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1540s in England

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1540s in England
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Events from the 1540s in England.

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Hey there, I’m Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash Course Theater, and today we’re taking on the theater of Renaissance England. Which means Shakespeare, right? Wrong, unfortunately. It’ll be a bit before we know of poor Yorick. Get thee to the ceiling, pal. Believe it or not, there are Renaissance English plays and playwrights and theaters and troupes that existed totally independent of Shakespeare. Well, mostly independent of Shakespeare. Today we’ll discuss historical context, introduce the English playhouse, and meet some early plays and playwrights. And we’re not going to talk about Shakespeare! Not at all. It’s gonna be much ado about something… else. INTRO The Renaissance arrives in England… late. Really late. Like 150 years later than Italy-late. Why? Well, there are a bunch of reasons, but mostly England spent a lot of the late Middle Ages embroiled in the Hundred Years’ War with France, which obviously lasted one hundred and sixteen years, and then thirty two more years fighting the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars for control of England, which involved far fewer actual roses than you may expect. Once the Tudors took the throne, things got more stable. Humanism and the scientific method and madrigals really took off. The Tudors liked theater. Like, really liked it a lot. Henry VII, the first Tudor king, paid for court entertainments. His son Henry VIII, the one with all the wives, established an independent Office of the Revels, managed by a Master of Revels whose job it was to arrange plays and masques for the nobility. There were definitely some plays the Tudors didn’t like. England had been Catholic and then Protestant and then Catholic and then Protestant again, and sometimes plays could be used to fan the flames of religious discord. So in 1558, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I cracked down on religious and political plays. This pretty much ended the cycle plays. She also passed a law classifying actors as vagrants who could be fined for going from town to town. The solution? Troupes of actors hooked up with nobility and licensed themselves as servants under names like The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and The Lord Admiral’s Men. Jeez, actors just throughout history, just CANNOT catch a break, huh? If these laws seem restrictive, they are! But the crackdown on the cycle plays pushed the theater in new and more innovative directions, while that whole vagrancy thing encouraged actors to professionalize. The earliest plays of the English Renaissance predate all this licensing and vagrancy. Two of the first English Renaissance plays were comedies written in vernacular English. They were modeled on the work of, surprise surprise, Plautus and Terence! But morality plays were an obvious influence, too, and maybe also medieval farces. Neoclassicism didn’t catch on in England the way it did in Italy and in France, so these English plays tend to be looser and more episodic. The earliest one is “Ralph Roister Doister,” which was written in the 1540s by a schoolmaster named Nicholas Udall. The title character is a braggy dolt, kind of like the Captain from the commedia dell-arte. He falls in love with a virtuous widow, Christian Custance, and tries to win her over, while egged on by Matthew Merrygreeke, a clever trickster type who owes a lot to the Vice character from the morality plays. Ralph gets tricked, beaten, and a rape almost happens. But then the widow marries her rich, honorable suitor, Gawyn Goodluck, and it all ends happily. Another early play is “Gammer Gurton’s Needle” by an unknown author. It was first performed in the early 1560s, and it also derives most of its humor from bodily harm. Gammer Gurton has lost her sewing needle. Diccon of Bedlam, a wandering fool and another Vice type, tries to stir up trouble by claiming that her next door neighbor, Dame Chat, took it. Everyone gets beaten up, including a curate–which is sorta like a priests assistant–and the needle is discovered when a servant is stabbed in the butt. Hilarious! It was a simpler time, ok? Wiseguy eh?! I’m sorry, Another early play tried to be all genres to all spectators. It was called “Cambises” for short. Why “for short” you may ask? Well the full title goes: “A lamentable tragedy mixed ful of pleasant mirth, conteyning the life of CAMBISES King of PERCIA, from the beginning of his kingdome unto his death, his one good deed of execution, after that many wicked deeds and tirannous murders, committed by and through him, and last of all, his odious death by Gods Justice appointed, Doon in such order as foloweth.” I’d love to see the poster for that one. It was written by the schoolmaster Thomas Preston and mostly likely performed sometime in the 1560s. The episodic structure and the focus on good versus evil link it closely with morality plays, but also history plays. The first tragedy on an English subject is “The Tragedie of Gorboduc,” a play by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, first performed in 1561. Because it’s a tragedy, Seneca is the big influence, but there’s some morality play elements, too. It’s written in blank verse, the meter that he-who-shall-not-be-named-until-the-next-episode uses, and also goes by the catchy title “Ferrex and Porrex.” The story goes like this: Gorboduc is an ancient king of Britain who decides to divide the realm between his two sons, Ferrex and Porrex. They fight, Porrex kills Ferrex, and so the Queen stabs Porrex while he’s sleeping. Then the people rebel, killing both Gorboduc and the Queen. Nobles rise up and kill most of the people. Everything’s a huge mess, and the succession is still unclear. Now that’s what I call a tragedy. Right, Yorick? And yes, this obviously sounds a lot like “King Lear,” but of course we aren’t discussing “King Lear.” Unless what I’m saying now counts. DANGIT. Early English Renaissance plays weren’t staged in theaters, because freestanding permanent theaters didn’t exist yet. Not in England, anyway. These plays were staged in gardens, banquet halls, inn yards and schools. But as acting became increasingly professionalized and plays became increasingly popular, troupes started to raise funds to build permanent structures. They couldn’t build them in the City of London itself, because there was a belief that play-going spread plague. Plays and players were basically outlawed in the city proper by the 1570s. The first theater was probably the Red Lion, which was built in Whitechapel, just outside of the center of London, in 1567. We don’t know much about it, except that it had a pretty big stage, some kind of turret—and that it was very badly constructed. One of the only surviving documents about the Red Lion is from a complaint by the owner, John Brayne, against the carpenter who built it. The lawsuit over its poor construction dragged on until 1578—which may have been longer than the Red Lion itself survived. A longer-lasting theater was called… drum roll please… The Theatre. It was built in 1576 by the actor and businessman James Burbage in a neighborhood full of gambling dens and brothels, because, as we’ll discuss in our episode on the closing of theaters, they were considered pretty immoral as far as structures go. For a look at the theater The Theatre, the first important Elizabethan playhouse, let’s look at the Thoughtbubble: The Theatre borrowed its design from inn yards or maybe bear-baiting pits, which is exactly what it sounds like. In Elizabethan England, deciding what you wanted to do for the evening was like, “HMMM do I feel like watching a bunch of dogs try to kill a bear, or do I feel like seeing a play? ” The Theatre had a three-level gallery structure on most sides, surrounding a thrust stage and a bare-as-in-empty space in the middle where penny-paying ticket holders could stand. If you paid another penny, you could move to the galleries. And if you had three pennies, you got a stool. FAAAANNNNN-CY The Theater was associated with the Lord Admiral’s Men, and a bunch of the early plays by Ole What Lights Through Yonder Window Shakes. Eventually a dispute with the landlord led Burbage to dismantle the theater and move it across the river, where it became, dramatic pause, the Globe. These early theaters were open air, public arenas. They could seat as many as 2500 people—everyone from slumming nobles to workingmen to the poor. Women came, too, although it wasn’t considered respectable, so some wore disguises! But there were no women on stage. Boys played the female roles. And Scenery wasn’t as advanced as it was in Italy. Scenes were set with some hanging cloths in the back and maybe a few props. Plays were held in the afternoon, to take advantage of the natural light. A lot of snacks were sold, and beer, too. And if the audience didn’t like the play, those snacks would be thrown! Thanks, Thoughtbubble! You wouldn’t throw snacks at me if you didn’t like a thoughtbubble, would you Yorick? HEY, NO. BAD SKELLY. I suppose I deserve this after the eyepoking incident. In 1576, the first indoor, private theater appeared, Blackfriars Theatre. It was located on the grounds of a former Dominican Monastery. It fell into disuse, and in 1596, a second, fancier theater was built nearby, also by James Burbage. These indoor theaters seated about 750 people, and since seats were more expensive they drew a ritzier crowd. Whether or not that meant ritzier crackers were tossed at the talent, I’m not sure. The plays they put on were thought to be wittier and more sophisticated than those in the public theaters, though, and they were initially performed by companies of boys, because the Renaissance and … child labor. Who wrote these sophisticated plays for those child laborers? Well, they were written by a group of playwrights who were later called the University Wits, because unlike Billy Wiggleharpoon, they all went to Oxford or Cambridge. These snobs wrote sophisticated plays for grown-up actors, too, including many that are still performed today. Basically these guys started with, and improved, the early dramas we looked at, making them better—truer, livelier, with more awesome poetry. They prepared the way for–ok,fine–Shakespeare, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE ... though they didn’t always like him. One of them called him an “upstart crow.” Yeesh! Get thee some milk of the poppy to relieve the scorch from that Rennaissance Burn! Among the University Wits were Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, Robert Green, and Christopher Marlowe. Thomas Kyd is best known for “The Spanish Tragedy.” It borrows from Seneca, helps kick off the craze for revenge tragedy, and has a strong influence on “Hamlet,”. John Lyly wrote charming pastorals, which probably inspired “As You Like It.” Robert Green, wrote comedies and pastorals and is best known for “Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay,” which is a history play and a love story and also a morality play with magicians and a talking head. YES, YOU ALSO ARE THAT, except you’re pretty quiet... And then there’s Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, who led a very busy life before dying in a tavern brawl before he was 30. He went to Cambridge, where he earned a master's degree. He also worked for the Elizabethan government in some secret capacity, maybe as a spy. His plays are long and intense and full of gorgeous, vivid blank verse which heavily influenced Shakespeare. Marlowe’s characters are ambitious. Really ambitious. They want to conquer the world or change it. Or—as in the case of “Doctor Faustus,” his most famous play—make a deal with the devil that guarantees you a couple of decades as the smartest and most powerful person on earth. His tragedies are tragedies of overreaching... of characters who want too much and usually get it, with disastrous consequences. Since he’s a big ole deal, we’re gonna be devoting our next three episodes to Shakespeare. Also, Yorick insists. Try to remember that Shakespeare doesn’t come from nowhere. Okay, yes, Stratford-upon-Avon, kind of is nowhere. But he doesn’t arise ahistorically, or come from nowhere artistically. He arrives in a theatrical culture that’s already professionalized and thriving, in a London of established troupes, competing theaters, and eager beer-swilling, snack-throwing audiences. Who We’ll see plenty of next time. Until then… compost those tomatoes… and curtain!







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