Friday, 24 June 2016

Looking back: what was popular?

Since the Rose theatre is now closed until December, let's look back at what we've seen taking place there since 19th February.

I created this blog because I was interested in which plays were popular and which were not, and how their popularity rose and fell over time. Writing it did make me realise, however, that it's hard to define exactly what we mean by 'popular'. And it also made me realise how little we know about why the company staged what they did each day. Allow me to explain...

The most-performed plays

One way of assessing popularity is to look at which plays were performed most frequently. The most-performed play was Harry VI (which is almost certainly the play we now call Shakespeare's First Part of Henry VI). It was staged 15 times in 4 months, being performed on an almost weekly basis.

Here are the figures for the other three 'big hitters', each of which was in the repertory throughout the entire period that we looked at and was normally staged once every 10 days or every fortnight:

These plays were the bastions of Lord Strange's Men, and although they didn't always do that well at the box office - often hovering around the average for the Rose, sometimes lower than average - they could reliably pull in enough of an audience to fill the theatre approximately half-full, or only a bit less.

There are also a bunch of plays that the company revived only once a month or so during this 4 month period. They include:

I find the existence of these monthly performances rather puzzling. The frequent performances of the 'big hitters' must have enabled their lines to stay fresh in the actors' memories. By contrast, it must have been a lot of mental effort for the actors to return to plays that they didn't perform for weeks at a time. And most of these monthly plays didn't receive notably bigger or smaller audiences than the 'big hitters'. I wonder why they were relegated to only occasional performances?

Next, we have some plays that might have had the potential to be stalwarts of the stage, but which were introduced too late for us to know whether they would have done so before the plague rudely interrupted:

Finally, we have the plays that the company apparently gave up on: Brandimer and Jersualem were performed only twice and all the rest just once. A lot of these may have been old plays that the company tried out and decided weren't worth reviving again. But there are also stranger examples, such as the enigmatic Tanner of Denmark, which never returned after its stellar premiere. And even some of these one-offs don't do particularly badly at the box office (such as Four Plays in One), so it's hard to understand why the company abandoned them and continued to perform others.

Box office

Another way to judge popularity is through box office. The highest box office receipt was Harry VI on 3rd March, with 75 shillings. The lowest was A Looking-Glass for London on 8th March with 7 shillings.

But these outlying results aren't very meaningful when considering what we mean by 'popular'. Harry VI achieved amazing box office for a few weeks after its premiere, but then turned into a very average play for the rest of the season. A Looking-Glass for London was catastrophically unpopular one day, but did perfectly well every other time it was revived; perhaps it was simply hit by bad weather. The vast majority of Rose performances hover around the average for box office, which is about 33 shillings, representing a half-full theatre.

Given the above points, the most impressive box office is actually achieved by Marlowe's Jew of Malta. Although not performed as often as some other plays, and never achieving the enormous heights that some occasionally reached, The Jew of Malta almost always achieved box office well above the average and is thus the most consistently popular play. The actors must have looked forward to performing this play, because they could be certain of walking onstage to face a large, happy audience. With almost all the other plays, they never quite knew what they were going to get.

If you're interested, the award for worst play ever thus goes to the lost Constantine: performed once, received a damning 12 shillings, and never looked at again. We do not know what this enigmatically-titled play was about, but clearly London didn't give a damn either way.

The rules

A lot of the time, I found myself scratching my head about the company's choices, and what made the box office go up or down. But I did learn a few 'rules' of Henslowe's Rose.

The most obvious rule is that debut performances of new plays always achieve the highest box office. As I explain in detail here, this is probably because the audiences loved novelty and the chance to see something brand new, although it is also conceivable that the company charged extra for new plays.

Another rule seemed to be that performances of  a play needed to be spaced out to avoid overkill - the company hardly ever performed the same play in one week, and when they did it often drew a smaller audience (see this example). Relatedly, it seemed that with the frequently-performed plays, absence may have made the audience's hearts grow fonder - I found several instances (for example this one) in which the company held off on performing a play for a couple of weeks, and achieved a higher box office when they brought it back, as if this caused the audience to become keener to see it.

The most enjoyable rule I found, however, was that holiday periods could cause Londoners to flock to the theatre. It was nice to imagine the excitement of actors and audiences on May Day and the week of Whitsuntide as people spent their days off at the playhouse. And especially fascinating was the dismal box office during Holy Week (when Londoners perhaps felt guilty about going to see plays), following by a boom during Easter Week (when London was in a more celebratory mood).

Most popular play among readers of this blog

For some reason, this blog gets a huge spike in readership every time The Jew of Malta is mentioned. Conclusion: Marlowe fans are excitable.

Also, the article on Brandimer was inexplicably popular. Conclusion: giants are awesome.

What's next?

It was quite interesting to follow the ebb and flow of box office, but money isn't everything, so in the next post I'll look back at the plays themselves and consider what we've learned about what audiences at the Rose liked to see.

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