Penny McIsaac

Where were plays performed before the opening of the playhouses?

According to Elizabeth Howe, during the 1630s the production of drama was divided into three principle areas.  The first locality featured performances in the public playhouses such as the Glode, the Fortune, and the Red Bull.  These playhouses mainly attracted the lower-class people, featuring such performances as revitalized older plays, romances, farces and melodramas.  Howe reports that the second location for theatrical activity was in the private playhouses such as Blackfriars, the Phoenix, and Salisbury Court.  These private playhouses were primarily attended by the upper and professional classes.  The final setting where theater was produced was the court theatre.

Edmond claims that in 1642, parliament banned the performance of stage plays in London, beginning the years of Interregnum until 1660.  This law was enforced by frequent raids of soldiers, the confiscation of costumes and props, the warranting of fines, and occasionally the imprisonment of rebellions.  There was no tolerance for public theatre in England.  According to Nethercot, those who choose to indulge in drama were force to hold private performances with family and friends in their homes.

However, Edmond suggests that during Interregnum there was considerable sympathy for the ‘acting community’.  Even in the state of neglect and abandonment, theatre and drama managed to survive.  By the year 1647, actors were once again publicly accepting professions as actors.  Somehow amongst all the efforts to prohibit stage acting, the theatre named the Red Bull in St. John Street, Clerkenwell continued featuring plays.  The open-air theatre had a reputation of appealing to “the meaner sort of people”(Edmond 121).  If audiences were not pleased with a performance, it was not uncommon for “the Benches, the tiles, the laths, the stones, Oranges, Apples, Nuts, [to fly] about most liberally”(Edmond 121).  However, since the Red Bull was the only playhouse open, the most noble and gentry people began appearing to see the performances.  The Red Bull remained the dominant playhouse until soon after 1655.  At that point, a raid by soldiers, where many actors and spectators were seized, tragically ended any hopes of stage plays in England.

According to Bordinat, Sir William D’Avenant “presented a series of stage entertainments that were to profoundly influence the development of the English theater”(110).  However, that was not possible until1654 when D’Avenant was released from prison.  Between the years 1649 and 1654 D’Avenant was captured and imprisoned in Cowes Castle, then moved to the Tower of London.  D’Avenant was under close supervision by the lieutenant of the tower; thus he was unable to produce any plays.  Nevertheless, D’Avenant took this time to continue writing his epic play “Gondibert”.  However, in 1654 he was granted his freedom from the tower through “the unfortunate man’s petition for ‘full liberty’ after ‘having endured 2 years’ imprisonment in the Tower, and being a year more under bail”(23).  This began a series of stage entertainment which he presented between the years 1655 and 1660.  By 1656, D’Avenant had established a least three ‘private performance houses’: Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Drury Lane, and Rutland House.

Hotson states that D’Avenant opened a playhouse at Lisle’s Tennis Court, near Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in late June of 1661 known as the Duke’s Playhouse.  However, D’Avenant also made use of this court before this time.  In 1656, James Hooker bought two half-estates of land in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  Hooker and his wife Anne Tyler began building a tennis court that would later be converted into the playhouse owned by D’Avenant.  The couple received resistance in form of protests to their building on the land which was intended for tennis courts.  However, there was no prohibitive action taken and the construction was completed.  As Bordinat commented, D’Avenant used the land at Lincoln’s Inn Fields to perform private performances.  In addition, “Davenant’s players used to come and drink [in Lincoln’s Inn Fields] after the performance”(Hotson 122).  In March of 1660, D’Avenant began leasing the Tennis Court and converting it into a theatre.

Hotson continues to provide a clear explication of the cockpit in Drury Lane for her readers.  In April of 1607, a large plot of
land was leased by a gardener named Walter Burton.  The land was found in the parish of St.-Giles-in-the-fields.  It was
described as, “a plot newly enclosed from the west side of Aldwich Close adjoining Drury Lane”(88).  Burton later sold this
land to John Best, who by 1609 had built seven or eight houses on the plot.  Among these houses was one called “a Cockpit”.
The Cockpit was later used as a playhouse and now called the Phenix.  Although before becoming a theatrical amphitheatre,
the Cockpit was used for people to watch cockfighting, featuring bloody fighting and gladiators.  However, due to its size and
its capacity to hold a large audience, it later became the well known playhouse named the Cockpit of Drury Lane.

According to Edmond, during this time, D’Avenant escaped the laws governing theatre through the introduction of operatic drama.  D’Avenant’s opera is credited for the reintroduction of drama and theatre.  Opera was tolerated, escaping the laws due to the use of music and song.  His operatic drama featured “a form of medley consisting of ‘declamations’ interspersed with instrumental music and songs”(Edmond 122).  D’Avenant held these performances in a room in his own home, known as Rutland House.  Edmond reports that D’Avenant advertised semiprivate performances; however he opened them to the public, charging five shillings a head.  There was no official objection to Rutland House where D’Avenant presented many of his plays.

Nethercot suggests that since the plays were performed in his home, it escaped the threat of being shut down on the basis of public theatre or stage entertainment.  Through the finical help of powerful friends, D’Avenant purchased Rutland House in upper Aldersgate Street near Charterhouse Square.
Nethercot offers a valuable description of Rutland House:
                 At the back part of Rutland House was a hall, rather narrow and low perhaps,
                 which could nevertheless be fitted up as a sort of assembly room; D’avenant
                 aptly described it as a “Cup-board” stage.  Benches had to be adopted as seats,
                 rather than the comfortable chairs that most of the members of the prospective
                 audience had been accustomed to in the elegant chambers and salons abroad;
                 indeed, even these benches had to be so arranged that the audience could not
                 front the platform, but, divided into two parts, faced itself at an angle.  On each
                 side of the platform was a rostrum, decorated in purple and gilt, and before it were
                 curtains to be parted, also in cloth of gold and purple.  Above, in a “louver hole”
                 (perhaps an alcove or even a tiny, specially constructed sort of crow’s nest),
                 railed about and concealed behind portieres of sarcenet, sat the musicians.

Edmond reveals that D’Avenant established himself as a cleaver innovator, which helped him establish his own playhouse in 1660.  Even after the playhouse opened, he still used Rutland House as a way to screen productions to determine the reactions of his audience towards his plays before presenting it in his theatre.

Works Cited

Bordinat, Philip and Blaydes, Sophia B.  Sir William Davenant.  Boston:  Twayne Publishers, 1981.

Edmond, Mary.  The Revels plays companion library: Rare Sir William Davenant.  New York:
    St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

Hotson, Leslie.  The Commonwealth and Restoration Stage.  New York:  Russell & Russell, 1962.

Howe, Elizabeth.  The First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700. Cambridge:
    University Press, 1992.

Nethercot, Arthur.  Sir William D’Avenant, Poet Laureate and Playwright-Manager.  New York:
    Russell & Russell