The First Blackfriars Playhouse 1576-84: Ownership, Repertoire, Audience

On the 18th February, Before Shakespeare and The Dolphin’s Back will return Elizabethan drama to the site of the First (and Second) Blackfriars Playhouse(s).  We are hosting a workshop in the Apothecaries’ Hall, built on what was formerly part of the Blackfriars complex that housed the two different playhouses (where we’ll focus on the First Playhouse [1576-84]).  We’ll be exploring all the different elements of the Playhouse and the documents that help to shape and reshape narratives about its history: its plays, its series of ownership issues, and its neighbourhood and audiences.

Blackfriars

The Blackfriars is a “liberty” (or what London’s City Council sometimes disapprovingly calls an “exempt place” or “pretended exempt place”)—geographically within the City of London but jurisdictionally separate from it.  After the dissolution of the monasteries, the land was eventually sold off to private owners; Sir Thomas Cawarden was an early “landlord” of the site, and he was also Master of the Revels in the 1550s, associating the Blackfriars with theatricality even before a playhouse was built in the neighbourhood. The seemingly rather irascible William More succeeded Cawarden as the owner of much of the liberty after Cawarden’s death in 1559, and More continued to run it as something approaching a private real estate enterprise, leasing various bits of property to different paying tenants.

The area was known for its diverse array of inhabitants, from wealthy lords and ladies to working men and women. It also had a very high immigrant population, resulting in a cosmopolitan demographic that dates back to at least as early as the 1560s.  Here’s a handful of various occupations of Blackfriars residents from between 1571 and 1583:

Minister, hatbandmaker, bowling alley manager, leatherdresser, hatmaker, seller and perfumer of gloves, coppersmith, carver, brushmaker, bookbinder, goldbeater, crossbowmaker, joiner, locksmith, turner, silkweaver, victualler, jerkinmaker, capknitter, schoolmaster, cutler, milliner, shoemaker, needlemaker, confitmaker, printer, letter-caster, clockmaker, fencing teacher.

We look forward to thinking how this environment might have influenced or been influenced by the Playhouse during our workshop.

Playhouse

In 1576, Richard Farrant requested permission to rent rooms in the Blackfriars from More. Farrant was deputy to the master of the Chapel Royal (William Hunnis) and from 1564 was the master of the Choristers of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. He intended to use the rooms at the Blackfriars for the rehearsal of the children of the Chapel Royal, and he wrote to More requesting that he “may pull down one partition and so make of two rooms one” (Folger L.b.446). He is certainly granted a lease of six upper chambers that year on the 20 December and he proceeds to set up what is now generally known as the First Blackfriars Playhouse.

l.b.350.jpg

The lease granted to Farrant of six rooms in the Blackfriars, which becomes the First Playhouse.  L.b.350, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C. (Photo: Callan Davies)

Over the next eight years, the (almost certainly very small) Blackfriars Playhouse hosted plays quite possibly by both of Farrant’s associated children’s companies (Chapel Royal and Windsor). We have limited information about the specifics of Farrant’s commercial operation (but commercial it was!; see below…), though it seems likely the playhouse was reasonably “elite”—pricier than larger public offerings such as its exact peer, The Theatre in Shoreditch (1576), and thus catering to a slightly more well-heeled audience. The earliest repertory of the playhouse is difficult to establish; very few plays can be placed with certainty at the venue and none survives (unrevised) from its first five or so years. Yet a “later” repertory can be determined through prologues to surviving plays that acknowledge performance at the venue; through performance by the company or companies known to be performing at the venue in this period; and through associations with Farrant or other occupants (as in The Wars of Cyrus). These plays probably include, then: John Lyly’s Campaspe (1583) and Sapho and Phao (1584), Anthony Munday’s Fedele and Fortunio (c.1579-84), George Peele’s The Arraignment of Paris (1581-84), and The Wars of Cyrus (late 1570s/early 1580s?).[1]

Amid this regular offering of play performances, only a handful of which survive, the space underwent a series of legal disputes and interpersonal quarrels. By 1580, More had sought to evict Farrant, claiming he had reneged on his promises in the original lease by subletting the property, removing partitions, and using it as . . . a playhouse. More expanded on these complaints in a later response to Farrant’s widow:

Farrant pretended unto me to use the house only for the teaching of the Children of the Chapel, but made it a continual house for plays, to the offense of the precinct, and pulled down partitions to make that place apt for that purpose [. . .] and contrary to the condition let out part of the said house, for the which I charged him with the forfeiture of his lease, whereunto he yielded and offered composition; but before I could take remedy against him he died. (Surrey History Centre LM 425/11) [2]

How inconvenient! In the years after Farrant’s death, his widow Anne Farrant struggled with money and seemingly sublet the property to William Hunnis and one John Newman. Hunnis and Newman worked together to continue to perform and charge for play performance in the playhouse. By 1583, the lease had changed hands to Henry Evans. (Lucy Munro has fresh evidence about this change of ownership that will be featured in the workshop.) Evans eventually passed the lease on to the Earl of Oxford, who bestowed it as a gift on his secretary John Lyly. During this period, it seems a new company arose—Oxford’s Boys (likely a combination of Children of the Chapel and Children of St Paul’s)—managed by Henry Evans, with John Lyly providing plays and running the playhouse. Further legal wranglings then ensued, and this brief operation was closed for good in 1584, when More regained the property and finally put an end to all that (ostensible!) “offense” to the precinct (well, for a few years anyway…).

Workshop

Our workshop will explore these different aspects of the First Blackfriars Playhouse—its dramatic repertory and its surrounding legal and social controversies. We will explore a range of different documents, from letters to lawsuits to censuses of religion and occupation, and put them all into performance.  The workshop will explore ways of creating meaning from dramatic and non-dramatic documents and think about the performativity, or performance possibilities, of theatre history itself.  What can we learn about one of the earliest commercial playhouses by performing the documents and evidence that help comprise its “history”?  We will invite guests to respond to and participate in these dramatic explorations as we sit and stand on the very site of their subject matter. We look forward to exploring, too, the magnificent space of the Apothecaries’ Hall—rooms that offer parallels in many ways to the original Blackfriars buildings.

The First Blackfriars Playhouse has a fascinating and complex history and it was surrounded by a vibrant, creative, and cosmopolitan neighbourhood. Its surviving plays are funny yet frequently subtle, attuned to their urban surroundings, and filled with innovative and arresting language and dramaturgy. We can’t wait to bring them home.

Book tickets for the event on Eventbrite here.

Callan Davies


Notes

[1] It seems possible that Cyrus was a 1570s Farrant play that was revised in the following decade and found its way into print. It may therefore represent a play that connects the earlier years and the later years of the short-lived First Playhouse.

[2] The original document is now partially decayed, missing sections of text (it underwent conservation in 1962).  This fuller transcription is taken from Irwin Smith. “Document 17” in Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse: Its History and Its Design. New York UP, 1964: 467-8.

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