Hobbinol’s excellent post on the Elizabethan theatre and the plague has reminded me – somewhat tangentially, I accept – of one of my favourite anecdotes from the Tudor theatre. Perhaps anecdote is the wrong word. In some respects it is a pretty insignificant event, but I think it reveals a great deal about the tensions between the performers and the censorship they worked under, about the players’ attitude to risk, and about the complex politics of patronage and power.
In brief, the Lord Mayor of London had received orders from William Cecil, Lord Burghley, early in November 1589 to stop all plays within the city. He attempted to effect this by summoning the two troupes he knew to be active in London at the time, the Lord Admiral’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men, on the morning of November 5, and commanding them in the Queen’s name to desist from performing until they were told they free again to do so. Both were significant companies of actors, and it is likely that Lord Strange’s Men employed both Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe as writers around this time.
In any event, the former troupe did as the mayor ordered. Lord Strange’s Men, however, showed their utter contempt for his authority by marching straight to the Cross Keys, one of several City inns that regularly hosted the players, and staging a perfomance the very same afternoon. It is hard to imagine a more deliberately offensive or disdainful act. The mayor’s shock at their indifference to his status – at their lack of deference – is certainly still palpable in the letter he wrote to Burghley the following day, which is our source for the story. I particularly like the fact that, when summoned to explain their actions, Strange’s troupe were unable, or unwilling to do so.
It is easy to think that, because the major Elizabethan troupes were patronised by leading aristocrats and frequently performed at court, that their professional work was relatively untroubled, its progress smooth. However, what this brief episode shows, I think, is just how abrasive their relationship with authority could be – and how difficult they could be to control if they so chose. They were servants, of course, but they defended their professional liberties closely. It is not hard to see why the authorities feared and mistrusted them.
My very honourable good Lord. Where, by a lettre of your Lordship’s, directed to Mr. Yonge, it appered unto me that it was your honours pleasure I sholde geue order for the staie of all playes within the Cittie, in that Mr. Tilney did utterly mislike the same. According to which your Lordship’s good pleasure, I presentlye sente for suche players as I coulde here of, so as there appered yesterday before me the Lord Admeralles and the Lord Straunges players, to whome I speciallie gaue in Charge and required them in her Maiesties name to forbere playinge, untill further order mighte be geuen for theire allowance in that respecte. Whereupon the Lord Admeralles players very dutifullie obeyed, but the others in very contemptuous manner departing from me, went to the Crosse Keys and played that afternoon, to the greate offence of the better sorte that knewe they were prohibited by order from your Lord. Which as I might not suffer, so I sent for the said contemptuous persons, who haueing no reason to alleadge for theire contempt, I coulde do no lesse but this evening comitt some of them to one of the Compters, and do meane according to your Lordships. Direction to prohibite all playing, vntill your Lordship’s pleasure therein be furthe knowen. And thus resting further to trouble your Lordship, I moste humblie take my leaue. At London the Sixte of Nouember 1589.
Your Lordship’s moste humble, John Harte, maior.
To the righte honorable my very good Lorde, the Lorde Highe Tresaurer of Englande.
The Cross Keys, incidentally, was a well-known inn – and, as I said, a regular theatrical venue – on Gracious Street, today’s Gracechurch Street. Bank’s famous performing horse, Marocco – mentioned by Moth in Love’s Labours Lost – was kept there. There is, in fact, still a pub of that name on Gracechurch Street today. I think the name is commemorative, rather than reflecting a precise continuity of location, but I’d like to be proved wrong!