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Whitefriars Theatre

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Introduction

One of the lesser known halls or private playhouses of Renaissance London, the Whitefriars (so-called because of its location in the Whitefriars neighbourhood), was home to two different boy playing companies, each of which operated under several different names. The boy playing companies often merged and split, formed and reformed for legal and economic reasons. Run differently from the adult companies, all the boy playing companies had managers instead of shareholding actors, but the Whitefriars collective was unique even among the boy companies. Whitefriars produced many famous boy actors, some of whom later went on to greater fame in adult companies.
At the Whitefriars playhouse in 1607–1608, the Children of the King’s Revels catered to a homogenous audience with a particular taste for homoerotic puns and situations, which resulted in a small but significant body of plays that are markedly different from those written for the amphitheatres and even for other hall playhouses. Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, written for the reopening of the Whitefriars playhouse in December 1609 although not specifically for the Children of the King’s Revels (by then defunct), displays many of the traits for which the earlier Whitefriars plays were notorious.

Theatre

Michael Drayton and Thomas Woodford brought the Whitefriars theatre into being ca. 1606, converting the refectory of a former Carmelite monastery into a private playhouse (MacIntyre 3; Theatre Sites). A small indoor playhouse, lit artificially by candles, the Whitefriars was 85’ by 35’ (Leech and Craik 112, 123; MacIntyre 3; Gurr 359).
Whitefriars cost more to attend than public amphitheatre playhouses. Higher prices excluded some potential playgoers, and for this reason hall playhouses are sometimes known as private playhouses, although they were not private in the sense that one had to belong to a club to attend; in keeping with the same logic, amphitheatre playhouses are sometimes known as public playhouses. Whitefriars was the first private playhouse to be built outside the city walls, west of Ludgate between the Fleet River and the Temple (Leech and Craik 112, 123). The theatre was a disreputable venture, located in a notorious brothel district (Bly 2); we do not know if the theatre acquired its bad reputation because of its location, or if the location was selected because the venture was disreputable in itself.
The Whitefriars had a discovery space, two stage exits on either side, and an above. The above could hold probably no more than three actors comfortably, and took about a minute to reach after exiting the stage (MacIntyre 9). The discovery space was much wider than the exits on either side, and could hold such large properties as a canopied bed or chairs (9, 13). The tiring house could be reached through the exits and possibly the discovery space (21).
After the Children of the Queen’s Revels—also called the second Whitefriars company—left in 1614, the Whitefriars building continued to be used as a theatre. The Prince Charles’ Men may have used the theatre after the boy companies left. The theatre was torn down in 1629 and replaced by the Salisbury Court Theatre (Whitefriars Theatre). Unfortunately, the Salisbury Court Theatre did not survive the Great Fire of 1666, and there is no longer a theatre at that location. Today, a memorial plaque remains the only evidence of the site (Theatre Sites).

Managers of the Children of the Queen’s Revels

Henry Evans created the Children of the Chapel (later the Children of the Queen’s Revels). He leased the Blackfriars playhouse from Richard and Cuthbert Burbage in September 1600. Evans brought in Nathaniel Giles as a choirmaster, and Giles delivered most of the boy actors (Gurr 347–48). Evans also brought in financiers: Edward Kirkham, William Rastall, and Thomas Kendall. When Queen Anne became their patron in 1604, she assigned them their own personal Revels Master, or censor, Samuel Daniel (350). Daniel lost his job in 1606 when he allowed Philotas to be staged. The company then came under the control of the Master of the Revels, Sir Edmund Tilney, who already had authority over all of the adult playing companies (353).
In 1606, the Children of the Queen’s Revels refocused their aim, and no longer produced sharp political satires as they had before. They continued doing plays that catered to sophisticated and educated tastes, like Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. A new financier, Robert Keysar (a former goldsmith), may have initiated this change. Keysar took a more active role than the previous financiers (353). In 1608, Evans left the company and it fell mostly into Keysar’s hand. The company then moved to the Whitefriars playhouse and merged with the remnants of the Children of the King’s Revels. Court musician Philip Rosseter joined Keysar in managing (MacIntyre 1). The managing team of the merged Whitefriars and Blackfriars boys also included Robert Daborne, John Tarbock, Richard Jones, and Robert Brown (Gurr 357). The new management of the Whitefriars company was different than the management of 1607–1608 when the Children of the King’s Revels played at Whitefriars, but seems to have been effective because Whitefriars remained the venue of boy playing companies until 1613.

The Whitefriars Collective

The theatre company at Whitefriars was organized in a radically different way from any other Renaissance theatre company in that it operated as a collective. The structure of the playing company was not the rigid hierarchy found in many adult playing companies; rather all of the adults at Whitefriars worked together in many different areas (Bly 121). Even the boys, as they began to grow into youths, helped with some of the management and playwriting.
There are nine known writers for the Children of the King’s Revels. Only two were professional playwrights: John Day and Michael Drayton. One, Robert Armin, was an actor. The other six were amateur playwrights: Lording Barry, Lewis Machin, Gervase Markham, John Mason, Edward Sharpham, and John Cooke. Barry and Mason only wrote one play apiece. The other amateur playwrights often had their very first plays produced at Whitefriars, including Machin, Markham, and Armin (3, 116–17). Whitefriars plays were probably written collaboratively for the most part. There are certain plot devices, shared puns, and phrases of speech that recur in many of the Children of the King’s Revels (120). Some of the playwrights functioned as editors for each other’s works, revising plays and adding their own touches as they went (Cathcart 18).
The playwrights were often financially involved in the Whitefriars company. Barry, Drayton, and Mason were all shareholders of the company. Many of the playwrights who were not shareholders were still financially involved in the theatre, buying properties for their plays and lending money when needed (Bly 116–17). Since most members of the Whitefriars collective were involved in more than one capacity, it is not surprising that there is one significant gap in our knowledge of the Whitefriars management: who chose the plays to be performed. This decision was possibly made by the group. With involvement of the playwrights, actors, managers, and financiers of the Children of the King’s Revels, the collaborative nature of the Whitefriars Collective was unique among playing companies and theatres of its time.

Boy Companies at Whitefriars

Company at Whitefriars
  • 1607 — Children of the King’s Revels (sometimes called the first Children of Whitefriars)
  • 1609 — Children of Whitefriars (sometimes called the second Children of Whitefriars)
  • 1610 — Children of the Queen’s Revels
  • 1613 — Lady Elizabeth’s Men
The Children of the King’s Revels played at the Whitefriars theatre from the spring of 1607 to the spring of 1608 (Bly 126). Some theatre historians estimate that the Children of the King’s Revels had a production history of only eight months, while others estimate closer to twelve months. The Children of the King’s Revels were not actually licensed by the King to use his name. The Children of the King’s Revels were alternately known as the Children of Whitefriars, which makes them the first Children of Whitefriars company (2). It is probable that the remnants of the Children of the King’s Revels joined the Children of the Queen’s Revels.
Boy companies often changed names and performed at different venues (including both Whitefriars and Blackfriars). For instance, the Children of the Chapel Royal in 1600 became the Children of the Queen’s Revels in 1604, when Queen Anne became their patron (Gurr 350). This same company was renamed the Children of the Blackfriars in 1608, then the Children of Whitefriars in 1609. In 1610, Phillip Rosseter secured for them the name of the Children of the Queen’s Revels again (MacIntyre 1). This company played at the Blackfriars Theatre from 1600 to 1608. On 11 August 1608, the Burbages reclaimed the Blackfriars lease, and the company reassembled at Whitefriars in 1609, for which reason the historians call it the second Whitefriars company (Bly 90, 130). This company merged with an adult playing company ca. 1613, the Lady Elizabeth’s Men. They moved to the Hope Theatre in 1614 (Whitefriars Theatre).

Actors

The boy playing companies produced many renowned actors. As time passed, the boys began to grow older. Some stayed with their companies and took on different responsibilities, as assistant managers or playwrights, for example. Other boy players joined adult companies as they grew up.
Nathan Field began as a boy player with the Children of the King’s Revels and continued acting with the boy playing companies as they merged and changed names. Field was still with the Children of the Queen’s Revels when he was 22 (Gurr 358), contributing to the company in the capacities of actor and writer. He wrote two plays, A Woman is a Weathercock in 1609 and Amends for Ladies in 1612. Field stayed with the Children of the Queen’s Revels when it joined with the Lady Elizabeth’s Men, and remained with the company during the tenuous merger with the Prince Charles’ Men. In 1617, Field became a principal actor for the King’s Men. One of Field’s leading roles was that of Antonio in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Field did not write another complete play, although he did sometimes contribute to other plays, mostly collaborating with Massinger, Beaumont, and Fletcher (MacIntyre 35).
William Barksted was a boy clown. He played the role of Morose in Epicoene. Barksted grew up with boy companies, and may have helped to write some of the plays for the second Whitefriars Boys (Bly 121). He was a fine actor who made the transition into adult playing companies smoothly, joining the Lady Elizabeth’s men when the Whitefriars company folded (122).
William Ostler and John Underwood were actors for the Blackfriars boys. When the Blackfriars boys moved to Whitefriars, Ostler and Underwood did not move with them. Instead, Ostler and Underwood joined the King’s Men and continued playing at their familiar venue, Blackfriars, in the winter and the Globe amphitheatre in the summer (Gurr 358).

The Boys and their Plays

Blackfriars Boys’ Plays

The most notorious play of the boy playing companies is probably Eastward Ho!, which satirized the influx of Scotsmen who followed the royal family southwards in 1605 (Gurr 351). This play did not please King James, who ordered the playwrights -- Chapman, Jonson, and Marston -- imprisoned. This satire was followed by John Day’s The Isle of Gulls in 1606, which continued to mock the Scottish nobles, and did not please the King. Also in 1606, Philotas was performed, a play about the 1601 political scandal known as the Essex rebellion, when some nobility of the Essex faction tried to stage a coup. Some of the nobility had been forgiven and had reentered the court; they were not impressed by this play that hit too close to home. After Philotas, the King took more power over the Blackfriars Boys by putting it under the jurisdiction of the Revels Master1 (Gurr 353). The Blackfriars Boys continued to cater to a sophisticated audience, but no longer had the leeway to perform such pointed political comedies.

Whitefriars Boys’ Plays

The first Whitefriars Boys, the Children of the King’s Revels, were known for staging comedies that pushed the envelope of good taste. The plays were full of homoerotic puns, and attracted a specific audience. The plays shared not only linguistic similarities, but also similar character types, such as the bawdy virgin. These similarities point towards collaborative playwriting on the part of the Whitefriars collective. Capitalizing on the all-boy casts, the plays indulge in two equally untenable suggestions: either they celebrate wanton, desirous women or they promote laughing, homoerotic boys (Bly 14). The patrons were often in the neighbourhood to go to the nearby brothels. Prostitutes would have frequented the theatres to meet clients. Early modern homosexuals (although this word was not coined until 1892) would have gone to Whitefriars: the homoerotic jokes were not to condemn them, but, according to Mary Bly, to engage them (20–21). Children of the King’s Revels produced only one tragedy that we know of, The Turke by John Mason (61). Although The Turke offers a change from the normal comedies played at Whitefriars, it too is rife with homoeroticism (4).
After the Children of the King’s Revels dissolved, the second Whitefriars Boys company, the Children of the Queen’s Revels continued the tradition of staging sexually daring plays. They performed plays like Jonson’s Epicoene, which features a boy player playing a boy who is pretending to be a woman.

Plays Performed at the Whitefriars

AUTHOR PLAY DATE PERFORMED COMPANY2
Anonymous Every Woman in Her Humour 1607–1608 uncertain
Armin, Robert Two Maids of Moreclacke 1607–1608 Children of the King’s Revels
Barry, Lorden (and John Cooke?) Ram-Alley or Merrie Tricks 1607–1608 Children of the King’s Revels
Beaumont, Francis, and John Fletcher The Coxcomb ca. 1608–1610 Children of the Queen’s Revels?
Beaumont, Francis, and John Fletcher Cupid’s Revenge ca. 1611 Children of the Queen’s Revels
Beaumont, Francis, and John Fletcher The Scornful Lady ca. 1613–1616 3 (printed 1616) Lady Elizabeth’s Men
Chapman, George The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois ca. 1610 Children of the Queen’s Revels?
Day, John Humour out of Breath 1608 Children of the King’s Revels
Day, John Law Tricks or Who Would Have Thought It 1609 and later 4 Children of the Queen’s Revels
Field, Nathan A Woman is a Weathercock ca. 1609 Children of the Queen’s Revels
Field, Nathan Amends for Ladies ca. 1611 Lady Elizabeth’s Men
Jonson, Ben Epicoene 1609 Children of the Queen’s Revels
Marston, John, William Barkstead, and Lewis Machin The Insatiate Countess ca. 1610 Children of the Queen’s Revels
Mason, John The Turke 1607–1608 Children of the King’s Revels
Markham, Gervase, and Lewis Machin The Dumb Knight 1607–1608 Children of the King’s Revels
Middleton, Thomas and Thomas Dekker (and Lording Barry?) The Family of Love 1607? 5 Children of the King’s Revels
Shapman, Edward Cupid’s Whirligig 1607 Children of the King’s Revels

Epicoene

Epicoene epitomizes the themes and characteristics of the plays written for the boy companies. The very title -- a grammatical term for Greek and Latin nouns that without changing their grammatical gender, may denote either sex (OED epicene, adj.1.) -- suggests the androgyny presented on stage when a boy played a woman. Epicoene has a fascination with gender, a category of signification which, through stage conventions of crossdressing and the deployment of boy actors to play women’s parts was represented as protean and ambiguous (Comensoli and Russell 1).
Epicoene is overtly homoerotic: Morose marries Epicoene, who turns out to be a young boy. Homoerotic relationships seem to be natural in the world of the play. Clerimont has an ingle at home (1.1.24): a boy kept for homosexual pleasure (OED ingle, n.2.). It is possible that Epicoene was Dauphine’s ingle. The wits (Truewit, Dauphine, and Clerimont), with whom playgoers are invited to identify, praise these relationships and see them as normal. Truewit lists Clerimont’s ingle as one of the distracting pleasures of a London life of leisure. Dauphine benefits from his relationship with Epicoene economically, and their relationship has a positive outcome whether or not it is sexual (DiGangi 73). Stepping back from the world of the play, we can say that all of the relationships are potentially homoerotic because the supposed women on stage are, in reality, boys.
Epicoene does not derogate homosexuality; rather, it is foolishness that is disparaged. Morose, who foolishly thinks that he can have a wife who will be silent, is humiliated by being forced to announce his impotence. The gulls in the play, La Foole and Daw, are also punished for their witlessness and cowardice. Truewit amuses himself by setting up a duel between La Foole and Daw, to entertain himself, Clerimont, Dauphine, and the Collegiates. Dauphine gives Daw’s backside six kicks and tweaks La Foole’s nose. These are both emasculating gestures, but the real humiliation is having their swords taken; the sword is almost inevitably a phallic signifier in Renaissance drama. Morose, La Foole, and Daw are all emasculated by the loss of their swords. This loss is similar to the lack ascribed to all women on stage: the idea that the female body is by definition defective insofar as it is present at all, based on the Galenic one-sex model that defines women as incomplete and imperfect men (Adelman 25). The gulls are therefore punished for their foolishness by being twinned with the imperfect bodies of women.
Epicoene was certainly written for the Whitefriars playhouse. However, Jonson, unlike most playwrights, edited his own plays for publication in his Works of 1616. Therefore, the text we have is not a wholly reliable guide to Whitefriars staging practices. In 4.5, the duel scene, Jonson places all of the Collegiates in the above with Clerimont. This staging is probably wishful thinking on Jonson’s part because the above could realistically hold no more than three actors. Jonson probably added the stage direction when he was supervising publication of his play (MacIntyre 10).
Epicoene is typical of Whitefriars plays because of its homoerotic connotations. Epicoene displays one of the inherent features of the theatrical occasion [, which] is a ritualistic celebration -- however indirect -- of the spectators themselves (Shapiro 416). That Jonson was aware of his audience is evident in his Prologue, which addresses the men and daughters of Whitefriars (Prol. 24). The men [. . .] of Whitefriars probably refers to the playgoers of 1607–1608, and the daughters of Whitefriars to the prostitutes who worked the audience. Jonson’s Epicoene celebrates Whitefriars’ unique audience with clever use of boy players and witty language.
For information about the Whitefriars 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) article on Whitefriars Theatre.

Notes

  1. See MoEML’s encyclopedia article on the Office of the Revels. (JT)
  2. The Children of the Queen’s Revels referred to here is the amalgamation of the Blackfriars Boys and the Children of the King’s Revels (the first Whitefriars Boys)
  3. Not certainly performed at Whitefriars
  4. Written for another theatre and played again at Whitefriars.
  5. Written for another theatre and played again at Whitefriars.

References

Last modification: 2016-05-27 14:37:29 -0700 (Fri, 27 May 2016) (tlandels)
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MLA citation:

Estill, Laura. “Whitefriars Theatre.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Web. 24 March 2017. <http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/WHIT17.htm>.

Chicago citation:

Estill, Laura. n.d. “Whitefriars Theatre.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed March 24, 2017. http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/WHIT17.htm.

APA citation:

Estill L. (n.d.). Whitefriars Theatre. In J. Jenstad (Ed.), The Map of Early Modern London. Retrieved March 24, 2017, from http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/WHIT17.htm

TEI citation:

<bibl> <author><persName><surname>Estill</surname>, <forename>Laura</forename></persName></author> (<date>n.d.</date>). <title level="a">Whitefriars Theatre</title>. 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="2017-03-24">March 24, 2017</date>, from <ref target="http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/WHIT17.htm">http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/WHIT17.htm</ref> </bibl>