3. REED, and beyond…

Records of Early English Drama’s website provides its own introduction and list of completed collections (www.reed.utoronto.ca). The project’s long-term goals are to complete its coverage, publishing its new collections online, and also to retroactively re-publish online its legacy volumes making them interoperable and searchable on a single platform. That ambitious goal will take many years to complete, so the Performers without Patrons project provides a means to access and analyze an important aspect of this work.

One reason for the Malone Society decision to cease publishing local records was doubtless the greater scope and inclusiveness of the REED volumes. We can compare by looking at  the Kent records.  Giles Dawson’s Records and Plays and Players in Kent, 1450-1642 (Malone Soc. Collections vii [1965]) excluded some types of performers such as Waits (professional musicians employed by towns and cities), and Trumpeters; its 211 pages are dwarfed by the 1800 pages of James Gibson’s REED edition (which covers only eastern Kent, within the Diocese of Canterbury). REED’s sweep is far more inclusive, as its mandate indicates.  But it doesn’t include everything. Every editor has discussions with the editorial staff about what is “REEDY” and what is not – my own example is royal entries. What if there is nothing in the record to indicate performance, music, etc? My argument (which eventually prevailed) was that a public spectacle involving the monarch with speech-giving, presentation of gifts, etc, is ipso facto a ‘performance’ event, with the monarch as chief performer. Needless to say, a performer without a patron!

The wide inclusiveness of REED volumes gave rise to another problem: how can one use the information that is buried in the voluminous series of volumes covering over six feet of shelf space? The volumes are individually indexed, but the scope and arrangement of these varies widely. A personal experience will illustrate. Anti-provincial prejudice has long pervaded theatre histories of the period before 1642. The idea took root that the provinces were uninteresting because nothing ever happened there, and that provincial touring by London companies was avoided whenever possible. For example, G. E. Bentley, in The Profession of Player in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590-1642 (Princeton, 1984) writes thus:

there is no evidence that touring was ever very profitable, and it was certainly uncomfortable in the mire and the rain…[it was] an unpleasant and comparatively unprofitable expedient to compensate for London misfortunes…permission to play was sometimes granted…[but] often they were not allowed to play at all…there is little evidence that the local authorities received the players with enthusiasm…

This statement is backed (on pp 177-84) by examples of what happened when a troupe arrived at a borough and sought permission to play; Bentley quotes two records wherein permission was granted or a reward payment was made, as opposed to thirteen records in which players were refused, arrested, placed under control, or otherwise harassed.  Hard and chancy work! – a 13.2% success rate. But are these proportions accurate, or is the picture clouded by anti-provincial bias? This tweaked my curiosity, but the big question was how could one check this? Determined to do so, a number of years ago I read through the entire REED collection then existing, with a “no” clicker in my right hand and a “yes” clicker in my left. (I didn’t survey the Malone Society collections volumes because of doubts about their inclusiveness, whereas I knew that the REED collections used the same principles of inclusion/exclusion.) I assessed all records involving travelling performers, and I concluded that such visiting performers successfully obtained permission and/or payment about 95% of the time – which is a far cry from the 13.2% implied by Bentley!  (Later, on the “Performers facing Difficulties” page, I’ll update and refine these results).

This task took me six weeks (dinners and sleeping hours excepted)– it would have been so much easier with an on-line index! This realization was one large impetus behind the REED Patrons and Performances Website, which took upwards of twenty years to bring to ‘completion’.  The ‘scare quotes’ remind us that the project will continue to access new data, as new collections (e.g. Staffordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire and more) are added to the main REED project online.

Using the Patrons and Performances website, my weeks of clicker drudgery would be reduced to a few mouse-clicks, a few seconds! However, results from the REED Patrons and Performances Website would be  incomplete and inconclusive because the project excludes records in which no patron can be identified (either by title, name, nickname, whatever). This decision to limit sprang from the project’s focus upon venues (the places where playing certainly or probably occurred) and  patrons – their names, titles, identities, land holdings, residences, public offices, and other information that could be gathered through research and site visits. But, a limit is a limit; it encloses, and it excludes.

I stood one day on Hadrian’s Wall, looking northwards, and I thought “this was the end of the world…”  In one sense it was (as it was the declared limit of the Roman Empire), and at the same time it wasn’t, as is obvious to anyone looking over the hills and dales to the north, towards Scotland.  Similarly, the Patrons and Performances database is not the limit, not the end of the world; it includes approximately 7500 performance event records in its database, for troupes and performers who can be linked to a patron. Of this total, 4447 refer to performers other than players (jugglers, minstrels, animal acts, musicians, etc) – approximately 60% of the total. The other 40% refer to player(s), including 108 references to the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men of Shakespeare fame.

Performers Without Patrons Database (2020)
What lies beyond the limits of the Patrons and Performances site? In Performers Without Patrons there are over 3780 records, of which over 3150 refer to performance events and 475 are “Composite” payments to multiple performers, or annual totals of entertainment expenses in a given year.  937 of these records refer to, or include, players (approximately 25% of the total). As we might expect, a higher proportion of players, as compared to other entertainers, toured in patronized troupes. So as you can see there is much raw material in the REED volumes and collections that is not in the Patrons and Performances Website, and hence has not been ordered, indexed and made available for analysis. This is the focus of Performers Without Patrons.

In further pages I’ll survey some of the types of information that can be gleaned from the Performers Without Patrons data, looking at (in the next page) the “negative” evidence (dismissals, punishments, prohibitions, etc). Next (in Part 5) I will consider an important group of professionals, ‘waits’, whose employers (or Sponsors/Patrons, if you will) were city and borough governments. Finally (in Part 6) we will move ‘beyond the fringe’ to look at intriguing details about other types of entertainments that were presented in many venues up and down the countryside.