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  • Title: An Humorous Day's Mirth: Performance Contexts
  • Author: Eleanor Lowe

  • Copyright Digital Renaissance Editions. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Eleanor Lowe
    Peer Reviewed

    Performance Contexts

    1The Rose Theatre and The Admiral's Men

    London, 1600An Humorous Day’s Mirth has benefited from the survival of a multiplicity of evidence surrounding the Rose theatre, at which the play was performed in 1597, in archaeological, pictorial and documentary forms. More specifically, they are the discovery and excavation of the Rose theatre site on Bankside in London, 1989, the two panoramas of London, 1593 and 1600, engraved by John Norden, featuring the Rose theatre, and Philip Henslowe’s records of the theatre, ‘the most valuable and important source for information about the working arrangements of the Elizabethan public theatres, dealing as it does with the day-to-day activities of the companies of players performing there’.[101]

    When Philip Henslowe’s Fortune theatre burnt to the ground on 9 December 1621, it was a blessing that the day-to-day records of his previous theatre, the Rose, were not amongst the prompt books, costumes, and props which were also destroyed. The Rose theatre is unusually rich in documentation and evidence describing its daily running and structure. Not only do Henslowe’s records survive for a limited period, the site of the theatre was excavated in part in 1989. The findings from this wonderful discovery begged further questions of Elizabethan playhouses and suggested that the one playhouse could not necessarily serve as a template for others: each space was individual. The title page of An Humorous Day’s Mirth records that the play was performed by ‘the right honourable the Earl of Nottingham Lord high Admiral his servants’. It is known that the play was performed at the Rose theatre thanks to Henslowe’s record of its performances, which include takings and dates.

    Henslowe’s intention to build the Rose theatre was first recorded on 10 January 1587 when he made an agreement with a grocer named John Cholmley. The plot on which they agreed to build the theatre was ninety-four feet square and so named because it occupied space formerly used as a rose garden.[102] John Grigges was the builder carpenter with the task of building the theatre, and more of his work is now known through discovery of the theatre’s remains.

    It was polygonal in shape, unlike the Fortune’s square design, with fourteen bays whose outer walls each equated to one rod, or sixteen feet six inches, ‘the customary Elizabethan unit of measurement for surveying, excavation and brickwork’.[103] Erosion trenches found on the floor of the yard indicated that there was no guttering on the roof, which led to the conclusion that the Rose’s roof must have been thatched, since such roofs were usually unguttered. No tiles were unearthed on site to contradict this hypothesis.

    5The excavation also provided two pieces of surprise information regarding the stage. The first was that it was positioned on the polygon’s northern side, dispersing theories that the stage would be found on the southern side, for the benefits of natural light. Secondly, the archaeologists discovered two stages, one built during the original phase of construction in 1587, the other indicating that Henslowe had at some point decided to adjust the theatre, rebuilding the entire northern end and altering the orientation of the stage by two degrees.[104] Payments for timber, lime, painting of the stage, and wages for various workmen are recorded in Henslowe’s accounts, dated 1592. These puzzled scholars until the discovery of the theatre’s remains and subsequent realisation that alterations to the layout of the theatre and stage had been carried out. These alterations would therefore have been in place when the Admiral’s Men performed The Comedy of Humours in 1597.

    Henslowe retained the original stage’s tapered shape but altered it to appear more rectangular than the first. Julian M. C. Bowsher and Simon Blatherwick suggest that this second stage of 1592 had a depth of 5.6 metres and occupied an area of roughly 50.5 square metres.[105] The drawing which accompanies John Orrell and Andrew Gurr’s article in the Times Literary Supplement best illustrates the position of the first stage and the altered shape and position of the second. Much discussion as to why Henslowe made the alterations has been prompted by these findings. Bowsher and Blatherwick suggest that the new stage ‘gave the impression of a greater “thrust” because of the extension of the yard on either side of it’.[106] The shape appeals to R. A. Foakes, who posits: ‘It is conceivable therefore that a number of theatres had stages tapering into the auditorium, so providing more standing-room for spectators and offering a very workable kind of stage for actors.’[107] If this is the case, the actors involved in An Humorous Day’s Mirth and other Rose plays were fortunate that these alterations were carried out.

    The new stage also possessed stage pillars, indicating that the stage area was now roofed. John Norden’s 1600 engraving of London features the playhouse, erroneously labelled ‘The Stare’, which seems to be ‘equipped with a loft and a flag’.[108] This pictorial representation supports the discovery of stage pillars made by the archaeological survey, which implied a roofed stage. Again, erosion lines in the floor around the new stage suggest that this roof was also unguttered.[109] While the first floor was made of mortar, the second was composed of compacted earth and hazelnut shells, ‘thus affording better drainage and being more durable’.[110] These shells, Bowsher and Blatherwick affirm, are not necessarily the throwaway remnants of Tudor theatre snacks but seem to have been ‘purely constructional’.[111]

    Charles HowardThe Rose theatre provided a playing space for numerous companies in the 1590s, namely Strange’s Men, Sussex’s Men, the Queen’s Men with Sussex’s, but was home most permanently to the Admiral’s Men between 1594 and 1600, when they moved over the river to Henslowe’s new Fortune theatre. The patron of their company was Charles Howard, Lord Effingham, who later became Lord Admiral and, in October 1597, the Earl of Nottingham. The title page of the printed play thus refers to a title their patron did not receive until after they had played all but one of the play’s performances. The Admiral’s Men, like George Chapman, suffered loss of patronage at Prince Henry’s death in 1612, and the following year became the Palatine’s or Palgrave’s Men under the patronage of Henry’s brother-in-law.

    After a trial period involving travel in Europe for some members, the Admiral’s Men established themselves as a company headed by Edward Alleyn, then aged twenty-seven, in 1594. Members were gleaned from other companies, two of which, Strange’s and Sussex’s, had recently lost their patrons.[112] In May 1594, the Admiral’s Men first performed at the Rose theatre, where they remained (apart from those who left to perform in a fateful production at the Swan in 1597) until 1600, when the newly built Fortune became available to them.

    10Andrew Gurr points out that the Admiral’s Men have often been judged as second to Shakespeare’s company.[113] However, Gurr labels the Chamberlain’s Men conservative in comparison with the Admiral’s underrated and innovative development of ‘new kinds of play’.[114] He goes on to confirm that with An Humorous Day’s Mirth, the Admiral’s Men ‘started the new humours comedy’. Although this new play took only £2 3s, its takings over the next five performances increased to £3 10s. Chambers also acknowledges the play’s success: ‘By far the most fortunate was The Comedy of Humours which averaged 53s for the eleven nights available before the summer season of 1597 closed’.[115] The most frequently performed play was The Wise Man of West Chester, now lost. Fourth on Chambers’s list was Chapman’s The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, with twenty-two performances in fourteen months. It is no wonder then that along with recognition of Marlowe’s achievements, Chambers also urges that ‘the success of Chapman’s first attempts is also not to be overlooked’.[116]

    Ben JonsonWhile George Chapman was establishing his dramatic reputation at the Rose theatre in the summer of 1597, his rival, Ben Jonson, was manufacturing equal notoriety at the Swan theatre, where Pembroke’s Men performed a seditious play written by himself and Thomas Nashe called The Isle of Dogs. Its content prompted the Privy Council to order the authors and actors to prison (a punishment evaded by Nashe; Jonson wasn’t so lucky) and demolition of all theatres. All playing was banned until ‘Allhallowtide next’, that is, October. Earlier in the year, two members of the Admiral’s Men, Richard Jones and Thomas Downton, had left their company to join Pembroke’s and been involved with The Isle of Dogs performance. After the uproar it provoked, these men returned to Henslowe and the Admiral’s Men, also bringing with them Robert Shaw, Gabriel Spencer and William Bird (also known as Borne) to join the company.

    From this point Henslowe begins keeping records of his actors’ contractual obligations to play for a minimum specified time and for a fee outlined in the agreement. These agreements begin in July with Thomas Hearne, and are important because they indicate who was available to perform in the company. Gurr notes that when the Rose theatre began opening its doors to the public again, before the date specified by the Privy Council, the plays offered first were previous box office hits: The Spanish Tragedy, Doctor Faustus, and An Humorous Day’s Mirth. And when Henslowe begins making entries in the diary again in October, announcing that on the 11th of the month ‘be gane my lord admerals & my lord of penbrockes men to playe at my howsse’,[117] it also heralds the beginning of a new system. Lists of plays performed and takings generated are replaced with records of debts and payments, inventories of stock and players’ contracts.

    Performances of An Humorous Day’s Mirth are preserved in the old-style diary, with an additional couple of entries at the beginning of the new regime. 1597 was a year of change for theatre companies such as Pembroke’s, the new taste in comedy, and the day-to-day records of Henslowe’s company, suggesting what Gurr pinpoints as a change in his function from landlord to banker.[118]

    Further information regarding members of the company survives in a plot for Frederick and Basilea, which provides a list of actors’ names.[119] The play was performed as ‘ne’ on 3 June 1597 and the plot includes the name of Martin Slater, who left the company the following month. It is therefore thought certain that this plot relates to the time of the play’s first performance. Since Frederick and Basilea was first performed within a month of An Humorous Day’s Mirth‘s debut, the plot and record of names provides a suggested list of actors also available to act in the latter play. The list includes Martin Slater, who left the company on 18 July,[120] and Edward Alleyn, who is thought to have left the company in the autumn of the same year. The list is as follows:

    Master Actors: Edward Alleyn; James Donstone or Tunstall; Edward Juby; Martin Slater; Thomas Towne.
    Adult Actors: Richard Alleyn; Black Dick; Edward Dutton; Thomas Hunt; Robert Ledbetter; Charles (Massey); Sam(uel Rowley).
    Boy Actors: Griffen; Dick Juby; John Pyk or Pig; Will; T. Belt; Saunder; Robert Gough; Ned; Nick; Will.

    15Greg notes that ‘The record of actors is very full, in spite of the fact that there is comparatively little doubling’,[121] and without doubling of speaking parts there are enough actors for the twenty-two parts available in An Humorous Day’s Mirth. It is possible that the inclusion of Samuel Rowley in this list may help to explain the unusual name of Rowley in Scene 8 of An Humorous Day’s Mirth. His name is out of place amongst the other characters’ French names, and it is suggested that Chapman may have had the actor Samuel Rowley in mind while writing the play.[122] It is also possible that the actor known as ‘Black Dick’ may have gained his nickname due to his swarthy skin. Lemot makes a reference to Labesha’s dark skin in the play (8.196-98), although this link is tentatively posited.