Wednesday, 28 July 2021

28 July, 1597 - The Witch of Islington, The Isle of Dogs, and the closure of the theatres

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

Henslowe writes: 28 | tt at the wiche of Jselyngton | 01 | 08

In modern English: 28th [July, 1597] ... total at The Witch of Islington ... £1 and 8 shillings [i.e. 28 shillings]

London seen from Islington in 1665,
by Wenceslas Hollar
Today, the Admiral's Men performed The Witch of Islington, a mysterious lost play about which you can read more in the entry for 14 July. But Henslowe has something far more important to worry about: the government has ordered that the theatres of London be closed down and destroyed! 

We've seen closures before. At several points in the last few years the theatres have been shuttered in order to prevent the spread of plague, and more than once in response to riots and public unrest. Today's order is more extreme though. It's also mysterious, as the motivation is uncertain; however, circumstantial evidence suggests that a scandalous play at the Swan playhouse may have provoked a government crackdown on theatre. Let's look at what happened.

The closure of the theatres


The Privy Council in 1604. Detail
from The Somerset House Conference
Today, the Privy Council sent out a startling order to the justices of Middlesex. Instead of the usual demand that the theatres be closed for a specific reason, this one is more drastic. It begins by saying that the Queen has learned "that there are very great disorders committed in the common playhouses, both by lewd matters that are handled on the stages and by resort and confluence of bad people". It orders that "there be no more plays used in any public place within three miles of the City until Allhallowtide next" (that is, until the end of October).

But then it makes a far more extreme demand:

that you do send for the owners of the Curtain, Theatre, or any other common playhouse, and enjoin them by virtue hereof forthwith to pluck down quite the stages, galleries and rooms that are made for people to stand in, and so to deface the same as they may not be employed again to such use.

The theatre owners, in other words, must tear down and destroy their theatres. Although his own playhouse is not mentioned, Henslowe must be horrified. He could be looking at the end of his career as a theatre impresario. 

Spoiler alert: the theatres will indeed be closed until October, but they will not be destroyed. We don't know why, but we can at least explore one possible reason for this assault upon the players. 


The scandal of The Isle of Dogs


The most likely reason for the Privy Council's anger is that the players at the Swan playhouse, located close to Henslowe's Rose, performed a satirical play entitled The Isle of Dogs. Scholars have struggled to piece together the details because the evidence is fragmentary and because the forger John Payne Collier (whom we have met before) inserted fake references to the play into Henslowe's Diary. Once those are weeded out, we end up with the following information. 

On 10 August, Henslowe hired a new actor, contracting with him to begin performing as soon as the ongoing restraint on theatre is lifted. Henslowe mentions that the "restraint is by the means of playing The Isle of Dogs".

On the same day, a government inquisitor, Richard Topcliffe, wrote to the Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, about an informant that he was working with, whom he describes as "the first man that discovered to me that seditious play called The Isle of Dogs", a play that was of "a venomous intent and a preparative to some far-fetched mischief". 

And on 15 August, the Privy Council wrote to Topcliffe that they had learned of "a lewd play that was played in one of the playhouses on the Bankside, containing very seditious and slanderous matter", and that they had thus "caused some of the players to be apprehended and committed to prison"; one of the players "was not only an actor but a maker of part of the said play". A different document reveals that the players in question were Gabriel Spencer, Robert Shaw and Ben Jonson, the latter of whom must have been the co-author as he was already a well-known playwright by 1597. 

The Council continued that Topcliffe must interrogate these men in order to find out "what is become of the rest of their fellows that either had their parts in the devising of that seditious matter or that were actors or players in the same, what copies they have given forth of the said play and to whom, and such other points as you shall think meet to be demanded of them". Decades later, William Drummond recorded the highlights of a conversation with Ben Jonson, who reminisced about his imprisonment, saying that "his judges could get nothing of him to all their demands but 'ay' and 'no'". 

The Council also ordered Topcliffe to examine "such papers as were found in Nashe's lodgings". This refers to another playwright, Thomas Nashe (whom we have earlier encountered as a possible co-author of The First Part of Henry VI), whose home had apparently been searched by the authorities. In 1599, Nashe wrote a book called Nashe's Lenten Stuff, which refers to "the strange turning of The Isle of Dogs from a comedy to a tragedy two summers past" and insists that he was an innocent party, having written only Act One : "the other four acts without my consent, or the least guess of my drift or scope, by the players were supplied, which bred both their trouble and mine too". It implies that he escaped to Great Yarmouth.
From these records, we can deduce that Jonson and Nashe wrote a play that was performed at the Swan and was perceived as seditious. It was reported to the authorities and the players ran away, save three who were captured and interrogated. The Isle of Dogs must have been quite a sensation, and there are many references to it in writings of the time. Unfortunately none of them tell us what the play was actually about (they seems to assume that their readers will know). The play's title refers to a swampy peninsula formed by a bend in the Thames east of London, but that is of no help in determining the subject matter. You can read various theories in Roslyn L. Knutson's article on the play for the Lost Plays Database.

Whatever The Isle of Dogs was about, it may have been the cause of today's closure of the theatres (although the two events may be unconnected). If it was the cause, Henslowe must be furious at the recklessness of his neighbours at the Swan. 

The Rose will thus be silent until October 11. See you then!



FURTHER READING


Information on The Isle of Dogs and the closure of the theatres

  • Carol Chillington Rutter, Document of the Rose Playhouse (Manchester University Press, 1984), 113-18
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 1081.
  • Roslyn L. Knutson and others, "Isle of Dogs, The", Lost Plays Database (2021), accessed July 2021. 

Henslowe links



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Tuesday, 27 July 2021

27 July, 1597 - Five Plays in One

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

Henslowe writes: 27 | tt at v playes in one | 00 | 14
In modern English: 27th [July, 1597] ... total at Five Plays in One .. 14 shillings

The number 5 in a
column of figures
in Henslowe's Diary
Welcome back! The Rose has been closed for a week, perhaps owing to the departure of actor Martin Slater, but performances have now restarted. 

For the re-opening, the Admiral's Men have revived their lost piece Five Plays in One, which was probably a collection of one-act plays, perhaps linked by a narrative device; you can read more about it in the entry for 7 April. This is the last appearance of Five Plays in One in the Diary.

Things may seem to be back to normal, but in fact the players are about to experience a nasty shock - tune in tomorrow to find out why! 



Henslowe links



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Monday, 19 July 2021

19 July, 1597 - Hieronimo and a short hiatus

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...
Henslowe writes: 19 | tt at Jeronemo ... | 01 | 00

In modern English: 19th [July, 1597] ... total at Hieronimo ... 
£1 [i.e. 20 shillings]

Woodcut from the 1615 edition of The Spanish Tragedy.
Today, the Admiral's Men revived Hieronimo, which is almost certainly an alternate title for Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, a famous and much-loved old play about the revenge of a grieving father for his son's death. You can read more about this play in the entry for 14th March, 1592.

Today's performance relatively good box office for the old play. However, it is all for naught. Tomorrow will begin a short pause in playing at the Rose, perhaps caused by the departure yesterday of actor Martin Slater. Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will thus return on the 27th; see you then!


    Henslowe links



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    Sunday, 18 July 2021

    18 July, 1597 - The Wise Man of West Chester and a departure

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

    Henslowe writes:  

    marten slather went for the company of my lord admeralles men the 18 July 1597 

    18 | tt at wisman  | 01 | 10 
    In modern English:

    Martin Slater went for the company of my Lord Admiral's Men, 18 July, 1597 

    18th [July, 1597] ... total at Wise Man ... £1 and 10 shillings [i.e. 30 shillings]

    A man, who might possibly be
    wise, carved on the choir
    stalls of Chester Cathedral
    Today was an unusual day at the Rose, as we must say goodbye both to a play and to an actor.

    On this day, the players performed The Wise Man of West Chester, a lost play that appears to have been about a wizard in the English city of Chester; you can read more about it in the entry for 3 December, 1594. But this is its final appearance in Henslowe's Diary after an extraordinary journey. With 32 performances in two and a half years, it is now the second most performed play in the Diary, beaten only by The Jew of MaltaThe Wise Man of West Chester will probably return (the Diary will come to an end later this year, but the Rose performances will not), but for us, this is farewell to a lost icon of the stage. 

    Curiously, Henslowe also notes that an actor has departed: Martin Slater "went for" the company, meaning that he left. We don't know much about Slater's role in the company up to this point, but he had belonged to it since at least 1594, and is mentioned in the surviving 'plot' of Frederick and Basilea

    Slater appears to have taken with him some of the company's playbooks (that is, texts marked up for performance), because next year Henslowe will make notes in the Diary about trying to get them back. These playbooks include some retired plays - parts one and two of Hercules, Phocas, and Pythagoras - but also Alexander and Lodowick, which was on a stage only a few days ago.

    It seems that Slater's departure absence is an unexpected problem, as there will soon be a hiatus in the company's output. Watch this space!




    FURTHER READING


    Martin Slater information


    • Carol Chillington Rutter, Documents of the Rose Playhouse (Manchester University Press, 1984), 89, 106, 111, 141-3.
    • Andrew Gurr, Shakespeare's Opposites (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 286


    Henslowe links



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    Friday, 16 July 2021

    16 July, 1597 - A French Comedy

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

    Henslowe writes: 16 | tt at frenshe comodey ...  | 00 | 09

    In modern English: 16th [July, 1597] ... total at French Comedy ... 9 shillings

    Antoine Watteau, Actors of the
    Comédie-Française
    (1710s)
    Today, for the last time on record, the Admiral's Men performed A French Comedy, a lost play. You can read more about this play in the entry for 18 April.

    The company has waited a fortnight to revive A French Comedy and today's audience is once again tiny. And after eleven performances, this is the final appearance of the play in Henslowe's Diary. That doesn't necessarily mean the company will never perform it again (the Diary will come to an end later this year, but the Rose performances will not). But the play's box office has rarely been notable, and there are no records of any later revivals.

    What's next?


    There will be no blog entry tomorrow because 17th July was a Sunday in 1597 and the players did not perform. Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will thus return on the 18th, but for a week that will be abruptly truncated.

    Henslowe links



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    v

    Thursday, 15 July 2021

    15 July, 1597 - Alexander and Lodowick

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

    Henslowe writes: 15 | tt at elexsander & lodwicke ... | 00 | 08

    In modern English: 15th [July, 1597] ... received at Alexander and Lodowick ... 8 shillings

    A very generic illustration accompanying the
    printed text of the ballad of The Two Faithful
    Friends: The Pleasant History of Alexander
    and Lodowick
    Today, for the last time on record, the Admiral's Men revived Alexander and Lodowick, a lost play about two friends who swap places. You can read more about this play in the entry for 14 January

    The company has waited a fortnight to return Alexander and Lodowick to the stage after its relatively successful performance on St Peter's Day. Unfortunately, today's audience is tiny. 

    Alexander and Lodowick does not reappear in the Diary after this entry, but that doesn't mean the company will abandon it. As we'll see in a few days, its playbook (the copy of the text marked up for performance) will go AWOL with a departing company member. But it will return, as Henslowe's financial transactions in 1598 show him buying new costumes for a revival. 


    Henslowe links



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    Wednesday, 14 July 2021

    14 July, 1597 - The Witch of Islington

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

    Henslowe writes: 14 | tt at the wiche of Jslyngton | 01 | 07

    In modern English: 14th [July, 1597] ... total at The Witch of Islington ... £1 and 7 shillings [i.e. 27 shillings]

    Today, the Admiral's Men performed a play that has not appeared in the Diary before! Henslowe does not identify The Witch of Islington as new, so it is probably an older play from the archives. Unfortunately, it is lost, and the title is more intriguing than it is informative. Henslowe's 1598 inventory of costumes includes "one hood for the witch", which may relate to this play.  

    London seen from Islington in 1665,
    by Wenceslas Hollar
    Modern Islington is an urban environment and most would regard it as a part of central London. But in the sixteenth century, Islington was a rural village on a hill, with springs and pools that fed London with water (now remembered in place names such as Sadler's Wells). 

    There are no known stories about witches in Islington. However, in his 1581 De magorum demonomania ("On the Demon-Mania of Mages"), the French demonologist Jean Bodin reported a story about mysterious objects found in an Islington dunghill. They turned out to be effigies of the Queen and two members of the Privy Council; the discovery spawned rumours of a magical plot against the government. In a marginal annotation to his Masque of Queens (1609), the playwright Ben Jonson quotes Bodin's anecdote and says he remembers people discussing these rumours when he was a child (that, is in the 1570s). Perhaps the play was a fantastical riff on these stories. But perhaps not, since Jonson makes no mention of a play on the topic.  

    In his catalogue of British drama, Martin Wiggins observes that Islington was known as a place for lovers to resort to, and he speculates that the play was about lovers being helped or hindered by the witch, perhaps in the same manner as the eponymous suburban fortune-teller of The Wise Woman of Hoxton (1613-38). I would add another play of the same kind, The Merry Devil of Edmonton (c. 1603), about a helpful magician in a another north London village.  Perhaps The Witch of Islington was an early example of this subgenre. And perhaps, more broadly, it was similar to a A Midsummer Night's Dream (by now part of the repertory of Shakespeare's company across the river), in which lovers from the city encounter magical figures in the countryside.  

    Whatever the nature of this play, its box office today is merely average, suggesting no enormous interest in its revival.


    FURTHER READING


    The Witch of Islington information


    Henslowe links


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