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Some writers awarrante your matter; therefore be boulde,
Lustily to playe the same to all the rowtte;
And yf any thereof stande in any double,
Your author his author hath, your shewe let bee,
Good speech, fyne players, with apparill comelye.
With the history of plays we have nothing to do, and need only state that the first regular English tragedy was "Ferrex and Porrex," which was acted before Queen Elizabeth on the 18th of January 1561 by the gentlemen of the Inner Temple. This same play was tried at one of the minor theatres in 1854, but had no claim upon the tastes of the time. From a passage in Strype's Life of Archbishop Grindall, it has been assumed that the custom of issuing bills, giving information concerning the time, place, and nature of plays to be acted, came in with the plays themselves, as it is there shown to exist prior to the year 1563. In alluding to Grindall's objections to dramatic representations, Strype mentions that the Archbishop complained to Queen Elizabeth's secretary that the players "did then daily, but especially on the holidays, set up their bills, inviting to plays." This, however, is a somewhat curious error of Strype's, into which Mr Payne Collier has also fallen. The Bishop did not write bills but booths; his words are as follows: "Common players, now daylie, but speciallye on holy dayes, set up boothes whereunto the youthe resorteth excessively." There is, however, other evidence to prove that playbills were in use not long after the above date; for John Northbrooke, in his treatise against theatrical performances, printed about 1579, says: "They use to set up their bills upon posts some certain days before, to admonish people to make resort to their theatres." At that time the Stationers' Company had the right of giving licences for the printing of playbills, and in the year 1587 its Court of Assistants conferred upon John Charlewood the privilege of being the sole printer of bills for players. Before that time they were printed by one James Roberts, who names " the bills for the players" amongst his publications as early as 1573—six years before Northbrooke's mention of them—and, authorised no doubt by Charlewood, he continued to print them until after the year 1600. This right of printing playbills was at a subsequent period assumed by the Crown. A broadside, dated 1620, is preserved in the Library of the Society of Antiquaries, by which this privilege was granted to a printing firm by James I. It is entitled "An Abstract of his Majesty's Letters Patent granted unto Roger Wood and Thomas Symcocke, for the sole printing of paper and parchment on the one side." Among the articles enumerated as coming under this category are, "Bills for Playes, Pastimes, Showes, Challenges, Prizes, or Sportes whatsoever." At the end the public are informed that if they may want any work of that description, they need only repair to Edward Allde (Wood and Symcocke's assignee), "in the Old Change at the Golden Anchor, over against Carter Lane end, where they shall be reasonably dealt with for the same."
According to Malone these early playbills did not contain a list of the characters or of the names of the actors by whom they were represented. But that the name of the author was sometimes, if not always, on the playbill may be inferred from a passage in the anonymous play of "Histriomastix" (1610), act iv., in which Belch, speaking of Post-hast the playwriter, says, "It is as dangerous to read his name at a play dore, as a printed bill on a plague dore," the allusion being to the practice of writing " Lord have mercy upon us" on the doors of houses in which the plague had broken out, which words of course were a caution, and made people pass on hurriedly. In the same play also we find a curious illustration of our subject in a reference to the part of one of the inferior actors. In act iii. the stage direction says, "Enter Belch setting up bills." And it may not be out of place to remark that the word poster is evidently derived from the custom of sticking bills on posts. That bills were stuck on posts for choice, many of them at stated or customary places, there is plenty of evidence. Sometimes they were ordered to be stuck upon doors and gates, as in the following, though this very possibly means door or gate post. From the Moderate Intelligencer, March 18-25, l(>47, we discover that in the time of civil war, when the bishops' lands and palaces were sold, the following places were appointed by Parliament to be used for affixing bills concerning the sales. Upon the outer gate and upon the hall door of Sir Richard Gourney's house in the Old Jewry (this was the office where the committee charged with those sales held their sitting), upon the north door of St Paul's Church, upon the gate of Guildhall, and upon the gate of Blackwell Hall.
As long as they have had an existence — from the sixteenth century—these bills have gone by the name of playbills. In the prologue to the anonymous tragedy of "A Warning for Fair Women" (1599), Tragedy whips History and Comedy from the stage, exclaiming :—
'Tis you have kept the theatre so long
They have also, however, in various places and at various times, been called " text bills for plays." The natural and shorter title, though, always overruled its more pretentious rival. From the prologue to Shirley's " Cardinal" (1652) it appears that it was usual to add on the bill whether the piece was a comedy or a tragedy. This "Cardinal" being a tragedy, the author apologises in the following words for only calling it "a play " in the bills :—
Think what you please, we call it but a "play."
Whether the comic muse, or lady's love,
Romance, or direful tragedy it prove,
The bill determines not : and you would be
Persuaded I would have't a comedy
For all the purple in the name.
From which it may be inferred that the names of tragedies, for greater distinction, were usually, or at all events occasionally, printed in red ink. That the custom of posting playbills continued in the reign of Charles II. may be inferred from the following entry in Pepys' Diary: "I went to see if any play was acted and I found none upon the posts, it being Passion Weeke."
During the Civil Wars the drama had a hard struggle not to be swamped in the deluge which destroyed all things appertaining to the pomp and luxury of the Court, or connected with pleasure generally. The face of the Parliament was turned against stage-plays, and when the war broke out, one of the first measures was that which led to the publication of the following bill:—
Ordinance of the Lords and Commons concerning Stage-Plays.
The distressed Estate of Ireland, steeped in her own Blood, and the distracted Estate of England, threatened with a Cloud of Blood by a civil War, call for all possible Means to appease and avert the Wrath of God, appearing in these Judgements ; amongst which Fasting and Prayer, having been often tried to be very effectual, have been lately, and are still, enjoined; And whereas public Sports do not well agree with public Calamities, nor public 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 lascivious Mirth and Levity; It is therefore thought fit, and ordered by the Lords and Commons in this Parliament assembled, That while these sad Causes and set Times of Humiliation do continue, public Stage-plays shall cease and be forborne. Instead of which are recommended to the People of this Land the profitable and seasonable consideration of Repentance, Reconciliation, and Peace with God, which probably will produce outward Peace and Prosperity, and bring again Times of Joy and Gladness to these Nations.
This intimation was of course received with much outcry, and "The Actors' Remonstrance" was soon published In it the writer complains naturally of a law which robs the poor player of his livelihood, and allows bear-gardens and suchlike places to remain unmolested to the delectation of " boisterous butchers, cutting cobblers, hard-handed masons, and the like riotous disturbers of the public peace." The playhouses are defended against sundry charges brought against them, and a promise is made that no female whatsoever shall be admitted unless accompanied by her husband or some male relative; besides which the use of tobacco is to be forbidden even in the threepenny galleries, except in the case of "the pure Spanish leaf." It may thus be readily guessed that something worse even than the cheap "sensation smokes" of the present day was often misnamed tobacco. This is hard to believe, however. The promise extends to the expulsion of all ribaldry from the stage; and the actors say, "We will so demean ourselves as none shall esteem us of the ungodly, or have cause to repine at our actions or interludes; we will not entertain any comedian that shall speak his part in a tone as if he did it in derision of some of the pious, but reform all our disorders and amend all our amisses." During the Commonwealth, stage-plays were almost openly connived at; and the licence indulged in during the Restoration days is too well known to require notice here.
An interesting epoch in the history of the drama is the first appearance of David Garrick, and it is noticeable that the playbill which commemorates the event does not contain his name. Neither, for the matter of that, does it contain the name of the author of the play, who, if Shakespeare, must have been improved and amended. The monopoly of the patent theatres was such that these plays had to be advertised and regarded as simply interludes to a musical entertainment. As witness :—
October 19, 1741.
At the late Theatre in Goodman's Fields, this Day will be perform'd a Concert of Vocal and Instrumental Music, divided into two Parts. Tickets at Three, Two and One Shilling. Plates for the Boxes to be taken at the Fleece Tavern, near the Theatre.