The London Playing Bust of the Early 1580s and the Economics of Elizabethan Theater

By Kathman, David | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2017 | Go to article overview

The London Playing Bust of the Early 1580s and the Economics of Elizabethan Theater


Kathman, David, Shakespeare Studies


THE EARLY 1580s, to judge by the available evidence, was not a good time for the London theater scene. James Burbage and John Brayne, who in 1576 had built one of the first custom-built playhouses in England, the Theatre, were struggling to maintain ownership of their playhouse after mortgaging the lease in 1579. The first Blackfriars, an indoor playhouse for boy companies that had opened around the same time as the Theatre, was also going through complicated legal troubles that forced it to close in 1584. The Lord Mayor and aldermen closed the playhouses for fear of plague several times in 1580-81, after years of relative calm that had allowed professional theater to thrive, and the number of written allusions to plays and players falls off significantly in the early 1580s relative to the late 1570s, indicating a retrenchment of the London theater industry following the expansion of the previous decade.

This rough patch for Elizabethan players and theatrical entrepreneurs has been largely ignored in popular histories of the Elizabethan stage, which tend to treat most of the sixteenth century as a vague, undifferentiated period of primordial development. The 1580s are glossed over as a bridge period between the opening of the Theatre in 1576 and the glories of Shakespeare and the Chamberlain's Men. According to the standard narrative, peripatetic troupes of strolling players had long performed in innyards and open spaces, putting on morality plays and interludes for whatever money they could get. In 1574, Leicester's Men received the first royal patent ever given to a playing company, and soon after that moralistic London authorities cracked down on plays within the city (banning them outright in some versions), prompting the players to decamp to the suburbs and build the Theatre and other custom-built playhouses. Only after this, the story goes, was the theater commercialized and professionalized, allowing the players to settle down and paving the way for the golden age of Elizabethan drama.

Like so many other popular historical narratives, this one is not totally wrong, but it is vastly oversimplified. I would argue that it omits or glosses over many key factors, and greatly underestimates the economic sophistication of the London theater industry before the 1590s. There is ample evidence that professional drama in London had already been commercialized for more than three decades before the first permanent playhouses were built in the 1570s, and that throughout the sixteenth century it grew and developed in a series of boom-and-bust cycles, not unlike those later experienced by nascent industries such as railroads in the nineteenth century. The unprecedented proliferation of playhouses in the mid-1570s was not the cause of the commercialization of the London theater, but just one key development in the middle of a long process, and it was followed by the "bust" period of the early 1580s. In order to fully understand the boom and bust of the 1570s and 1580s, it's helpful to look at the broader context of sixteenth-century London, and at an earlier period of rapid growth for London theater.

This earlier boom period took place more than thirty years before the building of the Theatre and other custom-built suburban playhouses. While professional players were active in London throughout the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the first official attempts to control or regulate them are not recorded until the early 1540s. The earliest came on April 11, 1542, when Lord Mayor Michael Dormer ordered the aldermen to prevent "any commen playes or enterludes" within livery company halls, and six days after that Edmund Bonner, bishop of London, issued an injunction prohibiting all "common playes or interludes" in churches or chapels. A year later there was another multi-pronged crackdown. On March 30, the Mayor and Recorder complained to the Privy Council about "the licentiows manner off playours," and on April 10 the Privy Council committed to ward twenty joiners who had made a disguising on a Sunday morning, along with four players of the Lord Warden who had played contrary to orders. …

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