Edward Alleyn, the New Model Actor, and the Rise of the Celebrity in the 1590s

Article excerpt

Introduction

IT has become commonplace to speak of the 1590s as a time when the capitalist playhouse had become a relatively stable economic institution. To be sure, the period between 1590 and 1600 was an auspicious decade, not only for playhouse owners, but also for the companies of players that inhabited the theaters. Despite the periodic setbacks of plague closures and the occasional threat of government intervention, the theaters had learned how to survive, providing a relatively secure space in which actors could collect a fee from every spectator, and offering a dependable space in which playwrights and players could collaborate.

The impact of this relative stability influenced the professional course of actors in new and unique ways. Most importantly, the marketing relationship between actors and audiences--which had been altered greatly by the construction of the permanent playhouses--had time to develop in a dynamic manner, creating a new sense of professionalism, or what I have termed here "the new model actor." Alongside other amenities, Burbage's Theatre and Henslowe's Rose established not only an easily identifiable location where particular companies performed, but they also provided venues where the most notable players could be seen and enjoyed by their fans, time and again. Given this, it is perhaps no surprise that the 1590s witnessed the rise of the celebrity player as an unprecedented phenomenon on the London stage.

Concurrently, it is useful to think beyond this point, at the ways in which these influences affected specific actors and the actual management of the Rose. While the Tamburlaine role--perhaps more than any other--shaped Edward Alleyn's career, elevating him to the status of a celebrity performer, it also created audience expectations for the future repertory of the Admiral's Men. In turn, these developments directly affected the management of the repertory at the Rose Playhouse, from the selection of plays to be performed to the order and frequency with which they were scheduled. And further down the road such changing professional tides influenced the theatrical scene as a whole. In the broadest sense the career of Edward Alleyn fashioned a new and powerful professional model, ushering in an era in which players began to perform not only for contemporary audiences but, in a sense, for posterity as well. Actors, in addition to plays, became commodities to be marketed and capitalized on by playhouse owners and theatrical companies.

Alleyn's Early Years

Although it is impossible to determine precisely when Alleyn began to perform he was apparently successful from an early age. In fact, Thomas Fuller characterized Alleyn as having been "bred a Stage-player" even though he was not raised in a strictly theatrical family. (1) (Alleyn's older brother John was identified as servant to Lord Sheffield in 1580, and by 1589 he was servant to Sheffield's cousin, Charles Howard, who was then Lord Admiral. This association, in combination with his involvement in several sales of theatrical merchandise between 1589 and 1591, have led historians to believe that John was, for a time, an actor.) (2) By January 1583, when he was seventeen years old, Edward's talent had earned him a position with the Earl of Worcester's players, a well-established touring company. (3) It is likely that the young actor was drawn into the company by one of its two senior members, Richard Jones or James Tunstall, who played alongside Alleyn at various points later in his career. (4) However, it is impossible to determine what roles Alleyn played while he performed with Worcester's Men; the company's playbooks were either sold to other companies, or they have disappeared altogether. (5)

Four years later, in 1587, historians can locate Alleyn again, this time performing with the Admiral's Men. Now aged twenty-one he had already acquired one of the trademark roles most associated with him by his contemporaries--Tamburlaine the Great. …