Games and Sport in Children’s Indoor Performance.
The first two decades of the seventeenth century was an exciting time for a London playgoer. For the first time in as long as ten years, a discerning theatre fan’s choices were no longer limited to the daily offerings at the large open-air playhouses occupied by companies like Shakespeare’s. From 1599 onward, children’s companies, for a time thought to be a thing of the past, began to re-emerge in smaller, indoor, candlelit venues, springing up in the cloisters of Paul’s Cathedral (the Children of Paul’s, 1599-1606); the Blackfriars (the Children of the [Queen’s] Revels, 1600-1608); and the Whitefriars (the Children of the King’s Revels, 1607-09; the Children of the Queen’s Revels, 1609-13).
The drama offered by these companies was nothing if not innovative. Now, anyone with the cash to attend one of these more expensive theatres could bear witness to a more intimate mode of performance, replete with masque-like entertainments, musical and choral interludes, and spectacular effects. Perhaps because of this more intimate setting, the companies and their dramatists frequently went out of their way to make audiences imagine that they were part of an exclusive coterie, enjoying the same sort of entertainments long performed in private aristocratic houses.
Those entertainments were not restricted to scenes of masquing and dance, however. Paradoxically, given the obvious spatial limitations of the indoor playhouses, the children’s company indoor repertories routinely staged scenes involving large-scale sporting activity—doubtless drawing on the intensive physical education received by grammar-school boys (the sort of youngsters selected for the acting troupes). In John Marston’s What You Will (Paul’s, 1600), for instance, two—or maybe three—courtly ladies play a game of ‘battledore and shuttlecock’ (what we would come to call badminton) while discussing the merits and shortcomings of their suitors (who the women scarcely treat better than the feathered implement they volley back and forth in the scene). A few years later, at the larger Blackfriars playhouse, John Day demands that four of the actors in his Isle of Gulls (1606) perform a full-scale boules match, the pretext being that each of the erotically frustrated characters can woo another; a year later, writing for the slightly smaller Whitefriars, Day had his actors run riot in staging a game of blind man’s buff in Humour out of Breath.
Taken together, these scenes offer a fascinating snapshot of the kind of skills boy actors were expected to have in their toolkit. As well as all the usual suspects (dancing, singing, stage combat, ‘dying’), actors among all three acting troupes needed to demonstrate an aptitude for games—games of which, as humble, if highly skilled, actors, they may not have direct experience (boules, in particular, was strictly an aristocratic pastime, with proclamations from the beginning of the sixteenth century outlawing any matches among the common sort).
How, then, does one stage badminton, boules, and blind-man’s buff in an intimate, candlelit space? When subsequent action depends on seemingly unpredictably sporting moves, how can an actor ensure that the right thing happens at the right time? And what on earth does it all look like for an audience? With the Globe’s Will Tosh, I’ll be exploring these questions in a Research in Action workshop featuring Globe actors Emily Barber, Mathew Foster, Ellora Torchia, and James Wallace on Monday 9 July in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – hope to see you there!
Harry R. McCarthy is a South, West, and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership-funded PhD student at the Universities of Exeter and Bristol, exploring boy actors in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.