The First Blackfriars: A Workshop Reflection

On Sunday, we, the Dolphin’s Back, and a room-full of participants were lucky enough to see the history of the Blackfriars and the First Playhouse brought to life on the very spot on which it once stood. Thanks to the Society of Apothecaries, London, we were able to stage the leases, drama, court quarrels, and contexts surrounding one of England’s earliest playhouses (open from 1576 to 84) in the stunning Hall that now stands in its stead. We are enormously grateful to James Wallace and the wonderful cast of actors: Jamie Askill, Tim Blore, Sarah Edwardson, Tim Frances, John Hopkins, Patrick Walsh McBride, and Beth Park.


The Apothecaries’ Hall, with the “Blackfriars audience”

One abstract observation is that there is a definite thrill in a site-specific workshop. The first Blackfriars playhouse was converted in 1576, most probably from two rooms in a block known as the Old Buttery; in 1632, long after the playhouse had closed, the property was bought by the Society of Apothecaries as a location for their Hall. The current Apothecaries’ Hall was constructed upon the same layout after the Great Fire of London destroyed the original Blackfriars complex in 1666. While the feeling remains somewhat ineffable, there’s a transhistorical frisson to collapsing time by putting into dialogue the now and the then of this small spot of London—something that several of the Apothecaries’ members, who use the space daily, pointed out after the workshop. Perhaps this is in part because such a site-related workshop lends itself to what Stephen Greenblatt calls, in relation to museums, “resonance”: a feeling that evokes in the viewer “a sense of the cultural and historically contingent construction of art objects, the negotiations, exchanges, swerves, and exclusions by which certain representational practices come to be set apart from other representational practices that they partly resemble” (“Resonance and Wonder,” Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. Ivan Karp, 1991: 42-56; 45). This is all the more acute when exploring, as we were, a repertory of plays long obscured by subsequent (especially Shakespearean) texts, and by the layers of time, architecture, and cultural selective memory that have obscured the innovative First Blackfriars Playhouse and its cosmopolitan surroundings. We were on the same ground as these sixteenth-century inhabitants whose voices we heard reanimated by the cast, and this prompted a reflection on how we talk to, relate with, memorialise, or forget certain of the individuals involved in the formative stages of early commercial English theatre—including the first recorded woman to have a stake in owning a playhouse.

It was an interesting chance to think about staging and performance before a contributing audience as, in itself, a methodology for theatre history. We invited audiences to imagine themselves as both critical onlookers from today and members of the Blackfriars neighbourhood in the sixteenth century. Using material prepared by Callan Davies, we handed out cards with a nationality on one side and an occupation on the other—all drawn from registers and subsidy returns from the Blackfriars during the period surrounding the First Playhouse—as well as leafletting the room with paintings by Blackfriars painters and music and songs written by those involved in the playhouse, and inviting commentary on all the performed material as we went along. By drawing in audience members in this way, we sought to explore the connections between the inhabitants, the ownership of space, women’s (and particularly widows’) legal powers, non-dramatic creativity, and of course, commercial theatre’s first surviving playhouse repertory. In many ways, this offered the chance for a form of “play” (albeit a curated and structured one) with how we tell narrative and the relationship between different types of theatre-historical evidence.

While we didn’t want to flatten out the differences between the plays and the other material that we introduced, we were keen to present our documentary materials in ways that opened up their potential as performance or performative pieces. The first part of the workshop thus moved between theatrical, epistolary and legal sources. We looked at the interaction between William More, who owned extensive properties in the Blackfriars, and the people who laid a claim on the playhouse: Richard Farrant, Master of the choristers of the royal choir at Windsor, who converted part or all of ‘six upper chambers’, leased from More, for theatrical uses; his widow, Anne, who was forced after Richard’s death in 1580 to deal with the financial fall-out from the project; William Hunnis, Master at the Chapel Royal, and John Newman, who sub-let the playhouse from Anne Farrant; Henry Evans, citizen and scrivener of London, to whom Hunnis and Newman seem to have passed the lease; and Thomas Smallpiece, to whom William More eventually re-let the property in an attempt to drive Evans and his colleagues out. We used letters and legal records in a form of verbatim theatre, interspersing and cross-casting them with extracts from The Wars of Cyrus, which was not printed until 1594 but appears to preserve some of Farrant’s writing, and Anthony Munday’s Fidele and Fortunio, which as a play ‘Translated out of Italian’ has an intriguing relationship with the cosmopolitan Blackfriars precinct.


Dinon (John Hopkins) and a disguised Libanio (Jamie Askill) at the banks of the Euphrates in The Wars of Cyrus

We were fascinated in particular by the ways in which performance brought to life the legal tussles between More, Anne Farrant, Evans and Smallpiece, by the way that Anne’s negotiations over the playhouse unsettled some of our assumptions about women’s involvement with the theatre and the cultural agency of widows, and by the way in which the creativity that the playhouse enabled was bound up with questions of possession and financial speculation and exploitation. We juxtaposed Anne’s letter to More, in which she complains that she been left with few financial resources, ‘not having the revenue of one groat any way coming in, but by making the best I may of such things as [Richard] hath left behind him to relieve my little ’uns’, with Farrant’s own depiction of the plight of the powerful queen of Susa, Panthea, in The Wars of Cyrus. These comparisons were heightened by the fact that Beth Park was reading both Anne and Panthea, and by the fact that John Hopkins, who ‘played’ Richard, orchestrated The Wars of Cyrus by reading its stage directions. We also considered the fact that Lyly’s Campaspe and Sapho and Phao were produced during a time of intense turmoil in 1583-4, when the ownership of the playhouse was being contested in the courts.

As well as revisiting well known sources, we introduced two new documents from the Court of Common Pleas: an indenture between Hunnis and Evans for the maintenance of the boy actors, dated September 1582, which was the subject of a lawsuit in 1594; and a lawsuit brought by Smallpiece—apparently with More hovering in the background—against Evans for possession of the playhouse in 1583. These documents will eventually tell us a great deal about the Blackfriars project—how the boy actors were managed and looked after, how More manoeuvred in the background, and how Evans delayed the legal proceedings and kept the playhouse in operation for over a year until early summer 1584—but their individual stories are also fascinating. The indenture was discovered by Charles William Wallace and Hulda Berggren Wallace around a hundred years ago, but their transcription appears to have gone unnoticed among their papers in the Huntington Library, San Marino, until Lucy Munro examined it in autumn 2016 as part of her work for this project. Even the Wallaces appear to have missed the records of the suit between Smallpiece and Evans, but Lucy came across a reference to it in the published papers of the Common Pleas judge Edmund Anderson, Les Reports du Treserudite Edmund Anderson (1664), and tracked down two of the original documents in the records of the National Archives.

These documents are in heavily abbreviated Latin (we are very grateful to Dr Jonathan Mackman for translating them for us), but they have intrinsic dramatic potential because they describe the proceedings of the court. An entry in the case between Smallpiece and Evans opens:

Memorandum that Thomas Smalpice came here in the court on the seventeenth day of April, by Thomas Shawe, his attorney, this same term, and showed to the justices his certain bill against Henry Evans […] present here in the court in his own person, concerning a plea of trespass and ejectment…

In our workshop, Smallpiece (Patrick Walsh MacBride) glowered silently as the lawyer Shaw (John Hopkins) laid out his charges against Evans (Jamie Askill), moving threateningly around the room to display his evidence—the original lease agreed between Farrant and More—to the audience. There remains more scope in future events for audience contribution and the presentation and reshaping of material in performance, but at the very least it is exciting to think that this was an event that aired two new Blackfriars documents that jumped straight from the archives into public performance, discussion, and debate.


Left, William More (Tim Frances), and right, John Lyly (Tim Blore)

This workshop also taught us something important about dramaturgy and staging. Andy Kesson was especially interested to see how actors used the space during performance, which included two moments when James Wallace as Parmenio and MacBride as Phao moved out of the thrust-stage layout and ‘hid’ amongst and behind the audience. This fascinated Andy because within a thrust-stage logic, such a move would be impossible—the actor would fall off the stage. And yet something about the text made our actors feel that they needed to be away from the main action, to be to its side. This chimes with our understanding of the Blackfriars space, in that we think it emphasises left and right movement across the stage, rather than the front and back dynamic that the thrust stage often encourages. In Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, characters suddenly spot scenarios that were invisible to them before: ‘Soft, Clytus, behold the spoils and prisoners!’; ‘But behold Diogenes talking with one at his tub’; ‘Come away and behold the ferry boy ready to conduct us’. These lines indicate something already visible to the audience, but not yet visible to other characters onstage. For anyone reading with the thrust stage in mind, such moments look clunky on the page, which may explain why the Blackfriars repertory has been almost uniformly described as ‘static’ or untheatrical. But they make immediate sense once placed within the left-and-right movement of the Blackfriars stage. Our actors responded to the dramaturgical implications of the scripts, even though the ‘stage’ we had set up for our workshop worked against such implications.

This workshop continued our project emphasis on events built around shared discovery. It’s important to us that our events are not overly rehearsed and are not based around overly leading questions, but instead hand over theatrical documents to actors and audiences in order to see what they make of them. We’d like to thank actors and audiences alike for their openness to a process in which everyone learns and discovers together and pools their various kinds of expertise.


Callan Davies, Andy Kesson, and Lucy Munro.

2 thoughts on “The First Blackfriars: A Workshop Reflection

  1. Pingback: Engendering Before Shakespeare: Women and Early English Playhouse Ownership | Before Shakespeare

  2. Pingback: Christmas, Newyeares tyde: A summary of works done and attendance given, 2018 | Before Shakespeare

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