Students at Westminster Elementary drama class explore a Mexican trickster story, “The Rabbit and the Coyote”

My greatest joy during the years I was with the Arts Education Branch in the Los Angeles schools was observing our theatre and dance teachers light up the minds of children. It drove me to distraction, to see what I saw, knowing that access to regular instruction in the performing arts is not available to every child, every day. During my tenure with the Arts Branch I went to dozens of state and national conferences and symposia on arts education where the enthusiasm among arts teachers was palpable; but in the broader field of educators, the general malaise about the performing arts in pedagogy grated on my mind. That is what compelled me to write my book.

Theatre teacher Afsaneh Boutorabi with third grade students

This is the twentieth year of the Elementary Arts Program that my colleagues and I started in 1999, adding dance, theatre, and visual arts to the existing music programs in the schools. It’s incredibly gratifying, today, that both my granddaughter and my great niece are kindergarteners in LAUSD schools that embraced the arts program early on and are receiving drama lessons from fabulous teachers that I hired twenty years ago. But that is just the luck of the draw. My delightful, expressive, creative grandchildren and their peers in other cities in other states are in fine public schools with great teachers, but they don’t get regular instruction in drama or creative movement, and that breaks my heart.

There is a massive amount of research that proves beyond any doubt that the performing arts do much to foster cognitive skills: curiosity, inquiry, and reflection. The researcher James Catterall often said he would stake his life on the bet that daily incorporation of drama into the classroom would increase verbal skills and those test scores that, sadly and misguidedly, are the holy grail of every district. (I’ve expressed my personal view of our testing culture vs. arts education in a previous post.) When used by skillful teachers they are also roads into deeper and more lasting learning in subject matter content across the curriculum.

Students planning possible solutions to the trickster story

Here’s the problem I’ve found with research: As time consuming and effortful it is to complete and publish credible research, it is even more difficult to get anyone to pay attention to it! (Unless, of course, there is a significant economic benefit to be proven. Thus the tsunami of testing that school children are experiencing now.)

Students create beginning, middle, and ending tableaux of the story

Here I’ll just summarize a couple of my favorite research stories. First, the REAP Report that came out of Harvard’s Project Zero about twenty years ago. REAP stands for Reviewing Education and the Arts Project. This study did not conduct its own investigations, but instead analyzed the results of hundreds of research studies carried out over the past half century, hoping to find irrefutable links between classroom arts and academic scores. In the executive summary the editors caution the reader, pointing out that 1.) It is difficult to establish irrefutable links because of the infinity of variables in education and 2.) It is a shallow task. It is shallow because it implies that academic achievement in the three Rs is the only reason that the arts should be taught. In fact they needed this caveat because in some ways the project was a disappointment. They were only able to find irrefutable links in two of the ten areas they had identified. However, significantly, they did find a strong link between classroom drama and verbal test scores. Again, statistically, it was an irrefutable link, and, what was even more important, the increase in achievement was transferable from subject to subject. So theatre was the winner in that particular study.

Student “sculptor” creates a frozen statue for his tableau

I’m not sure if the other report was ever published, but I’m looking into it. The brilliant linguist Shirley Brice Heath, at Stanford, became interested in arts education because of her observations of verbal development in children. Several years ago she was a speaker at a symposium on arts education that we presented at the Getty to school administrators. She described a study that was ongoing at the time. She told us that she had research assistants who went into classrooms covering subject areas across the curriculum, and that all they did was clock the seconds that students in each class made direct eye contact with the lesson—either with the instructor or with the task assigned. Obviously, eye contact is not the only indicator of attention, but it is one that is easily observable and measurable. In eye contact alone, attention in arts classes far exceeded that in any other subject. Indeed, student attention was “off the charts” in comparison. Students were attentive and engaged, and engaged learners are open to new ideas that mesh with the patterns of knowledge they already have inside of themselves. Their learning is thus enhanced and enduring.

Research in the impact of the arts in learning is limited by the fact that funders, so far at least, are mainly interested in accountability as measured by test scores. Research investigations looking for “soft data,” such as school attendance, teacher retention, and evidence of improved school morale (e.g. joy) definitely show positive results but get far less attention. Another perhaps more fertile area of research is the booming field of neuroscience and cognition, but I will save that for a later post.




      A Sloyd Woodworking Class

When I was in elementary school a zillion years ago, we had wood shop for one afternoon every week. ALL afternoon. An old garage on the campus was fitted out as a complete workshop, with big wooden tables and all the tools and lumber we needed. I made a boat, a book shelf, and a soapbox car for our soapbox derby. I also carved a wooden spoon that my mom used in the kitchen for the rest of her life. Entire classes at the school took on projects like building playground equipment and lunch tables and a covered wagon. I learned how to use a ruler, a tape measure, a compass and protractor, and I learned all the mathematics of measurement. I learned to use hand tools: the saws, the drills, the vise, the rasp, and the sander. I learned that you have to see a project through to the end and not do a slapdash job of it. Pretty good lessons!

         Children working at sloyd benches

My school, Antioch Elementary, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, still exists. It was founded in 1923 on the educational theories being developed at the time by the education philosopher John Dewey, and today it is the longest uninterrupted Dewey-based school in America. I had always thought that the educational justification for such a luxurious use of my school time was Dewey’s philosophy of learning by doing. I had absolutely no idea that it was based on a nineteenth century pedagogy from Finland.

Once when I was in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Arts Education Branch, our staff took a little field trip to the LAUSD archives to visit our curator. She was preparing a trunk of artifacts to take around to schools as a local history lesson. One of the items was a second grade report card from the year 1900 on which there were grades for five subjects: reading, writing, arithmetic, music, and sloyd. We were baffled. What the heck was “sloyd,” and why was it so important that it actually had to be graded?! Back then iPhones were brand new and only one person present had one. He whipped it out and within seconds we learned that sloyd means “handicrafts,” and it was a Finnish pedagogy started by Uno Cygnaeus in Finland in 1865 and refined by the Swedish educator Otto Salomon (who, like Richard Mulcaster, who trained Shakespeare’s teachers in the 16th century, worried about the fact that elementary school is too boring for children, and solved the problem by giving them something to DO!). The system was further refined and promoted worldwide, and was introduced in the United States in the 1890s by Meri Toppelius. It is still taught as a compulsory subject in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. One of my theatre teachers is married to a man from Finland, and she tells me that he still proudly displays embroidery he did in his sloyd class in school when he was a child.

The Antioch School is affiliated with the college, and my peers there, in the 50s, were mostly the children of professors—a fairly rarified community. Dewey’s educational philosophy was certainly studied and admired back then: it influenced education in public schools but was never fully implemented. After Sputnik and A Nation at Risk it fell out of favor almost completely and we seldom hear of it now. But sloyd pre-dated Dewey, and there in the archives of the Los Angeles schools was rock solid evidence that the project-based learning Dewey promoted was alive and well and mandatory at the turn of the century, in at least one major school district in the United States, a generation before Dewey began writing about education.

It turns out it was more than just Los Angeles. Toppelius and her sister Sigrid were invited first to Boston, where they set up training programs. Sigrid stayed in Boston while Meri went on to Chicago where she started a sloyd department in Chicago’s Agassiz school. They also trained teachers as in Bay View Michigan as part of a Chautauqua summer program. So by the end of the century, at least three major cities in the United States were employing sloyd in at least some of their schools, and there were major training programs in sloyd attracting teachers and administrators from across the country. (I’ll keep researching this. If any of my readers know anything more about it, please share!)

If you’re interested in learning more about sloyd, here is link to a PBS program called “Who Wrote the Book of Sloyd” that’s pretty entertaining. It features the very old book on the left, which was re-issued in 2013: “The Teacher’s Hand-Book of Slöjd” by Otto Salomon. Sloyd is really about all of the handicrafts, including sewing, weaving, knitting, crochet, embroidery, and paper folding, all of which we learned at the Antioch School, but its most lasting impact on education in the United States was on programs that included woodworking.

John Dewey was certainly influenced by the sloyd movement, as he was by the Settlement movement I have written about in a previous post. It has always struck me how completely the arguments for arts education align with the philosophy of Dewey and of sloyd. Engaged learning. Productive learning. Project-based learning. Hands-on learning. They’re all related and they all lead to deep and enduring learning. They all incorporate the body and the mind into the cognitive process. I didn’t know at the time how incredibly lucky I was to be educated in that way, but I loved school, and for all of my years as a teacher and arts administrator I have endeavored to give my students something of the joy I experienced as a child in the wood shop.



When and why did the teaching of rhetoric in grammar schools end?

Following up on two previous posts on Shakespeare’s education in rhetoric (Collaborative Classroom Hilarity and What’s With All the Rhetoric), I don’t have a concise answer to this question, but I’ve been searching for one. (I once typed the question into Google and got some hilarious answers, some of which I quote in my book.) If any of my readers want to join in this exploration I’d be overjoyed.

One thing I do know is that at the time of Samuel Johnson, rigorous training in rhetorical speech and writing was still alive and well, and its use was the subject of much deliberation. I’ve just finished The Club, by Leo Damrosch and found plenty of evidence to support this. It’s a terrific read. It’s about the literary club founded by Joshua Reynolds and Johnson, which met weekly all through the second half of the 18th Century. I had to brush up on my knowledge of the literature and society of that era and all of the esteemed members of The Club. I haven’t read Johnson or Boswell since college, have only read a few speeches by Burke, have never read Gibbon, and skipped economics so, to my shame, am only peripherally aware of Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. Of course I’ve gazed at plenty of luminous paintings by Joshua Reynolds but knew very little about the man himself. But in addition to filling in some gigantic holes in my knowledge of that era, scattered through the book there is enough there to tell me that all of those brilliant writers, orators, and artists were well educated in rhetoric.

And that means that there was yet another “Generation of Genius” to emerge from the humanist education designed by Erasmus!

Damrosch does not offer any information about 18th Century education, but writing and speaking style was clearly a hot topic at the time, and that is certainly a reflection of training. A lot of attention was paid to it. By the time of Samuel Johnson, our language had developed distinct rhetorical styles. Here Damrosch describes the happy period and the periodic style:

     Samuel Johnson

“Of course style is much more than words alone, whether long or short. In one of the essays Johnson describes the challenge of shaping each sentence and paragraph into a compelling whole: ‘It is one of the common distresses of a writer to be within a word of a happy period, to want only a single epithet to give amplification its full force, to require only a correspondent term in order to finish a paragraph with elegance, and make one of its members answer to the other; but these deficiencies cannot always be supplied; and after a long study and vexation, the passage is turned anew, and the web unwoven that was so nearly finished.’

“Johnson refers to ‘a happy period’ because his style is the kind that used to be known as periodic. When we use the word ‘period” we mean simply the punctuation mark. But in traditional rhetoric it meant the whole interconnected structure of clauses that brings us to that conclusion. ‘The periodic stylist, Richard Lanham says, ‘works with balance, antithesis, parallelism, and careful patterns of repetition. All of these dramatize a mind which has dominated experience and reworked it to its liking.’”

I can’t think of a better description of the struggles experienced daily by every writer in our language struggling with the arc and structure of the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the book. In great writing you can really see the rhetorical training that goes into the “balance, antithesis, parallelism, and careful patterns of repetition.”

           James Boswell

Johnson’s writing was very much in the classic tradition. Boswell’s style was totally different, but also much appreciated. In fact, Boswell in his day was pretty much a total lightweight: an alcoholic and a womanizer who never attained any significant success either as a lawyer or a politician, but his colorful and chatty writing style made him a delight to read and saved him for posterity. Each of the early members of of The Club was held in great esteem for their literary abilities, and each had his own highly developed and distinctive style.

Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language did a great deal to further the evolving plasticity and expressiveness of our amazing English language. To quote again:

“On the two hundredth anniversary of his death, the Times declared, ‘The chief glory of the English is their language; and Johnson’s Dictionary, the only one in any language compiled by a writer of genius, had a lot to do with its rise to glory…..

“In France, the Académie Française was also preparing a dictionary, with the intention of fixing the ‘correct’ meaning of every word for all time. Johnson, altogether differently, invented the mode of defining words that was later carried forward by the Oxford English Dictionary. He wanted to show all the ways they had ever been used, and to include examples from earlier writers that  would illustrate their usage in specific contexts.”

So Johnson recognized the richness of the mutability of meanings of words in our language, which has done so much to make it a such a muscular, nuanced, and infinitely inventive mode of expression. Shakespeare and his peers at the turn of the sixteenth century gloried in their freedom with their newly fashionable and much loved vernacular, which, because it had been essentially a street language for centuries, had virtually no rules. It was a malleable material with which to create wonders. Instead of ossifying our language with rules, as the Académie Française has attempted to do with French, Samuel Johnson continued to encourage its adaptation to his age and ages to come by showing how it was evolving in its ability to express new ideas in new ways.

As for the other genius members of the club—

David Hume:

     David Hume

“A modern editor of Hume’s History of England says that Hume’s style ‘is the fastest and smoothest vehicle in historical literature.’ That may be the style most appreciated today, but it’s not Gibbon’s, any more than it was Johnson’s. Their style was periodic, and their unit was the fully crafted paragraph. “It has always been my practice,” Gibbon says, “to cast a long paragraph in a single mould: to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory, but to suspend the action of the pen until I had given the last polish to my work.”

Adam Smith:

       Adam Smith

“After giving public lectures in Edinburgh, where he had no academic post, in 1751 Smith became Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Glasgow. A year after that he was elected Professor of Moral Philosophy, and he did indeed think of himself as concerned with human behavior in all its aspects. His lectures that Boswell heard were on rhetoric, by which was meant not just literary style, but persuasive public language in the tradition of Cicero. The emphasis was on language as a social instrument, and Smith recommended a straightforward plain style instead of the elaborate figures of speech that older rhetoricians liked to use.”

Edmund Burke:

      Edmund Burke

“Most of the 558 members of the House of Commons never dreamed of making speeches, but star orators could hold forth for hours at a time. Persuasive eloquence was essential, and so was quickness in cut and thrust debate. Burke excelled at both. And although the debates weren’t supposed to be reported in the press—that was why Johnson had to invent them in his journalistic days—the speakers could always publish their own speeches afterward, which Burke regularly did in pamphlet form.”

         David Garrick

And then, of course, there was the actor and producer David Garrick who changed the course of theatre in England. And, there were a host of smart, published writers who were not members of The Club, some of them women!: Fanny Burney, Hester Thrale, Elizabeth Montequ, the playwrights Hannah More and Elizabeth Griffith, and on and on.

So, once I get Good Behvior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius published, maybe I’ll have to start gathering material for another book, proving the point again. I’ll repeat it again: simple adjustments to modern pedagogy, emphasizing performing arts and elevated oral and written language, could nurture our own “Generation of Genius.”


All of the above quotes are excerpts from: Leo Damrosch. “The Club.” iBooks. From: Leo Damrosch. “The Club.” iBooks.




Schoolboys performing colloquies —drawing by John Lithgow

I know, I know—the “whining school-boy…creeping like snail unwillingly to school” and all that—but I actually think Shakespeare had a lot of fun at Stratford’s Latin Grammar school. Not only that, he shared that fun with his classmates.

For one thing, I am absolutely convinced that the first draft of his The Taming of the Shrew was based on a riotously funny collaboration written and performed by Stratford schoolboys, but I’ll save that for a another post when I can show a reading of Erasmus’s hilarious colloquy “Uxor” (Marriage), starring Xanthippe, the Shrew. (My gut tells me that young Will played that part and relished it!)

But I also think that learning dozens and dozens of rhetorical figures and devices was fun too. Why? Well, when you think about it, they ARE fun in themselves—like intricate word puzzles—and wordplay was a major source of entertainment back then. Either by good pedagogy or by necessity, collaboration was a constant factor in the Elizabethan classroom, and figuring out those devices together must have been totally engaging.

Just to demonstrate: I’ve attached here the full video of a presentation I did recently at the studio of Susan Cambique Tracey in which the participants, many of them colleagues and Music Center teaching artists, engaged in a collaborative activity creating examples of four figures. (I’ve posted segments of the video featuring readings from two colloquies—and hope to have one soon of “Uxor”— but the rhetoric portion of the video is in the first half.)

(Video filmed by Scott Powell at the studio of Paul Susan Cambique Tracey)

I’ve been told that some of my blog posts are “erudite.” I hate hearing that. Honestly, I am no scholar. All the years of research I’ve done on this project have been fueled by pleasure and passion: the same qualities that the performing arts bring to the education of children. I hope the laughter and delight experienced by the participants in this video bolsters my theory that arts education, in addition to developing cognition, is a solution to the doldrums our children are experiencing in the contemporary classroom.


The Lord of Misrule

Happy Holidays!

Keeping in the spirit, this post is just to tell some of the history of the participation of child actors in the Christmas celebrations from the middle ages through the Elizabethan era. The holiday season provided light and laughter in the dead of winter in villages all over England, in the country manors of the aristocracy, and at the royal court.

During Shakespeare’s day, we know that schoolboys traditionally provided theatrical entertainment in villages, and there is evidence of dozens and dozens of plays presented for the aristocracy by the boys’ companies I’ve written about in previous posts.

               The Boy Bishop

The traditions go far back in time, and virtually all of them provided some sort of upending of the customary ways, liberally spiced with hilarity.

Let’s start with the tradition of the Boy Bishop, celebrated all over Europe, dating back to the the early years of Christianity. In English villages the Boy Bishop was traditionally elected on the 6th of December, the feast of Saint Nicholas, and and his authority lasted till December 28, the Holly Innocents’ Day. He and his entourage were usually chosen from the choir boys at the local church. During his rule the real Bishop would, symbolically, step down at the deposuit potentes de sede of the Magnificat (“he hath put down the mighty from their seat”), and the boy would take his seat at et exaltavit humiles (“and hath exalted the humble and meek”). The elected boy would be dressed in full bishop’s robes, complete with mitre and cozier, and his comrades would be dressed as priests. They would travel about the parish blessing the townsfolk and would perform all of the ceremonies at the church except for the mass. It was a solemn rite, but being boys, they most likely had some fun hamming it up. Except for a brief revival during the rule of the Catholic Mary, this custom did not survive the English Protestant Reformation; but it was still very much in evidence all over the realm early in the reign of Henry VIII.  


              Celebration of the Lord of Misrule

And then there were the Feast of Fools and the twelve days of Christmas, culminating in Twelfth Night, on the eve of the Feast of Epiphany. During the twelve days of Christmas, traditional roles were often relaxed, masters waited on their servants, men were allowed to dress as women, and women as men. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels. The boy king, Edward VI, was especially enamored of this comic Lord, who played a significant role in the Christmas festivities during his reign. Some of these traditions were adapted from older, pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night was written for festivities  of this kind and delights in the audacity of the servants in the manor houses of Olivia and Orsino.

                     Christmas Revelry

   Boy Players in a Masque

At court Christmas was also a time of elaborate celebrations including masques, which always included “interludes” performed by boy actors, or “interluders”. Then, of course, there was the music. It is impossible to overstate the role of the voices of boy singers, thought to be the voices of angels. Entire cathedrals were designed as huge acoustical sound boxes to capture the purity of the sound, and that sound was heard throughout the realm during the Christmas season.

So Christmas rituals were a combination of deep solemnity and a raucous inversion of norms. Contemporary celebrations like the carnivals held in South America have their origins in the chaotic social reversals overseen by the Lord of Misrule, but I can think of no contemporary parallel during Christmas that is quite so colorful. Children have always been delighted by the temporary freedom provided by an upside down world. Today what Christmas means for children is presents. In those days it was the sheer joy and freedom of revelry.


        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.

Jill Holden and Dov Rudnick read from Proci et Puellae (a Lover and a Lass)

Here’s another surprising example from Erasmus’ Colloquia Familiaria.

If you have ever seen As You Like It and relished the cheeky brilliance of Rosalind and the pure silliness of the lovestruck Phebe, you may be startled, once again, to find some of their best lines presaged in this witty little play written by Erasmus forty years before Shakespeare was born! It’s actually a rather long one (with some sexy overtones and thoughts on maintaining a healthy marriage along the way) but we only recorded a few pages. They’re a lot of fun. It’s easy to see what stuck in the brain of the boy Shakespeare when he performed them in Latin at Stratford’s Latin grammar school, as part of his practice in conversation.

(Remember, Latin back then was NOT A DEAD LANGUAGE! It was the lingua franca, and required of every educated person entering any of the professions, because it allowed one to converse with any other educated person in any country throughout Europe; but casual conversation took practice. Thus, the “Colloquies.”)

The scene is a flirtatious courtship between the lover, Pamphilus, and his girlfriend, Maria. He’s trying to talk her into advancing their relationship to a new level, whatever that may be. Familiar?

Jill Holden has played the role of Phebe, and she immediately spotted echoes from this silly colloquy in her lines in response to Silvius:

Silvius: Sweet Phebe, do not scorn me; do not Phebe;

Say that you love me not but say not so in

In bitterness. The common executioner…

… first begs pardon….

Phebe: I would not be thy executioner:

I fly thee, for I would not injure thee.

Thou tell’st me there is murder in mine eye:

Tis pretty, sure, and very probable,

That eyes, that are the frail’st and softest things,

Should be called tyrants, butchers, murderers!

Now I do frown on thee with all my heart;

And if mine eyes can wound, now let them kill thee:

Now counterfeit to swoon; why now fall down;

Or if thou canst not, O, for shame, for shame,

Lie not, to say mine eyes are murderers!


And Susan Angelo, also present in the audience, has played Rosalind! And SHE recognized THESE lines:

Orlando: Then, in mine own person, I die.

Rosalind: No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is almost six thousand years old and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, in a love-cause. …….Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.


And then, a bit later in the scene:

Rosalind: There are none of my uncle’s marks upon you: he taught me how to know a man in love; in which cage of rushes I am sure you are not prisoner.

Orlando: What were his marks?

Rosalind: A lean cheek, which you have not, a blue eye and sunken, which you have not, an unquestionable spirit, which you have not, a beard neglected, which you have not!

Do you hear the same teasing images in this exchange?

(Again, this translation is my adaptation of the two rather dated existing translations from the Latin. Every line is by Erasmus. I’ve just tried to make it sound more like what contemporary young people might say.)

John Lithgow and Susan Angelo read Erasmus’ Colloquy, “Abattis et Eruditae”

It was the discovery of the Colloquia Familiaria written by Erasmus that got me started on my book ten years ago. I found a mention of them in a terrific biography of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age,  and found a dusty old copy on line. When I started reading, I was astonished to find early models of the colloquial characters  that I loved as a kid watching Shakespeare’s plays: the clowns, shopkeepers, thieves, schoolmasters, bar flies, prostitutes, etc. These were short scripts written forty years before Shakespeare was born, for schoolboys, to teach conversational Latin! Just about every Latin grammar school in England had copies of the texts and scheduled the Colloquia in their statutes. To me it is glaringly obvious that, as a boy, Will Shakespeare performed them at school. Characters, circumstances, even specific images and lines show up all over his early comedies. I wondered why hardly anyone had ever seemed to notice.

Something else that amazed me were all of the whip-smart women characters that Erasmus created! Shakespeare is often noted for his luminous and opinionated women, often outsmarting and out-talking the men around them. Hello!? Erasmus’ women were doing that long before Shakespeare!

Much gratitude to the lovely Susan Angelo and my kid brother John Lithgow for this delightful cold reading of “Abattis et eruditae” at a salon I did recently at the home of my friend Susan Cambique Tracey. It is one of many of Erasmus’ colloquies featuring smart, sassy women. If you know As You Like It you might recognize the origins of Jacques’, “All the world’s a stage” and Touchstone’s line: “The fool doth think his is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” The second quote actually comes from Socrates, but I like to think Shakespeare read it first at school, performing the following colloquy IN LATIN when he was about twelve. I especially appreciate it that Erasmus has both wise sayings voiced by a woman.

Watch the entire colloquy here.

Remember that this colloquy was written in Latin, and it was not published in translation in Shakespeare’s lifetime. He performed it in school, in LATIN, and I like to think he played the part of Magdelena, the eruditae (well-educated woman), who was based on Sir Thomas More’s eldest daughter Meg.

(I should add that I have adapted from two very dated existing translations. I tried to make the lines sound more modern. Every line is, in fact, by Erasmus, and I’ve just made them sound as much as possible like what I think he would have wanted them to sound like in a contemporary, American dialect.  A closer translation of the first line from Latin would be, “What is all this mess?” My free adaptation, “What a Dump,” is, of course, an homage to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and “Girls just want to have fun” is, well you know! A closer translation would be “A woman’s business is pleasure.”)

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.