Callan Davies explores some work-in-progress for a paper at the Shakespeare Association of America conference next spring for the “Tudor Performance: Contexts, Traditions, Afterlives” seminar, convened by Jessica Winston.
One of my favourite horror film tropes is when a beleaguered resident of an old house, stricken with fear, rushes to the local library to trawl through microfilm images and discover in the archived news clippings what corpses are buried beneath their cellars. This post is an academic homage to that device, exploring the microfilms and archival documents at London Metropolitan Archives to think about the spectres shadowing the later Elizabethan playhouses. It’s been two years since our first Halloween blog, so it’s high time to seize the occasion again.
While playhouses like the famous Globe (and perhaps The Theatre, Shoreditch) are sometimes framed as mid- to late-Elizabethan innovations, they draw on a longer history of commercial playing structures. This post addresses some of that history. In addition to the tenuous methodological link with horror protagonists, I’ll be focussing on one place in London with seasonal resonance: All Hallows on London Bridge. All Hallows is the site of an early example of commercial theatrical construction that provides a useful model for thinking about the origins of some of the more famous “Tudor” playhouses (including those associated with Shakespeare).
In 1527, London granted to All Hallows on London Wall a licence to perform a play for an entire summer—in other words, a season-long licence (REPS 7 fo. 228; LMA microfilm x109/133). The entry in the Aldermen’s documentation acknowledges the “Ruin and Decay” of the Church and grants “licence that the parishioners there Shall make a Stage Play there to begin at Easter next  and so to continue unto Michaelmas next following, And further it is agreed and granted by this Court that … none other parish Shall have like licence during the said term.” In short, then, the licence interestingly grants a monopoly to the parish and it allows a substantial period of playing. Its phrasing, however, raises some interesting questions. It is emphatic about place and people connected to place (“parishioners there … make a Stage Play there“): what does it mean for such activity to be limited to this specific parish (one within the City of London itself)? The description “a Stage Play” is also ambiguous: is this stage for one particular play (thereby licensing only one “script” or performance across the summer), or is this terminology part of the elastic meaning of “play” in this period (extending from bowling to cards and encompassing a range of dramatic entertainments)?
Further, the official wording sets up All Hallows as a unique offering for Londoners in 1528: residents and visitors interested in watching performance that summer would, in addition to taverns, schools, and Halls, have a “temporary” outdoor stage available for the whole summer. Here, perhaps, is a useful model for thinking not only about how commercial playing in the Tudor period links to church drama and to centuries of parish-led performance, but also to newer innovations in staging as they develop throughout the sixteenth century.
The Red Lion playhouse, for instance, can be characterised as a confusing outlier or oddity of a playing space. It is sometimes (arguably increasingly) referred to as the “first” commercial playhouse, in a move that shifts focus away from the Theatre (1576), though one may wish to question the idea of the “first” commercial playhouse at all (especially in the light of stages such as All Hallows). It was built in the summer of 1567, a fact known only to posterity thanks to two surviving documents that quibble over the quality and timeliness of carpentry work done on the stage and audience seating (TNA K.B. 27/1229, m.30; GL MS 4329/1, 128v). We know it was open for at least one summer’s worth of playing, and the only play named is the biblically-inspired “the story of Sampson” (MS 4329/1, 128v) . In this, it seems strikingly similar to All Hallows, even if we don’t have quite as much “colour” to the story of that playing space (the Red Lion is a playing space, from the perspective of the archives, pretty much red with anger and argument…)
We do know that John Brayne, grocer, was the man involved in setting up the Red Lion. We also know who was involved in setting up stages for All Hallows: Henry Walton, a mercer, keeper of the mercers’ timber-yard from 1525-39, and a man who deserves the title, I think, of theatrical entrepreneur as much as Brayne and James Burbage.
Accounts from All Hallows in 1528 show Walton to be at the heart of their summer season’s enterprise (which brought them from “the” play £5, 8 shillings, and 9 pence):
Item Received at the play clere as yt Aperrys be the
gathrynge boke — v li. Viij s. ix d. ob.
[. . . ]
Item harry Walton demandes of the paryche that he layd owt for bord — vij s. vj d.
Item harry Walton demandes that he layd owt for nalles — viij s … the on halffe — iiij s.
The following year, Walton is paid for the former sum only:
Item first payd to henrry Walton of olde deet of the last year — vij s. vj d.
These payments, which are not huge but not insubstantial (for instance, The National Archives’ excellent currency converter puts the largest of Walton’s claims [19 shillings 6 pence] at roughly 32 days’ skilled wages), indicate Walton’s involvement in creating the stage. They also follow on from a longer list of money paid and received for activities connected with the stage, including scaffold work (though the details remain vague due to the document’s disrepair). A cut-off list on page 43 teasingly hints at a series of payments related to both pageant-construction and to scaffolding itself (presumably for the stage), from wagons to labourers’ work, timber, lead, and carriage, all of which total a not insignificant outlay in excess of £3 12s, which would have been easily offset by the excess of £5 recorded in the gathering book and likely by other income contained elsewhere in these documents and obscured by the damage. In essence, “the play” and its stage seemed to have brought in a modest profit.
There is good reason to see Walton as instrumental in All Hallows and in other forms of scaffolding in this period, not only from the accounting notes available here. He was central to the building of one of the most notable and well-researched of early sixteenth-century theatre constructions, John Rastell’s stage in Finsbury (on land on or by his garden) some time in the mid-1520s. Like Brayne’s Red Lion and the stage at All Hallows, Rastell’s stage was likely up for at least a period of several months; an extensive lawsuit indicates that its cost and labour included 50 shillings to Henry Walton for building the stage (TNA Req.2/8/14). I won’t discuss Rastell at length here, but as a printer and writer of plays in the 1520s and 1530s, he provides an early indication of the crossover between court playing and commercial or popular forms of performance (though it remains unclear who exactly would have had access to his “stage” or what would have been performed upon it).
What is clear, though, is that Rastell’s stage involved considerable labour, including various mentions in addition to Walton’s 50 shillings payment for construction (interrogatory for Nicholas Sayer, skinner, TNA Req.2/8/14). That very lawsuit came about because Walton, the builder of Rastell’s stage, on a separate occasion refused to return costumes entrusted to him by Rastell while the latter was abroad. Walton appears to have rented out these garments “divers times” to players during the late 1520s (figures differ in the lawsuit, but around 20 times). He appears to be some form of early theatrical prospector, involved in building a series of stages in London in the 1520s-30s and with producing and facilitating play performances.
Walton is also on record three years later for working in the yard of St Botolph’s without Aldersgate, a short period after his stage-work at All Hallows, and at St Botolph’s he is described as the individual behind the play production itself (a discussion for elsewhere…). In terms of construction, Walton’s margins must have been reasonable, and he must have been reasonably accomplished in his construction, as he seemingly sits at the centre of a form of play-“house” building industry (however temporary or legally restricted) forty-five years before the apparent boom in such built structures in the 1570s.
As suggested here, Walton also provides an important connection between forms of playing, from elite court performance, to “players” (presumably itinerant players or troupes, to whom he lent garments), to fixed-location parish stages. Mary Erler, Janet Dillon, and David Kathman, among others, have begun to suggest histories of commercial playhouses that have roots earlier than the 1560s and 1570s. All Hallows and Henry Walton can account (quite literally!) for some idea of how the Red Lions and Theatres came about.
Gabriel Egan observes that clear influences on or inspirations for the likes of the Theatre elude us (with particular emphasis on its shape); he points to potential antecedents in entertainments like that surrounding Henry VIII’s meeting with Emperor Charles V in Calais in 1520—the celebrated Field of the Cloth of Gold (which included a circular banqueting house with stacked galleries) (“The Theatre in Shoreditch,” The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre). “However,” he points out, “these were uncommon structures and it is hard to imagine a route by which their design could influence a grocer and a joiner in London fifty years later” (172). We don’t know what Rastell’s, the All Hallows, or Botolph’s scaffolds looked like, and we know for sure they were hardly as elaborate as an Henrician royal structure and not nearly as costly as Brayne and Burbage’s enterprise, but there is no reason to assume they might not be in some ways design and business inspiration for later theatre builders. Walton’s work seemingly connects elite life with street life. The client for whom he built one of his stages, Rastell, was himself involved with preparations for the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, and the lines of influence may well be dispersed through Walton onto early commercial models for playing structures such as the one accounted for at the London Metropolitan Archives in the dusty document and microfilm afterlives of All Hallows’ “play.”
Walton’s various garden and churchyard stages point to influences on later Elizabethan approaches to playhouse construction. Perhaps it’s time that he and his long-gone scaffolds were raised from their grave/yards…
C. R. Baskervil, in “John Rastell’s Theatrical Activities” (Modern Philology 12, 1916, 558), is the first to treat this at length. A.W. Reed’s Early Tudor Drama (1926) treats this in some detail and usefully discusses Rastell. Also of relevance is Southern’s extremely brief note in The Staging of Plays Before Shakespeare (1973). See especially Janette Dillon “John Rastell’s Stage” (Medieval Theatre18, 1996, 15-45) and John Rastell vs Henry Walton” (Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 28, 1997, 57-75); David Kathman “The Rise of Commerial Playing in 1540s London” (Early Theatre 12.1, 2009, 15-38); and Maura Giles Watson “John Rastell’s London Stage: Reconstructing Repertory and Collaborative Practice” (Early Theatre 16.2, 2014).
 Other such prospectors have been identified, though they are usually tied to one particular aspect of play production: see John C. Coldewey, “That Enterprising Property Player” (Theatre Notebook 33.1, 1977) and Meg Twycross, “Felsted of London: Silk-Dyer and Theatrical Entrpereneur” (Medieval English Theatre 10.1, 1988, 4-25) on those involved in commercial theatrical activity pre-1565 and the roles they inhabited across London and surrounding counties. Walton (who has to my knowledge not hitherto been treated as a significant figure) appears particularly intriguing in paving the way for individuals who cross different forms of construction, hire, and management within the nascent theatre industry.