The Passionate Pilgrim 1.16: Salathiel Pavey and the Boy Players

Interior of the first Blackfriars Theatre www.luminarium.org

Years he numbered scarce thirteen

When fates turned cruel,

Yet three filled zodiacs had he been

The stage’s jewel;

And did act, what now we moan,

Old men so duly,

Ah, sooth, the Parcae thought him one

He played so truly.

Jonson, Ben, The Pity of it.

 

But for Ben Jonson’s famous epitaph excerpted above, we would know nothing of the young player named Salathiel, or for that  matter, not much more of the scores of children forced to play for the amusement of the upper classes of the English Renaissance.

The boys’ companies was one of the grim realities, not at all secret, of the Elizabethan stage. In fact, Elizabeth signed into law the right of theatrical companies to impress boys who were attractive into their service, just as men could be taken from the streets and impressed (ie: forced) into service in the army or the navy.

Interior of the first Blackfriars Theatre www.luminarium.org
Interior of the first Blackfriars Theatre http://www.luminarium.org

The boys’ companies enjoyed two vogues of popularity. The first vogue began more or less benignly. Records show that the choir boys of Chapel Royal at Windsor were performing plays as early as 1516, and the choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral by 1525 but it was not until the reign of Elizabeth that these groups began to form into professional companies. In 1576, Richard Farrant, then Master of the Children of the Chapel (ie: Windsor), began presenting indoor performances at Blackfriars. This first Blackfriars theatre was closed in 1584 because the plays were too politically daring. Meanwhile, the Children of Paul’s, or St. Paul’s Boys, were having great success of their own, presenting plays by John Lyly geared towards the courtly audience.

These companies consisted of 8-12 boys of various ages and “types”. The masters of the companies trained the boys in singing and acting, as well as in grammar and rhetoric. The masters were also directors, designers, and costumers and, it must be admitted, promoters of the boys in their charge. Quoting Dr. Bart van Es in a June, 2013 article about the scholar’s Oxford study, BBC correspondent Sean Coughlan reported:

[there] seems to have been sexual exploitation, both in the staging of these children’s performances and how these child actors were viewed by Elizabethan audiences. . . . the children’s companies were “bizarre” and “dubious” and should not simply be seen as a peculiarity of the Elizabethan era.

http://www.bbc.com/news/education-22938866

In other words, these companies were not what we think of today when we talk about children’s theater. Parents were explicitly excluded and the children were more in the position of slaves than students. In fact, as Dr. van Es showed, Henry Clifton, father of thirteen year old Thomas Clifton, filed a suit to retrieve his son from captivity at Blackfriars and complained that other children had been abducted from “sundry schools of learning” and apprentices had been seized from where they were training “against the wills of the said children, their parents, tutors, masters and governors”. It is not known whether or not Mr. Clifton was able to recover his son.

Even Hamlet remarked on the strangeness of these companies:

“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 not better – their writers do them wrong to make them exclaim against their own succession?

“‘Sblood, there is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out.”

Hamlet, II.2.344-50 & 365-6.

G. Topham Forrest - “Blackfriars Theatre: Conjectural Reconstruction” by G. Topham Forrest, The Times, 21 November 1921, p. 5. Drawing of the second Blackfriars Theatre according to legal descriptions of the times
G. Topham Forrest – “Blackfriars Theatre: Conjectural Reconstruction” by G. Topham Forrest, The Times, 21 November 1921, p. 5. Drawing of the second Blackfriars Theatre according to legal descriptions of the times

The boys’ companies initially fell out of favor in 1589 due to their involvement in the Martin Maleprate controversy, a series of anti clerical pamphlets and performances for which John Penry was eventually held responsible and executed in 1593. The companies experienced a resurgence of popularity after Richard Burbage, of all people, leased the second Blackfriars Theatre to the Children of the Chapel around 1597. The boys performed many important, less sexually overt plays by prominent playwrights such as Marston, Dekker, Middleton, Chapman, Webster, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher. After the performance of Eastward Ho (1605), by Jonson, Marston, and Chapman, the Children lost their royal patronage, because of a passage about Scots in Act III which offended King James so much that he had the authors briefly imprisoned. The playhouse ceased to be productive and by 1613, the interest in boys’ companies was so diminished that they were finally absorbed by adult companies.

This is not to say that the abuse of child actors ended. After all, boys continued to play female parts until the shutting of the theaters by the Puritans in 1642.

The children’s theaters were justifiably a source of scandal throughout the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. They gave an infinite amount of ammunition for those who saw all theaters as hot beds of degeneracy and sedition. Even today, far from the politics of the era, it is not difficult to view them as sordid institutions open to constant abuse.

Salathiel Pavey probably fell victim to the various plagues that struck London in those days, sewage and waste disposal being little understood arts at the time. On the other hand, he could just as easily have fallen victim to some form of venereal disease.

Next:     Julius Caesar

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 1.15: A Little More on Burbage

Burbage’s acting style is frequently compared with the technique that many Hollywood actors use today called method acting. This comparison is imprecise, to say the least, as The Method, as it is sometimes called, relies on a modern understanding of psychology which leans heavily on childhood experience to investigate sub-text in the process of exploring and building a character.

In the Elizabethan age, to the contrary, individuals were believed to be constituted of “humors.”  As Richard C. Harrier observed:

“. . . it is necessary to work within the context of Elizabethan English in which the heart could and did think, and the fluids of the body were one with the moods of the spirit.”

Harrier, R. C., Jacobean Drama, Norton, p. viii.

Robert Armin, Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino CA.
Robert Armin, Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino CA.

In this view of humanity, individuals are taken as they present themselves, with various insights by their observers into the ways in which they behave and possibly mask their underlying intentions. The idea of searching their motives to some previous state, such as past or even primal experience, is not considered. Childhood itself, in the Elizabethan view, was a more or less neutral state and adulthood arrived much earlier than is now understood, at about the age of puberty.

Burbage and his followers, therefore, should not be confused with modern acting techniques. It is quite enough to recognize that his leap from Alleyn’s bombastic style to something that more closely held “a mirror up to nature” was revolutionary.

In fact, Burbage appears to have had an effect on the plays and playwrights as well. Jonson’s Every Man in his Humor declared this movement away from the bombast typical of Marlowe and Kyd  toward more realistic concerns and As You Like It responded. As Peter Farey points out:

“Marlowe’s style is essentially declamatory, his characters talking at people, rather than talking with them, as Shakespeare’s characters do.”

Farey, Peter,  Hoffman Prize Essay, 2008.

Burbage’s influence did not stop there. As a leading shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, he had the opportunity to influence the selection of actors for the company. The apparent dismissal of Will Kempe is a major example, but he appears to have naturally sought out actors who either shared or learned to work in his innovative mode. Among the actors who joined the company under his supervision we can include:

Robert Armin,  http://shakespearesactingcompany.weebly.com/robert-armin.html
Robert Armin, http://shakespearesactingcompany.weebly.com/robert-armin.html

Robert Armin, who replaced Will Kempe as leading clown and who Leslie Hotson claims: “If any player breathed, who could explore with Shakespeare the shadows and fitful flashes of the borderland of insanity, that player was Armin.”

John Lowin, who apparently was the man who seconded {ie: understudied)  Burbage in Othello, Volpone and The Alchemist. In all likelihood it was Lowin who played Iago to Burbage’s Othello, Mosca to his Volpone, and Subtle to his Face

Henry Condell who is generally listed shortly after Burbage and Heminges in most of their productions. With Heminges, he published the First Folio.

John Heminges, who was a secondary player in the company, but was an editor of the First Folio, and also the Company’s financial manager.

Augustine Phillips http://shakespearesactingcompany.weebly.com/augustine-phillips.html
Augustine Phillips http://shakespearesactingcompany.weebly.com/augustine-phillips.html

Augustine  Phillips, one of the six sharers in the Globe Theatre when it was built, in 1598–9. In 1601, he was the representative of the company called to testify before the Privy Council about their involvement with the rebellion of the Earl of Essex; the Chamberlain’s Men had been paid by supporters of the Earl to perform Shakespeare’s Richard II before the abortive coup. Phillips’ testimony seems to have assuaged whatever anger the court may have felt towards the players; they were not punished, and indeed played for Elizabeth at Whitehall on 24 February 1601, the night before Essex was executed.

If Burbage had this much control over his actors and his playwrights, it strikes me that it is not implausible that he also had some measure of control over how his company’s plays were presented. Which is to say that moving away from  productions which featured actors who pushed their way to center stage to project their speeches, he would naturally have been interested in developing more complex stage pictures, with moving focus. This could not have reached the level of modern stagecraft, but the awareness of it would inevitably, in my view, have resulted in much more compelling staging than what came before. I doubt very much that he would have been satisfied to merely arrange the rest of his company like furniture and drapery but would have called upon them to pay attention to the speakers, to react appropriately and help the audience understand the story.

In this period of innovation, of a swiftly moving competition between artists, patrons and politicians, who were always watchful of challenges to them from outsiders, Burbage stands as a bulwark against repression and as a leader of free expression. It is no wonder that he was revered by his audience.

Next:     Salathiel Pavy and the Boy Players.

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.