'Assisted by a Barber': The Court Apothecary, Special Effects, and the Gypsies Metamorphosed

Article excerpt

In an epilogue added to the only court performance of his masque The Gypsies Metamorphosed (1621), Ben Jonson credited apothecary John Rumler with making the theatrical paint used to disguise the masquers as 'tawny'-coloured gypsies. (1) Given current re-evaluations of the trade affiliations of London's playing industries in the early-modern period, this mention opens intriguing lines of inquiry into the role of apothecaries in providing special makeup effects for the court and possibly the public stage. (2) In what follows, I briefly outline Rumler's background, discuss the role of the early-modern apothecary and its potential relevance to the business of theatre, and examine Jonson's revisions to the Windsor court performance of Gypsies. The ointment Rumler concocted for Gypsies was a form of race-disguising paint, and I conclude by exploring Rumler's possibly innovative contribution to the stage device of blackface (itself often a controversial special effect, in particular when deployed within the court masque). Reconsidering the involvement of different trades in the creation and supply of the materials used to represent race on stage can help us account for the way the conventions of racial representation changed over the course of the seventeenth century. (3)

Identified only as 'Master Woolf' in the text of Gypsies, John Wolfgang Rumler served the households of Kings James I and Charles I as royal apothecary. (4) References to Rumler are to be found in narrative histories of the apothecaries' guild, for example, and more usefully in surviving court accounts. Rumler may have come to England with Queen Anne's retinue and likely came from an Augsburg family of medical men. (5) He is first mentioned in the Calendar of State Papers Domestic for 20 July 1604: 'Grant to John Wolfgang Rumler of the office of Apothecary to The Queen, the Prince, and the rest of the Royal children, for life'. (6) In 1607 Rumler becomes Apothecary to the King: 'Grant to John Wolfgang Rumler of the office of Apothecary [to the King], for life'. (7) The CSPD records sums owed to him for 'physical things, perfumes, and &' and safe conduct granted 'to go abroad for Rhenish wines'. (8) In addition, Rumler either embalmed or oversaw the embalming of King James' body. (9) He obtained a position in Charles the First's government and carried parcels to the King at Oxford during the Civil War. (10) Particularly relevant to this discussion of paint is the fact that in 1620 Rumler tried to secure a patent for the sole manufacture of 'mercurie sublimate', but was prevented by the Assistants of the Society of Apothecaries. (11) Among its other uses, mercury sublimate is a skin-bleaching agent with potentially toxic properties: in 1598 medical student Richard Haydock warned of its noxious effects, calling it 'biting' and 'very offensive to mans flesh'. (12) What records remain of Rumler therefore show him developing processes both for artificially darkening, and lightening, the skin.

Primarily known for making medicines (and sometimes accused of confecting poisons), apothecaries were also responsible for dispensing spices and making ointments, tinctures, washes, balms, sweet waters, perfumes, and cosmetics. (13) Apothecaries were part of the Grocers' Company until a 1617 charter decreed that they be separate. King James defended the split by declaring 'Grocers are but merchants, but the business of an Apothecary is a Mistery, wherefore I think it fitting that they be a Corporation of themselves'. (14) The Apothecaries purchased their Society Hall in the Blackfriars district in 1632, the purchase also including the Blackfriars Theatre. (15) Given the less than rigid distinctions among early-modern medical professionals, apothecaries were closely associated with physicians and barber-surgeons, although each performed different work: roughly speaking, physicians prescribed, apothecaries dispensed, and the barber-surgeons cut. (16) Early-modern plays often depict physicians and apothecaries in negative terms as charlatans or worse, as for example the murderous Eudemus in Jonson's Sejanus. …