4. Performers facing difficulties…

Earlier I mentioned a survey I did in the REED volumes using mechanical means, to ascertain the proportion of ‘Performance’-related events to ‘Dismissals’ – instances where travelling professionals and troupes encountered trouble and/or were dismissed and sent away.  Sometimes they were paid to leave without playing, but sometimes they were just turned out.  To begin looking at these dismissals, (unwelcome to the players to be sure!), I can refine the figures given earlier, and compare the numbers from Patrons and Performances to those from the present database, Performers Without Patrons.

Patrons and Performances:

Total number of records of performances by player(s):  3014 (out of 7984 total records)
Number of records of dismissals of player(s) with patrons:  95
Percentage of dismissals, out of total: 3.15%

Performers Without Patrons:

Total number of records of performances by player(s): 937 (out of 3780 total records)
Number of records of dismissals of player(s) without recorded patrons: 71
Percentage of dismissals, out of total: 7.5%

(Total performances/dismissals:  3951/166 [4.2%])

I draw a number of conclusions here, first of which harks back to my investigation, long ago, of G. E. Bentley’s assertion that “there is little evidence that the local authorities received the players with enthusiasm…”, which he illustrated with examples suggesting that players were dismissed 87% of the time. The actual records of dismissals show that dismissals seldom occurred, and hence simply were not a problem.

But the evidence of actual dismissals is not the whole answer to the question of the reception afforded to travelling players. We might begin by asking why there are proportionately more dismissal records that don’t mention a patron.  Hostility to players often is the apparent motive behind a dismissal. For examples, “Paid to a company of players to be rid of them” (Bristol, 1633) or “geven to two companies of players which were not suffered to plaie to ridd them out of towne” (Plymouth, 1616-7). The writers here are totally uninterested in identifying patrons, although their phraseology, using ‘company’ or ‘companies’, implies that they are referring to players in organized travelling companies.

We can arrange responses to travelling professional players into a spectrum, with outright vitriolic hostility at one extreme, and welcomes, with payments, on the other. The most hostile responses are directed at players without mention of patrons, helping to account for the proportionally higher incidence of dismissals in Performers Without Patrons. My candidate for the most outright hostility comes from Newcastle-under-Lyme in north Staffordshire, where a performance occurred that the Mayor had apparently forbidden (no record survives of any town ordinance against players, or of the Mayor’s actual injunction, but act he certainly did!).  On 1 May 1610 the Borough Assembly punished the malefactors severely:

It is agreed by the assemblie aforesaide, yat Thomas Dale Alderman for entertayninge into his howse Certaine Wandringe fellowes by the title of players or rather rouges & sufferinge theim to plaie in his howse after hee had warning by master Maior to ye Contrarie ys fyned in xl s./
It is likewise agreed yat Robert Collier beinge one of ye Cunstables of this borowghe in reguarde hee woulde not Execute his office (when hee was Charged by the Maior) in suppressinge of a Companie of Lewde fellowes Called plaiers Is displased from ye Companie of Capitall Burgesses and fined in xx s. And the same Companie haue made Choyse of Humfrey Lowe to bee in his stidde and to full vpp ye number
It ys likewise agreed and ordered by the saide assemblie yat Iohn Harrison Constable Edwarde Doson and Robert Rodes sergeantes shall paie eiche of them iij s. iiij d. a peece for yat they were Charged to suppresse a lewde Companie by the name of plaiers and to that ende to Charge our townes men to aide theim, they were found (in performance of their dueties in that respecte) slacke and necligent and theirfore it three shillinges foure pence as aforesaide

Why did these ‘players, or rather rouges’ apparently get off scot-free when so much ire was directed at the townspeople who welcomed them (or, at least, failed to ‘suppress’ them)? Assuredly they must have left town in a hurry, and we realize why those players (or any other players for that matter!) didn’t visit Newcastle again. (The only other reference to entertainments in the Newcastle records concerns an illegal bear-baiting, severely punished, in 1635). A town’s disapproval could have long-lasting effects, although leaving us only a single record.

Prohibitions might be for a certain season, or could be “blanket” orders against players and other entertainers – there are forty such ’blanket’ ordinances in Performers Without Patrons, eighteen of them from the City of London authorities before 1551 (later London hostility to players and theatres is well-documented in numerous published works). But let’s look at a few provincial examples where we can gauge the effects of prohibitions. Probably most wide-reaching was an order by the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, dated 3 June 1528, which is found in the civic records of all of the five boroughs: he ordered that “ye do not make or play permytt & suffer to be made or played…noo maner of stage pley Robyn Hoodes pley wacches or wakes yeveales or other such like playes…” (Hastings; see REED: Sussex, p 27). Wow!  Looks serious. But was it?  Hastings needs to be left out of account because we don’t know what happened there — its Chamberlains’ accounts only begin in 1642. However, if we look at the other four cinque port boroughs, playing continued unabated in spite of this order.  Amazingly, the visitors included the Lord Warden’s own troupe, rewarded at Hythe (1532-3), Sandwich (1533-4), New Romney (1535-6) and Dover (1536)! You can’t depend on a prohibition to have been effective, particularly as time passed.

More effective were prohibitions imposed by boroughs themselves, if the authorities had the will to enforce them effectively or it they were confirmed by future councils.

These are pictures, front and rear, of the Bargate in Southampton. The remains of the old town wall are seen as the ‘stub’ projecting at the left/right side. The rear picture indicates, by the four windows, the town’s Guildhall where performances took place.

Bargate Front
Bargate Rear view

Southampton passed an ordinance on 9 May 1620 that relates to the Bargate:

Be it therfore ordered That hereafter yf anie suche staige or poppett plaiers must be admitted in this towne That they provide their places for their representatcions in their Innes or el<..> where they can best provide But euer be debarred for vseinge the like in the Towne hall

The council repeated themselves with another prohibition, on 6 February 1623:

noe leave shall bee graunted to any Stage players or Interlude players or to any other person or persons resortinge to this Towne to Act shewe or represent any manner of Interludes or playes or any other sportes or pastymes whatsoever in the said hall/

The result? After 1620 there were a total of only five civic records: two companies without patrons were dismissed (1631-2 and 1634-5) and three companies with patrons were dismissed (the King’s and Prince Charles’s in 1633-4, and the King’s again in 1634-5). Not much activity! An even clearer example comes from Stratford-upon-Avon (whose records I am editing, forthcoming). On 17 December 1602 the Council ordered:

that there shalbe no plays or enterlewdes playd in the Chamber the guild halle nor in any parte of the [hos] howsse or Courte from hensforward vpon payne that whosoeuer of the Baylief Alderman & Burgesses berenghe shall gyve leave or licence therevnto shall forfeyt for euerie offence xs

Stratford Guildhall

The Guildhall, Stratford-upon-Avon

There are no records of players rewarded visiting Stratford or permitted to play there for the next ten years, but nonetheless the Council in February 1612 returned to the issue with a strange preamble:

“The inconuenience of plaies being verie seriouslie considered of with the unlawfullnes, and howe contrarie the sufferance of them is againste the orders hearetofore made…”

This implies that players had somehow continued to be allowed to use the Guildhall, so to prevent this in future the fine to be levied for permitting its use was increased from ten shillings to £10 (an astronomical sum – the schoolmaster’s annual stipend at the time was £20!). A few months later, in July, the fine was lowered to forty shillings, still a large amount – the same fine as was levied, we remember, on Thomas Dale, Alderman, in Newcastle-under-Lyme.  In the same Council decision the prohibitions about spaces not to be used were made far more explicit, which likely indicates that there were events that had circumvented the rules by creatively using other parts of the civic space:

that the Bayliffe and chiefe Alderman of the said Borough nor eyther of them for the tyme being shall not at any tyme hereafter licence or suffer any manner of playes or enterludes to be played or acted within the Towne hall, Councell Chamber, Schoolehouse or the place called the Guyld Courte or yarde there or any parte thereof by any person or persons whatsoever

Nope. No playing anywhere under Council control. The result of this official hostility? Playing appears to have ceased after 1602, in Shakespeare’s own birthplace. We find only two records after 1602; a payment, probably cancelled, to an unnamed company in 1620 and a record of the dismissal of the King’s Men in 1622, paid 6s “for not playinge in the hall”.  One can easily imagine that word would get around among troupes of travelling performers, about what boroughs to avoid and where to find welcomes.

Notice that Southampton’s first ordinance invited players to make use of their inns as playing places; as well, the prohibitions in Stratford and elsewhere are limited in their effect to the towns’ property, as you can see in Performers Without Patrons. Hence we may imagine (though we cannot prove) that playing continued in other venues when the guildhall, obviously the largest and most commodious secular space in any borough, was barred from playing. Players were not being paid to leave, just prevented from being paid to perform in a civic space. In contrast, in Newcastle-under-Lyme playing was prohibited in any space, not just the town-controlled public space.

Somewhat more welcoming, although not a carte blanche, are records in which players are given permission to perform, with limitations and stipulations imposed by a council. For example, of general application is the Shrewsbury Town order, 8 October 1594, forbidding “any enterludes or playes made within this towne or liberties uppon anye soundaye, or in the night-tyme…” (REED: Shropshire, 281). This is not a blanket prohibition since it implies that plays at other times are permitted. A number of boroughs began after 1590 to examine players’ licences and patronage, and then to grant them permission to play, perhaps with conditions or for a limited time. The first such record (which concerns troupes with patrons) can stand for them all:

[On 4 December 1596] lycence & leave was graunted by this courte to the Lords whilloughby & Bewchamp there players to playe within this Cittie vntill wensday next [ie, 8 December] behauinge them selves well & Kepinge mete & convenient howers (REED: Norwich 1540-1642, 109)

Valuable information is available from the majority of these records of limited permission, whether a patronized company was involved or not, about the lengths of stays in a location. The idea that companies picked up and left town after a one-night stand is simply wrong; a brief ‘season’ is implied in virtually all cases of limited permission. One can imagine how these limitations might even work to a company’s advantage – think of the poster: “Three nights only!!! Limited engagement!!!”

Most of the records of permission/regulation survive from a single locality, the City of Norwich, the second-largest city in England in the period. In Patrons and Performances, Norwich accounts for 31 of 41 such records, while in Performers Without Patrons Norwich is the source for 29 of 31 records. It’s also remarkable how many troupes were sent away from Norwich: 33 of the 95 Dismissals in Patrons and Performances, and 16 of 71 in Performers Without Patrons. Perhaps it was fussyness among Norwich city officials that led to the practice of having most applications to entertain being considered by the Mayor’s court. We can only be glad of the results – a wealth of details about entertainers of all kinds.

To sum up, the vast majority of records of travelling performers, both those with patrons and those for whom no patron is recorded, provide us with a story of successful entertainment offered, permissions granted, and payments of rewards being made. Dismissals and other harassments were the rare exception.