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Blackfriars Theatre

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History of the Blackfriars Precinct

The history of the two Blackfriars theatres is long and fraught with legal and political struggles. The story begins in 1276, when King Edward I gave to the Dominican order five acres of land. To accommodate their buildings, they were allowed to tear down a small section of London’s city wall in order to provide their new precinct a north and north-west boundary (Chambers 475; Stow sig. B5r-B5v). Although the Dominicans first encountered significant opposition to their construction plans by the Dean and Canons of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was only two hundred yards away, in 1278 they started construction and eventually erected a very large church and what must have been a substantial group of surrounding structuress, no trace of which remains today.
Still, these buildings must have been impressive, as over the course of three hundred years they were often used for important government functions. As John Stow puts it:
This was a large church, and richly furniſhed with Ornaments: wherein diuers Parliaments and other great méetings hath béene holden: namely in the yeare one thouſand foure hundred and fiftie, the twentie eight of Henry the ſixt, a Parliament was begun at Weſtminſter, and adiourned to the Blacke-Fryers in London. In the yeare, 1527. the Emperor Charles the fifth, was lodged there. In the yeare 1524. the fiftéenth of Aprill, a Parliament was begun at the Black-Fryers, wherein was demaunded a ſubſidie of 800000. pound to bee rayſed of goodes and lands [...] In the yeare 1529. Cardinal Campenis the Legat with Cardinall Woolſey, ſate at yͤ ſaid Black Fryers, where before them as Legats and Iudges, was brought in queſtion the Kings marriage with Quéen Kathren as to be vnlawfull, before whom thè King and Quéen were cited and ſummoned to appeare [...] The ſame yeare in the moneth of October, begā a Parliament in the Blacke-Fryers, in the which Cardinall Woolſey was condemned in the priminerie [...]
(Stow sig. T2r)
Less spectacularly but equally significantly for theatre history, in 1529 Henry VIII chose the Blackfriars site as the office for the King’s Revels and as a storehouse for props, properties, and costumes (Smith 14).
Blackfriars monastery. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Blackfriars monastery. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Over time, however, what had once been a thriving community had dwindled to no more than sixteen or seventeen monks who relied on renting out empty rooms for income (Chambers 476). But while the Dominicans had withered, the Blackfriars precinct thrived. Since they no longer required large amounts of space, the monks started renting out their buildings as residences, and very quickly, it seems, Blackfriars became known as a desirable place to live. In 1536, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell started appropriating the institutions of the Catholic Church in England. Two years later, it was the Dominicans’ turn. On 12 November 1538, the friars were forced to surrender the Blackfriars monastery to the crown (Chambers 476). As Chambers puts it, the partition of spoils under the supervisions of the Court of Augmentations followed in due course (476-77), and between 1540 and 1550, various properties in the Blackfriars precinct were sold off, with the proceeds flowing into the crown’s coffers. Significantly for theatre history, on 12 March 1550, the remaining property, including the buildings that would eventually house the Blackfriars theatres, were given to Sir Thomas Cawarden, the Master of the Revels. However, in a move that would prove equally significant for theatre history, while the Blackfriars monastery changed hands, Henry VIII decided to maintain the liberties of the area: he is reported to have said that He was as well hable to keep the liberties as the Friers were (Chambers 477). Consequently, the Blackfriars precinct remained a semi-autonomous district, outside the jurisdiction and reach of London’s civic authorities.

The First Blackfriars Theatre

The first Blackfriars theatre emerged after Cawarden passed away on 29 August 1559, leaving the land in the care of his wife and Sir William More, who became the sole owner after her death in 1560. More then leased space in the building known as the upper frater—the same building where the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V stayed during his visit to England—to Richard Farrant, Master of the Children at Windsor Chapel1, in 1576 (Corrigan 7). Farrant’s troupe was part of the tradition of boy acting companies that performed at court. Originally, they were meant to familiarize their students with colloquial Latin and to cultivate [...] eloquence and poise in public speaking, and eventually they provided entertainments for the court and the Queen (Shapiro 120). Prior to her accession to the throne in 1558, Elizabeth had already developed a fondness for boy companies (Shapiro 126). After taking the throne, she instituted the practice of celebrating Christmas and Shrovetide with [...] masques and [...] plays performed by [...] adult and boy companies (Shapiro 126).
Farrant had the brilliant idea that these plays could also be performed before a paying audience. Ostensibly, Farrant’s object in taking the house was to have a room in which the children could give public presentations for profit of the plays which they were afterwards to perform at Court (Chambers 495-96), but the performances quickly took on a life of their own. His decision to locate his company in Blackfriars made sense for both legal and marketing reasons: of all the districts thus available to the actors, Blackfriars must have been the most attractive: the fact that many noblemen had their residence there made it one of the aristocratic sections of London, and the fact that it was near the centre of London [...] made it readily accessible to playgoers even during the cold and disagreeable winter months (Adams 77). Equally importantly, since Blackfriars was a liberty, the area was relatively immune to the hostility toward theatre by London’s civic authorities. In short, the mayor could not shut the theatre down because the Corporation of London’s authority did not extend to this area. But Farrant must have sensed that William More would not have been pleased with turning his property into a playhouse, as his letter to More asking to rent his property in the Blackfriars states only that he intends to pull down one partition and so make of two rooms—one (qtd. in Smith 135). He does not say why he wants to tear down a wall.
Once More discovered what Farrant had in mind, he complained in court documents that he had been misled, that 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 (transcribed in Smith 467), and that he had in the process ruined the building. At this point, Farrant died, leaving the property to his widow, Anne, who continued her late husband’s partnership with William Hunnis, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, who merged his own company, Paul’s Children, with Farrant’s. More, however, was not appeased, and kept trying through the courts to repossess his buildings. For their part, Hunnis and Anne Farrant tried to keep their hold on the property through various dodges and sub-leasings. More’s description of the wanderings of the lease suggests the degree of legal complexity: she let the house to one Hunnis, and afterward to one Newman or Sutton, as far as I remember, and then to Evans, who sold his interest to the Earl of Oxford, who gave his interest to Lyly; and the title thus was posted over from one to another from me (Smith 467). The result was a tremendous amount of litigation that would continue until 1584, when More finally recovered legal ownership of the building and kicked out the Children of the Chapel.

Repertory

While the anti-theatrical preacher and polemicist, Stephen Gosson, noted in his 1582 diatribe, Playes Confuted in Five Actions, that a great many Comedies were performed at the blacke friers (sig. D5r), scholars have identified only a small number:
Date Performed2 Title Author Date Published3 DEEP Number Wiggins Number
1581 The Arraignment of Paris4 George Peele 1581 114 751
1584 Campaspe John Lyly 1584 115 746
1584 Sappho and Phao John Lyly 1584 111 753
1587-1590 Dido, Queen of Carthage5 Christopher Marlowe 1594 196 820
1587-1590 The Wars of Cyrus6 Anonymous 1594 206 813
The two plays by John Lyly, Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, are the only plays certainly performed at Blackfriars (Corrigan 5). While the title pages of both announce that they were Played beefore the Queenes Majestie [...] by her Majesty’s Children and the Children of Paul’s, each also contains the Prologue at the Black Fryers (Campaspe sig. A3r; Sappho sig. A2r).

Theatrical Practices

Lyly’s plays also give us some indication of the kinds of productions the Blackfriars space allowed. Each requires two doors cut through the back wall or prop, use an inner stage that is revealed to the audience by way of a curtain, and the stage had a trap door in the floor of the platform (Smith 138-41). Also the stage area was much smaller than the outdoor theatre, which meant the audience saw a different kind of play:
Smaller playing areas meant less reliance on fencing and acrobatics, stable features of plays by adult troupes. Better acoustics allowed dramatists to call for subtler and more varied musical effects, a distinct advantage for choirboy companies, trained in signing and the playing of instruments [...] The intimacy of a hall playhouse or a banqueting hall at court also encouraged dramatists to write for socially cohesive audiences capable of appreciating subtle allusions to specific individuals, issues and situations and to shared concerns about events the world of the play.
(Shapiro 134-35)
The new space, in other words, resulted in new artistic strategies.
Sadly, however, property rights eventually triumphed over dramatic success. In 1584, Sir William More finally succeeded in retaking possession of his property, and he ejected the Children of the Chapel after eight years of playing.

The 12 Year Hiatus

The first Blackfriars theatre closed in 1584 and the second Blackfriars theatre would not open until early 1596. In the interim, the Blackfriars complex was turned to commercial uses. The original Parliament Chamber, the upper rooms that once hosted the Children of the Chapel, first became a pipe office (meaning, a records office) for England’s Exchequer (meaning, the national treasurer), and were later rented to William de Laune, Doctor of Physic (Smith 156, 471). The room located below the playhouse was leased to a William Joyner, who turned it into a fencing school. Rocco Bonetti, one of the best fencing masters of Elizabethan England, subsequently bought the school and operated it until early 1596.
During the period that the Blackfriars space was not used for putting on plays, English drama became a major economic and artistic industry. The theatre became an institution. New playhouses were built (Smith 158), such as the Rose in 1587. However, opposition to drama still continued, and actors were still classed as rogues or sturdy beggars unless they gained the patronage of a great person or peer or the realm. It is no accident that most of the theatres in this period were constructed outside of London’s city limits and so beyond the easy reach of London’s city fathers.7

The Second Blackfriars Theatre

Despite the hiatus in playing, the Blackfriars liberty remained an attractive place for a theatre, and James Burbage, who had built the Theatre (1576), had his eye on it. Burbage was no stranger to controversy, nor was he a man to back down. He was, in the words of a contemporary, a stubburne man (qtd. in Edmond). During the litigation over the Theatre, his once-partner and brother-in-law, John Brayne tried to show Burbage a copy of an old court order about contempt. Burbage dismissed this as A paper which he might wype his tale with (qtd. in Edmond). Despite the obvious obstacles, Burbage clearly sensed the commercial possibilities of another theatre at Blackfriars. As Smith argues, Burbage knew that a playhouse in the Blackfriars precinct would give the company unrivaled advantages and prestige. For the first time, a company of adult actors would have a playhouse within the City walls [...] It would be in one of the most fashionable districts of London (161). Somehow, Burbage convinced Sir William More to sell him the Blackfriars property without letting on what his purpose might be, and on 4 February 1596, the sale was completed (Smith 471-75).
However, things did not go smoothly. Once his wealthy neighbors heard about his project, they sent a petition to the Privy Council asking that the project be shut down:
That whereas one Burbage hath lately bought certain rooms in the same precinct, near adjoining unto the dwelling houses of the right honorable the Lord Chamberlain and the Lord of Hunsdon, which rooms the said Burbage is now altering and meaneth very shortly to convert and turn the same into a common playhouse, which will grow to be a very great annoyance and trouble, not only to all the noblemen and gentlemen thereabout inhabiting, but also a general inconvenience to all the inhabitants of the same precinct, both by reason for the great resort and gathering together of all manner of vagrant and lewd persons that, under color of resorting to the plays, will come thither and work all manner of mischief, and also to the great pestering and filling up of the same precinct, if it should please God to send any visitation of sickness as heretofore hath been, for that the same precinct is already grown very populous; and besides that the same playhouse is so near the church that the noise of the rums and trumpets will greatly disturb and hinder both the ministers and parishioners in time of divine service and sermons.
(transcribed in Smith 480)
The petition also describes how actors, banished by the Lord Mayor from playing within the City (explaining why all the other theatres were situated outside London’s authority), now think to plant themselves in liberties (transcribed in Smith 480). The petitioners then asked the Council to take order that the same rooms may be converted to some other use, and that no playhouse may be used or kept there (Smith 480-81). The Privy Council agreed and promptly ordered that the property not be used for a common playhouse.
After the Privy Council’s order, it seemed certain that there would be no further theatrical performances in the Blackfriars liberty. Burbage, who went to his grave in 1597, died probably thinking that his project had entirely miscarried and that he bequeathed his son Richard, nothing but debt—Burbage gave his other son, Cuthbert, his lease on the Theatre, which had its own legal problems (Smith 173). Richard, however, had a brilliant idea. Seizing on the phrase common playhouse, he realized that the petitioners had in mind an adult company, such as those presently inhabiting The Theatre, The Swan, and The Red Bull. Richard therefore decided to turn the property into a private theatre: an indoor theatre featuring a company of children. So he turned to the same Henry Evans who had briefly managed Farrant’s company and in 1600, rented the hall to him for a period of twenty-one years (Smith 175).

Architecture and Audiences


Conjectural reconstruction. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Conjectural reconstruction. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
While the second Blackfriars theatre may have had the same manager as the first, they would present a very different type of drama in a significantly reconfigured space. Burbage installed his theatre in what once was the Parliament chamber, otherwise known as the Upper Frater. While there are no primary source documents telling us what exactly the theatre looked like, we can safely assume that this space was beautiful. According to the lease and the various documents produced by subsequent litigation, the theatre was also very small: 66 feet long 46 feet wide, considerably less than the outdoor, public stages (Smith 165; Gurr 193). The theatre space itself was significantly altered from the first Blackfriars theatre. The stage had to be higher to accommodate the apparatus used in celestial flights (Smith 167). In addition, the floor had two trap doors (the original had only one). However, the most important change concerned the seating. Whereas the audience in the first theatre sat on benches, the audience for the second Blackfriars theatre had a variety of options. The theatre’s patrons could, if they chose and if they could afford it, sit on the stage itself: The tiring-house provided separate and privileged access for up to fifteen gallants, who pad an extra sixpence for a stool so that they could view the play from the stage itself (Gurr 194). Numerous plays, especially Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (written 1607; published 1613) testify to how the audience and the players seemed to mingle on the stage, with the gallants as much the object of the audience’s appreciation as the play itself. In addition, Burbage created at least two, possibly three, ranges of galleries, which curbed around the auditorium. The audience was literally wrapped around the stage (Gurr 195).
Admission prices at Blackfriars started at sixpence for entry to the topmost gallery. One more shilling purchased a space on a bench in the pit, and a seat on the stage cost about two shillings (Gurr 195; Aaron 88). The prices at the Globe, on the other hand, started at a penny, making the least expensive ticket at Blackfriars six times the price. The higher prices at Blackfriars helped make up for the smaller audience—the smaller theatre accommodated approximately 500 patrons, as opposed to the Globe’s 2000 (Aaron 88)—and they helped keep out the groundlings, thus maintaining the Blackfriar’s elite reputation. Also, the prices reversed the convention for the public theatres, where the audience nearest the stage paid the least.

Playing Style

Just as with the first Blackfriars theatre, the intimacy of the space required a different style of playing and theatrical presentation. Whereas outdoor theatres, such as the Globe, could use loud instruments, such as drums and trumpets, the Blackfriars stage called for more subtle, quieter instruments, such as cornets or hautboys, the ancestor of the oboe (Gurr 192). At the Globe, plays were continuous, but at the Blackfriars, the Children and later the The King’s Men used intermissions to separate the acts (Smith 226-27). The more enclosed space also called for subtler acting requiring new delicacies of expression (Smith 249). But perhaps most importantly, the indoor theatre required candles for lighting, not sunshine (more on this below).

The Children of the Chapel

The theatre company that occupied the second Blackfriars theatre, the Children of the Chapel, was comprised, as the name says, of children, not adults, and the manner by which the company acquired its actors still shocks the conscience. In 1597, Queen Elizabeth issued a memorandum granting Nathaniel Giles the right to impress children, meaning, he was authorized to take such and so many children as he or his sufficient deputy shall think meet [any place] with this our realm of England, whatsoever they be (Smith 482). Giles had the right, in other words, to legally kidnap any child he wanted for his company.8
But on 13 December 1600, Giles and Henry Evans took the wrong child. Thomas Clifton, son of the influential gentleman, Henry Clifton (Smith 182) was snatched while on his way to school and the outraged father bitterly complained to the Privy Council:
they, the said confederates,9 devised, conspired, and concluded for their own corrupt gain and lucre, to erect, set up, furnish to maintain a playhouse or place in the Blackfriars; and to the end they might the better their furnish their said plays and interludes with children whom they thought most fittest to act and furnish the said plays, they, the said confederates [...] most wrongfully, unduly and unjustly taken divers and several children from divers and sundry schools of learning and other places, and apprentices to men of trade from their masters [...] against the wills of the said children, their parents, tutors, masters and governors, and to the no small grief and oppressions [of] your Majesty’s true and faithful subjects.
(Smith 484-85)
Henry Clifton managed to free his son by getting a warrant from Sir John Fortescue, a very high-ranking member of the Privy Council. Clifton then sued the Children of the Chapel. While the record of the court’s decision has been lost, a subsequent deposition on an unrelated matter ten years later revealed that Evans was censured by the right honorable court of Star Chamber for his unorderly carriage and behavior in taking up gentlemen’s children against their wills (qtd. in Smith 184). But other than this slap on the wrist, clearly the practice continued, and the young Clifton’s return to his family was the exception rather than rule.

Satire

The plays presented at the second Blackfriars theatre were enormously popular. One reason might be that the Children employed some of the finest playwrights in the land, such as Ben Jonson, John Marston, Thomas Middleton, and George Chapman. Another reason might be the plays themselves. Almost every drama acted by the Children between 1600-1608 satirized or ridiculed the government, the Court, and the King himself (Smith 191). The fact that these audacious productions were acted by children only added to the Blackfriars’ popularity, even making them serious rivals of adult companies. The idea behind the controversial plays was that satire bred sensationalism, and sensationalism attracted crowds (Smith 191). Essentially, the farther they crossed the line, the more popular, and even notorious, they became, and the more money the boys made for their managers.
The Children’s management may have thought that the age of the actors protected them from retribution. Thomas Heywood, in his Apology for Actors (1608), condemns the inveighing against the state, the court, the law, the city, put into the mouths of child-actors, assuming that their juniority to be a privilege for any railing, be it never so violent (qtd. in Smith 192). While the actors may have enjoyed a certain immunity, the writers did not. For writing Philotas (1604), a play based on the career of Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, who lost his head for leading a failed rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601, Samuel Daniel was hauled before the Privy Council, where he had to disclaim any sympathy for the discredited Earl. Still, Philotas appeared in print the following year. In 1605, Eastward Ho!10, written by Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston, ridiculed the Scottish countrymen that had followed King James to London, and, in consequence, Jonson and Chapman were jailed and at risk of having their noses slit and their ears cropped. Marston, who was said by his collaborators to have been the principal offender, managed to escape punishment by going into hiding (Smith 192). After this incident, the Children of the Queen’s Revels did not appear in court again. John Day’s The Isle of Gulls (1606), which jabbed at court scandals, led James to order the playhouse closed, and the Queen to withdraw her patronage. The Children were thereafter simply dubbed the Children of the Revels, or the Children of Blackfriars.
After the incident, the troupe found itself under the management of Robert Keysar, and managed to stay out of trouble until March 1608, when they offended for the final time with George Chapman’s The Conspiracy and the Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron. The play’s mockery of the French king’s domestic affairs made James so angry that he ordered the imprisonment of some of the players, as well as the disbanding of the troupe, and the closing of the playhouse (Smith 193). This action put an end to the tenure of child actors at Blackfriars. Henry Evans ceded the lease to Richard Burbage, who took over the playhouse and began plans to use the Blackfriars theatre for his company, now the The King’s Men.

The King’s Men

After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, James VI of Scotland ascended the throne, becoming King James I of England. Two months later, he issued a commission stating these our servants, Lawrence Fletcher, William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Augustine Phillips, John Heminges, Henry Condell, William Sly, Robert Armin, Richard Crowley, and the best of their associates’ to be known thereafter as the The King’s Men (Smith 244). Despite the earlier opposition, occasionally renewed but never successfully, Burbage decided to use the Blackfriars theatre as an indoor home for the The King’s Men. Burbage took over the playhouse in 1608, but did not open it for business until 1610. One reason for the delay might have been the condition of the theatre itself. The Children of the Revels might have been highly successful in producing political satires, but they did nothing to maintain the building. According to a deposition taken in one of the endless lawsuits over the property, the theatre and surrounding structures were then dilapidated in various parts and unrepaired (transcribed in Smith 517). Another reason might be an outbreak of the plague in 1608, which closed all the theatres as a means of containing the disease.
Starting in 1610, the The King’s Men began a pattern that would last until the company’s dissolution. They would use the Globe during the summer months, and move to Blackfriars from about the middle of October through to May. Even though Blackfriars was significantly smaller than the Globe, records show that playing for London’s elite—indeed, the audience was sufficiently elevated that Charles I’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, attended performances in 1632, 1634, 1636, and 1638—was much more profitable. According to gate receipts for the years 1628-1633, the earning capacity of Blackfriars was nearly two and a half times as great as that of the Globe (Smith 263; see also Aaron 164-69).

Traffic Problems

Success, however, brought its own difficulties. In 1619, the residents of the Blackfriars precinct lodged a complaint by divers honorable persons to the Lord Mayor of London over traffic problems:
We desire your Lordship and your brethren to help us to some remedy therein, that we may go to our houses in safety and enjoy the benefit of the streets without apparent danger, which now, we assure your Lordship, neither we that are inhabitants, nor any other of his Majesty’s subjects having occasion that way, either by land or water, can do; for such is the unruliness of some of the resorters to that house, and of coaches, horses and people of all sorts gathered together by that occasion in those narrow and crooked streets, that many hurts have heretofore been thereby done, and [we] fear it will at some time or other hereafter procure much more, if it be not by your wisdoms prevented.
(transcribed in Smith 491)
London’s city fathers were sympathetic, and their order closing the theatre goes into even more detail than the original complaint:
There is daily so great resort of people, and so great multitude of coaches, whereof many are hackney coaches bringing people of all sorts, that sometimes all their streets cannot contain them, that they endanger one the other, break down stalls, throw down men’s goods from their shops, hinder the passage of the inhabitants there to and from their houses, let prevent] the bringing in of their necessary provisions , that the tradesmen and shopkeepers cannot utter their wares, nor the passengers go to the common water stairs without danger of their lives and limbs, whereby many times quarrels and effusion of blood hath followed, and the minister and people disturbed at the administration of the sacrament of baptism and public prayers in the afternoons.
(transcribed in Smith 493)
Even so, the order to close the Blackfriars theatre was ignored. The same complaint would be registered in 1633, with the same result. Finally, the Privy Council issued an order on the matter, but, instead of shutting down the theatre, they decided to try to control traffic: as many coaches as may stand within the Blackfriars Gate may enter and stay there, or return thither at the end of the play (transcribed in Smith 499). On the success of this order, the archives are silent.

Playgoer Behaviour

Uproars and the potential for effusion of blood were not restricted to the streets outside the theatre. One notable skirmish occurred in 1632 between Lord Thurles, soon to become Earl of Ormond, who had spent a minimum of two shillings for a place on the stage, and Captain Charles Essex, accompanied by the wife of the Earl of Essex, who paid at least half-a-crown to sit in one of the boxes flanking the stage. The following episode occurred because Lord Thurles decided to stand, not sit on a stool, and thus blocked Essex’s view:
Captain Essex told his lord, they had payd for their places as well as hee, and therefore intreated him not to deprive them of the benefit of it. Whereupon the lord stood up yet higher and hindred more their sight. Then Capt. Essex with his hand putt him a little by. The lord then drewe his sword and ran full butt at him, though hee missed him, and might have slaine the Countesse as well as him.
(qtd. in Berry 165)
The Captain complained to the Star Chamber. Remarkably, even though he was a professional soldier and Lord Thurles an aristocrat, the court found for the plaintiff, and Lord Thurles had to verbally apologize to Captain Essex (Berry 166).

Repertory

Despite the occasional quarrel within the theatre, traffic congestion without, and the ongoing hostility of London’s authorities, the The King’s Men remained the pre-eminent theatre company in England. The Database of Early English Playbooks (DEEP) records over one hundred printed plays that advertized their performance at the Blackfriars theatre. The repertory included first performances of plays by the leading playwrights of the late Jacobean and Caroline era, such as Francis Beaumont, John Marston, John Fletcher, and William Davenant as well as revivals of Shakespeare’s Othello (1622, 1630), The Taming of the Shrew (1631), Love’s Labours Lost (1631), John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1623), and even the play that brought an end to the Children of the Revels, George Chapman’s The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles Duke of Byron (1625). Scholars today are divided on whether the The King’s Men created a separate repertory for the Globe and the Blackfriars based on the class and taste of each clientele, the assumption being that the Globe, attracting a lower class audience, would be better suited to older, cruder plays whereas the more sophisticated audience at the Blackfriars would require more complex plays (Knutson 54-55).
However, there is incontrovertible evidence that at least some plays were performed at both venues. The title page of the 1622 Othello states that the play hath beene diverse times acted at the Globe and at the Blackfriars, and the title page of the 1623 Duchess of Malfi says that the play was presented Privately at the Blackfriars and publiquely at the Globe. Yet while the The King’s Men did not seem to distinguish in terms of which plays they performed at which theatre, the style of acting must have been very different. One imagines that Iago’s statement I hate the Moor (Othello 1.3.717) would be delivered loudly at the Globe. At the Blackfriars, it could be delivered in almost a stage whisper, thus giving the line much more venom and force (Edelstein). Similarly, Ferdinand’s exclamation in The Duchess of Malfi, Damne her, that body of hers, / While that my blood ran pure in’t, was more worth / Then, that which thou wouldſt comfort, (call’d a ſoule) might be played as a rant at the Globe (sig. I3r). The intimate space at the Blackfriars allowed for the actor to express much more psychological depth.

Closure

For all their success, the The King’s Men could not avoid the political currents of the English Revolution, and on 2 September 1642, the Blackfriars theatre was closed and the company dispersed following the ordinance adopted by the House of Commons and the House of Lords:
Whereas the distressed Estate of Ireland, steeped in her own Blood, and the distracted Estate of England, threatned with a Cloud of Blood, by a Civil Warre, call for all possible means to appease and avert the Wrath of God appearing in these Judgements; amongst which, Fasting and Prayer having bin often tried to be very effectuall, have bin lately, and are still enjoyed; and whereas publike Sports doe not well agree with publike Calamities, nor publike Stage-plays with the Seasons of Humiliation, this being an Exercise of sad and pious solemnity, and the other being Spectacles of pleasure, too commonly expressing lacivious Mirth and Levitie; It is therefore thought fit, and Ordeined by the Lords and Commons in this Parliament Assembled, that while these sad Causes and set times of Humiliation doe continue, publike State-Playes shall cease, and bee forborne.
(qtd. in Smith 283)
In 1650, the The King’s Men petitioned Parliament for their right to play, pleading that they had long suffered in extreme want, being prohibited the use of their qualitie of Acting, in which they were trained up from their childhood, whereby they are uncapable of any other way to get subsistence, and are now fallen into such lamentable povertie, that they know not how to provide food for themselves, their wives and children (qtd. in Smith 285-87). This appeal was denied. On 6 August 1655, the Blackfriars theatre was torn down (Smith 286), and the Great Fire of London in 1666 erased the very last traces of this once grand playhouse (Smith 286).

Contemporary Reconstructions

The recent interest in recovering the original conditions of playing in Shakespeare’s time has led to at least one re-creation of the Blackfriars stage in America and to the re-creation of an indoor Jacobean theatre, not unlike Blackfriars theatre, in the United Kingdom. In 2001, the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia opened up the 300-seat Blackfriars Playhouse. On odd-numbered years, the ASC sponsors a conference on the Blackfriars theatre that brings in scholars from around the world. In 2014, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, named after the film director whose vision led to the rebuilding of the Globe Theatre, opened on the Bankside in the same complex as the reconstructed Globe. According to Farah Karim-Cooper, it is more of an archetype of an indoor early modern playhouse rather than an exact replica of the Blackfriars theatre (Gurr and Karim-Cooper). The Wanamaker Theatre uses candles instead of electric lights. One of the authors of this article attended a performance of The Duchess of Malfi, and she reports that candelabras are lowered as the start of the performance nears, and each individual candle is carefully lit. During the play, the candelabras are lowered and raised during and between scenes, acting as theatrical props. This action has to be done very carefully, otherwise the candles would be snuffed out. A review of this performance notes the role and risk of using candles:
In the event, the candles, in sconces on the pillars and in hanging candelabra as well as carried by individuals, are less consistently striking as illumination than for their effect on pace. Candles slow the production down, and candelabra lowered to waist height constrict the already small stage to some paths along the front and sides.
(Smith)
The soft, muted light influenced the mood of a scene, building tension and drama as the shadows of flames danced against backdrops and the faces of actors and audience members alike.

Additional Information from MoEML

For another essay on the Blackfriars theatre, a modern map marking the site where the it once stood, and a walking tour that will take you to the site, visit the Shakespearean London Theatres (ShaLT) pages for the first Blackfriars Theatre and the second Blackfriars Theatre.
See also Andrew Gurr and Farah Karim-Cooper’s essay collection, Moving Shakespeare Indoors: Performance and Repertoire in the Jacobean Playhouse, which was published in April 2014, after our contributors had completed their article.

Notes

  1. Windsor Chapel refers to St George’s Chapel in Windsor. Richard Farrant was Master of the Windsor Chapel choir from 1564 onwards. (KMF)
  2. Conjectural dates of first performance from Corrigan 7. (PCH)
  3. Publication dates from DEEP. (PCH)
  4. Corrigan marks this entry in his list with an asterisk, which indicates an uncertain ascription of play to playhouse: Either the date of the play is in serious question or the company’s ownership is uncertain. The * means likely (but there is some doubt) (Corrigan 5). (JJ)
  5. Corrigan marks this entry in his list with an asterisk, which indicates an uncertain ascription of play to playhouse: Either the date of the play is in serious question or the company’s ownership is uncertain. The * means likely (but there is some doubt) (Corrigan 5). (JJ)
  6. Corrigan marks this entry in his list with an asterisk, which indicates an uncertain ascription of play to playhouse: Either the date of the play is in serious question or the company’s ownership is uncertain. The * means likely (but there is some doubt) (Corrigan 5). Gurr gives the date as 1576-1580 (Gurr 298). Part of the problem in dating this play and linking it to a specific playhouse is the theory that the extant play is a post-Tamburlaine revision or adaptation of an earlier play about Cyrus by Richard Farrant. Critics will date the play to the 1590s if they believe it to be later than Tamburlaine, to the 1580s if they believe it to predate Tamburlaine, and to ca. 1578 if they believe it to be by Farrant, who died in 1580. See Chambers 3.311-12 and subsequent editions and articles by James P. Brawner, Irving Ribner, and G.K. Hunter. (JJ)
  7. It is not true that the theatres and the areas known as the liberties were completely lawless and beyond the reach of authority. For example, London’s mayor and the Privy Council could, and did, shut down the theatres due to outbreaks of plague. But at the same time, early modern documents regularly distinguish between the city and the liberties. See Kozusko for an exceptionally intelligent treatment of liberties and the early modern theatre. (PCH)
  8. James Burbage is not mentioned in either Elizabeth’s commission allowing Nathaniel Giles to impress children or in Henry Clifton’s complaint. But as stealing talented children was evidently a common practice, it is hard to imagine that he either did not know or disapproved of the practice. (PCH)
  9. The confederates are Giles, Evans, James Robinson and others yet (Smith 484). (PCH)
  10. See MoEML’s TEI-encoded transcription of Eastward Ho! (JT)

References

Last modification: 2017-03-15 17:14:07 -0400 (Wed, 15 Mar 2017) (mholmes)
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MLA citation:

“Blackfriars Theatre.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Web. 23 October 2017. <http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/BLAC6.htm>.

Chicago citation:

“Blackfriars Theatre.” n.d. The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed October 23, 2017. http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/BLAC6.htm.

APA citation:

Blackfriars Theatre. (n.d.). In J. Jenstad (Ed.), The Map of Early Modern London. Retrieved October 23, 2017, from http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/BLAC6.htm

TEI citation:

<bibl> <title level="a">Blackfriars Theatre</title>. (<date>n.d.</date>). In <editor><persName><forename>J.</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></persName></editor> (Ed.), <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>. Retrieved <date when="2017-10-23">October 23, 2017</date>, from <ref target="http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/BLAC6.htm">http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/BLAC6.htm</ref> </bibl>