The Passionate Pilgrim 1.14: Richard Burbage

Portrait of Richard Burbage, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you overstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so o’redone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

Hamlet, III.2 17-24

Richard Burbage (1567 – 1619) played Hamlet when the play debuted in (about) 1602. The performance is legendary and it must have amused him to be giving this advice to the actors of his own company on the stage that he and his brother Cuthbert built and owned.

Portrait of Richard Burbage, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Portrait of Richard Burbage, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Portrait of Richard Burbage, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Burbage more or less grew up on stage. His father, James, a joiner (ie: a building contractor) from Stratford who shortly became a theatrical impresario, and also founded the first successful permanent playhouse, was a famous theatrical entrepreneur. This background gave him gave him a real head start in the constantly changing and growing London theatre world.  Many scholars believe that he worked backstage as well as making his way through the ranks of the younger players, possibly playing female roles.

Burbage got around, possibly working with the Earl of Leicester‘s company in the mid 1580s when he was still a teenager. (Could he have visited Elsinore with Will Kempe in 1586?) He probably was acting with the Admiral’s Men in 1590, with Lord Strange’s Men in 1592, and with the Earl of Pembroke’s Men in 1593; but most famously he was the star of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men which became the King’s Men.

What seems to have made Burbage’s acting style significant was that it was not only a stark departure from the ranting of Alleyn and the antics of Kempe, but that he made the effort to assume  the identity of his character and maintained that identity not only when delivering his lines, but in all his other stage work as well. Which is to say that he stayed in the scene and supported it throughout. Actors in the Alleyn or Kempe mold, who primarily sought center stage and largely ignored the action when they weren’t in the middle of it, were simply not as believable as Burbage.

It is not at all difficult to see how Hamlet would prefer to work with Burbage over other actors because he understood that “The play’s the thing . . . .”

Once he reached an age where he could compete for the major roles, Burbage swiftly became more popular than Alleyn, his closest competitor. He played the leads in Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, and King Lear. In addition, he played the lead in Jonson’s Volpone, and Subtle in The Alchemist. For John Marston he played The Malcontent, for John Webster  he starred in The Duchess of Malfi) and in The Maid’s Tragedy for Beaumont and Fletcher .

For all his success onstage, Burbage did not die a wealthy man. He left his wife an estate of 300 pounds, not an inconsiderable sum, but nothing compared to the fortune that allowed Ned Alleyn to establish his famous college. Also unlike Alleyn, Burbage never quit the stage. On the other hand, when he died in 1619, there was such outpour of grief that it threatened to overshadow the official mourning for the death of Queen Anne ten days prior.

Next: A Little More on Burbage

PeteHeadshotDr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.

The Passionate Pilgrim 1.13: Will Kempe

William Kempe (right) from Nine Days Wonder (1600)

“And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them. For there be of them that will themselves laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.”

Hamlet, III, 37-42

Directors thinking they should try to trim the length of Hamlet often excise this and the remainder of Hamlet’s famous speech in order to get on with the story. When they do so, they are flying in the face of the author’s very specific advice.

There are two things to consider here. One is meddling with the text. The other is the tendency of some actors to vamp, to add extra action, business which attracts attention to themselves and away from the play and to selfishly steal the scene.

We have seen how Ned Allyen was accused of the first fault. Will Kempe was the prime example of the second offense.

William Kempe (right) from Nine Days Wonder (1600)
William Kempe (right) from Nine Days Wonder (1600)

In his time, Kempe was as famous for his stage jigs as for his acting in regular drama. The jig, a kind of rustic cousin to commedia dell’arte, featured partially improvised song-and-dance routines, juggling, gymnastics, physical comedy, mimicry and what is today referred to as shtick. If Hamlet’s advice is any guide, Kempe and his type of actor had a bag full of antic improvs that could be inserted at any moment in any play whenever the actor thought he could milk the moment. This made Kempe popular with his audience but probably did not endear him with his other actors who stuck closer to the script.

About this type of acting, Hamlet further observes:

And then you have some again that keeps one suit of jests, as a man is known by one suit of apparel; and gentlemen quote his jests down in their table before they come to the play; as thus, ‘Cannot you stay till I eat my porridge?’ and ‘You owe me a quarter’s wages’, and ‘My coat wants a cullison’, and ‘Your beer is sour’, and blabbering with his lips, and thus keeping his cinquepace of jests, when, God knows, the warm clown cannot make a jest unless by chance, as the blind man catcheth a hare.

III.2 43-53

As an actor, Kempe is specifically identified with two roles: Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and Peter in Romeo and Juliet. In addition, various parts that he may have played include: Costard in Love’s Labours Lost, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lancelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, and Cob in Ben Jonson‘s Every Man in His Humour. Some commentators suggest that Kemp also played Falstaff which in my view is unlikely. Falstaff is a comic role, in parts, but has more dimension than Kempe’s reputation suggests he could have understood or sustained.

Wood carving of Will Kempe in Chapelfield Gardens, Norwich
Wood carving of Will Kempe in Chapelfield Gardens, Norwich

Kempe first appears in correspondence between Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster, and Sir Philip Sydney, nephew of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, patron of Leicester’s Men for whom Kempe performed starting in about 1585. In that same year, Kempe accompanied two other future members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, George Bryan and Thomas Pope, to Elsinore where he entertained Frederick II of Denmark.

In all likelihood Kempe was the model for the character Yorick, the skull of the clown unearthed in Hamlet (1603). Kempe, a founding member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had been forced out of the company by 1599 and is believed to have died in 1603 after making a strange, antic tour of England, known as the Nine Days Wonder in 1600. Was Yorick an homage, a jest or both?

Regardless, Hamlet makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with Kempe’s improvisational manner of acting which relied too much on antic jigs and departed too much from the life of the text.

In my view, what Hamlet is advocating is a more natural style of acting, a style that relied less on bombast (Alleyn) or extemporaneous clowning (Kempe) than on “holding up a mirror to life”. This type of actor was a radical change from what had preceded him on the English stage. It was a type of actor who worked from within, not from without, who lived the character rather than merely projected it.

The actor Hamlet was talking about was Richard Burbage.

Next:     Richard Burbage.

PeteHeadshotDr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.

An analysis of AS YOU LIKE IT (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia / Transgender in Shakespeare / Transgenderism in Shakespeare / Shakespeare Transgender / Transgender AS YOU LIKE IT / Shakespeare Transgender

Wonderful insight into gender and transgender in As You Like It. Rosalind certainly finds her voice and her freedom as a male in Arden. Our current production investigates this in several ways.

Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

An analysis of AS YOU LIKE IT (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

“Aimer grandement quelqu’un c’est le render inépuisable.”

—Paul Valéry, Cahiers (1944. Sans titre, XXVIII, 524)

In the wrestling match between Nature and Fortune, it is Fortune that chokeholds her opponent and flattens her on the mat. “Nature” refers to the qualities with which one is born; “Fortune” signifies all that comes post-natal. “Nature” is another word for “necessity”; Fortune is accident, preference, education, style. In Elizabethan England: That which God makes is Nature; that which you like belongs to Fortune. What you are born with is overthrown by what you like in Shakespeare’s most audience-accommodating comedy, AS YOU LIKE IT (circa 1599).

We see the clash between Nature and Fortune in the very first scene, one in which Orlando grieves that he, a natural gentleman, is reduced by Fortune to the status of a stalled ox. This, the…

View original post 1,575 more words

The Passionate Pilgrim 1.12: A Little Bit More About Ned Alleyn

Title page of 1592 publication of Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as welable to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the only Shake-scene in a countrey.”

Greene, Robert, A Greenes Groats-worth of Wit, 1592.

Robert Greene, 1560-1592, Woodcut of Greene 'suted in deaths livery, from John Dickenson's Greene in conceipt (1598) http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/greenebio.htm
Robert Greene, 1560-1592, Woodcut of Greene ‘suted in deaths livery, from John Dickenson’s Greene in conceipt (1598) http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/greenebio.htm

Robert Greene would probably not be very happy to know that of everything he ever wrote these are the lines of his most quoted. In addition, he would probably have been apoplectic to imagine that for four hundred years they would be completely misunderstood.

Tradition holds that this excerpt is a specific reference to Shakespeare (ie: “Shake-scene”) and that Greene was warning his fellow poets, in particular Marlowe, Nashe and Peele (Who had been working with him on what was to become Henry VI Parts I, II and III) to be wary of this interloper from Stratford.

Stratfordian scholarship is so hungry for any historical reference that might tie back to Shakespeare that they furiously grasp at this statement. The trouble is that Greene wasn’t talking about Shakespeare. He never met Shakespeare, whoever he was. He as talking about Ned Alleyn.

Edward Alleyn. Remember him? Brother of the man who William Bradley owed 14 Pounds and who attacked Christopher Marlowe in Hog Lane only to be killed by Marlowe’s friend, Tom Watson? Ned Alleyn, the most important actor on the London stage in 1592? The man who played the lead role in Greene’s Orlando Furioso (which bombed – it was and is bad) and who had succeeded extraordinarily in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Faustus and The Jew of Malta, not to mention in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy.

When Greene talked about a “Shake-scene” type of actor, he was talking about someone who indulged in bombast, someone who in modern terms chewed the scenery, while making the further pun on bumbast, which is stitching, which is to say that this person imagines that because he can shout out a playwright’s lines he therefore imagines that he can compose better lines. And the person he was pointing to was Alleyn.

Following the death of Gabriel Spencer at the hands of Ben Jonson and the breakup of Pembroke’s Men, of which Alleyn had been a leading member and actor, he joined forces with Phillip Henslowe, manager of Lord Strange’s Men, which later became The Admiral’s Men, chief competitor to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men which later became the King’s Men, the company which produced most of the plays credited to Shakespeare.

Alleyn married Joan Woodward, step-daughter of Philip Henslowe, in October 1592, prior to which Henslowe had paid him handsomely for performances in April and May in the same year of a play titled Tamar Cham, Parts 1 and 2. As the former lead actor of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, it does not seem like a stretch to suppose that the “Shake-scene” accused of “bumbasting out a blanke verse” was simply rewriting his most successful role for his new business partner.

Unfortunately, this play has been lost; only a plot outline remains, upon which many scholars have noted the similarity with Tamburlaine. More importantly, Ben Jonson, who clearly saw it in performance, commented in his Timber: or, Discoveries that “the Tamerlanes, and Tamer-Chams of the late Age, . . . had nothing in them but the scenical strutting, and furious vociferation, to warrant them to the ignorant gapers” (H&S 8.587).

So Henslowe and Jonson both confirm Greene’s accusation against Alleyn that he was taking the “feathers” of authors like Marlowe, Nashe and Peele to stitch together his own inventions. Shakespeare, whose sole acting credit is from a play produced five years later, is nowhere in sight.

Title page of 1592 publication of Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Title page of 1592 publication of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The whole “Shake-scene” thing has another level of importance. Robert Greene is almost universally cited as the inspiration for the character of Falstaff. However, if Greene was referring to Ned Alleyn and not Shakespeare then the connection fails outright. If Greene never knew Shakespeare, which seems likely, then there could be no reason for Shakespeare to take him as inspiration for what Harold Bloom considers one of his three greatest characters.

On the other hand, Marlowe knew Greene intimately and Greene’s relationship to Marlowe, if Greene’s report of it is to be trusted, was very much like the relationship portrayed in Henry IV I & II between Falstaff and Prince Hal.

Robert Greene died in 1592 at the age of 34, reportedly of drink and dissipation, shortly before the publication of A Groatsworth. Alleyn, meanwhile, lived to the age of sixty and became so wealthy that he was able to found the College of God’s Gift at Dulwich which exists to this day.

Next: Will Kempe

PeteHeadshot Dr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.

The Passionate Pilgrim 1.11: Acting in the Age of Elizabeth

Edward Alleyn, Dulwich College Portrait

Some of the most significant questions a modern person can ask regarding the London theater in the 1580s and 90s have to be “what did it look like, what did it feel like, and how did it sound?” We have volumes recording the activities of the various companies and their managers, not to mention those who actively opposed them, and the successes and failures of everyone who had a financial or political interest. We know how the theaters were shaped, how many people could fit inside, and what their stages could provide for the presentation of a given play. We know who the major and even many minor playwrights were.

The actual actors on the other hand, the people onstage delivering the words to the audience, are not so well noted. And often less well grasped is how they were understood.

It seems to me that one of the most important things about the Elizabethan theatre is the development of acting as an art. To explain this point I want to highlight three of the most prominently remembered actors of the age, Edward Alleyn, Will Kempe and Richard Burbage.

“Ned” Alleyn, as he was commonly known, came to fame as the voice of Tamburlaine, the title character of Christopher Marlowe’s extraordinarily successful play. He went on to play the same role in Tamburlaine, Part II, and then took the leads in  several more of Marlowe’s plays, including Faust in Dr. Faustus and Barabbas in The Jew of Malta. He is also believed to have played Orlando in Robert Greene‘s Orlando Furioso, and perhaps Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd (which I have earlier said I believe to have been co-written by Marlowe).

Edward Alleyn, Dulwich College Portrait
Edward Alleyn, Dulwich College Portrait

Alleyn was, by all reports, a bombastic actor. Which is to say that he commanded the center of the stage and blasted out his lines in a fury. In this regard, he was very well matched for the roles that Marlowe wrote for him, characters who were larger than life, given to prolonged proclamations and violent action. To this day this style of theater is very successful. No one should underestimate it. I think it is probably fair to say that before Alleyn the theatre was not nearly so loud.

But times change and styles change. By the mid 1590s Alleyn’s style was literally being shoved off the stage.

In fact, while avoiding the London plague of 1593, Alleyn was leading a not terribly successful tour with Pembroke’s Men in the provinces of Bristol, Shrewsbury, Chester, and York when Gabriel Spencer, then being groomed as a lead player for Pembroke’s in London, was killed by playwright Ben Jonson in a street fight.

It should not be forgotten that Alleyn was a minor player in an earlier dispute between his brother, the tavern keeper John Alleyn and William Bradley who John claimed owed him fourteen pounds. In 1589 John Alleyn filed papers in court against Bradley whereupon Bradley counter claimed against Alleyn, Tom Watson, a noted poet, and Alleyn’s solicitor asserting that he had been threatened with physical harm and feared for his life. The matter went unresolved until, for some reason, Bradley decided to attack the playwright Christopher Marlowe, author of the roles that had made John Alleyn’s brother Ned famous, in a narrow street known as Hog Lane in the district of Shoreditch outside of London not far from the theater where Marlowe’s plays had been performed.

What Bradley hoped to accomplish with this maneuver is unclear. Perhaps he thought that Marlowe could be intimidated or otherwise convinced to intercede with Ned to convince his brother John to make a compromise. Or, as some have suggested, he really thought his life was in danger and therefore attacked Marlowe who was known to be friends with Tom Watson, perhaps hoping to thereby discourage both Alleyn and Watson.

Thomas Watson, 1557 - 1592, http://www.wicked-good-books.com/?p=1105
Thomas Watson, 1557 – 1592, http://www.wicked-good-books.com/?p=1105

Regardless, Tom Watson suddenly appeared and, defending Marlowe, challenged Bradley who, as the court recorded afterward, engaged him in a sword fight that ranged up and down the street and succeeded in wounding Watson but then was killed when Watson, then on the ground, managed to pierce his heart with a single thrust.

Marlowe spent several weeks in gaol, Watson several months, but both were finally exonerated. Neither Ned nor his brother were ever detained for this, but the incident, and the later death of Gabriel Spencer, attests to the uncertain and even dangerous life of the theater in the age of Elizabeth.

Finally, it must be noted that many scholars have cited the Bradley/Watson duel as one of the likely inspirations for the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.

Next: A Little Bit More About Ned Alleyn

PeteHeadshot

 Dr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.