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was the fatal period to that virtuous fabrique, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not, by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with bottle-ale."
From what has been already advanced respecting players and theatres, we proceed to draw some inferences.
We believe the Blackfriars to have been a public theatre, and that the common plaies,” being accessible to every one who could command the small sum charged for admission, were resorted to by the very lowest of the people. We say the “common plaies"; for discarding Mr. Collier's distinction of public and private, and adopting the one suggested in its stead, renders intelligible the words, common plaies, which occur not unfrequently.
The “common plaies” were, we apprehend, the ordinary performances to which every one could obtain access upon payment; but occasionally noblemen and others commanded a play, and secured the house for themselves and their friends: thus the Blackfriars Theatre was, as every theatre since has been and is, both a public and a private theatre : public, in that the proprietors were licensed or
allowed to take money and admit any one to see the acting ; but private, when it was secured or engaged, which at any time it might be, for a performance to which the general public were not admitted.
That the Whitefriars Theatre could be so engaged or “taken up,” is evidenced by a letter (without date) of Sir Henry Wotton to Sir Edmund Bacon :
“On Sunday last, at night, and no longer, some sixteen apprentices (of what sort you may guess, by the rest of the story) having secretly learnt a a new play without book, intituled The Hog has lost his Pearl, took up the White Fryers for their theatre, and having invited thither (as it would seem) rather their mistresses than their masters, who were all to enter per buletini, for a note of distinction from ordinary comedians, towards the end of the play the sheriffs (who by chance had heard of it) came in (as they say) and carried some six or seven of them to perform the last act of it at Bridewell; the rest are fled. Now, it is strange to hear how sharp-witted the City is; for they will needs have Sir Thomas Swinnerton, the Lord Mayor, be meant by the Hog, and the late Lord Treasurer, by the Pearl.”
At this public theatre, to which every one could obtain access, and the lowest of the people ordinarily resorted, the ordinary performances doubtless were, as it might be expected they would be, of the coarsest and most ordinary description. Yet we are called upon to believe that it was here that the wonderful works which we all so greatly admire, and feel that we can only properly appreciate by careful private study, were performed ; and it was from the profit arising from this wretched place of amusement that Shakespeare realised the far from inconsiderable fortune with which he in a few years retired to Stratford-upon-Avon.
Commentators say, We do not find that the plays attributed to Shakespeare were ever performed at any other theatre. They do not say, which they might, We do not find that they were ever performed at this.
We cannot but think that the best plays must have been performed at the best, the most exclusive, that is, the private theatres—the theatres held at inns, taverns, &c., to which the most respectable portion of the community resorted.
Of these the Rose seems to have been at that time the most eminent.
It was here, and at similar places, before audiences capable of appreciating them, that these plays doubtless were performed in their integrity. And Shakespeare's company made their money, either by supplying the actors at these superior theatres with dramas, or by performing them before those audiences themselves.
The only account we have of the performance of Twelfth Night is from the Table Book of John Manningham, student of the Middle Temple, and it confirms this idea :
“February, 1601.–At our feast we had a play called Twelfth Night, or What You Will, much like the Comedy of Errors, or Menechmis in Plautus, but more like or neare to that in Italian called Inganni. A good practice in it, to make the steward believe his lady widdowe was in love with him, by counterfeiting a letter as from a lady, in generall terms telling him what shee liked best in him, and prescribing his gestures, inscribing his apparaile, &c., and then, when he came to practise, making him believe they took him to be mad.”Knight's Cyclopædia of London, from Harleian MSS.
That some of the plays may have been performed
“common plaies" at Shakespeare's own theatre, is very possible ; but if they were, they were doubtless altered, mutilated, and interpolated, to suit the taste of that wretched audience.
We have seen how Play-acting, “ which was once a recreation, and used therefor now and then occasianally, afterwards by abuse, became a trade and calling, and so remains to this day.”
We have seen how plays, which were originally performed in the open air, and then at inns and taverns, had at length found a habitation of their own, and the playhouse was a recognised institution.
This state of things involved another and most important change; for, as plays were now continually being performed, in order that the actors might procure their daily bread, it became essential that there should be a continual supply of novelties to stimulate the curiosity of the public, and attract an audience.
It was of the first importance to the actors too, that the authors should be men that would produce