The Passionate Pilgrim 1.16: Salathiel Pavey and the Boy Players

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
Interior of the first Blackfriars Theatre

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.

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.

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