Monday, 22 May 2017

Back on 26 December

Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! is now on semi-hiatus and will fully return on 26th December.

This blog attempts to capture the day-by-day life of an Elizabethan theatre by recounting the daily performances at the Rose playhouse, as recorded in Philip Henslowe's diary. The London theatres were closed on 2 February, 1593 to prevent the spread of plague, and they did not re-open until December of that year. While the Rose was shut, its former occupants, Lord Strange's Men, toured their plays around the towns of England.

The blog is thus currently on hiatus, except for occasional posts about the letters exchanged by Henslowe and his actors during the tour; look out for those in May, July, August and September.

When we return in December, the daily posts will be back and there will be new plays to discover alongside the old stalwarts. Thank you for reading, and see you then!

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

2 May, 1593 - A letter from Alleyn in Chelmsford

Welcome back! After several months of silence, this blog is briefly reawakening to update you on the adventures of Lord Strange's Men. As you may recall, it is 1593 and our team of actors is no longer performing in London, the theatres having been closed due to an outbreak of plague. Instead, after sitting out the winter, the company is now beginning a long tour of the towns and cities of England.

Edward Alleyn (unknown date)
We know very little about what happened during this tour. But one extraordinary source has survived. Among the Henslowe-Alleyn papers preserved at Dulwich College is a small collection of letters that were exchanged during the tour between Edward Alleyn, the leading actor of Strange's Men, and, back in London, his wife Joan, and the Rose theatre's owner, Philip Henslowe. These letters offer fascinating glimpses of what was going through the minds of three people during an anxious and unsettling time.

In a letter written on this day, 424 years ago, Alleyn addresses Joan as his "good sweetheart and loving mouse". The company was probably just a few days into their tour. They were currently in the Essex town of Chelmsford, perhaps to perform at its annual fair, which began on May Day.

Alleyn reports that he and his fellows are all well and that he's glad to have heard from Joan that she is well too. These comments are not mere pleasantries, of course: the plague was still gripping London, so receiving a letter from Joan must have brought Alleyn great relief.

Alleyn then jokes about what is going on at home during his absence. He writes that he is surprised to hear from Joan because "it is well known they say that you were by my Lord Mayor's officers made to ride in a cart, you and all your fellows, which I am sorry to hear". Being ridden in a cart through the streets was a punishment for prostitution, so Alleyn is implying that she and the other actors' wives have been accused of sexual misconduct while their husbands are away. Presumably this is a joke, as he goes on to claim that "you may thank your two supporters - your strong legs I mean - that would not carry you away but let you fall into the hands of such termagents." Alleyn is perhaps venting his own anxieties, since he becomes comically Tamburlaine-like at the end, swearing that "when I come home I'll be revenged on them".

Clearly, Alleyn is already missing his wife and the comfortable lifestyle of performing at a permanent London theatre. But he will not return home for many months yet...

Chelmsford Wanderings

What's next?

The next installment of Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will be a letter from Henslowe on 5 July. See you then!

Further reading

Thursday, 2 February 2017

2 February, 1593 - The closure of the Rose and another tour

On this day in 1593, performances ceased at the Rose playhouse. This was due to the Privy Council, who had ordered London's theatres to be closed in an effort to prevent plague. So, once again, Lord Strange's Men were forced to take their plays on the road and tour the country (you can read more about touring in this post about last year's tour).

This extended absence from London will prove fatal to Lord Strange's Men. The company will spend almost a year touring the towns of England, and during this time it will ultimately break up. By the time the theatres re-open in December, the company's two best-known actors, Edward Alleyn and Will Kemp, will belong to a troupe known as the Earl of Sussex's Men, and it is under this name that they will return to the Rose.

The plague

London hit by plague, from John Taylor's The
Fearful Summer (1636)
According to the Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence (yes, there is such a thing!), the first signs of the plague's return to London had been observed as early as September 1592. Things had calmed down during the winter months (because the fleas that, unbeknownst to people of the time, carried the disease, were in hibernation). But at the end of January, the Privy Council learned that "it appeareath the infection doth increase". It was a mild winter, and the plague began to bite more seriously in April 1593, much earlier than normal. The death rate rose during the summer, peaking in August and September before declining again as the winter set in. In total about 17,000 people died in London and its suburbs.

The tour

Strange's Men appear to have begun their tour in May, and fragments of documentary evidence enable us to glimpse some parts of it. In early May, they were in Chelmsford, Essex. Later in the summer they visited Sudbury and Faversham. In July, they were in Southampton. In July and August, they headed west to Bath and Bristol. They then turned north and visited Shrewsbury, from where they may have gone on to Chester and York. In December, they were in Leicester and Coventry before they returned to London.

What's next?

This blog will be on partial hiatus until 27 December when the theatres re-open. However, it will return intermittently during the summer. That's because the Henslowe-Alleyn papers contain some remarkable letters between Edward Alleyn, his wife, and Philip Henslowe, exchanged during the tour. These letters give wonderfully vivid glimpses of the personalities of the people this blog is studying, and so I'll post excerpts on the relevant days in May, July, August and September.

When we fully return, we will see Sussex's Men installed at the Rose, where they will perform an array of new plays, along with a few of the old favourites from Strange's Men!

Further reading

  • George Childs Kohn, ed. Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence from Ancient Times to the Present, 3rd edtn. (Facts on File, 2008), 230-1.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 258-71.


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

1 February, 1593 - The Jew of Malta

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...
Henslowe writes: R at the Jewe of malta the j of Febreary 1593 ... xxxvs

In modern English: Received at The Jew of Malta, 1st February, 1593 ... 35 shillings

Caravaggio's portrait of the Grand
Master of the Knights of Malta,
Today, Lord Strange's Men revived again their satirical comic tragedy The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe; you can read more about this play in the blog entry for 26th February 1592.

After several days of disappointing box office following the smash premiere of Christopher Marlowe's Massacre at Paris, the company has revived Marlowe's reliable favourite, which they had last performed just over a fortnight ago. Even The Jew of Malta is not pulling in the crowds though, producing only a half-full theatre. 

What's next?

Whether or not they knew it, Lord Strange's Men's time at the Rose was about to come to a sudden end. Tune in tomorrow to find out why!

    Henslowe links


    Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below! 

    Tuesday, 31 January 2017

    31 January, 1593 - Harry VI

    Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

    Henslowe writes: R at harey the 6 the 31 of Jenewarye 1593 ... xxxvs

    In modern English: Received at Harry VI, 31st January, 1593 ... 35 shillings

    1540s portrait of King
    Henry VI
    Today, Lord Strange's Men revived their history play Harry VI, which was almost certainly Shakespeare's First Part of Henry VIyou can read more about it in the blog entry for 3rd March 1592.

    Last season, the company had performed Harry VI almost weekly. This season, they have waited two weeks to revive it. The result has been a theatre only half full, but even this must have been something of a relief for the company after two days of atrocious box office.

    Henslowe links


    Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

    Monday, 30 January 2017

    30 January, 1593 - Friar Bacon

    Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

    Henslowe writes: R at frier bacon the 30 of July Jenewaye 1593 ... xijs

    In modern English: Received at Friar Bacon, 30th January, 1593 ... 12 shillings

    From the title page of a prose tale of Friar Bacon, 1629,
    which was re-used for the 1630 edition of the play.
    Today, Lord Strange's Men revived their magical fantasy about the wizard Friar Bacon. This play may have been Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, or it may have been the anonymous John of Bordeaux; you can read more about it in the entry for 19th February, 1592.

    As with Sir John Mandeville, which they staged a couple of day ago, the company is continuing to perform old plays like Friar Bacon that result in a largely empty Rose theatre. One theory I've already mentioned is that they're performing the plays that had proved popular on tour, and hadn't had time to prepare alternatives for the more sophisticated (or jaded) London audience. Given that the company may have already known that they would be returning to touring soon, perhaps they had been deliberately keeping these old plays fresh in their minds, preparing for a return to the road,

    Henslowe links


    Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

    Saturday, 28 January 2017

    28 January, 1593 - An important letter

    Today was a Sunday and so there were no performances at the Rose. But something else happened that would prove important to the theatres of London.

    The Privy Council in 1604. Detail
    from The Somerset House Conference
    On this day, the Privy Council sent a letter to the London authorities informing them of an increase in deaths from plague, and ordering them to close all London's theatres again.

    The Council explained that "we think it fit that all manner of concourse and public meetings of the people at plays, bear-baitings, bowlings and other like assemblies for sports be forbidden" and instructed the authorities to effect this "both by proclamation to be published to that end, and by special watch and observation to be had at the places where the plays, bear-baitings, bowlings and like pastimes are usually frequented". Anyone found disobeying would be "apprehended and committed to prison".

    Despite the urgent tone of the letter, Lord Strange's Men will continue to perform for several more days, but their time in London is coming to an end.

    What's next?

    There will be no blog entry tomorrow, because no performance is recorded for 29th January, even though it was a Monday. The simplest way of explaining the muddled dates in Henslowe's diary is to take note of the damaged bottom of the diary page that we are currently on and assume that Monday's performance got torn off or mouldered away. Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will thus return on 30th January for a few more performances before the theatres close....

    Further reading

    • Carol Chillington Rutter, Documents of the Rose Playhouse (Manchester University Press, 1984), 69-70.
    • Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 258.