familiar tunes and the characters were ordinary people. Some of the songs were by opera composers like Handel, but only the most popular of these were used. The idea being that the audience could hum along with the music and identify with the characters.

The story satirised politics, poverty and injustice, focusing on the theme of corruption at all levels of society. Lavinia Fenton, the first actress to play the Opera’s leading female character, Polly Peachum, became an overnight celebrity. Her pictures were in widely sold, verses were addressed to her and books published about her. After appearing in several comedies, and numerous repetitions of The Beggars Opera, she ran away with her married lover, Charles Powlett, 3rd Duke of Bolton.

Eat your heart out George Lucas: Long before star Wars revolutionised modern film merchandising, the Beggars’ Opera’s success spawned an associated industry of keepsakes and mementos, ranging from images of Polly on fans and clothing, playing cards and fire-screens, broadsides featuring all the characters, and the rapidly published musical score of the opera.

Inspired by an idea of Jonathan Swift, who wrote to Alexander Pope on 30 August 1716 asking “…what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?”, their friend, Gay, decided to write a satire on a pastoral opera. Originally, Gay intended all the songs to be sung without any accompaniment, adding to the shocking and gritty atmosphere of his conception. But a week or so before the opening night, John Rich, the theatre director, insisted on having Johann Christoph Pepusch, write and arrange music for the Opera.

Besides taking the piss out of the passionate interest of the aristocracy in Italian opera,  at the same time Gay caricatured the leading Whig statesman Robert Walpole, and politicians in general, as well as the notorious criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard. The opera also deals with social inequity on a broad scale, comparing low-class thieves and whores with their aristocratic and bourgeois “betters.” The play is sometimes seen to be a reactionary call for libertarian values in response to the growing power of the conservative Whig party. It may also have been influenced by the then-popular ideology of Locke that men should be allowed their natural liberties; these democratic strains of thought influenced the populist movements of the era.

The Opera’s anti-hero, Macheath, has long been thought to be modelled on the famous thief and gaol-breaker Jack Sheppard, who had gone to the gallows in 1724, after breaking out of almost every London prison, and becoming a hero to the lower classes (and remaining a legend and inspiration for a hundred years.)

The Beggar’s Opera was met with widely varying reactions. Its popularity was documented in the Craftsman newspaper with the following entries:
“This Week a Dramatick Entertainment has been exhibited at the Theatre in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, entitled The Beggar’s Opera, which has met with a general Applause, insomuch that the Waggs say it has made Rich very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich.” (3 February 1728)
“We hear that the British Opera, commonly called The Beggar’s Opera, continues to be acted, at the Theatre in Lincoln’s-Inn Fields with general Applause, to the great Mortification of the Performers and Admirers of the Outlandish Opera in the Haymarket.” (17 February 1728).

Two weeks after opening night, an article appeared in The Craftsman, the leading opposition newspaper, ostensibly protesting at Gay’s work as libellous and ironically assisting him in satirising the Walpole establishment by pretending to be taking the government’s side:
“It will, I know, be said, by these libertine Stage-Players, that the Satire is general; and that it discovers a Consciousness of Guilt for any particular Man to apply it to Himself. But they seem to forget that there are such things as Innuendo’s (a never-failing Method of explaining Libels)… Nay the very Title of this Piece and the principal Character, which is that of a Highwayman, sufficiently discover the mischievous Design of it; since by this Character every Body will understand One, who makes it his Business arbitrarily to levy and collect Money on the People for his own Use, and of which he always dreads to give an Account – Is not this squinting with a vengeance, and wounding Persons in Authority through the Sides of a common Malefactor?”

The commentator notes the Beggar’s last remark: “That the lower People have their Vices in a Degree as well as the Rich, and are punished for them,” implying that rich People are not so punished.

Criticism of Gay’s opera continued long after its publication. In 1776, John Hawkins wrote in his History of Music that due to the opera’s popularity, “Rapine and violence have been gradually increasing”  because the rising generation of young men desired to imitate the character Macheath. Hawkins blamed Gay for tempting these men with “the charms of idleness and criminal pleasure,” which Hawkins saw Macheath as representing and glorifying.

In 1729, Gay wrote a sequel, Polly, set in the West Indies: Macheath, sentenced to transportation, has escaped and become a pirate, while Mrs Trapes has set up in white-slaving and shanghais Polly to sell her to the wealthy planter Mr Ducat. Polly escapes dressed as a boy, and after many adventures marries the son of a Carib chief.
The political satire, however, was even more pointed in Polly than in The Beggar’s Opera, with the result that Prime Minister Robert Walpole put pressure on the Lord Chamberlain to ban it, and it was not performed until fifty years later.

In 1928, on the 200th anniversary of the original production, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill wrote a popular new musical adaptation of the work in Germany entitled Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). This followed the original plot fairly closely (although the time is brought forward over a hundred years) but the music was almost all new, with Brecht’s satirical words expressing his stark class politics. From the Threepenny Opera, the famous song Mack the Knife has entered popular 20th century culture.

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