Monday 8 November 2021

What won the Diary?

We have completed our journey through Philip Henslowe's diary of performances at the Rose playhouse! On the way, we have seen a great many plays rise and fall in popularity. So, which were the greatest triumphs?

Well, it depends on how you define success. But we can identify a number of winners. I'll begin by considering the entire sweep of the Diary, which began back in 1592 when Lord Strange's Men were the residents at the Rose, and ended in 1597 with the Admiral's Men. Looking at the big picture, we can see that the most-performed plays were as follows:
  • The Jew of Malta (36 performances between 1592 and 1596). This satirical tragedy by Christopher Marlowe has survived and is still performed today.
  • The Wise Man of West Chester (31 performances between 1594 and 1597). This anonymous play is probably lost, although it might be an alternative title for John a Kent and John a Cumber.
  • Hieronimo (29 performances between 1592 and 1597). This is probably an alternative title for Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, which is still performed today.
  • Belin Dun (25 performances between 1594 and 1597). This lost play was about a villainous highwayman in medieval England.
  • The Seven Days of the Week (24 performances between 1595 and 1596), although this may include some performances of its sequel. The subject of this lost play is unknown.
  • The Blind Beggar of Alexandria (22 performances between 1596 and 1597). This comedy of disguise by George Chapman still survives in print. 
  • A Knack to Know an Honest Man (21 performances between 1594 and 1596). This anonymous comic morality play still survives in print.
A Grand Master of the Knights of
Malta, by Caravaggio (1607-8)
To judge from this list, the most impressive play is The Jew of Malta, not only for the sheer number of performances but also for its staying power. And during its time, its popularity did not dwindle as much as others; while other plays by Marlowe, such as Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine, often received box offices that indicate tiny audiences, The Jew of Malta rarely did. It was a play that the company could usually count on in tough times. 

However, studying the entire run of the Diary can be unfair to some of the plays introduced later into the Rose repertory. For example, the 22 performances of The Blind Beggar of Alexandria are more impressive when one notices that they all took place in less than a year.

For this reason, it may be fairer to study the performances by just one company, the Admiral's Men, who began working at the Rose in 1594 and were still there when the Diary ended three years later. Luckily for me, Holger Syme has already crunched the numbers in his article "The Meaning of Success". And in Syme's list of the most popular Admiral's Men plays, The Jew of Malta does not even appear, because the number of performances dwindled in the last few years of the Diary.

A man, who might possibly be
wise, carved on the choir
stalls of Chester Cathedral
Instead, Syme identifies The Wise Man of West Chester as the top play of the Admiral's Men, with its 29 performances. But he also looks at other data, including the average box office per performance; measured that way, the winner is The Comedy of Humours (almost certainly another name for George Chapman's A Humorous Day's Mirth), which had only 13 performances over a single year but scored a remarkable 49 shilling average; as Syme says, "this may have been the most successful play the company ever staged, but since Henslowe's daily receipts break off in early November, 1597 ... we will never know" (510). 

However one looks at it, the most remarkable conclusion is that so many of these immensely popular plays are now either lost or forgotten. While there are some famous plays in there, it is startling to see the success of complete enigmas like The Seven Days of the Week and of hard-to-find and rarely staged plays like The Blind Beggar of Alexandria. Despite its vivid evocation of the workings of an Elizabethan playhouse, Henslowe's Diary reminds us of how little we really know about what people loved to see on the stage. 

Watch this space for some final thoughts!


  • Holger Schott Syme, "The Meaning of Success: Stories of 1594 and its Aftermath", Shakespeare Quarterly 61.4 (2010), 506-10.


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

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