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Biography And The Early Modern Stage

By Author: peter
Total Articles: 191

In the world of Elizabethan theatre, where companies formed, amalgamated, disbanded and reconstituted themselves, players could apparently move from one troupe to the next with relative ease. Mobility of this kind was probably a mixed blessing for company leaders and or playhouse owners as they sought not just to recruit, but also to retain, the best talent available. Where two playhouses were established in close proximity, competition for actors must have been at its most intense, which adding to the keen competition for audiences that doubtless already existed. There were a number of districts in London's theatre-land with the potential for friction of this kind, though acrimony was by no means inevitable. North of the Thames in the suburb of Shoreditch, where the Theatre and the Curtain stood within a stone's throw of each other, relations between the two houses appear to have been amicable and mutually supportive, so far as one can.

This is an expanded version of a paper first prepared for the Theatre History Seminar on 'Biography and the Early Modern Stage' which David Kathman led as part of the Shakespeare Association of America's annual conference at San Diego, California, in 2007. I am grateful to participants who commented on the original draft, especially to Bill Lloyd for his insightful and constructive criticisms tell from the meagre documentation that has survived. On the other hand, in Southwark, on the south bank of the river, things were a lot less neighborly. The Rose theatre, built by Philip Henslowe in 1587, was the first of the five public playhouses to be set up in that part of the capital. From May 1594 it was the home of the Lord Admiral's Men, led by Edward Alleyn, Henslowe's son-in-law. The second public theatre to appear on Bankside was the Swan, a much more capacious auditorium located some 500 yards to the west of the Rose. Completed in 1595, it was used in that year and the next by various troupes whose identities are now unknown, though there is some evidence to suggest that the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's company, were in residence there for a while in 1596.

The owner of the Swan, Francis Langley, has received a bad press from historians of the early modern theatre, and with some justification; his business activities show him to have been, among other things, an unscrupulous moneylender and speculator, and from the numerous law suits in which he became embroiled it is apparent that he applied the same dubious ethical standards to matters concerning his extended family as he did to his financial dealings and the running of his playhouse.1 What follows does nothing to restore Langley's reputation; depending on their interpretation, the records that form the basis of the present paper portray him as someone who was at best opportunistic, and at worst incapable of differentiating permissible competitive behavior from illegality.

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