Performing words #2: No room in the inns?

This post is part of a series on theatrical words. For an introduction to the series, see Performing words: introduction to a new thread on theatre and language.

It’s nearly Christmas, and I’m writing to ask if there might be room for the inns in our accounts of early London playing spaces. When we think of Elizabethan London playhouses, most of us think of an amphitheatre: big, round, outdoors and out of the city. Sometimes we might also think of indoor playing spaces, particularly at the Blackfriars: small, rectangular, indoors, and in the city. This post considers the third kind of Elizabethan playing space, the inns, which are rarely included in accounts of the playhouses at all. This, I’m going to suggest, would have surprised Elizabethans, who may well have considered the inns as the primary, most prestigious playing houses in town. As we shall see, figures as diverse as the Queen’s Men, Richard Tarlton’s horse and Satan himself all sought access to performance at the inns. The inns thrived as playing spaces up to 1595, making them likely venues for playwrights we now associtate with outdoor playhouses, most obviously Shakespeare and Jonson.

The big, round and outdoors playhouse is not itself a secure category, of course. Scholars have come to realise that not all such playhouses were as big as we thought, and many would quibble with the word ’round’. These buildings were roundly polygonal, perhaps we might say, and we now know from the Curtain that some were stubbornly oblong. But despite the controversies over size and shape, scholars don’t tend to question the word ‘outdoors’, which I think should surprise us more than it does. At a basic horizontal level, both audience and performers were firmly indoors in these spaces: they’d entered the building via a door. They are outdoors only from a vertical perspective, since these playhouses didn’t have a complete roof. It is these larger, rounder, less canopied places that have come to define the modern sense of an Elizabethan playhouse. This ignores other kinds of playing space, and a very silly person might want to call this exclusive mode of definition a ruthless, roofless sort of theatre history.

But given how little we think of inn playing spaces as playhouses, it is perhaps surprising to realise that we in fact know much more about their playing culture than we do about either the early outdoor or indoor kind of playing spaces. This is especially true in the public domain of printed books and letters witnessing widespread popular opinion and knowledge. The inns are often described by scholars as an earlier and quickly outmoded place to play, but in fact they opened and thrived alongside the outdoor spaces. Although they have come to seem far less important to theatre historians than these outdoor spaces, it is in fact the inns, not the outdoor playhouses, that attract interest from contemporaries. In the rest of this blog post, I quote from Glynne Wickham, Herbert Berry and William Ingram’s English Professional Theatre, something of a Bible for our project. I confine myself to this book to make the polemical point that this evidence has been staring us in the face since at least 2000, when that book was published. There we can see that commentary of various forms from the 1570s, ’80s and ’90s tells us much about why you might go see a play at a particular inn, at a time when we do not know these things for other kinds of venue.

So what might a playgoing enthusiast have known about the inns?

The Bel Savage

Well, if you enjoy fencing competitions in the mid-1570s, we’re told that the Bel Savage and the Bull are the places for you. We know quite a bit more about the Bel Savage, which is perhaps why a major modern novelist has just written a book about it (I haven’t read Philip Pullman’s latest yet, so no plot spoilers please). Around 1590 the Bel Savage is singled out as an especially exciting place to watch a fencing match because of the risk of injury from falling off the stage (it isn’t clear if this is due to the smallness, the height or some other unusual aspect of the stage). But the same playing space, Stephen Gosson assures us in the late 1570s, is the place to hear excellently written ‘prose books’, ‘where you shall find never a word without wit, never a line without pith, never a letter placed in vain’. This is the earliest reference to a playhouse having a distinctive literary house style in its plays, and it celebrates the performance of prose dialogue. This is crucial information about theatrical prosody that has yet to be incorporated into narratives about literary development in the period, and it troubles conventional accounts that see fourteeners giving way to blank verse, and prose as an occasional deviation in adult plays and an eccentricity of boy theatre.

A few years earlier, George Gascoigne, wishing to praise his writing by comparing it to a ‘mart’ (ie, market) in theatrical ‘vain delight’, names the Bel Savage as exactly that kind of salacious commercial enterprise. This is the first literary reference to any London playhouse. When Lambarde wants to single out a London performance space, he names the Bel Savage (and does so not only in 1576 but again as late as 1596, in a passage he otherwise revises). Taken together, this evidence tells us that the Bel Savage had a distinctive kind of stage, house style and was seen as an early exemplar of the emergent commercial venues charging for performance. This might not seem like much, but it is an awful lot more than we know about the Theatre, Curtain or Newington Butts playhouse in this period in terms of repertory and reputation. Perhaps most importantly, the above discussions of the Bel Savage take place in the public forum of print, and therefore testify not only to the writers’ knowledge but their assumption of their readership’s awareness of this playhouse. Lambarde also tells us that entry to the Bel Savage is based on a stratified paying system: you ‘first pay one penny at the gate, another at the entry of the scaffold, and the third for a quiet standing’. This is the first time we hear of such a system in use in the London playhouses, but theatre history usually associates its introduction with the later Theatre. Taken together, this evidence tells us that the Bel Savage was 1) a place of fencing, prose and salacious delight; 2) highly visible and well-known; 3) had some sense of repertorial identity. It also tells us that its financial model was common knowledge. And, as we’ll see, the Bel Savage is the place the devil goes to play.

The Bull

As for the Bull, the other playhouse singled out as a fencing venue, Florio imagines that an Italian tourist will need to know how to ask his way ‘To a play at the Bull, or else to some other place’. Note that although Florio would like his readers to be able to get somewhere else too, it’s the Bull that he names, as though a theatrical trip to this inn were the very epitome of a London leisure activity. His phrase, ‘a play at the Bull’, presupposes the kind of regular, repeat and reliable performance that has usually only been associated with the outdoor playhouses by scholars.

If you’re fond of polemics against usury and sedition and free from amorous gestures or slovenly, unchase talk, you’re in luck, because the Bull is the place for you. This advice from Gosson in the late 1570s is superseded in 1592 by a recommendation of the same inn for plays indulging in language games, rhetorical tricks, feathers of fancy, extraordinary elegancy and words running on the letter.

On the other hand, in 1594 Lady Anne Bacon can worry that her sons are moving to London and near the Bull, whose ‘continual interludes’ infect the area ‘with corrupt and lewd dispositions’:

considering that street, and then to have so near a place haunted with such pernicious and obscene plays and theatre able to poison the very Godly.

Bacon’s letter confirms what we deduced from Florio: the Bull is a place for ‘continual interludes’, and Bacon’s fears about its ‘pernicious and obscene plays’ implicitly assume a repertorial identity. When Bacon thinks of the street, she thinks of the inn; when she thinks of the inn, she thinks of its plays: the Bull repertory has come to define not only the inn but its locale. Bacon is here writing privately, in a letter, but she clearly draws on opinions widespread enough to have reached beyond a London milieu. It seems to be me to be very important that Bacon uses the still unusual word ‘theatre’. It isn’t clear if she’s calling the Bull a theatre, or its performances theatre: to cut down the quote given above, the Bull is ‘haunted with such […] plays and theatre’. For Bacon, the Bull either was – or hosted something she called – theatre. That syntactical uncertainty is itself suggestive, and I’ll be returning to this strange word theatre in a later post. This, for me, is further evidence that theatre historians need to be thinking across different performance venues – outdoor, indoor and inns – rather than segregating them into discrete, separate worlds.

Finally, if you’re the Lord Mayor hoping to discourage the spread of disease, you might prevent the Earl of Warwick’s servant from holding fencing competitions at the Bull, offering him ‘an open space’ in the city instead of ‘playing in an inn’; if you later have to ban even an open space in the City, you might still allow him to ‘play at the Theatre or other open place out of the City’. This may well expose to our view a system of priority on the part of those seeking to make money from public performance: the inns are where you’d really like to be, and failing that an open space in the city. If you’re really stuck for a city venue, the Theatre will have to do. Modern scholarship is more likely to assume that such a set of priorities worked in reverse. These references to the Bull tell us that 1) it was a fixture on the London social scene – the sort of place a foreigner might need to ask their way to; 2) it had different repertorial identities at different stages in its life, and could be perceived as a virtuous, chaste place in the late 1570s, but somewhere corrupt and lewd by 1594; and 3) for at least one playing company, the Bull is a better place to be than the Theatre.

The Cross Keys

If you’re a member of Lord Strange’s Men, and have just been banned from playing in the City by the mayor, then you might storm off ‘in very contemptuous manner’ and defiantly perform ‘that afternoon’ at the Cross Keys, as happened in November 1589. This means that the Cross Keys is the place to be cross and to cross the mayor. The Chamberlain’s Men were also especially attached to this playing space. After performing there ‘this winter time’ in 1594, they asked to be allowed to continue doing so, and in order to secure prolonged residency made clear that they were willing to begin performances earlier in the day without the usual advertisement by drums and trumpet.  This continues the line of evidence that we saw at the Bull, that inn playing spaces quickly developed a sense of a theatrical season, and confirms that the inns were sought-after spaces: it was worth forgoing the advertorial but anti-social drums and trumpet in order to win the commercial advantage of playing in an inn. This was happening as late as 1594, at a time when most scholarly accounts barely register that the inns existed, and gives the lie to our current sense that the outdoor playhouses superseded or replaced inn playhouses. Thanks to his later lawsuit against Margaret Brayne, we even know that on 23 June 1579 James Burbage ‘came down Gracious Street towards the Cross Keys there to a play’. The Cross Keys seems a desirable place to play, somewhere playing companies are willing to petition for, sacrifice their usual advertising techniques for and even break the rules for.


If you’re a fan of Tarlton, I’m happy to say that you have the full range of inns to choose from. If you’re hoping to hear him in 1588 extemporise in the form of a ‘sorrowful new sonnet’ on the theme ‘now or else never’ (a good theatrical theme, that), head for the Bel Savage; you could also catch him playing with the Queen’s Men at the Bull sometime earlier, engaging in impromptu onstage doubling in The Famous Victories ofHenry V.  He was also in residence at the Bell ‘with his fellows’, though the smuggest Tarlton fans would have been the ones who happened to be at the Cross Keys when he wandered across from the Bell ‘to see the fashions’ and engage in horse play – literal horse play – with ‘a horse of strange qualities’.

The Bell

Of the four inns, we hear least about the Bell: this is where Tartlon was playing when he engaged in much more memorable and noteworthy antics at the Cross Keys. It’s also where ‘the play of Cutwell’ was performed in 1577, since the Revels Office has to pay for the relocation of ‘the parts of the well counterfeit’ in the play from the Bell to the Revels Office. But since the Bull and the Bell are the places named as the designated placing spaces for the newly formed Queen’s Men, ‘and nowhere else within this city’, it must have had or come to have an especial importance in the city’s theatrical culture.

Putting the inns back in

These various kinds of evidence survive as an accident of historical record of course, but it is evidence nonetheless, and its striking contrast compared with the relative silence about outdoor playing spaces may itself indicate a wider or more important or more self-conscious culture of theatergoing at the inns. Certainly these references demonstrate a rich theatrical culture in which different inns developed reputations for theatrical specialization, and were considered to be regular playing spaces. For whatever reason, the same cannot be said of the outdoor playhouses in this earlier period.

So although there is no room in modern theatre history for the inns, there was clearly room at the inns for theatrical performance. When we hear of the Chamberlain’s Men playing at the Cross Keys “this winter time” in 1594, and asking for permission to continue doing so, it might be time to consider whether the concept of a theatrical season functioned in this period, and was especially associated with, or at least is now best attested at, the inns. I hope we can also see that the inns flourished all the way up to their closures in the mid-1590s, rather than being immediately displaced and superseded by the outdoor playhouses in the 1570s, as often supposed. We might also reflect on the implications of this evidence for our various methodological approaches. Repertory studies has been one of the most exciting developments of the past thirty years. We don’t have repertories for the inns, but we do have a sense of repertory vividly testified amongst contemporary playgoers. What can repertory studies tell us about this state of affairs, and what does this state of affairs have to offer repertory studies?

This makes the inn playhouses very different, historiographically, from the outdoor playhouses. We may be able to reconstruct the playing repertories of particular companies, but since such companies did not yet have long-term relationships with outdoor playing venues, we are not able to characterize the theatrical culture of outdoor playhouses in quite the same way as we can for other kinds of spaces. Often seen as an alternative to touring, the outdoor playhouses in fact seem to have begun life as new spaces to tour to; it’s the inns, along with the indoor playhouses, which seem to have been the first spaces to develop longer-term relationships with particular companies. There is a richly productive sweep of evidence here, but the canonization of certain kinds of playing spaces means that it has barely been touched, despite its relatively wide availability in print anthologies of such documents. Added to all that we know of the four inn playing spaces named above is the problem that London Council and aldermen references to inn performance strongly suggest that other inns and innholders hosted plays and interludes in this period; though these four are the ones named in documents, other inn playing spaces may well have been available across London.

In the seventeenth century, William Prynne tells us that the devil appeared onstage during a sixteenth-century staging of necromancy. This happened at the Bel Savage, and shows us that Lucifer himself knew which playhouse to appear at for maximum impact.

The visible apparition of the devil on the stage at the Bel Savage playhouse in Queen Elizabeth’s days (to the great amazement both of the actors and spectators), whiles they were there profanely playing the History of Faustus, the truth of which I have heard from many now alive who well remember it, there being some distracted with that fearful sight.

If the devil is in the detail, and the devil and the detail are in the inns, is it possible to make some room for the inns in our accounts of London’s earliest playhouses?

Andy Kesson

8 thoughts on “Performing words #2: No room in the inns?

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  2. I finally got round to saying ‘hooray for the inns!’. Thanks for this, Andy: a very useful digest and one would hope it would pique more interest. It might be worth adding that Paul Menzer, amongst others, has cast doubt on the usual assumption that inn-playing was forcibly stopped in 1594; there is some evidence to suggest that it may have continued for a few years after that date. The jury is – or should be! – still out.


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