Saturday, October 2, 2010

Notes on The Shakespearean Playing Companies - Chapter 3

Wanting a second opinion on the way touring companies worked in the 16th and 17th centuries, I decided to turn to Andrew Gurr's The Shakespearean Playing Companies for his analysis of evidence. Basically everything Gurr says in this chapter contradicts Stern, but as Gurr's arguments do not conform to the existing evidence of the extant Merry Devil text, I'm not sure how much weight I should give him.

Throughout the 16th century touring companies were an almost regular feature of life outside of London, and while most of these companies have left little record of their existence, the records themselves are incomplete, and so there are very likely more than we are aware of today. The city of Leicester was visited by more than 50 different companies in the period, and touring was standard practice for all companies during the Tudor period. It wasn't until just before Elizabeth's death in 1603 that London playing began to dictate the standards of theatrical practice (36).

Puritan disapproval of playing was likely stronger and quicker to manifest outside of London, where the court had less direct control over government. Few mayors would have lamented the closure of the public playhouses in 1642 (38).

From 1559 on, plays had to be either licensed by the mayor, or had to be seen before a council of the mayor an alderman of the city before the players would be licensed to perform (39).

The London companies all began as touring companies, and the tradition continued even when the King's Men received their supreme privilege under James. Some share holder-players seem to have preferred a life on the road to a more stable one in London (40). Gurr seems surprised by this, but it doesn't seem odd to me at all. Now, as then, there are some people who prefer the bustle of life on the road, and there are some people who prefer the stability of life in the same town. Some people like waking up in a different place every morning, and some prefer waking up in their own beds.

It is traditionally presumed that London players would look to touring as a source of revenue when the London playhouses were closed due to plague deaths, but local authorities were often suspicious that player might bring the plague with them, and were thus hesitant to let them play (40). The King's Men, in particular, didn't need to tour during plague closures because James (and later Charles) both paid them a subsidy during plague closures; despite not needing to travel, they continued to do so regularly (44). It is also noteworthy that there is little correlation between plague closures in London and increased touring activity in the extant records; rather, all available evidence indicates that touring remained constant through times when public playing was allowed in London and times when the playhouses were closed (53).

Most assume that travel was a strenuous activity and forced playing companies to economize their resources, cutting back on the number of players in their troup, and cutting their playbooks for touring: Gurr believes this is not the case (40). This, despite evidence he cites from Donald Lupton's 1632 London and the Countrey Carbonadoed, wherein Luptun cites a lack of funding, costumes, audience, and new play books as a reason why companies go on tour (40 - 41). Gurr feels the situation "cannot have been so simple" (41).

Gurr offers that, while a permanently mobile company might go to the trouble of trimming down on its playbooks and other resources, he does not think that a London based company would have done so (41 - 42). In particular, Gurr rejects the idea that the "bad quartos" are derived from touring scripts (42).

cf Werstine, Paul. "Narratives about Printed Shakespearen Texts: 'Foul Papers' and 'Bad' Quartos." Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol 41. 1990. 65 - 86.

cf Irace, Kathleen M. "Reconstruction and Adaptation in Q Henry V." Shakespeare Bulletin. Vol 44. 1991. 228 - 253.

cf Bradley, David. From Text to Performance in Elizabethan Theatre. p 58 - 74.

cf King, TJ. Casting Shakespeare's Plays: London Actors and their Roles, 1590 - 1642. Cambridge. 1992. p 73.

cf Murray, JT. English Dramatic Companies, 1558 - 1642. Vol 2. London. 1910. p 330.

Bradley argues that the "bad quarto" text show no signs of cutting with the focus of reducing the size of the cast in mind (42). I don't have a problem conceding this one. There were fewer sharers in the Chamberlain's/King's Men than would have been able to perform the cut Merry Devil.

Bradley also argues that the company would have had to re-license the playbook after cutting it in order to perform it on tour, as the Master of Revels signed each playbook  (42). Yet Gurr ignores some of his own evidence in supporting Bradley's claim: he cites Tilney's patent (qtd in Murray) referring to Tilney's signature at the end of the playbook (42). It is completely conceivable that they may have simply got the entire play authorized, and re-cut it (for whatever reason, it wouldn't matter because, as long as they were adding no new material, it had all been approved) keeping the last page (with the signature) intact. That could very well explain the reference on the last page to the scene that never happens in Merry Devil.

Gurr also notes that there was often little regulation on how far into the night  a play may be performed outside of London, and that local authorities did not restrict the time available for plays, and thus there was no reason to cut plays for length (43). I find Gurr's claim dubious because in some cases, as with Merry Devil, the script clearly was cut, with length being a key factor. It makes sense that a company would cut scenes for travel that required the use of an above, or some other technology they couldn't bring with them (like a canon), but they also may have found cutting for length to be more profitable. Whatever the reason, Merry Devil was clearly cut.

Part of the compensation that touring would bring would come in the form of reduced expense at buying new plays (48). Although, as Henslowe's Diary records, the amount spent on a purchasing a new playbook was relatively small, and thus they weren't saving much.

By 1604 Augustine Philips had a house on Mortlake, which was not far fom Richmond Palace, and Chamber accounts in December 1604 record a payment covering the cost of the King's Men's travel from Mortlake to Wilton. Gurr surmises that, during the plague closure, the players might have used this house as an impromptu performance space outside of London (54).


Gurr provides some interesting evidence, and I fully appreciate his willingness to contest conventional wisdom; conventional wisdom is the kind most oft proved wrong. Still, by my reckoning, his argument is that the "bad" quartos were not cut, or rather that there is no evidence that they were, and that is at odds with the 1100 line Merry Devil. If it wasn't cut, why is it so short. If it wasn't cut for touring, why was it cut? There are gaps in the evidence, and we simply don't have the whole picture.


Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Playing Companies. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1996,

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