'Our Children Made Enterluders': Choristers, Actors, and Students in St Paul's Cathedral Precinct

By Hentschell, Roze F. | Early Theatre, December 2016 | Go to article overview

'Our Children Made Enterluders': Choristers, Actors, and Students in St Paul's Cathedral Precinct


Hentschell, Roze F., Early Theatre


In John Marston's What You Will, performed by the Children of Paul's ca 1600, the master of a grammar school tells one of his pupils to 'stand forth: repeat your lesson without book' (2.2.705). (1) While the scene goes on to lampoon the boys, the pedant, and the lesson itself, the master's simple command to his student signifies an array of metatheatrical elements. He urges his pupil to recite his memorized 'lesson', a typical exercise in Latin rote learning in the early modern grammar school. (2) The master also exposes what the actor playing the part of the pupil must do: utter lines without the aid of a written script, while simultaneously indicating that he, the master, is doing the same. The injunction to 'stand forth' is at once a directive to the student to step forward from his form while reciting his lesson but also a stage direction to the actor who must move through stage space to speak his lines to the audience. The line further points to the particularities of the actors themselves: they were the boy choristers of St Paul's Cathedral who--while occasionally performing in stage plays--stood forth as singers during church service. The choirboy actors, who were also part-time pupils at Paul's School, additionally would recite their grammar lessons and stand forth in the schoolroom. In the period, 'stand forth' could mean 'to come boldly or resolutely to the front or centre', and the headmaster's command reminds us of the boys' public and multivalent position in the cathedral precinct, a position that reflected the complexity of the very space of Paul's. (3)

In this essay, I consider St Paul's Cathedral precinct, where so many Londoners lived, worked, worshipped, shopped, were educated, and sought entertainment to explore the relationship between theatre and neighbourhood in early modern England. (4) While we do not naturally consider the cathedral or even the surrounding area as a 'neighbourhood', possibly because we may think of St Paul's as an amalgamation of structures rather than people, the dynamic and complex spaces and activities of the precinct liken it to other London wards with their residences, businesses, parish churches, and venues of recreation in both its diversity of spaces and its complexity of urban liveliness. In particular, I aim to demonstrate that the boys who performed as the Children of Paul's were part of the constitution of the precinct and were necessarily shaped by their time there in multiple and surprising ways. The church precinct and its enterprises informed the expectations placed on the child actors as choirboys and students subordinate to male authority. Their bailiwick--the seeming discrete places of the cathedral such as their singing school, the residence hall, the cathedral choir, the churchyard, the grammar school--was as porous as the activities that took place there. The choristers' involvement in plays at Paul's suggests no one considered acting to be in conflict with their religious education or their singing duties, but rather an expansion of these activities.

Paul's Boys as Choirboys

Known nationally for the high quality of their voices, the ten boy choristers of London's St Paul's Cathedral had the primary role of singing three quotidian services, for special occasions at the cathedral, and at court. (5) As Roger Bowers reminds us, 'this was their job of work; it was absolute'. (6) The choirboys also comprised the Children of Paul's and, as such, served as unpaid actors in occasional plays. In the twenty-one-year period between 1568-1589, the boys performed in only twenty-four distinct works, primarily at court. (7) Sebastian Westcott, choirmaster during this period, sometimes opened rehearsals for court entertainments to a paying audience (8) but did not see the boys as a professional theatre company in their own right, understanding that their primary function at the cathedral was to sing. In the second incarnation of the company, 1599-1606, the children acted in twenty-one known plays (though we do not know how many times each was performed) in a space in St Paul's precinct. …

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