Post from the Past 1: Spying the Playhouses

Catlyn to Walsingham, 1587

This post is the first in a series that will share our work in the archive, including photographed images, transcriptions, and a brief discussion of some of the archival material we have been surveying.  While many libraries are strict on what can and cannot be shared online–particularly with photographs–the British Library permits controlled and clearly-cited photographs to circulate in social media. A series of blogs over the next few months will showcase some of the sixteenth-century letters and documents held at the British Library that discuss playing and the playhouses.

Francis Walsingham is sometimes known as Elizabeth’s “spymaster.”  Manuscripts in the Harleian collection of the British Library contain a wealth of correspondence sent to him by a variety of correspondents.  One such document, for instance, adds to his credentials as a super-spook; the image below shows the means for “wayes to discouer the secreat writing in white papers,” with instructions written in the margin reading, “If your honnor rub this pouder within the black lyne the letters will appeare white.”  At the bottom of the letter, one can vaguely discern the traces of this instruction being carried out:

ms-harleian-286-secret-writing-fo-78-2

MS Harleian 286, fo. 78 (February 1586)

While this correspondence to Walsingham reveals a wealth of interesting administrative and security matters, it also gives glimpses of the ways playing was perceived–and perceived, too, as a threat to national security.

A letter dated 25th January 1586, addressed to Walsingham from Maliverny Catlyn, sets forth a surprisingly forthright complaint about stage plays in London (a full transcription is posted below):

Catlyn is an agent of Walsingham, who feeds information from various places across the country (and who also spent time in Portsmouth and Marshalsea prisons).  In this letter, however, he expends most of his ink framing a seemingly urgent plea a little removed from his role as agent provocateur. He explains that he has many times thought to write on this particular matter to Walsingham, but has hesitated, hoping that “time would take away th’occasion”; however, he notes that it–that is, playing!–rather “runneth on, a malo, ad peius [‘from bad to worse’]”.  The letter gives us information about the state and extent of playing in the city, as well as what companies were active in the mid-1580s (the companies he mentions are the Queen’s Men, the Earl of Leicester’s Men, the Earl of Oxford’s, the Lord Admiral’s, “and diverse others”).

While these give some clues to the theatre scene in London, we should also be wary of Catlyn’s intentions: while there is no reason to doubt his list of companies (and he is presumably a man with rich sources of information), the letter employs a variety of rhetorical devices designed to create opposition between playing and piety (note his conspicuous parallelisms): “the play houses are pestered when the churches are naked; at the one, it is not possible to get a place; at the other, void seats are plenty”; “more time to pray than play”; “It is a woeful sight to see two hundred proud players jet in their silks where five hundred poor people starve in the Streets.”  The numbers in the latter sentence suggest a thriving set of players in the city (though another figure, hyperbole, may make us pause before taking this at face value.)

Catlyn also points to the threat posed by playhouses.  Words like “pestered” remind us that antitheatrical writers and authorities saw places for playing and/or other recreational assemblies as liable to increase the spread of plague.  Catlyn’s distinctly vengeful God (made explicit in his references to Moses and Nineveh) hovers throughout the letter, threatening punishment for playing: “it will agreeth with the office of every true Christian (of what calling so ever) to labour about the building of Sion, lest in neglecting that work, all the building be cast down and overthrown”; “for where god is pleased, there all things go well. But where his wrath is kindled, there, man’s policy cannot prevent punishment.”  Three years earlier, London witnessed a day of fatalities and serious injuries when galleries at the Beargarden collapsed (a bearbaiting arena known as the Paris Garden); in 1580, six years before Catlyn’s letter, an earthquake shook London with surprising severity.  These incidents were used to criticise the practice of playing, suppress it for a time, and were subsequently invoked to point to its sinfulness and to the danger–spiritual and physical–of playhouses and related structures.

The letter’s tone is somewhat surprising and even borders (if read a certain way) on aggression; other elements may smack (from our historical distance) of melodrama, particularly the despairing plaint, “woe is me” (I have resisted adding an exclamation mark). Catlyn advocates a policy previously taken with play-hosting inns in the 1570s: “yet for god’s sake (sir) lett every Stage in London pay a weekly pention to the poor / that ex hoc malo, pro proueniat aliquod bonum” [‘from this evil proceeds some good’].  Acts in 1574 and 1579 sought to exact precisely such a pension for the hospitals of the city from landlords whose inns hosted plays, though Catlyn here may be referring to playhouses in the suburbs as well as stages in London (especially considering his comments about playbills and the range of companies).

Catlyn explains that his heart drew his hand to write, and certainly his antitheatrical thoughts displace his presumably more pressing information to the closing sentences: he finishes by explaining that one Jennings of Portsmouth seeks to speak with Catlyn, and he mentions giving “advertisement of French and Scottish” designs.  In this wider context, the letter neatly points to the way in which playhouses, while hardly central to foreign policy or Elizabethan anti-terrorism efforts, can to some represent threats to the wellbeing of the nation just as does insurrection. We might guess that some of the Privy Council were, to some extent, ambivalent about commercial playing, though it is unlikely this letter met with much success in exercising Walsingham to try and suppress the practice: while the 1580s and 90s saw occasional prevention of playing, they were largely temporary stays related to plague or disorder (see further posts to come), and the topic forms a small part of the complex interaction between the City of London and the Queen’s Privy Council in this period.

The letter provides a fascinating sketch of a city bustling with players, playing, playbills, and the sounds of the theatre; the sketch, though, comes from an Elizabethan spy who is not enticed but aggrieved by the Trumpets’ “sound to the Stages.”

TRANSCRIPTION (modernised):

I have oftentimes proposed to attempt your honour’s patience in viewing this discourse following: but fearing lest I should be thought too officious, I have let sleep my determination in hope that time would take away th’occasion, which I see (to my grief) runeth on, a malo, ad peius [from bad to worse]. The thing is this.                      The daily abuse of stage plays is such an offence to the godly and so great an hinderance to the gospel, as the papists do exceedingly rejoice at the blemish thereof, and not without cause: for every day in the week, the players’ bills are set up in sundry places of the City, some in the name of her Majesty’s men, some the Earle of Leic./ some the E. of Oxford’s, the Lo. Admiral’s, and diverse others, so that when the bells toll to the Lectors, the Trumpets sound to the Stages.  Whereat the wicked faction of Rome laugheth for joy, while the godly weep for sorrow. Woe is me. The play houses are pestered when the churches are naked; at the one, it is not possible to get a place; at the other, void seats are plenty. The profaning of the Sabbath is redressed but as bad a custom entertayned, and yet still our longsuffering god forbeareth to punish. It is a woeful sight to see two hundred proud players jet in their silks where five hundred poor people starve in the Streets; but if needs this mischief must be tolerated, whereat (no doubt) the highest frowneth, yet for god’s sake (sir) lett every Stage in London pay a weekly pention to the poor, that ex hoc malo, proueniat aliquod bonum [from this evil proceeds some good].  But it were rather to be wished that players might be used as Apollo did his laughing, semel in anno [once a year].  The Lord of Moses will surely forsake to dwell amongst the tents of Israel, if the sins of the people do still provoke him. The spoil and overthrow of Nineveh is feared, and daily looked for; therefore, more time to pray than play. Now, methinks I see your honour smile, and say to yourself, these things are fitter for the pulpit than a Soldier’s pen. But God (who searchest the heart and Reynes [renal/kidney/inners]) knoweth that I write not hypocritically, but from the very sorrow of my soul, and the rather to you because I know your affection and means of redress. And truly I am fully persuaded that it will agreeth with the office of every true Christian (of what calling so ever) to labour about the building of Sion, lest in neglecting that work, all the building be cast down and overthrown.  God grant you may be mindful of this matter, as not of least moment, and then I doubt not but remedy will follow: for where god is pleased, there all things go well. But where his wrath is kindled, there, man’s policy cannot prevent punishment. I hope this disliketh you not; but if it be a course not allowed, blame my heart—for that drew my hand to write. To [struck out] Jennynges of Portsmouth hath sent me word he will speak with me tomorrow and hath requested a note of my lodging. He cometh up secretly and therefore I suppose his errand is extraordinary. For this sevennight, almost day by day, I have given advertisement of French and Scottish disseinges [designs?] to T.P.[?]
The lorde blesse you all in all thinges./
xxvth of January 1586

Callan.

2 thoughts on “Post from the Past 1: Spying the Playhouses

  1. Pingback: Birthday Post: A Year of Before Shakespeare | Before Shakespeare

  2. Pingback: The Man with the Golden Pen | Before Shakespeare

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