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.

 

         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

* * *

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.”

* * *

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.

Cleveland Settlement House Memory Project

A few years before my parents died, we were visiting New York City and they took me on a little tour of their early lives as young marrieds in Greenwich Village. Back then, in the mid-30s, my dad was starting his career as an actor with the Federal Theatre Project. They lived  on Commerce Street, a short block from the Cherry Lane Theatre.

Anyone who has lost both parents is haunted by the lost opportunity to ask unanswered questions. I’m no different. Now that I am pursuing this history project I could kick myself for not filling in the snippets of information they shared casually over the years. That day, walking around the Village, we passed the Greenwich House, a settlement house founded in 1902, and my mom just tossed out this tidbit: “I taught creative dramatics there.” How had I missed that fact—that before I was born, my mom did a stint doing exactly what I ended up doing as a career, and I never knew it!?  What was it like for her back then?

So I started searching the internet and found an article written in 1986 by Margaret E. Berry, Former Executive Director of the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers. There I was astonished to learn how many progressive movements that we now take for granted had their roots in the settlement houses: The kindergarten (child garden) movement, federal fair housing legislation, legal aid services, meals on wheels for the elderly, even Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Works Projects Administration! But what struck me most were the philosophical underpinnings of their arts and cultural activities programs.

Young artists at Hull House

The Settlement Movement began in the late 19th century as a social experiment, to address the cultural needs of impoverished communities. It was modeled after Toynbee Hall, established in London in 1884 “as a practical tool for remedying the cruelty, exploitation, and  bleakness found in city life.” The first settlement house in the United States was University Settlement in New York City, but the most famous was Hull House, established by Jane Addams in Chicago. Eventually there were over 400 settlement houses in cities and towns across the country.

Here’s an interesting fact: the reason they were called “settlement houses” is because a variety of caring groups “settled in” to neighborhoods with wretched living conditions, to learn as well as to help. They lived in the communities and shared the stresses endemic to neighborhoods of poverty. They did not approach their jobs as teachers, but as students: students of the huge diversity of cultures pouring into our nation at the time.

Music lesson at a Philadelphia settlement house

Social dance class at The Memory Project in a Cleveland settlement house

My best source so far, in searching for the answers to questions I never got to ask my  mother, is a monograph written in 2011 by Nick Rabkin: “Teaching Artists and the Future of Education.” In it he makes the assertion that, “Artists have worked in community-based arts education for more than a century, and the roots of their work in schools are found in arts programs at the settlement houses at the turn of the last century.” To quote Margaret Berry, “In the settlement house there were always activities which brought fun and fulfillment to life—music, art, theater, sociability and play.” But Rabkin points out that the settlement houses cast out the old conservatory model of arts training in favor of a much more socially conscious, all inclusive model, in which art making and art exploration was “for everyone and essential to the fabric of a democratic society.” The iconic example is that instead of art students standing in smocks at easels, painting vases, a drawing lesson at Hull House might be a class of scruffy youngsters sketching the unsanitary conditions in the alley behind the settlement. Teachers at the settlement houses taught aesthetics and technical skills but were also “attentive to the arts as tools for critical exploration of the world, celebration of community values and traditions, weaving the arts into daily life, cultivation of imagination and creativity, and appreciation of the world’s many cultures.” We see in this philosophy the derivation of the strands of our national instructional standards in the arts.

Hull House is where the great swing era clarinetist, Benny Goodman, learned music, and the Home for Colored Waifs in New Orleans gave us Louis Armstrong. Social dance, modern dance, and creative movement were regular offerings, as were culturally embedded crafts.

Neva Boyd

And then there was Neva Boyd, who taught at Hull House and then founded the Recreational Training School there. The school taught a one-year educational program to teachers, in group games, gymnastics, dancing, play theory, social problems, and dramatic arts. It is the program that trained Neva Boyd’s most famous acolyte, Viola Spolin! Yes, that Viola Spolin: mother goddess of improvisational theatre, mother of Paul Sills, thus grandmother of Second City (Chicago), and godmother of The Groundlings (Los Angeles), ComedySporz (Los Angeles), Laughing Matters (Atlanta), Magnet Theatre (New York), Improv Asylum (Boston), ImprovBoston (Cambridge), Jet City Improv (Seattle), and improv companies in cities and towns all across America and the world. They all owe their origin to theatre games played in settlement houses.

Improvisation games are now included in actor training, and they bring joy and laughter to theatre education programs in schools and community programs. K-12 school teachers with some improv training use theatre games to illuminate text and subtext in stories from literature and history and across the curriculum. Neva Boyd’s training program also very possibly trained the teaching artist who trained my mom to teach creative dramatics in the late 30s at Greenwich House.

 

 

Sam’s fiddle, from circa 1920

This old fiddle belonged to my father-in-law, Sam. He got it in about 1920, when he was a student in Boyle Heights. Sammy was an immigrant from Eastern Europe. His family initially struggled with poverty, but he and his siblings had regular music instruction in school and he learned to play the violin. EVERY child in Los Angeles had that opportunity back then! Up until the early 80s, every school in Los Angeles had full-time music and arts teachers. When I began teaching in East Los Angeles 1969, my students had a music class and a visual arts class every week and orchestral music was offered in the upper grades. Up until the early 80s, that was just the way it was done—not just in Los Angeles, but all across the state.

Today schools with hundreds of students are guaranteed only one day of vocal or (“or” not “and”) instrumental music per week, offering lessons to a fraction of the classrooms, and there are instrumental programs in fewer than one third of the elementary schools. Even that pittance was not revived until the early 90s. The Elementary Arts Program, which I am proud to have helped design 20 years ago, offers weekly visual arts, dance, and drama lessons in 9 week rotations to an even smaller fraction. Dozens of excellent community arts programs offered by the Music Center, the LA Opera, local art museums, and dance companies are available, but limited in time and scope and must be included in a school’s ever-stretched budget. Arts classes in secondary schools are electives. Despite all of our efforts, it is still perfectly possible for a child to go through thirteen years of public education in Los Angeles and never receive a single arts class!

And yet everything we have learned from brain research tells us that the arts are crucial to cognition. The arts teach us how to learn. True educators have know this for hundreds of years. To quote Plato again, “The patterns in music and the arts are the keys to learning.”

How did we forget this? What happened?

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to my book, Good Behavior and Audacity, where I try to answer that that question. It begins with my interview in 1968 for my first teaching job, in an impoverished school in Romoland, in the high desert near Riverside, where my husband was a student:

* * *

“To start with, the evening I drove out there to be interviewed by their board of education, a group of three farmers and the principal, I can recall only one question. They wanted to know if I could play the piano. They wanted their sons and daughters to sing! It was what they were used to from their own formative years, when every classroom had a piano and every teacher had to know how to play it. I told them I could not play piano, but I could play guitar, and that satisfied them. I sang with the children every day after lunch, before story time. That was the only peaceful half hour of the day.

“But once a week, two angels would arrive from the county office: a music teacher and a visual arts teacher. That was happy Tuesday. It was standard practice back then. All over Riverside County, and all over California, every child received a music lesson and a visual arts lesson every week. The teachers were fantastic. I learned all about Orff technique in the music classes—the pentatonic scale—and I learned arts strategies and activities that I used for the rest of my career.

“That was long before I dared to use drama activities in my teaching, but we did make an eight-millimeter movie one day with the help of my husband and an actor friend, and I do remember that being the most enjoyable day I ever had with them.

“I was offered a contract there for the following year, but my husband had finished at UCR and we moved to Los Angeles. There I was able to enroll in an intern program in the Los Angeles Unified School District and get a second chance at teaching, this time with some training and support. And there, too, in 1969, every elementary school in the district had full-time music and visual arts teachers, and every classroom got a lesson in each, once a week. In addition, in order to get my credential I was required by state code to take a class in elementary music instruction and one additional class in the arts, with the choices being visual arts, theatre, or dance.

“I taught for many more years, first in elementary and then in secondary, in private schools and public, and will share some of my accumulated insights in later chapters, but I’m glad I started long enough ago to have those memories. 1968 was before A Nation at Risk, before Proposition 13, and before No Child Left Behind and the romance with “accountability,” which was pretty much the nail in the coffin of arts education for every child in California.”

* * *

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform was the report published in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. Its publication is considered a landmark event in modern American educational history, but it was tragically misguided in its conclusions. A Nation at Risk was the beginning of our obsession with data and with raising test scores in a narrowly focused interpretation of literacy and numeracy. Authentic literacy (story telling, story listening, story reading, story writing) and numeracy (measurement, time, space, value) are embedded in every aspect of the art-making process. How did we miss that?

Well, we did. And from A Nation at Risk on, starting with Proposition 13, every time there has been a budget squeeze (which has somehow managed to be just about every year) the arts have been squeezed first. Time to change that, folks. Wake up.

 

 

 

 

Bravo New Jersey!!! They’ve accomplished something which, to our shame, we can only dream of in California: a return to arts education in EVERY SCHOOL IN THE STATE!

Several years ago my colleagues and I in the LAUSD Arts Branch were involved in a national effort to develop an evaluation (e.g. “test”) to provide hard data to support our arts education efforts. The national conversation at the time was obsessed with data, data, data, and every growth effort was put on hold until we had it. It was the time of “Data-Based Decision Making,” which, roughly translated, means, “No Data=No Decisions.” The mantra was, “If you don’t test it, they won’t teach it” (which in many states has turned out to be catastrophically true), so we naively dived in and did our best to come up with something authentic. At the time, we were working with a partner in the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Last June I wrote a post about our efforts in which I explained the irony of standardized testing in the context of arts education and described all of our obstacles. Basically: all we could come up with was an elegant and sophisticated single-answer vocabulary test. True evaluation in arts education involves embedded rubrics that serve the creative process but cannot provide hard “data” without astronomical expense.

I’m so sorry that, in my calcified old brain, that I cannot call up the name of the gentleman we partnered with in New Jersey!!  Since then he and/or his colleagues, have been busy. Apparently they didn’t wait for the elusive data. They understood the role of the arts in social and emotional health and in cognition—learning skills! They went ahead with their determination to get the arts back into the role they have held historically, at the core of eduction. (Now, finally, I suspect we will watch their test scores rise!)

If you go to their website https://artsednow.org, you will see many of the same standards-based elements and tools that we developed, but there’s something else. They did what I knew we had to do but never could. They got imperatives from the top: from the state level. They held school leadership at the district level and at the site level to account. Every superintendent and every principal in New Jersey must account for her/his stewardship of the arts offerings in their schools.

That’s the way to get it done!

 

This past weekend I had a chance to present some of the findings of my book, Good Behavior and Audacity to an audience of friends and arts educators. My ever-generous friend from the Music Center Education Division, Susan Cambique Tracey (featured in an earlier post), and her husband Paul sponsor about four salons each year devoted to the arts and arts education, and they invited me to do one. It was wonderful fun. Susan says the salons are their way of giving back, showing gratitude for their life in arts education, and I felt that gratitude glowing around me all afternoon. The session was documented in film so I’m excited that I will be able to share bits of it in upcoming posts.

I started the program with a visual exploration of these four woodcuts picturing Elizabethan classrooms. The first two are dated 1573, the very year that William Shakespeare turned nine, so looking at them you may imagine him as one of the boys pictured.

One result of the Humanist movement in early 16th century England was a robust interest in pedagogy, with many books written on the subject. One of the most famous of those teacher/authors was Richard Mulcaster, who just happened to train Thomas Jenkins and John Cotham, two of Shakespeare’s teachers at Stratford’s Latin grammar school. Reading his two books, Positions and Elementarie, was one of the igniting revelations that got me going on my own book, because of Mulcaster’s use of the arts in his daily instruction. The title of my book is actually taken from a quote by a 17th century jurist who had been a student at the Merchant Taylors’ School while Mulcaster was the headmaster. He credited Mulcaster with offering daily instruction in both vocal and instrumental music, accompanied by dance, and with using theatre to teach “good behavior and audacity.” Mulcaster also included drawing as one of the essential teachings for young children, so all of the arts were present in his school.

So now, my readers, I would like to engage you in the same visual exploration and see if we can draw some conclusions about Elizabethan classrooms.

Examine the four woodcuts closely and look for similarities and differences.

These images are all from the internet, and there isn’t much accompanying information about any of them, so I am in the same position as you are looking at them. What we see we see, and, using visual thinking strategies, what we conclude is what we conclude. I cannot verify our conclusions, but I do have the advantage of several years of research to draw upon and so I will add information where I can.

First of all, yes, indeed, that is a dog in two of the pictures. I have no explanation for the dog. (It does bring to mind the comic presence of a dog in both Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but those were not classroom dogs!) Is the presence of a dog an indication that those two classrooms were rural? Perhaps.

Also, this last one is much busier than the others, and much more crowded (and there is no dog), so perhaps this one depicts a school in London?

Here are a few more observations:

1. In each one the headmaster appears to be holding a rather exalted position, in a throne-like chair. And he has a switch close by in case he needs it to maintain control. In fact, in this last one another adult (likely an usher, or assistant teacher), is flogging the naked bottom of a boy.

I’ve read that flogging was not uncommon. In fact there were plenty of euphemisms for it, like “marrying the schoolmaster’s daughter,” or “learning a new song today.” But most of the books on pedagogy from the time, including those by Mulcaster, explicitly state that kindness and reason were preferable to corporal punishment. I suspect that the mere presence of the switch may have been enough to keep order in most cases.

2. In the last picture we see that there is musical notation on the back wall and there appears to be a child playing a keyboard instrument like a virginal and other children singing. Most statutes from the time list regular music instruction, and at least at Merchant Taylors’ School it was included every day.

3. In each picture there is a child standing in front of the headmaster, and in the last one there are several in line waiting their turn. They are reciting their memorized lessons from the classics, and from what I’ve learned about physical rhetoric, or “rhetorical dance,” they were required to do so with appropriate gesture, expression, and emotion.

4. The other children in the room are engaged in their own activities—reading, writing, or talking to or perhaps collaborating with the students next to them. They are paying no heed to the child in front of the headmaster, an indication that there was nothing out of the ordinary about a student declaiming his lessons; it went on all day long and attracted no attention.

5. There are no desks. The children are reading from and writing in notebooks, or tables. Remember that Hamlet, in his frenzy after his encounter with his father’s ghost, says, “My tables! Meet it is I set it down, / That one may smile and smile and be a villain!” He is talking about exactly what these children are holding: their own tables, which accompanied them to and from school every day. In those tables they wrote down the lines they were required to memorize. They also wrote down rhetorical figures they found in their classical readings and kept them organized in columns. At some point, they also wrote down their own invented examples of figures, often developed in collaboration with their peers.

6.  In the absence of desks, there is an open space in the center of the classroom. That open space was called a place to be heard: an auditorium. A stage!

So….setting aside the corporal punishment and the dog: focus on this thought: what does it mean for a child to go to a school where the core goal is to be seen and heard.

So far there are only a few of you that I know of who have delved into our largely unexplored history. Ultimately that history is what this site is all about. I love that people are reading my posts and I love the comments and the feedback. It feels like a community is building. But I’m greedy and I want more. I want others to join me in the research! Those of us who are advocates for more quality instruction in the arts for every student, every day, at every age NEED this history. Advocacy can take us only so far. We need to step back and take the long look, back to the ancients, when education began with the arts.

Just to clarify: theatre incorporates all of the arts. When Shakespeare was in school, during the heyday of the humanist education designed by Erasmus, theatre was not considered an arts discipline distinct from its components: artful language, dramatic acting, dance, music, and visual spectacle. Theatre then was like film is today. It embraced all of the arts. Just look at today’s categories for the Oscars: best score, best song, best costumes, best special effects, best script, and dance numbers highlighting everything. Only a small minority of the awards are for acting or directing. Theatre, historically was the same. When we are looking at the history of theatre education, we are looking at the history of all of arts education.

This is still a new site with a small but growing number of followers, and so far it hasn’t gained much traction in its main purpose, but I am ever hopeful. The field so far is barren, especially for dance and theatre. Music in education has

Drama Class

ancient roots, all the way back to the Quadrivium, where it shared equal status with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. As for visual arts: there are entire Arts History Departments in every university that document the history of conservatory training. Dance was usually taught in partnership with music. But nothing like that exists for the long history of theatre in education. Unless I am mistaken (and I’ve searched and searched) this rich story remains largely undocumented.

My upcoming book, Good Behavior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius, is a small step taken to help fill the void. It looks at one moment at the turn of the 17th century where there is substantial evidence of a lively presence in schools of music and dance, physical rhetoric or “actio” applied to memorization of the classics, boys’ theatre companies at court, school performances to entertain villagers, and the use of dramatic colloquies in the teaching of conversational Latin. It is obviously a part of a profound tradition, but perhaps because it was always taken for granted and not part of the formal curriculum, historians haven’t woven together the threads.

Right now I’m focusing my own exploration on the 20th century and will be posting soon about arts education in Settlement Houses and the Federal Theatre Project. Some other areas I’m hoping to pursue myself or welcome others to explore:

The Greeks: Epicurus (the Garden), Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes

The Romans: Lucretius, Cicero, Quintilian

The Humanists: Dante, Vittorino da Fletre (La Giocosa – “The Pleasure House”), Guarino da Verona, Aeneas Sylvius, Sturmius, Bembo, Erasmus, Guido Camillo (Theatre/Memory), Ascham, Vives, Mulcaster, Elyot, Montaigne, Comenius

19th Century: Sloyd, the Kindergarten (“child garden”) Movement, Horace Mann

20th Century: John Dewey  (note guest post by Dain Olsen), Settlement Houses, Federal Theatre Project

If you have any information about any of the above or have other topics to explore, pitch in! This is the place!