Boy Actors by John Lithgow

If you’ve been on the edge of your seat waiting for this final post on the boys’ companies active in the Tudor Age, you are probably alone, and I need to hear from you! This is a shame, because if theatre historians Harold Newcomb Hillebrand and Charles William Wallace are correct, the Globe Theatre and Shakespeare would never have happened without them!

My first three posts on this subject covered the immense popularity at court of the Children of St. Paul’s and the Children of the Chapel (along with many others that came and went and entertained the aristocracy in the provinces) up through the last decade of Elizabeth’s reign. The third post chronicled their demise as a result of politics and the far more active men’s companies. Hillebrand and Wallace wrote their books early in the last century, and since then there has been almost total silence. Fortunately their books are exhaustive in their detail, and if you can get your hands on them, you might join me in appreciating the role that boy actors played in our rich history

The truth is, the last gasp of the boys’ companies during the reign of James I, while dazzling and controversial, was brief; and it was entirely different from what had gone before. Both the Children of the Chapel and St. Paul’s had a second flowering with the ascendance of a new monarch, but their new life was a life sustained by a different breath—the breath of commerce. Ambitious entrepreneurs banked on the nostalgia for the playful antics of the boys who cavorted through the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and they took a huge gamble. They had investors, and they threw their money around rashly, hiring the best playwrights available. Samuel Daniel, John Day, George Chapman, Thomas Middleton, John  Marston, and Ben Johnson pocketed way more money writing for the boys than they did for the men, and their brilliant plays can still delight us; but the playful antics of the cavorting boy actors were not a good fit for them. Jacobean audiences had grown much more sophisticated, and they and demanded edgier and more dangerous fare than the children could manage.

The exact dates aren’t available anymore, but by the end of 1600 both companies were up and running under new management. There was by this time a growing public passion for drama, and, remembering the hay-day of the Blackfriars, investors to believed they could turn a profit by re-opening it. James Burbage had purchased the property in 1596 to create an indoor home for his successful company, of which Shakespeare was a member. He had remodeled a section of it to build a handsome new theatre, but the neighbors had protested and prevented the opening of a public venue within the city limits. At some point, in order to defray the cost of keeping it open, he had leased it to what was essentially an incorporated body of profiteers, who used the old ruse of opening it as a “private” theatre to house the Children of the Chapel. As for the Children of Paul’s, the records are scant, but we do know that they were performing at St. Gregory’s Church with their new Master, Edward Pierce, dusting off old favorites and beginning to solicit new material.

Because there was no daily London Times archiving the doings of the city back then, most of our information about the boys’ companies from 1600 to 1616 comes from one of four sources: recorded performances at court; the licensing and publication of plays, in which there is usually a phrase telling where and by whom they were first performed; the written accounts of individual audience members; and law suits. Especially for the Children of the Chapel, the last source is perhaps the most fruitful, proving yet again that live theatre can be dangerous.

The first lawsuit of note came right away, in 1601, when Henry Clifton, Esq. sued Henry Evans, the new manager of Blackfriars, and Thomas Gyles, the Chapel master, essentially accusing them of kidnapping his son Thomas. The re-building of two new companies after a decade of silence had required aggressive recruitment tactics, and young Thomas had been recognized as a talent at his grammar school and had been impressed into service by the use of Gyles’ customary writ from the crown. The suit succeeded and young Thomas was released, but for our purposes, some interesting facts emerged from it. First of all, the suit gives us the names of a several boys who were impressed at that time and it makes it clear that the plaintiffs were guilty of over-stepping by capturing a boy from a family of substance—the son of a gentleman. Even more interesting: Clifton emphasized that the boys captured were “in no way able or fit for singing.” The purpose of the writ was, and had been for centuries, for the impressment of chapel boys to augment the choir, but these boys were not singers—they were actors! It wasn’t long before Gyles’ writ was re-written with clear wording stating that boys could not be impressed for the purpose of playing on the stage, “for that it is not fit or decent that such as should sing the praises of God almighty should be trained up or employed in such lascivious and profane exercises.”

Lascivious and profane or not, when James I became king, the boys’ companies were, at least for a while, well received. The Children of the Chapel were re-named the Children of the Queen’s Revels, and along with Paul’s boys there were two other minor companies formed, one for the Prince and one for the Princess.

Without going into fine detail, let us look at what distinguished these new boys’ companies from those that preceded them. From their inception, they were commercial ventures. Their material was not written by their choirmasters, or playwrights internally associated with them, but by hired, well-paid, professional dramatists. The boy actors did not exhibit the light, charming, playful style of their own: they were awkwardly, and often unsuccessfully, competing with and aping a new generation of brilliant adult thespians. Despite their princely names, these companies were ultimately not indebted to royal patronage: they were indebted to investors taking huge risks and hoping to reap huge profits. When these profits did not materialize, there were ugly, even violent, repercussions.

The boy actors had exited the Elizabethan era and entered the Jacobean, which for drama meant that the themes and topics that whetted the appetites of the audience were darker and more morally complex and ambiguous. Here is just a sampling of the titles that came from the pens of these titans to be performed by children at Blackfriars and St. Paul’s. I’ve seen and read only a few of these plays, but just the titles are enough to know that they were acerbic and witty in tone, and they trespassed on forbidden ground. Chapman wrote Bussy D’Ambois, The Gentleman Usher, May Day, Monsieur d’Olive, and The Widow’s Tears. Middleton wrote A Mad World My Masters, A Trick to Catch the Old One, and Your Five Gallants. Marston wrote Parasitaster, The Malcontent, and The Dutch Courtesan, which was honored by being performed at court for the King of Denmark’s visit. Ben Jonson wrote Cynthia’s Revels, The Poetaster, and Epicoene, or the Silent Woman, which was the most famous comedy of its time (which I can easily believe because I had to giggle just reading the synopsis). He also collaborated with Chapman and Marston on the ill-fated Eastward Ho, as we shall see.

All of these were excellent plays and enjoyed success, but they must have been a stretch for boy actors. They were filtered through a new aesthetic. Audiences had changed. Educated by Shakespeare and his peers, these audiences were as brilliant as the plays they were observing. They were not satisfied with the old song and dance and delight of the masques. They wanted intellectual spice and a touch of danger, and the great playwrights knew how to give it to them.

There is one other expert source of information about those years. In Hamlet, Shakespeare tells us much about the children of Blackfriars and Paul’s. In this exchange between Rosencrantz and Hamlet, Rosencrantz reports from the city and explains why the traveling theatre company visiting Elsinore is on the road and not performing at home:

Hamlet: How chances it they travel? Their residence, both in reputation and profit, was better both ways.

Rosencrantz: I think their inhibition comes by the means of the late innovation.

Hamlet: Do they hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city? are they so followed?

Rosencrantz: No, indeed, are they not.

Hamlet: How comes it? Do they grow rusty?

Rosencrantz: Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but there is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for’t: these are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages–so they call them–that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.

Hamlet: What, are they children? Who maintains ’em? How are they escorted? Will they pursue the quality no longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players—as it is most like, if their means are no better—their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own succession?

Rosencrantz: ‘Faith, there has been much to do on both sides; and the nation holds it no sin to tar them to controversy: there was, for a while, no money bid for argument, unless the poet and the player went to cuffs in the question.

Hamlet: Is’t possible?

Guildenstern: O, there has been much throwing about of brains.

Hamlet: Do the boys carry it away?

Rosencrantz: Ay, that they do, my lord; Hercules and his load too.

For the modern reader, just to make it easy, I’ll highlight and translate the salient points made here. Hamlet [Shakespeare] is concerned that the reputation and profit of the men’s companies are suffering because of the boy actors, whom he characterizes as squawking little eyases [eaglets]. He also demonstrates a very real concern for the boys themselves—I would guess because the abuse of the writ for impressment of choirboys, for acting instead of singing, meant that there was no provision made by the crown to send them to university. They were being poorly housed and once their voices broke they would have no choice but to grow into “common players” (a reflection of his opinion of his own profession?). He refers to a battle being waged between playwrights and adult players over payment for the best scripts, implying that the boys’ companies could pay more and get better material, and he infers that the boys are winning the battle.

He further notes that “the nation holds it no sin to tar them to controversy,” meaning that the public is not offended by seeing children dabble in political mockery. Their plays are so satirical and topical that people of influence—those “wearing rapiers”—are afraid to attend for fear of being mocked by the playwrights, those with “goose-quills.” (Here he seems to be acknowledging the ever-true maxim that the pen is mightier than the sword.)

That was roughly 1603. Very soon there were other battles being fought in the courts and in taverns, with opponents occasionally even coming to blows. The profits that had been promised the naive investors in Blackfriars were nowhere near the reality, and endless legal squabbles were inevitable. Hillebrand tries to untangle a mare’s nest of suits that went on for years and cost the Children of the Revels dearly. The eventual results of most of the suits were lost in the warehouses of paper records that had not yet been examined when Hillebrand wrote his book, and, indeed, may still lie neglected somewhere. But they don’t matter here. The trail of suits, even without than their closure, gives us a vivid glimpse into the times for our boys

It was the daring characteristic of the boys (or, in truth, their playwrights) to “cry out at the top of the question” that did them in at the end. Four plays in particular “berattled” the stage, although there were certainly others.

In 1604 the Children of the Queens Revels performed Samuel Daniel’s Philotas, which closely paralleled the career of the popular Earl of Essex, only recently hanged for treason. That play was banned for seeming to meddle in the affairs of the state, and Samuel Daniel was called to account for it, but he managed to talk his way our of trouble by convincing the judges that he had started it long before Essex’s rebellion.

Then early in 1605 they performed Eastward Ho, the play mentioned above, by Jonson, Chapman, and Marston. That play mocked the Scotsmen who surrounded the Scottish King James and were much disliked by the old guard. Chapman and Jonson spent some time cooling their heels in prison for that one, but Marston, who was probably the one most responsible, got away. More significantly, the boys lost their connection to the Queen and were henceforth simply called the Children of the Revels. The Queen apparently wanted nothing more to do with them and had her title removed.

Jonson and Chapman were pardoned and released after some chastened pleading, but apparently they hadn’t learned their lesson, The very next year Jonson collaborated with John Day on The Isle of Gulls, in which two characters titled “Duke” and “Duchess” were thinly veiled caricatures of James I and Queen Anne. It portrayed the court as a bawdy house of crooks, where bribes were taken for favors and advancements. This was indeed an impudent over-stepping of the boundaries: clearly the potential for profit outweighed the danger.

Nathan Field, who began his illustrious career as an child actor with the Children of the Chapel

Somehow the boy players had thus far survived, either because the courts were not paying close attention or because some liberality was still extended due to their youth. Boy actors enjoyed the same kind of tolerance as jesters at court, able to speak veiled truth as jokes, without giving offence. But then came the last straw: Chapman’s The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Biron. In this play the King and his Scottish favorites were again targeted, and the King was portrayed as a drunkard, striking gentlemen and cursing the heavens over a hawking mishap. This time the King had had enough, and he closed all the theatres in London. Blackfriars remained closed for a long time, and when it re-opened it was not for boys—it was for Burbage’s company, now called the King’s Men.

In hindsight, it is hard to imagine how the boys’ companies got away with their daring for as long as they did and why they kept it up despite censure. Here again, I suspect that part of the reason was commercial. There is a necessary element of risk present in all successful theatre that pushes the boundaries and asks an audience to examine its beliefs and values, and one must again remember that the Jacobean audience was voracious. They had come to expect, even demand, a healthy touch of risk in their entertainment. The child actors couldn’t act with the same subtlety and skill that the audience had come to expect from the men’s companies, so in order to draw crowds they had to specialize in what had worked for them so well in the past—which was satire—and they had to do it in excess.

When the end came the King’s harshness was certainly intensified by his reaction to the Gunpowder Plot. It was in 1605 that a group of Catholic conspirators came within a hair’s breadth of changing the course of history by blowing up the entire court and most of the aristocracy of England. It didn’t happen, and today it is mostly remembered by the bonfires and fireworks that make up the gleeful celebration of Guy Fawkes Day; but the danger was very real. James Shapiro’s recent book The Year of Lear describes wonderfully how the exposure of the plot turned the King into a paranoiac and his court into a bastion. What he tolerated before November 5, 1605, he could never tolerate again.

In 1609 Burbage took back the lease at Blackfriars, which had been closed for several months, and at the same time he paid off Edward Pierce, then the choirmaster at St. Paul’s, to stop performing. The Children of the Revels and the Children of St. Paul’s were finished. Some of the boys were re-constituted briefly in yet another abandoned monastery, called the Whitefriars, as a short-lived company called the King’s Revels, and they limped along for a few years performing minor works by minor playwrights, but by 1616 that ended as well. For several years thereafter there were traveling companies of boys, claiming to be the Revels, but they were strictly provincial and only a wisp of smoke from the ashes of their glory days.

The Blackfriars Theatre

If Charles William Wallace, in The Evolution of the English Drama up to Shakespeare, is to be believed, it was at Blackfriars Theatre, in the early 1580s, that the Golden Age of Elizabethan Theatre was launched. He makes a convincing argument which I will attempt to summarize here. It is perhaps an implausible leap to say that without the boys’ companies there would have been no Shakespeare, but let’s look at the evidence.

The wildly popular flourishing in the 16th century of the Children of the Chapel and, later, the Children of St. Paul’s and the Children of Windsor, had a lot to do with the youth of three monarchs. Youth craves entertainment, often the edgier the better, and Henry VIII, his son, Edward VI, and his daughter Elizabeth were all very young when they first ascended the thrown. All three of them loved the antics of the theatrical, satirical and often histrionic productions of the boys’ companies.

In my previous post I gave a glimpse into the court of the young Henry the VIII and listed some of the dozens and dozens of titles of interludes and plays performed at court by the Children of the Chapel. As Henry aged and his reign was fraught with religious and political turmoil, his own interest in the plays may have waned, but apparently that of his court did not. As I said in the last post, there are still hundreds of records detailing the titles and the costs associated with costumes, sets, and generous payments to the playwrights of the plays presented by children; but the scripts attached to all those titles no longer exist. We know that they sometimes caused offense and sometimes elicited rave reviews, but, sadly,  we don’t know exactly what came out of the mouths of the boy actors. That began to change during the reigns of Edward VI and his sister Mary.

                      The Lord of Misrule

Edward was only king for six years, and died when he was fifteen, so he himself did not have much of a chance to influence this history. Apparently he was fond of the tradition of the Lord of Misrule, which was a chaotic and riotously funny entertainment common during Christmas festivities, in which a person of low standing, a peasant, was made king for a spell, the court was turned upside down, and all the rules were broken. It may have been something like today’s mardi gras festivities. The boy king would not have a chance to outgrow his childish taste for buffoonery, but he did put the former headmaster of Eton, Nicholas Udall, in charge of his entertainment, and despite his protestant leanings, Udall continued for awhile in the court of the pious Catholic sister Mary.

It was in the first year of Mary’s reign that the first surviving script for a boys’ company was performed. Freely adapted from Miles Gloriosus, by Plautus, Udall’s play Ralph Roister Doister was such a huge hit that it was published and reenacted many times. This was the first script written for boys that we can still read today. There were many, many more to follow!

But it was under Elizabeth that the boys’ companies really came into their own, and it was at Blackfriars Theatre that their popularity flared up so brightly and dangerously that it had to be extinguished for a time.

The young Elizabeth of the 1560s did not yet have available the outstanding men’s companies that formed in the succeeding generation, and she had an abiding love for performances by boys. The Children of the Chapel had been allowed to go somewhat fallow under Queen Mary, but when Elizabeth became queen she recruited an old friend, Sabastian Westcote, to take over the mastership of the Children of St. Paul’s, which was a long standing choir only loosely associated with the grammar school. Almost immediately they began performing plays at court. Later Elizabeth also sponsored the Children of Windsor to be available when she was visiting there.

         Richard Edwards, Playwright

Then in 1561 the master of the Children of the Chapel died, and she was able to hire the finest dramatist of the time, Richard Edwards. Ever heard of Richard Edwards? No?! Well, let me tell you! He was said by Barnaby Googe to be the greatest poet who had ever written in the English language or who ever would: “Far surpassing Plautus and Terence and not likely to be equaled by any poet in the future!” Poor fellow. Just his luck soon to be equaled, and left in the dust, by Shakespeare and company!

The new Queen Elizabeth also favored the theatricals of Latin grammar schools in London. The students of Richard Mulcaster, the headmaster of the Merchant Taylors’ School, were frequently invited to perform at court, as were students from Eton and Westminster. The great men’s companies were still decades away from their ascent, but there were three vibrant boys’ companies and several troupes of scholars always ready to perform. Indeed, between the children’s companies and the grammar school students, theatre in the first thirty years of Elizabeth’s reign was entirely dominated by boy actors.

Two crucial events occurred almost simultaneously in late 1570s. When Elizabeth first came onto the throne, theatre, performed by both men and boys, was liberated from Queen Mary’s moralizing expectations, and a lively new era of drama was born. During the first years of her reign, the private theatre of the court spun off on into countless motley but popular public ventures. In time, inevitably, public theatres became profitable, and men’s companies began sprouting up all over the country. In London, the situation got so noisy and chaotic that there was an outcry by some of the more puritanical elements of the population, so in 1572 Elizabeth issued a restrictive statute that allowed performances only by companies under noble patronage. This turned many adult players outside of the city into vagabonds and beggars, but in London, ironically, it eventually lead to the establishment of the first two permanent playhouses, Burbage’s Theatre and the Blackfriars.

Noble patronage had a crucial function. The court needed their favorite companies to be available at all times. This meant they had to have a place to rehearse. In 1576 Richard Farrant, then the master of the Children of Windsor, leased a section of an old, abandoned monastery that had belonged to the Dominican’s before Henry VIII turned them out. They were known as the black friars because of the color of their robes, and their monastery was called Blackfriars. There Farrant proposed to train his own boys and invited William Hunnis, Edwards’ successor as master of Children of the Chapel, to join him. Together they prepared their young players for their court appearances, gaining some financial advantage by charging admission to the public for their “rehearsals.” Their first play, The History of Mutius Scevola, was performed at Blackfriars and then at court for the following Twelfth Night in 1577. They continued this productive relationship with the court for the next six years.

Also in 1576, the very same year, James Burbage (theatre impresario and father of the famed actor Richard) opened the Theatre, to house his company, the Lord Leicester’s Men. This was the first permanent home for the burgeoning industry developing around men’s companies, and it made all the difference. Before 1573 there were almost no performances at court by men. After the Queen’s restrictions that empowered the men’s companies that had noble patronage, they became a constant, and no year passed without at least one play, then more and more. The race for the Queen’s favor between the men and the boys was on. As we know, by the time Shakespeare arrived on the scene, the race was over and the men had won, but for several years the boys at Blackfriars gave them spirited competition.

                 Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

Farrant died in 1580 and three years of legal squabbles followed, with Farrant’s widow and William Hunnis trying to keep the venture alive. The landlord of Blackfriars was dismayed by amount of traffic caused by the large audiences coming and going to the so-called “rehearsals,” and he was desperately trying to cancel the lease. To the rescue came Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Remember him?—the very man who is today credited by some with the writing of Shakespeare’s plays? Wallace describes him as a noted “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler, coxcomb, musician, poet,” but with his noble title he was able to hold the landlord at bay and take over the lease of Blackfriars.

Oxford was also a noted patron of the arts, and the children performing at Blackfriars became known, briefly, as Oxford’s boys. He brought along his favorite playwrights, the scathingly witty young men, John Lyly and George Peele. Together they set about turning their new real estate into a profitable venue that could compete with the newly popular public theatres. It was private only in the sense that it was indoors, and more expensive than the Curtain, the Fortune, or Burbage’s Theatre, all of which by now housed men’s companies. The new impresarios still received patronage from the court, but in addition they increased the number and price of performances for the more well-to-do public. Not surprisingly, that public ate it up.

     John Lyly, Playwright

Their collaboration at Blackfriars was a brief flare, lasting little more than a year. In 1584 the landlord finally succeeded in a long-fought quest to revoke the lease of the rowdy band of children, and for the next fifteen years Blackfriars was silent. But a new style had been launched and continued to thrive. John Lyly wrote at least eight plays presented at court by the boys, including Compaspe, Sapho and Phao, Endymion: The Man in the Moon, Gallathea, Midas, and Love’s Metamorphosis. Of these, apparently only the first two and George Peele’s The Arraignment of Paris were offered first to audiences at Blackfriars, but the plays continued. After Blackfriars went dark, Peele returned to the public theatre, but Lyly continued to write for the boys at St. Paul’s, using their traditional venue attached to the Cathedral. Several more of his plays were presented at court, and audiences continued to enjoy them. Other playwrights got into the action too. Robert Greene contributed A Looking Glass for London and England, Orlando Furioso, and The Scottish History of James the Fourth. The public could not get enough of the brisk and lively dialogue, the gossipy allusions to public figures, and the poking of fun at topical issues. For a short but history-making moment, Oxford’s Boys, first formed at Blackfriars, were the hottest ticket in London.

According to Wallace, it was at Blackfriars that the highly stylized aesthetic of the court merged with that of the earthier, native theatre that had been growing in popularity, and this merging launched a hybrid: the clamorous, riotous, and exuberant age of Elizabethan drama. Native English drama had been narrating its own, parallel history for decades, beyond the purview of the court but reflecting its passions. Short, farcical amusements, not unlike Italian commedia dell ‘arte, had been performed for popular audiences in English, in streets, inn-yards, and town squares for many decades. These shows were probably hilarious, but they were essentially formless. Most of them were improvised, and we have very few actual scripts on which to base a study; but with a new fascination with our language came translations of the great Latin plays, and gradually classical structure was adapted into home-grown theatre.

As the boys’ companies grew in popularity, there was a constant need for material, and enterprising playwrights ransacked Plautus, Terence, Menander, and Seneca for material, writing plays that were squarely based in London but based on classical models. Stylistically, what distinguished these dramas from those performed at court was the lack of the expensive adornment required by the masques. Without the dazzling spectacle, they had to rely on good stories and clever dialogue to maintain the interest of the audience. Wallace sees a direct line of evolution from the children’s companies to the magnificent era of Elizabethan drama. The early plays at Blackfriars created the template, and he believes that it was there that the court collided with the street and a new dramatic genie was unleashed. He cites 1584 as the pivotal year that everything changed. Lyly and Peele took over for Farrant and Hunnis and found the courtly theatre as it was, with song and dance and masques and pretty dialogue. They just chopped it into five acts and gave it space to include the tropes of native English theatre. They added thunder, fencing, battles, blood, buffoonery, and constant, rapid action and voila! Shakespeare!

Ironically, it was the huge success of the Blackfriars Theatre that led to its demise. The nightly disturbances caused by rowdy playgoers traveling to and from the theatre finally got too much, and the landlord cancelled the lease in 1584.

But audiences were becoming more and more sophisticated and they loved the spicy, edgy satire that was Lyly’s forte. He continued to write for the Children of St. Paul’s and he got himself into a world of trouble doing it. As has always been the case, politics and satire are Siamese twins that cannot be separated, and the more the bite of satire, the more dangerous it is. In 1589 there is a record of the Children of Paul’s being “put down” after John Lyly got them tangled up in a political kerfuffle between the state and a group of anti-episcopal Puritans. It was called the Marprelate controversy. Someone, or a group of persons, all going by the name of Martin Marprelate, began publishing pamphlets that attacked the Church of England and individual priests. They were so persistent and so contentious that the court asked their wittiest playwrights, Lyly among them, to help them respond. We don’t have the play that Lyly wrote for them and that the boys performed. It was certainly written on the side of the state—Lyly was no fan of the Puritans—but apparently it was a double-edged attack and insults were flung freely in all directions. The over-stepping must have been very grave because the reaction to it was severe. In the following months the government issued a strict decree that no play could be performed without first being approved by a state censor. The boys ceased playing at court almost completely, and Lyly’s career was over.

The boys’ companies mostly went dark for the first decade of the Golden Age of Elizabethan drama, but they had one more dazzling flowering in the Jacobean era which will be the subject of one more post: The Little Eyases.

 

 

 

 

The Tudor Tattle: Pastime with Good Company

The day of the old morality plays ended in 1514, when the young King Henry VIII stood up in the middle of one, yawned, and walked out of the room. Two years earlier, during a celebration of Twelfth Night (the holiday, not the play), Henry’s Sergeant of the Revels had introduced a brand new style from Italy: the Meskaler: “called a masque, a thing not seen afore in England.” The sets, the dress, the colors, the music, the wit, and especially the dance that the noble observers always joined at the end, all imported from the seat of the Renaissance, quickly displaced the old religious dramas that had dominated English theatre for centuries. This new style, mixing music and dance with interludes of dialogue, had a huge impact on theatrical productions during Henry’s reign.

It was the in the “interludes of dialogue” that the Children of the Chapel had their big opportunity. The masques were lavish and they involved unbelievably elaborate pageant wagons that would put our Rose Parade floats to shame. Here’s a description of just one: “adorned with purple and gold, having branches wrought of roses, lilies, marigolds, gillyflowers, primroses, cowslips, and other kindly flowers, with an orchard of rare fruits, all embowered by a silver vine bearing 350 clusters of grapes of gold. It contained thirty persons, and its great weight broke the floor as it moved up the hall. On the sides were eight minstrels with strange instruments, and on the top, the Children of the Chapel singing.” At least one of wagons was said to be pulled by lions and antelopes! (Really?! I know that is hard to imagine, but that’s in the description. They may have been huge disguises manipulated by several bodies?) Since they where heavy enough to crack the tile flooring at court, the light bodies of the boys were an asset, and their trained voices made them natural candidates for the interludes. Indeed, before they were called actors, these young Thespians were called “interluders.”

Eventually there were two major boys’ companies who entertained the aristocracy, providing most of the theatricals at court for the first eighty years of the 16th century. They were the Children of the Chapel Royal and the Children of St. Paul’s. There were other companies in the provinces that came and went, playing for the great houses of the dukes, earls,  viscounts, and lords, but because of the meticulously kept royal records we have the most information about the Chapel and St. Paul’s boys. Researching them I relied heavily on two books written early in the last century: The Evolution of the English Drama up to Shakespeare by Charles William Wallace and The Child Actors by Harold Newcomb Hillebrand. Very little attention has been paid to them since, which, if Wallace and Hillebrand are correct, is kind of astonishing. Both of them make a convincing argument that the Golden Age of Elizabethan theatre would never have happened without them!

             Tudor Musicians at Court

Both Wallace and Hillebrand convincingly show that the immense popularity of child actors that peaked in the 16th century was not a passing fad. The use of children in the performance of music and drama had deep roots going back hundreds of years. But because of royal favor and the historic currents that favored theatrical entertainments, it reached its full flowering during the Tudor age. There was a lot of money to be thrown around, and the very best dramatic talent in the realm could be had for top dollar. A long list of choirmasters and dramatists writing for the boys companies includes John Heywood, Nicholas Udall, Richard Edwards, Richard Ferrant, William Hunnis, John Lyly, Robert Greene, George Peele, Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, John Marsden, John  Webster, Ben Jonson, Anthony Munday, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Middleton. In other words, just about every playwright of any note, all the way through the early Jacobean period, wrote occasionally—and lucratively—for boy actors. Even the Earl of Oxford, the favorite candidate of the Shakespeare deniers, wrote for them. It would have been beneath his social status to write for the public theatres, but the boys’ companies were private and had a better class of clientele.

Furthermore, if the highly credible and persuasive theory that a boys’ company first performed Love’s Labors’ Lost is correct, the list would include William Shakespeare himself!

Choirmaster playwrights ransacked Plautus, Terence, Chaucer, Aesop, classical history, and mythology for story fodder. Some of the plays were clearly allegorical and seem to come straight from debate topics for schoolboys, many suggested by Erasmus, such as one performed for the Revels in 1527, in which dialogue was performed between riches and love, arguing which one was more valuable in choosing a spouse. The rhetorical device of prosopopoia (impersonation of an abstract idea) was very much in evidence in boy characters impersonating every known variety of virtue and vice, fortune, poverty, divine wisdom, the muses, the worthies, the seasons, the elements, the sun, the moon, and all manner of abstractions. The titles seem to be an endless series of Somebody and Somebodys or Something and Somethings: Appius and Viginia, Damon and Pythias, Troius and Pandor, Palaemon and Arcyte, Cloridon and Radiamante, Predor and Lucia, The Pardoner and the Friar, Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydkes, John the Husband and Tyb the Wife, Loyalty and Beauty, Wit and Will, Jack and Jill, etc.

The fact that so many of the scripts were discarded or lost after they were performed should not be a reflection on their quality, only on the ephemeral nature of the culture of the court. There are indications that many of the now forgotten entertainments were excellent. Contemporary audiences raved about them. As the century wore on and as the plays became more sophisticated in style and structure, many of them did survive the neglect of time. Some were revived by popular demand, re-staged for the public by grammar school boys, and some were published because their auditors and authors valued them. But it was not until the first half of the reign of Elizabeth that plays written for boys took on an artistry of their own, especially those of John Lyly.

Part 3 will look at the period of the boys’ companies during Elizabeth’s reign, when they began to have competition from the major men’s companies. That is when the style they represented (that of the court) merged with the styles developing beyond the palace walls, and morphed into the great comedies, tragedies, and histories we still admire today.

 

         Children of the Chapel, singing in a royal procession

Between the children’s companies and the grammar school scholars, the first thirty years of the “Golden Age” of Elizabethan theatre was entirely dominated by boy actors.

 

 

“Harken, I do hear sweet music: I never heard the like” and “we shall hear [in the choir of Saint Paul’s] the fairest voices of all the cathedrals in England … and to tell the truth, I never heard better singing.”

— Claude Desainliens, a French visitor to London in 1573

“Mom, I was just in Westminster Abbey, and there was music falling from the ceiling—the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard. I thought it was angels, but then the choir door opened and out walked a whole lot of little boys!”

—My 18-year-old daughter, calling from a phone booth on her first day in London, 1995, having just heard the Westminster Boys Choir in rehearsal

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A Bit of Little-Known History From My Book:

“In England, the training of boys’ voices for royal entertainment goes far back in history, deep into the Middle Ages. Sometime in the 12th century, probably earlier, an ecclesiastical body of musicians and singers was organized to meet the spiritual needs of the England’s reigning sovereign. It still exists. Called the Chapel Royal, it is today considered the oldest continuous musical organization in the world. Traditionally it has been comprised of from twenty-four to thirty-eight men and from eight to twelve boys. Besides the Chapel Royal and the Westminster Boys’ Choir there are dozens of boys’ choirs throughout Britain, the Chapel Royal only being the oldest.

“No one knows when boy singers were added to the Chapel Royal or other church choirs, but they were probably present from the very beginning, their treble voices being thought to be the closest to the voices of angels. There was a religious pursuit of this purity of tone. Churches, abbeys and cathedrals were designed acoustically to capture it: massive sound boxes that amplified these “fairest voices.” Choir schools, attached to churches and training children for church choirs, played a role in the pre-reformation history of British education. They offered free education to able students. Their purpose was to assure a sufficient number of well-trained voices to supply the needs of the church. As we shall see, Erasmus himself attended a song school in Utrecht, perhaps because it was an opportunity for a free education. The earliest choirmasters were usually almoners, the men who distributed alms to the needy.

“In England, the best of the young voices trained in these schools were pressed into service for the crown, and the Chapel Royal consistently had a small number of singers to complement the adult musicians. Their voices were, and are to this day, a thing of transcendent beauty. Boys’ voices broke later five hundred years ago than they do today, evidently because there was less protein in the diet. A boy who began his service in the Chapel at the age of seven or eight could continue to sing sweetly until the age of sixteen or seventeen, during which time he received an education overseen by the choirmaster.

“The issue of impressment, which was essentially enforced servitude, must be seen in the context of the time. It was an accepted custom of the state, and frequently welcomed as an honor. The crown gave writs authorizing impressment in all trades in which it had need, and grown men who were expert silversmiths, ironmongers, weavers, wigmakers or printers could be impressed along with singing children.

“That said, it must be admitted that it was poor children who filled the ranks of the Chapel choir, not the sons of the gentlemen. Parents whose children were impressed into the Chapel Royal may have mourned the loss of daily interaction with their small child, but they may have also welcomed the benefits. There was usually a financial arrangement made with the family, and along with a free grammar school education, capable students were often sent to university after their voices broke, so a seven-year stint in the Chapel Royal was a means of advancement in the world. In addition, of course, while they served, their housing, nutrition, and clothing were all provided. One could say that they literally sang for their supper.

 “This strange form of servitude did not survive much past the 16th century. The impressment of children eventually led to abuses and charges of kidnapping. The writs were automatically renewed each year and not closely scrutinized, and, curiously, it was the abuse of entrepreneurs who used their royal writs to impress boys as actors rather than singers that contributed its demise. But that’s the end of a long story, and we are only at the beginning.

“In the 15th and 16th centuries the boy singers of the Chapel Royal, with their exquisitely trained voices, experienced a brief flaring of history and became a small troupe of boy actors. They were immensely popular, performing constantly at court and eventually in the public arena. Several other rival boys’ companies came and went over the years, both in London and in the provinces, the most enduring of which was formed from students at St. Paul’s School. The Children of the Chapel and the Boys of St. Paul’s even competed successfully with the great men’s companies of the Shakespearean era and were eventually disparaged by Hamlet as the “aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for’t,” e.g. squawking eaglets, who were robbing adult troupes of their city audiences.

“The boys’ companies were small, usually comprised of no more than twelve actors, and for most of their history they were only seen in the halls of the aristocracy. They were a far cry from the legions of schoolboys spouting Terrence and Ovid and performing comical skits in Latin. But there are two reasons to devote space in this book to them. One is that their remarkable story will reveal the vibrant thread in the weave of theatre history, leading directly to the golden age of Elizabethan drama. They spanned the century of the Reformation, and there are records of hundreds of their performances. Although we know little about the content of their plays beyond their titles, the bit we do know reveals a perceptive and witty adolescent view of the political turmoil of the time. In itself it is a fascinating and little known history that is worth the telling, but, because it is a digression here, the telling will be referred to a later chapter.

Nathan Field, who began his illustrious career as an actor performing with the Children of the Chapel

“The other reason is more germane to our topic. Boys who made up those companies came from the same society and the same education as their schoolboy peers, and their abilities were noticed first by a headmaster teaching singing and hearing their recitations in their earliest years of schooling. At court they often competed with boy players from some of the prestigious grammar schools in London and other large municipalities. Eton, Westminster, St. Paul’s, and Merchant Taylors’ were only a few of many schools invited to perform at court, and their schoolmasters were frequently dramatists of some fame. Indeed, we have the names of several boy actors who entered the companies directly out of grammar school. It seems fair to think that the training received in school prepared them well, and there were certainly parallels in subject matter. Furthermore, the culture of playacting went far beyond the classroom. Anyone who has read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will remember that any leisure time enjoyed in the evenings by Thomas Cromwell’s young nephews and clerks was filled with play-making. The boys’ companies were only the tip of a cultural iceberg that was deep and profound. In fact, for most of the 16th century, theatre throughout England was almost entirely dominated by schoolboys. This book will closely examine their education, starting one of the most famous play-making schoolmasters of the Tudor age and then going back to the man who created the model for the humanist curriculum for the age of the Reformation: Erasmus of Rotterdam.”

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This history is a bit of a digression from the main thrust of my book. The few dozen boys in the small number of professional boys companies were worlds apart from the day to day training in music and performance skills in the Latin grammar schools all over England, but their role in the history of English theatre is so fascinating I just couldn’t leave it untold.  Part 2 of this blog will continue the fascinating story of the immensely popular boys companies, right up until the Golden Age of Elizabeth.