Before Shakespeare and Engendering the Stage are delighted to announce our next performance workshop, focusing on combat as entertainment—in both Shakespeare’s time and today. Combat, acrobatics and feats of strength were everywhere in the early modern period: wrestling happened on the streets, in the countryside and in plays such as As You Like It, and the most famous male Tudor, Henry VIII, was also a renowned wrestler. Women and men performed strength, sword and rope displays for public audiences. Animal combat was probably an even more popular cultural pursuit than theatre and was watched by all sectors of society across the country and in specially-designed venues in London that were in direct competition with the playhouses. Although modern culture tends to sharply distinguish between theatre and combat as forms of entertainment, the playhouses of Shakespeare’s time were dedicated spaces for play and games of all kinds, and were as much fencing venues as theatres. Likewise, up until the twentieth century music halls and theatres also hosted boxing and wrestling matches, and employed boxers and wrestlers for sparring exhibitions or as actors in plays.
These historical matters have parallels with the contemporary UK wrestling scene. The history of theatre is one of deliberately broken traditions because the London playhouses were closed down in 1642, and boxing and wrestling venues have similarly been controversial spaces subject to control and suppression. In the late-nineteenth century legal changes sent some form of public combat underground, men’s wrestling was banned in London in the 1930s, women’s wrestling in London in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and the decision to stop broadcasting wrestling on television in 1985 drastically affected its audience and popularity. But now the UK wrestling scene is so thriving and exciting that a current research project is actually called Wrestling Resurgence. Just as the work of our two projects has stressed the role of women and marginalised people in early modern performance, including combat and strength displays, so contemporary wrestling is thinking anew about gender, sexuality, race and disability in the ring and in its audiences.
Our hope is to use this event to bring these various ideas together, with a focus on using practice and performance as much as conversation to tease them out. Though we’ve swapped staff, methods, ideas and findings before, this will be the first time that Engendering the Stage and Before Shakespeare are in a room together testing out our ideas in performance. We will bring together combat and theatre historians, fight directors, professional wrestlers, sports scholars and animal archaeologist for a conversation in which no one person is an expert, and look forward to generating new conversations and discoveries between our speakers and our audience. For anyone interested in street performance, popular play, combat as a form of entertainment or the links between theatre, circus and sport, we’d be excited to have you join us.
Sarah Elizabeth Cox (@spookyjulie / @wrestling1880s) is the press officer for Goldsmiths, University of London by day, a postgraduate history student by night, and a trainee pro-wrestler with the London School of Lucha Libre during the hours in-between. Through her research project Grappling With History she is piecing together the biographies of long-forgotten British and Caribbean boxers and wrestlers based in east and south east London in the 1880s and ’90s, focusing on ‘The Most Popular Man in New Cross’, heavyweight champion Jack Wannop. Images of Sarah, Hezekiah Moscow and late nineteenth-century grappling are below.
Broderick Chow is Reader and Deputy Director of Learning and Teaching at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London. His research examines the intersections of theatre, performance, sport, and physical culture, and he has published widely on contemporary and historical wrestling, bodybuilding, weightlifting, and strongmen. He is a competitive weightlifter and coach.
Oisin Delaney started training in Knucklelocks School of Wrestling in 2016 under Darrell Allen and Eddie Dennis. He is part of a tag team called The NIC with Charlie Carter and has wrestled for promotions such as Progress, Revolution Pro, Battle Pro, Pro Wrestling Soul and a host of others. The NIC are known for their classic, brawling style.
Hannah O’Regan is an archaeologist with expertise in skeletons. She’s been examining the role of bears in human society, and has become intrigued by the relative lack of research interest in early modern animal baiting and combat – a crucial part of entertainment at the time. She’ll be bringing Bernard the bear with her.
Katrina Marchant is a material and cultural historian, sword fancier and lover of pugilism. She has an extensive performance background in musical theatre, theatre, compering, improvised and stand-up comedy, works as a costumed historical interpreter and educator at various heritage sites and wrote a PhD on trash, trifles and Protestant identity in the early modern period.
Duellorum are Craig Hamblyn and Kiel O’Shea – fight directors, stage combat teachers, and martial arts historians, combining academic research and practical experimentation. They specialise in the adaptation of historic martial arts for performance and spend a great deal of time very carefully and thoughtfully hitting one another.
Location and accessibility
For a map to the theatre, see here. For full Access information, see here. The map below highlights the easier way to get to the George Wood Theatre via step-free doors to the building and theatre, as well as step-free access to two gender-neutral toilets (room 165), one of which is fully accessible.
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.
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 ); and James Burbage himself is arrested wandering (perhaps from his own playhouse) to see a play at the Cross Keys in the 1590s.
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.
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: What practical next steps do you see coming out of our Engendering the Stage workshop?
Keira Loughran: The really obvious one is that I’m really interested in the canon of early modern English plays that are putting these questions out there, and hearing them read, getting a chance to speak to them, giving them to artists who maybe have these questions around gender identity closer to their own experience, and more connected to our community of gender non-binary and trans people, to see if they should be included in our season. They should be part of an accessible canon to us. And that goes too for the Spanish Golden age and everybody’s various expertise with classical work. There is nothing that is stopping us from reading [Spanish Golden age plays] in English now—in languages we can understand—and having them in consideration for future productions, as much as the Shakespearean canon currently is.
It’s also really good to know about the scholarship going on [across the world]—to know about the Before Shakespeare project, for instance. Because we’re a national institution with international impact and scope, so those kinds of partnerships and making use of combining resources is always useful. I feel like Melinda and Peter put together an amazing group of scholars. And our Artistic Director [Antoni Cimolino] goes to London all the time, and has connections and contacts there, and now we have more.
In terms of scholars and artists coming together, it’s something I definitely continue to be curious about and it’s something that has been growing at the Lab. It’s something that’s happened in the past with Shakespeare scholars, but it’s good to meet new people. And it’s also good to see how they respond to being in the room, in the process in that way—but I’ve got to say it’s been really positive, overall, that connection. But it just has to get practised a bit more, so the actors are more comfortable. […] We’re always looking to be able to diversify our canon more… in terms of what we work on, what we consider to be the classical canon.
You need partnerships for people to bring things forward and bring things to your attention, and you also need to be having an eye on who can lead those projects—whether it’s an artist or whether it’s a scholar or whether there’s a synergy between two that can support a production and give it the passion that it needs. So this week has been great for all of that, for making those connections and giving us some time together.
This week we’ve been collaborating on four plays in the workshops (The Roaring Girl, The Maid’s Tragedy, The Lieutenant Nun, Love’s Cure) by combining scholarly research and performer creativity. Sharing the room with academics, performers, directors, and theatremakers has allowed us to bring together historical context and artistic invention. How have you found this method of working in the Lab?
I really enjoy it—particularly for the classical texts, the texts that have specialist scholars working on them. It’s been interesting [this week] for two reasons. One is the expertise that academics bring to the room. [. . .] For me it’s partly been finding out about these plays. I’ve been in the office for ten years now [as Stratford Festival management], and I’ve been in the institution for fifteen years—that’s my Shakespeare knowledge. I know who Beaumont and Fletcher are, I know they collaborated with Shakespeare on some plays…
So to have the chance to see even the excerpts of some of these plays [that we were working with in our workshop in the Lab] is fascinating, because I was a bit more aware of the complexity of the English stage in the Elizabethan period. I’m really curious about the assumptions that we make versus the time to actually consider what was happening—which is what these scholars have spent a lot of their time doing. So I’ve found that exciting as a way to understand these texts and make them more fluid, interpretable, or adaptable to our age and time.
How have you found the focus in the workshops on process rather than product, and on the experience of sharing that creative process with academic researchers?
As an artist and particularly as a director, I question sometimes how art works or how theatre works in our contemporary experience. [. . .] For me, and in my experience here [in Stratford], which is a privileged place (where people sort of like culture, generally!) the more you can share an artistic process—like all art—the more it impacts people’s work and lives in ways that they don’t expect and might not even be able to articulate. When the only thing that people see is a product in a theatre [. . .] I feel that’s very limited: it’s not mining the potential of what art can do. And so opening up process [ie in rehearsal, through documentation and sharing] for me is a really exciting thing.
But it requires a lot of trust and vulnerability on behalf of performers, and it also takes a certain mentality for scholars to bring to the room, to create the space with us. But I think it can be really powerful, and that’s what I’ve felt our workshops so far to be—and that’s great. And I hope, and what I’m curious about, is then how did it impact, what are the unforeseeable impacts of academics being more included in our artistic process? How does that then impact the scholars’ work within their research, or within their editing of dramatic texts, or within the essays they might write. How will their process change because they’ve had the chance to work with us?
Are these questions relevant outside of the Festival to the wider industry?
I believe there is a gap, in Canada at least, between theatre training institutions and universities and practicing theatre companies (one that perhaps doesn’t exist in the States so much, because those scholars are attached to professional companies, whereas in Canada they’re not)… Because of some of the amazing scholars I’ve met, I keep looking for more opportunity to open up process and allow non-artists, or non-professional artists in the room—and seeing how it all lands.
Something you said earlier in the week really struck me. You wondered whether there’s room for a shift in practice in the way that scholarship and the arts—in this case theatre—can work together…
I think that’s true, and you have to be really clear about it. For Comedy [of Errors, Stratford Festival, Apr-Nov. 2018, dir. Keira Loughran], it was my first time doing a Shakespeare at Stratford, so I had these resources of scholarship and doing Shakespeare at my fingertips, which was fantastic. So I did two things: I had a scholar look at my edits [on the text], and I had a couple of scholars to bounce my ideas off of, to call me on it if there were anything that was really missing. And one of the things that I found was exciting was that some of the scholars brought me information that was helpful, and allowed a more fluid interpretation. Their enthusiasm also reinforced that my vision was sound, on an intellectual level. What was also exciting was that my interpretation opened up new possibilities for them in the text; one of the scholars remarked, “Oh, I hadn’t read it like that before!”, so you can discover a text anew. When you have a scholar who’s open-minded like that, that’s an exciting opportunity.
I always say that theatre can transform, and if a scholar can go through that process with the expertise they have, then there’s a degree of authenticity or merit that gives you confidence.
Involving Erin Julian and Kim Solga in my practice—largely in an observing role, although they were the scholars I got to bounce ideas off—that was a bit of a test: how does their presence in the room affect rehearsal. And it was good! They ended up generating an article, which I read to the cast on opening night—because it took me back to the first day of rehearsal. [The article] showed: letting them [the academics] see you made an impact. So, let this audience see you, so it will make an impact [on them].
So, yes, I think it can affect dramatic practice. And I think it’s good for it. I also think it’s good for actors to be more flexible in being in front of an audience… There’s a huge tradition of the privacy and safety of a closed rehearsal hall. And there are absolutely reasons for that. But you also want to see how far you can push or make more common what a safe room is, or what an artistic space is, whether you’re an artist or not. More people who know how to hold that space will be a good thing.
As part of the questions of gender and casting that we’ve been exploring this week, we’ve been thinking a lot about actors bringing themselves to the characters they’re performing. Is this something you see potential in taking forward, coming out of our workshop?
I feel like, in Canada, within a theatre practice context, it’s absolutely necessary if you’re trying to diversify or include more people in the work. I still don’t know how I, as a third-generation, Chinese woman, in Canada, can exist in an Elizabethan context. There were probably Chinese people; I might even be able to find a Chinese person in court somewhere, maybe, but it’s so obscure that if you’re only looking at it from a historical perspective, it’s hard. […] I think there’s a privilege within the social construct of those plays, when they were written—particularly because racialisation was used as a dramatic device, of othering. I acted in all sorts of stuff for a long time, but as I get older and as I get more experienced (and the younger generation is coming to it sooner than I did), if you cannot see yourself, if you can’t feel confident just looking the way you look standing on that stage, then… [. . .] As a director, I feel I get the best work from actors when they can see and find themselves in the work.
Then they can also learn from scholarship of history in ways that are useful: in terms of language, in terms of contexts of language, like what certain things would have meant at the time, in terms of what certain relationships would have meant at the time, so that they can understand that and make a choice in relationship to that. But the other thing is, I feel like if the actors don’t understand the story on a personal level—like how it impacts them as characters and people—then the story won’t be compelling to a modern audience, and then you’re making museum theatre. And I also think there’s things that make you feel like you’re seeing museum theatre that aren’t necessarily helpful (like, period costume?), and I worry about reinforcing tropes in that way.
So it’s a balance of welcoming the scholarship but finding artistic, creative ways to subvert them [the texts] often, and remind people that we’re in a theatre in 2018, in this country, with these people, telling a story for this audience, for these reasons, and I think to do that… you have to acknowledge who you are, and where you are, and allow that to be in the space.
And history and scholarship can give licence to personal and contemporary readings of the text—without them feeling like modern impositions or ahistorical rereadings…
In The Maid’s Tragedy (because I was working on this scene), we tried to make space for our actors to look the way they look in these roles, which made us go: “well, what if we did change the text, what if we did change the play and cast it in this way…? What is the narrative, how can it be changed?” But if these are some of the question of the time, historically—these plays are being written at the same time as The Roaring Girl, and these questions of gender are coming up… Trans people have been around in all cultures from time immemorial… And so if those ideas were present to the writers of those plays, to the actors who animated them, then those people who exist in our society now should be part of telling them again. Which is this “nothing about us without us” catchphrase around inclusivity and inclusion.
And it’s been really interesting too for me this week—I’ve got a lot of these ideas in my head and they’re close to my heart artistically. But the way Emma [Frankland] leads something is going to be different to the way I lead something, because I’m cisgendered and she’s not. And that’s good. That creates diverse practice. [. . . ] An ethical way of practicing that is more based in an acknowledgement of an ensemble of artists coming together is a shift in practice that I’d like to see—and one I think this work demands.
On documentation and dissemination of “process”:
I know why the actors feel the pressure that they feel… We’re all anxious about dissemination of image and dissemination of work that’s not really finished, and what’s professional and what’s not professional. Those are bigger questions that we have to tackle together: what’s process…? There’s massive overhauls that have to happen to fully open all of this up.
On Canadian Theatre Agreement (CTA):
The Canadian Theatre Agreement (CTA), which is the standard agreement between all theatres in English Canada and actors, is culturally bias—if I want to be provocative I argue it’s racist—because it assumes a three-and-a-half-week rehearsal process on a script that exists, that has a maximum two-and-a-half hour running time. You can’t do it otherwise. All of the funding supports that process. If you need something that takes a longer process, you can’t get the funding for it, and if you can’t get the funding for it, you can’t do the work, and if you can’t do the work then nothing changes. So the more you can get universities and places that fund research stretched out to cross boundaries of industries—scholars to actors—then there is a potential pooling of resources, and then maybe you can actually lobby for more flexible rules around these ideas, because people understand them differently in practice. So that’s a form of practice that could change: it’s possible to change it, but it is big!