Category Archives: Research

Engendering the Stage in London, May 2019

This post was originally published on King’s English blog, Department of English, King’s College London.

by Hailey Bachrach and Dr Romola Nuttall, King’s College London

An Apology for Actors: Early Modern Playing Then and Now, King’s College London, Friday 10 May 2019

Research in Action: Engendering the Stage, Shakespeare’s Globe, Monday 13 May 2019.

“Engendering the Stage in the Age of Shakespeare and Beyond” brings together scholars, actors and theatre practitioners to analyse the performance of gender in early modern drama and investigate the effects of women’s performance on the skills, techniques and technologies of the performance of femininity in the drama of Shakespeare and his English and European contemporaries. In May, the project held two events in London at King’s and Shakespeare’s Globe.

The workshop at King’s considered children’s companies and female performers at court as well as professional, more typical, “actors”. The Research in Action event at Shakespeare’s Globe used scenes which include gendered expressions of rage for public performance and audience discussion.

The morning of ‘Apology for Actors’ focused on two male, professional actors, Richard Burbage and Nathan Field. Burbage is one of the most famous actors of the early modern period and was a celebrity during his lifetime, as the elegies written at his death demonstrate. He was a member of the King’s Men and brought many of Shakespeare’s leading roles, from Hamlet to King Lear, to life. Field was a pupil at St. Paul’s School and became one of the Children of the Queen’s Revels. He joined the King’s Men around 1615-16 and may have been known for his physical dexterity and charisma. Lucy Munro (King’s College London) and Harry McCarthy (Exeter) called on present-day actors, James Wallace and Mark Hammersely, to read extracts of parts Field and Burbage would have played, allowing the workshop’s audience to see how heavily the actor’s person and specific skill-set would have informed the composition, performance, interpretation of early modern drama.

Richard Burbage, Henry Thew Stephenson [Public domain]

Richard Burbage, Henry Thew Stephenson [Public domain]
Wallace and Hammersely performed a scene from The Knight of Malta– written by Field himself with John Fletcher and Philip Massinger –in which the older, wiser, wily Montferrat, played by Burbage in 1618 and Wallace in this workshop) persuades the younger Miranda (played by Field in 1618 and Ammersely for us) to take his place in a duel. Similar focus on how company dynamics informed performance were foregrounded when our actors were joined by Suzanne Ahmet to perform the first scene of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist which would have been in the King’s Men’s repertoire at the same time as The Knight of Malta. Burbage, who played Subtle, and Field, who played Face, would have performed alongside the much younger George Birch, as Doll Common, who ends the scene by subduing and dominating the two senior players. This workshop was not trying to recover or recreate the experience of early modern playgoing but participants commented on how our actors had done this for us by effectively playing two parts at once, adopting personas of known actors as well as the parts in the plays.
Actors’ identities need to be given more attention when approaching early modern performance

Having established that actors’ identities need to be given more attention when approaching early modern performance, Clare McManus (Roehampton) pulled the rug out from under our feet in the afternoon, challenging what an early modern actor actually is/was. Yes, there were famous stage-clowns of the commercial stage, like Timothy Reade who was praised for just peeping out behind a curtain, but also, court musicians, actors who were also guildsmen and female performers. It was fascinating to implode the term “actor” and consider broader categories of performer which are not limited to stage-plays and text-based performances. This idea was brought to life when participants read two extracts from the marathon eight-hour long court masque, The Shepherds Paradise. The masque was written for a commemorative performance on Charles I’s birthday in 1633 and was performed by an all-female cast lead by Queen Henrietta Maria.

Discussion was led by stage-designer Mallin Parry (Shakespeare’s Globe) and Sarah Grange (Brighton) who reflected on this performance and its resonances with contemporary performance contexts, particularly the drag king scene. They raised compelling parallels between costumes used in both contexts, highlighting their extravagance, their explicit construction of gender, their level of attention to detail and topicality. They encouraged the suggestion that these more radical performance contexts are enabled by their “amateur” nature.

The last session of the day continued to challenge both past and present performance of gender. Melinda Gough (McMaster) and Peter Cockett (McMaster) shared their experiences of the Engendering the Stage workshop at the Stratford Festival Laboratory in November 2018, which investigated scenes in which female characters wielded swords on the early modern stage. Just as the previous discussion had found an instability in the term “actor”, this discussion highlighted similarly problematic tensions between scholar and practitioner – who is the expert when the aim is research through practice? These are provocative and productive questions to which the project is highly sensitive and which continued to be explored at the Globe’s Research in Action workshop.

It was fascinating to implode the term “actor” and consider broader categories of performer which are not limited to stage-plays and text-based performances.

Though only the evening portion of the event was livetweeted and open to the public, Research in Action at the Globe is a full day event for the scholars and artists. In the evening, participants present a series of scenes that illustrate different research questions and dilemmas, which we turn over to the audience for discussion and questions. Audience and scholars alike are given the opportunity to make staging and performance suggestions, which the actors then incorporate, trying different parts of the scenes in different ways. As with any practice as research event, the aim is to raise questions rather than to answer them.

But before all this, we gathered in the early afternoon to meet the actors and run through the scenes that we’d be presenting in the evening, establishing some basic staging and highlighting some of the questions about gendered embodiments of onstage rage that we’d probe more deeply during the public workshop.

The first scene, from The Noble Spanish Soldier, raised a variety of practical staging questions. In our most populous scene (cut down from its original cast size!), we had to take our time to break down who went where and when. A sequence involving the passing of a cup for a series of toasts proved particularly complicated, because the extant stage directions were very vague about the nature of toast and the order in which it was taken, plus a lot of business about cup swapping—particularly important because the swap results in the wrong character being poisoned. The mechanics of these prop movements contrasted with the relative simplicity of the emotional cues in the scene: the workshop’s aim was to explore moments of rage, and embedded stage directions and descriptions and reactions by other characters always made it very clear when a character was in a rage, even if we had no indication of what that rage might look like.

Audience and scholars alike are given the opportunity to make staging and performance suggestions, which the actors then incorporate, trying different parts of the scenes in different ways.

Both this and our second scene, from Wit Without Money, raised interesting questions about when rage is unseen or private, performed only for the audience, and when it is a public display that the other characters also see. In The Noble Spanish Soldier, if the other characters noticed the early moments of rage, it would give away the poisoning game before it made sense for them to know it. In Wit Without Money, the visibility of the widow’s rage in the face of a set of persistent, annoying suitors seemed more open for interpretation: playing it as asides to the audience created a comic contrast, but playing it openly to the suitors was also amusing, and emphasized the plot framework of the scene, in which the widow’s sister has set the suitors on her as a joke, and has told the suitors to ignore her sister’s raging and keep pursuing her anyway.

In both of these scenes, other characters’ responses provide a key to understanding the rage, whether they are describing the rage, or seeming to fail to see it. In our third scene, from The Renegado, external responses only further complicated a difficult-to-interpret moment. In this scene, an aristocratic young woman smashes up a merchant’s market stall in an apparent fit of rage… but is it a real loss of control, or a deliberate act to draw attention? The text makes it unclear, and the varied responses of the other characters—ranging from genuine shock to bemused understatement—don’t help clarify the matter. This was a scene particularly enlivened by public performance and discussion, as the audience proffered a variety of interpretations of both versions of the scene, bringing their own personal and artistic experiences to bear on their efforts to explain the character’s thinking.

Unfortunately, we only had a very short time to spend on our final scene, also from The Renegado. But the curtailed discussion served as a good reminder that such events are, unlike a traditional performance, the beginning of a conversation, not the finished product.

Engendering the Stage would like to thank London Shakespeare Centre and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at King’s College London, Roehampton University and the Social Sciences and Research Council, Canada, whose support made these events possible.

Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.

Feats of Activity and the Tragic Stage

by Clare McManus

The skilled boy-actresses of Jacobean England were central to theatrical representation in an era when commercial theatre is often said to be dominated by male performers. But this blog offers new contexts for understanding the boy-actress of Shakespeare, Webster, Jonson and others by contrasting what we can glean about their practice in a specific genre, namely tragedy, against the dynamic, agile, muscular enactment of femininity by women performing ‘feats of activity’, the display of the extraordinarily skilled body. In particular, it deals with the women who danced on the ropes in inn-yards, at court and perhaps also in playhouses.

The King’s Men were chief among the London playing companies of the early seventeenth century, performing at the Globe, court and the Blackfriars, and they are strongly associated with two particular playwrights, Shakespeare and Fletcher. In their first decade, their tragic repertory – from Othello (1602-4) to The Duchess of Malfi (1613) – is packed with feminine corpses, skulls, statues and monuments. Such tropes have long been said to emphasise stasis and present an extreme monumentalisation and spectacular display of the body of the boy-actress who played leading female roles.  This observation may be a commonplace in scholarship, but what if these tropes are not simply a default response to patriarchy – not merely what happens to ideas of femininity and the feminine body under patriarchy – but are in fact reactions to other kinds of femininity enacted by other kinds of players, both elsewhere and inside the playhouses? 

This blog examines very different ‘feats of activity’, exploring female rope dancers across England and Europe. Though these depictions of femininity by different kinds of player exist on a spectrum of skilled physical labour, the insistent monumentalisation of the King’s Men’s tragic boy-actress suggests that, for this company at least, such an emphasis may in part be an act of emulation and opposition, a shaping of what happens on the commercial stages of the playing companies against other kinds of players. 

*          *          *

For early moderns, rope is a cheap, readily available material from which to create a playing space. Dancing on the rope, women enact a vertiginous femininity, occupying the vertical in a way usually reserved for deities in court masques or indoor playhouse performance. For rope-dancers, the slack rope around which they spin, the tight rope on which they jump and walk, the rope on which they screech down from the tops of towers, with fireworks strapped to their bodies is a productively simple kit that can be speedily set up and broken down.

‘A Turkish man walking a tightrope that is stretched between the campanile of St Marks in Venice and a mooring pad with winch’; c.1520-1600 (British Museum 1878,0713.4161) © Trustees of the British Museum.

Like the simple trestle stage with which Italian commedia troupe toured Europe, setting it up and breaking it down when needed, rope offers touring performers a flexible, mobile playing space in partial contrast to the institutionalised, architectural solidity and groundedness of the built or adapted playhouse – though, as Before Shakespeare has shown us, that playhouse is itself contested, often genuinely wobbly and it relied on rope for its construction and workings. Rope is a place of physical spectacle, akin to a ship’s rigging:

Palestra Noribergensis, by Peter Troschel after Johan Andreas Graff (1651): British Museum 1880,0710.512. © Trustees of the British Museum.

This image of feats of activity and rope-dancing in the fechthaus in Nuremburg from the 1650s makes sense to me of Shakespeare’s Ariel as an aerialist who ‘flamed amazement’ around the wrecked ship. Unlike the trestle stage, however, the rope is attenuated, linear and it has a distinct, crucial trajectory. 

The rope fully comes into being as a playing space with the performer’s first step out onto it. This requires not only a crossing, but also – appallingly for those of us with vertigo – a return and a dallying. Stephen Connor writes that

the most characteristic gesture of the wire-walker is, once they have apparently completed their walk, to go back out on the wire  . . .  the wire-walker aims to occupy rather than merely to penetrate space,  . . .  to thicken the infinitesimally thin itinerary of the wire into a habitat.  . . . .  . . . The dallying business of the wire-walker is to insinuate a discourse – from dis-currere, to run back and forth – with the wire.[1]  

The dancer’s return transforms the rope from a site of risk alone into a site of play and a suspension of both time and jeopardy. The rope is a stripped down, attenuated performance space activated by what Evelyn Tribble, via Tim Ingold, calls the ‘animacy’ of the gendered rope-dancing body.[2]

Rope-dancing came in several forms. If the rope was slack, cross-dressed women spun and swung around it: a black female fair booth performer from the very early eighteenth century is described as playing 

at swing-swang with a rope . . . hanging sometimes by a hand, sometimes by a leg, and sometimes by her toes.[3]

If the rope was tight, women walked, danced and leapt across it, either cross-dressed

Marcellus Laroon, The Cryes of the Citie of London (1711) © Trustees of the British Museum.

or

Adriaenvan de Venne, Tafereelvan de Belacchende Werelt(Hague, 1635) © Trustees of the British Museum.

wearing dresses supported in the vertical axis by corsets, sometimes with brays or breeches beneath. The trope of the leering Jack Pudding or simian pointing grossly up at the woman’s body becomes deeply associated with women’s enactment of this agile, flexible, risky and explosively powerful femininity which is always also an erotic exposure. 

Rope-dancing also seemed to be almost everywhere. A Bristol playbill from the early 1630s advertises, alongside a vaulting Irish boy of eight, ‘raredancing on the / Ropes, Acted by his Majesties / servants’ and includes ‘one Mayd / of fifteene years of age, and another / Girl of foure years of age [who] doe dance on / the lowe Rope’ and the younger of the two will go on to ‘turne on the Stage’. John Astington has connected the bill to the troupe led by William Vincent (aka the original Hocus Pocus) and it confidently advertises the presence of these girls – King’s Servants nonetheless and on a ‘stage’.[4]This fits the evidence for the widespread playing of feats of activity inside playhouses, as attested to by R.A. Foakes’ work on the Swan, the Hope contract of 1613 and onwards into the Red Bull during the Commonwealth and Protectorate. So, much as rope-dancing offered cover for stage-plays during the mid-seventeenth century, when plays were effectively outlawed, it could do so not because it came into the playhouses from the cold but precisely because it was already there. Richard Preiss has pointed out that plays were framed and cut across by clowning improvisation, entre-act music or interludes, epilogues and jigs, and he argues that ‘the theatrical program consisted of a medley of interstitial, interactive entertainments’ (9) – this is the play as polyvocal event.[5]In 1636, five years or so after their Bristol performance, Vincent’s troupe is recorded as paying Herbert for a license to perform in the Fortune, so we cannot easily exclude the playhouses from the list of places where the girls of this troupe might have performed. 

Another famous troupe of tumblers and rope-dancers, the Peadles, operated for about forty years from the turn of the seventeenth century and was led during the 1630s by Sisley Peadle. Tumbling troupes were organised around familial structures, and tumblers were also recorded as members of playing companies, from the Elizabethan rope-dancers of the ‘Queenes players’ in Bridgnorth in the 1590s to Abraham Peadle at the Fortune in the 1620s as a member of the Palsgrave’s Men. And, as Abraham’s name, the Irish boy in Bristol and the black rope-dancer in Southwark Fair suggest, this performance mode is deeply intertwined with racialised, othered identities, like the 16th-century Turkish rope-walkers in Venice. Marketable personas are also adopted: there are so-called Turkish rope-dancers who adopt the name but no visual signifiers of ‘Turkishness’ and a Turk –called ‘the Albion Blackamoor’ – dancing on the ropes in the Red Bull in the 1650s turns out not to be a Turk at all but a black Londoner. It’s a moment that reads like The Life of Brianand which undermines an early modern racist commonplace by setting it next to neighbourliness, community and familiarity. An ‘old Matron’ watching the Turk dance on the rope declares, ‘Sure, if he be not the Devil, the Devil begot him’; but she elicits this response: 

no truly Neighbor, quoth another Woman, I knowhim, as well as a Beggar knows his dish; hee is a Black-fryers Water-man, and his Mother is living on the Bank-side, and as I have often heard her say, Her son learnt this Art, when he was a Sea-boy, only was a little since taught some Pretty Tricks by a Jack-pudding neer Long-Lane.[6]

This account may well simply be part of the mid-century discourse of satire and newsprint and may well not be trustworthy. That said, however, the decision to reframe a seemingly exotic performer by claiming his status as a black Londoner as quotidian and unexceptional is a revealing rhetorical move. 

*          *          *

At this point, it’s probably important to acknowledge that there don’t seem to be any examples of rope-dancing in any pre-Protectorate plays. But if we have to wait for Davenant’s The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru(1658) for the first example of rope-dancing in a scripted performance, then rather than seeking the activity in the playtext, its absence instead pushes us to consider how the activity informs playing itself and the practice of the boy-actress in particular. This, like the fragmentation of the performance event inside the playhouse also breaks down the hierarchy of tragic heroine and rope-dancer. It suggests that the latter is not superfluous to or lower than the other; that she is not straining to become the other but may, in fact, be a condition for the other. 

How are we to make the move from rope-dancing into canonical drama? One way is to take seriously the performance of bodily skill and the risks that it posed to safety and bodily integrity. The text-free performance of the rope-dancer and the histrionics of the early modern player are connected by the skilful overcoming of risk. The jeopardy of the rope-dancer as she walks, leaps or swings from the tight- or slack-rope italicises the jeopardy involved in every display of acting skill, from Emilia labouring to unpin Desdemona within the duration of the Willow song, to Hermione’s virtuoso control of breath and muscle before her coup de thêatrein The Winter’s Tale(5.3). What’s more, the girl of four who ‘doth turn on the Stage’ in Bristol is a tumbler, a child of bodily turning, whose profession retains its association with other feminine turners. Both Shakespeare’s ‘Triple-turned whore’ Cleopatra (4.12.13) and Fletcher’s Quisara who ‘turns, for millions!’ (3.1.239), are protean but, in defining their hypertheatricality, we might also consider the other side of this performative metaphor, the corporeal act of turning.

*          *          *

One of the ideological successes of the first decade or so of Jacobean tragedies is the elision of the enskilled, labouring body required for the representation of femininity – crucially, those bodies are those of both the boy-actress andthe female rope-dancer and player. By looking across early modern performance culture, by considering its intersections and its distribution of skills across gender boundaries, we can begin to rethink this. The tragic boy-actress is one representative of early modern femininity, one who over-goes and resists the enactment of femininity as it was done otherwise and elsewhere.


[1]Steven Connor, ‘Man is a Rope’, in Catherine Yass Highwire, writings by Francis McKee, Steven Connor (ArtAngel: Glasgow International Festival of Contemporary Visual Art, 2008), no pagination. 

[2]Evelyn Tribble, Early Modern Actors and Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body (London: Bloomsbury, Arden Shakespeare, 2017), p. 24. 

[3]Edward Ward, The London Spy (4thedition, 1709), p. 185. 

[4]John Astington, ‘Trade, taverns, and Touring Players in Seventeenth-Century Bristol’, Theatre Notebook 71:3 (2017), 161-168. 

[5]Richard Preiss, Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 9. 

[6]Mercurius Fumigosus (30 August-6 September, 1654), p. 126. 

Engendering Before Shakespeare: Women and Early English Playhouse Ownership

This post explores the role of women in early English playhouses, drawing on Before Shakespeare research (and it also appears on the Before Shakespeare blog). Stay tuned for research posts from Engendering the Stage in the coming weeks. 

The crossovers between the research projects Before Shakespeare and Engendering the Stage were raised several times across the latter’s workshop residency at the Stratford Festival Laboratory in September 2018.  This “mash-up” blog brings the projects directly together.  Indeed, Engendering the Stage is planning a series of blog posts expanding on the broader research topics under its remit—and would also welcome proposals for such posts.  This particular piece gestures, briefly, to some of the cross-pollination between theatre history, performance, and the playing industry by considering just one of the points of overlap between Before Shakespeare and Engendering the Stage—in this case, land and property ownership related to commercial playhouses.

There are many forms of labour involved in the early modern playing industry in England: some on-stage; some immediately off- and around-stage; and some concerning the land on which stages are situated.  On the latter, much ink has been spent exploring some of the major (male) figures involved with buying land or renting property, building and converting tenements, and pulling together—through a variety of approaches—a playhouse.  

There are reasons why apparent big-hitters in the industry like James Burbage, John Brayne, and Philip Henslowe take centre stage: partly because many are chief movers behind these ambitious and unusual ventures, but also because the above narrative is based on a narrow sense of what a “playhouse” is and on who might be instrumental to its wider development and existence.  Women’s involvement in the transactions and legal exchanges that underpin playhouse ownership has been less discussed, though we are becoming increasingly aware of the significance of a host of figures central to this history. A quick survey of the evidence related to London’s diverse early commercial playing spaces suggests that women occupied a serious and significant presence in early modern playhouses.

***

Both before and after The Theatre—the amphitheatrical structure in Shoreditch—was built, plays took place in inns across London.  Andy Kesson has written on the Before Shakespeare website about these spaces and their relative neglect in theatre history narratives.  Recently, David Kathman’s expansive work on the subject has uncovered new leads, figures, and details that help us understand playhouse inns more clearly.

Map of Early Modern London showing rough locations of the inns (visit https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/agas.htm for an interactive map)

Spaces such as the Bel Savage (Ludgate Hill), the Bull (Bishopsgate), the Bell (Gracechurch St.), and the Cross Keys (Gracechurch St.) were regular venues for playhouse activity—that is, for plays, for fencing prizes, and for extemporal feats and shows. A forthcoming blog on Engendering the Stage from Clare McManus will explore women’s skilled performance in such feats.   Stephen Gosson explains how he enjoyed “two prose books played at the Bel Savage” in the late 1570s (School of Abuse, 1579); in 1577, the Office of the Revels transported a presumably elaborate prop (a “counterfeit well”) from the Bell to St John’s in Clerkenwell for “the play of Cutwell” (TNA AO3/907/5); John Florio’s advice to Italian language learners answers the question, “Where shall we go?” with the appealing answer “To a play at the Bull, or else to some other place” (First Fruits,A1r [1578]); and James Burbage himself is arrested wandering (perhaps from his own playhouse) to see a play at the Cross Keys in the 1590s.

Two entries in the Society of the Masters of Defence book (British Library, Sloane MS 2530): Izake Kennard playing at the Bull (1575) and Willyam Wilkes at the Bell Savage

These were playing spaces owned and/or run by women.  Kathman explains that “three of these four inns were owned or leased by women during their time as playhouses. Margaret Craythorne owned* the Bell Savage from 1568 until her death in 1591 [*or rather likely leased it from the Cutlers’ Company, as Tracey Hill informs us], Alice Layston owned the Cross Keys from 1571 until her death in 1590, and Joan Harrison was the proprietor of the Bull from the death of her husband Matthew in 1584 to her own death in 1589” (“Alice Layston at the Cross Keys,” Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England 22 (2009): 144; see also Kathman’s other invaluable publications on these subjects).

Female ownership of such spaces is by no means untypical across the capital in this period, partly because widows inherited property from their husbands and thereby gained a degree of independence and business freedom they may not easily come by earlier in life.  There are numerous examples of landladies across the capital, for instance, adapting spaces and converting “alleys” into packed residential quarters.  Margaret Hawkins is repeatedly cited by the Court of Aldermen in the 1570s for having “diverse times tenants dwelling in Alleys & other places…” (REPS 17, 427v; 20 Jan. 1573).  In his misogynsitic sketch of alley owners—who monopolise food and drink sales for their alley-dwellers to create an in-house market—Henry Chettle chooses the landlady rather than the landlord to exemplify these nefarious practices (Kind-Harts Dream, 1593). 

There is a close relationship between domestic alleys and alleys adapted for recreational use—in particular bowling alleys.  Such alleys are themselves influences on the converted buildings that make up the majority of sixteenth-century playhouses. In this regard, landladies like Margaret Hawkins contribute to the development of domestic and recreational space that has significant bearing on the theatre industry.  It is perhaps no surprise, then, that three women operated the highly successful playhouse inns at the Cross Keys, the Bel Savage, and the Bull—spaces that preceded The Theatre and the Blackfriars as playing venues and continued for decades to attract paying audiences as well as diners, tipplers, and guests.  Eliding “inns” from the traditional playhouse narrative not only generates misleading notions about the antitheatrical zealousness of the “City” and limits our understanding of the contexts, architecture, and experience of playhouses, it also eclipses the role played by landladies in London’s leisure ecology.

Women also lay claim to amphitheatrical spaces.  John Brayne, co-founder of the Theatre with James Burbage, died in 1586, from which time his widow Margaret sought to exercise her rights to the building and its profits.  As well as conducting a protracted legal battle that raged on even after her death, Margaret Brayne placed herself at the doors of the Theatre in an attempt to collect playhouse entry prices directly.  A young deponent in one of the law cases, Ralph Miles, explained how he was

requested by Margaret Brayne and [his father] Robert Miles . . . to go with them to the Theater upon a play day to stand at the door that goeth up to the galleries of the said Theater to take and receive for the use of the said Margaret half the money that should be given to come up unto the said Galleries at that door.

(The National Archives, C24/228/10)

In a heated altercation, “Richard Burbage and his mother [Ellen] set upon” Miles, “with a broomstaff calling him murdering knave with other vile and unhonest words” (C24/228/10). The incident shows two women—Margaret Brayne and Ellen Burbage—laying claim to theatrical space and asserting their own agency, ownership, and investment in the playing industry. 

Moreover, The Theatre was in a (somewhat enigmatic) commercial relationship with its neighbouring playhouse, The Curtain, during these years, and Margaret Brayne also laid claim in her lawsuit to half the profits of that space. The extensive documentation arising from these various Theatre-related suits shows Brayne asking the courts to take her seriously as a playhouse proprietor—and a major figure of theatrical Shoreditch; now, these records ask us to do the same.

Leases pertaining to the Curtain in the years before Margaret Brayne’s activity show that Alice German was central to the ownership of the Curtain land, which she secured for her son Mawrice Long in the late 1560s and 1570s—and there is doubtless much more to discover about these figures and their relationship, or otherwise, to the playhouse that appeared there shortly after their occupation.  

In the early 1580s, a little south of Shoreditch in London’s Blackfriars, playhouse proprietor Richard Farrant’s death bequeathed to his widow Anne “the Leaze of my howse in the blacke ffriers in London”—the site of the First Blackfriars Playhouse (1581-2). Anne proceeded to sublet this property and is herself at the centre of a series of correspondence and legal requests pertaining to the property’s use as a playhouse, which Engendering the Stage and Before Shakespeare’s Lucy Munro has been exploring.

These are just a few examples of the evidence related to women’s involvement in the theatre business in sixteenth-century London.  Their influence on the stage itself is notable—and it is noted.  Margaret Brayne theatrically performing her business claims to the Theatre gives us just one clear example of women “acting” in a playhouse.  Similarly, the inn owners who develop models for commercial playhouses in the years before Burbage and Brayne set up The Theatre leave archival traces that help provide some small detail to playhouse ownership. Doubtless, female inn owners were among those targeted by City precepts from as early as the 1540s that sought to regulate “all those in whose houses or other rowmes eny such playes or interludesshalbe made or kepte” (London Metropolitan Archives, REPS 16, Feb. 1569). 

Given the involvement of women in the commercial development and managing of playhouses, it is perhaps no surprise that the earliest surviving plays from these spaces focus on female characters and their agency and experiences.  The earliest such surviving play, Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London (1581), is framed from the outset as an unashamedly commercial product: “Then young and old, come and behold our wares, and buy them all” (Prologue).  It explores the power, sexual and social desires, and struggles of its three title characters—Love, Conscience, and Lucre—and conjures an image in which commercial savvy and success (and greed) are embodied by a woman (and in keeping with the Burbages’ favourite theatre item, it also features broomsticks, which Lady Conscience begins to sell for a living: “New broomes, greene broomes, will you buy any…”; she reassures anybody interested in using them as weaponry: “My broomes are not steeped; but very well bound!”):  

LOVE. Tis Lucar now that rules the rout, tis she is all in all: 
Tis she that holds her head so stout, in fine tis she that works our fall [. . .]
For Lucar men come from Italy, Barbary Turky,
From Jewry: nay the Pagan himself,
Indangers his body to gape for her pelf.
They forsake mother, Prince, Country, Religion, kiffe and kin,
Nay men care not what they forsake, so Lady Lucar they win. 

(1.1.3-17)

In light of Margaret Brayne and Ellen and Richard Burbage’s episode at The Theatre, The Three Ladies of London—in which Lucre features as (among other things) a canny and well-connected businesswoman—is not wholly theatrical fantasy or allegory.  Why should it be in a play so heavily textured by realism and the workaday details of the urban world?  It was probably played in The Theatre itself and was revived in 1588 and supplied with a sequel in the years when Margaret Brayne was suing for dividends of the playhouse’s profits.  Wilson’s play should point us both to the diverse representation of female agency and desire in plays from the overlooked period of the 1580s and to the real women who owned, leased, laid claim to, and ran the very spaces in which those plays were performed.

Callan Davies