I was at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse at The Globe yet again last night, seeing The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and it led me to reflect on the sort of parallel lives that London Renaissance theatre lived in and around Shakespeare’s time. The companies that put on all the plays we remember were the adult companies. This is not least because Shakespeare only ever write for adult companies. Throughout the 1500s, the commercial adult companies only played outdoors at playhouses broadly similar to the Globe as we know it on Bankside today.
But there were ‘boys companies’ as well. The boys companies, composed of choir boys or boys from grammar schools with enterprising headmasters, comprised a rich seam of parallel theatre during Elizabeth’s reign. Some of these boys were as young as ten, and the plays written for them had very particular styles.
The plays, during Elizabeth’s reign at any rate, were very highly mannered. The salient dramas were written by John Lyly, a poet more than a dramatist and saturated in the artistry of the Elizabethan court. Everything was ornate, almost baroque, from the language to what we know of the costumes, make-up and staging. John Lyly’s work Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit has in fact given the English language the word eupheuistic, meaning a highly mannered literary style. The style also appears to have been profoundly establishment in its outlook. It was not unusual for high praise of the monarch, usually fairly thinly veiled, to crop up at some point.
As far as the kind of places they performed in goes, the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse is slightly misleading. It is based on plans which are fractionally too late chronologically, but quite drastically too late architecturally. The boys playhouses of Shakespeare’s lifetime were not much more than halls with a mock-up of a stage and perhaps some raked bleachers. They were usually old religious halls which had been abandoned after the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII.
This in turn gave rise to the name of the companies. They were called Blackfriars Children, Children of the Whitefriars or Paul’s Boy because they performed in those religious locations. The Knight of the Burning Pestle was first performed by the Blackfriars Children in 1607. The Malcontent, John Marston’s tragicomedy which will be opening at the Sam Wannamaker playhouse soon, was also first performed by Blackfriars in 1603, before unusually being performed by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, very soon afterwards and with only relatively minor alterations.
Their religious affiliations meant that the boys companies performed inside the City limits of London and, after a hiatus in the 1590s, braver playwrights and businessmen began to use the liberty from City jurisdiction that the religious precincts gave them to stage increasingly satirical drama with the boys. The fact that they were children seems to have kept charges of sedition at bay, thought not with total success.
And it is this satirical aspect that Shakespeare refers to when in Hamlet one of the characters describes the children’s companies of Wittenberg as ‘an eyrie of children, little eyases’.
The boys had only a brief revival though, and when they folded, Shakespeare’s company took over the Blackfriars playhouse and Shakespeare may have written some later plays with its aesthetic in mind. In the smoky dimness of the Blackfriars, we can imagine Hermione coming to life in The Winter’s Tale might have more effect than in the bright sunshine of a summer’s day at the Globe.
It also gives rise to the possibility of a neat historical coincidence. Another late play is Henry VIII, a collaboration with John Fletcher. It charts Henry distancing himself from Catherine of Aragon to pursue Anne Bloeyn, disposing of Cardinal Wolsey along the way. (Hilary Mantel and the RSC are not the first people to notice that this patch of history might make a good tale.) That play might have been performed in the very monastery at which the divorce hearing of Henry VIII and Catherine took place in 1529. Very neat indeed.