Thursday, 23 June 2016

23 June, 1592 - The closing of the theatres

Today, the Rose playhouse was abruptly closed, along with all the other theatres in London. Lord Strange's Men no longer had a place to perform and were forced to leave the city. And this blog must therefore come to a sudden halt.

The Privy Council in 1604. Detail
from The Somerset House Conference
Why? It was apparently all because of that riot that broke out in Southwark a couple of weeks ago. The Privy Council had been informed about it and had decided to enhance security around the city. They explained that they had learned of "certain apprentices and other idle people" who had caused "the late mutinous and foul disorder in Southwark in most outrageous and tumultuous sort". They had now heard that the same people "have a further purpose and meaning on Midsummer Evening or Midsummer Night or about that time to renew their lewd assemblage".

Concerned about these possible future disturbances, the Privy Council therefore ordered the Mayor of London to "set a strong and substantial watch" about the city. But that was not all. They added that "for avoidance of these unlawful assemblies in these quarters", the Mayor should order

that there be no plays used in any place near thereabouts as the Theatre, Curtain or other usual place where the same are commonly used, nor no other sort of unlawful or forbidden pastimes that draw together the baser sort of people.

This ban on theatre and other gatherings for popular entertainment was to last until "the Feast of St Michael" - that is, 29th September.

London hit by plague, from John Taylor's The
Fearful Summer (1636)
This was a very extreme reaction to a disturbance in Southwark and the ban was surprisingly long. In her book on the Rose playhouse, Carol Chillington Rutter suggests that the Privy Council may not have been reacting only to the riot. The plague season was approaching, a time when large crowds of people could spread disease quickly. The Council may therefore have used the riot as an excuse to set up a ban that they had been planning to announce anyway.

Sure enough, the plague did indeed become a serious problem in the summer of 1592. As a result, the ban on theatre ended up being extended until 29th December. Whatever the reason for it, this was a terrible setback for Philip Henslowe, for Lord Strange's Men and for everyone else involved in the theatres of London. Suddenly, they were all out of work.

St Mary's Guildhall in Coventry, one
of the few surviving venues used 
by Lord Strange's Men during their 
1592 tour.
So Edward Alleyn, Will Kemp and their team did what actors had always done in the old days: they packed up their gear in wagons and hit the road, touring the country and performing in many different towns and cites. The records of their journey are vague and sporadic, but they appear to have spent June and July in Kent, before travelling west to Bristol in August and then up through the Midlands from September to November. I'll explore this journey in more detail in a future post.

As for Henslowe, we must assume that he arranged to have the Rose boarded up, and started to hunt around for other business opportunities, hoping every day that the ban would be overturned.

What's next?

As you can see, it is time for this blog to come to a halt, at least until December! But over the next few days, I'll add a few more posts to look back over what we learned.

Further Reading

  • Carol Chillington Rutter, Documents of the Rose Playhouse (Manchester University Press, 1984), 62-3
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 248-258, 351-2.


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

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