Thou hast a good presence upon a stage

  Elizabethan actor & clown Will Kempe (1600)

These fragments come from a curious account of an accidental meeting between the notorious highwayman Gamaliel Ratsey and a group of travelling actors.  During the encounter, Ratsey, who was executed in 1605, offers some acting advice to the players. Although his only qualification for doing so appears to be the fact he had spent time attending the London theatres, the account reveals some fascinating glimpses into the life of the itinerant 17th century actor.

Gamaliell Ratsey and his company, travailing up and downe the Countrey (as they had often times done before), came by chance into an Inne, where that night there harbored a company of Players.  Ratsey, framing himselfe to an humor of merriment, caused one or two of the chiefest of them to be sent for up into his chamber.  I pray you (quoth Ratsey) let me heare your musicke, for I have often gone to playes more for musicke sake, than for action.  For some of you are not content to do well, but striving to over-do and go beyond yourselves, oftentimes (by Saint George) mar all.  Yet your Poets take great paines to make your parts fit for your mouthes, though you gape never so wide.  Others I must needs confesse, are very well deserving both for true action and faire deliverie of speech, and yet I warrant you the very best have sometimes beene content to go home at night with fifteen pence share a peece.  Others there are whom fortune hath so well favoured, that what by penny sparing and long practise of playing, are growne so wealthy that they have expected to be knighted, or to sit with men of great worship, on the Bench of Justice.

Well, musicke was played, and that night passed over with such singing, dancing, and revelling, as if my Lord Prodigall hadde beene there in his ruines of excesse and superfluitie.  In the morning Ratsey made the players taste of his bountie, and so departed.  About a weeke after, he met with the same Players, although he had so disguised himselfe with a false head of hayre and beard that they could take no notice of him, and lying as they did before in one Inne together, he was desirous they should play a private play before him, which they did.  Ratsey heard their play, and seemed to like it, and very liberally out with his purse and gave them fortie shillings, with which they held themselves very richly satisfied, for they scarce had twentie shillings audience at any time for a Play in the Country.  But Ratsey thought they should not enjoy it long, although he let them beare it about till the next day in their purses.  For the morning beeing come, and they having packed away their luggage, and some part of their companie before in a waggon, he discharged the Inne, and followed them presently.

Ratsey, having learned which way they travailed, he being very well horsed, and mounted upon his blacke gelding soone overtooke them.  And when they saw it was the Gentleman that had beene so liberall with them the night before, they began to do him much courtesie, and to greete his late kindnesse with many thankes.  But that was not the matter which he aimed at: therefore he roundly tolde them, they were deceived in him, he was not the man they tooke him for.  I am a souldier (sayth he) and one that for meanes hath ventured my fortunes abroade, and now for money am driven to hazard them at home.  I am not to be played upon by Players: therefore be short, deliver me your money. They began to make many faces, and to cappe and knee.  He bade them leave off their cringing and complements, and their apish trickes, and dispatch, which they did, for feare of the worst, seeing to begge was bootlesse.  And having made a desperate tender of their stocke into Ratsey’s hands, he bade them play for more, for (says he) it is an idle profession that brings in much profite.

And for you, sir (says he to the chiefest of them) thou hast a good presence upon a stage, methinks thou darkenst thy merite by playing in the country.  Get thee to London, for if one man were dead, they will have much neede of such as thou art.  There would be none in my opinion, fitter than thyselfe to play his parts: my conceipt is such of thee, that I durst all the mony in my purse on thy head, to play Hamlet with him for a wager. There thou shalt learne to be frugall (for Players were never so thriftilie as they are now about London) and to feed upon all men, to let none feede upon thee; to make thy hand a stranger to thy pocket, thy heart slow to perform thy tongues promise. And when thou feelest thy purse well lined, buy thee some place or Lordship in the country, that growing weary of playing, thy money may there bring thee to dignitie and reputation: then thou needest care for no man, nor not for them that before made thee proud, with speaking their words upon the Stage.  Sir, I thanke you (quoth the Player) for this good counsell, I promise you I will make use of it; for I have heard indeede of some that have gone to London very meanly, and have come in time to be exceeding wealthy.

Gestures for miming (1644)
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  • December 19, 2010 - 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Glad you found it useful. I’m currently writing on Ben Jonson too, Catiline rather than The Alchemist.

  • December 18, 2010 - 3:29 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the post. I just happen to be writing a paper on Jonson’s THE ALCHEMIST & rogue literature. It helps to have this reference more clearly explained. Cheers.

  • December 13, 2010 - 2:46 pm | Permalink

    It’s available at the Bodleian, or via EEBO if you have access. If not, email me via the blog and I’ll send you a PDF facsimile.

  • December 13, 2010 - 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I need to look up that pamphlet… 🙂

  • December 13, 2010 - 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. The sources I used were The Gentleman’s Magazine (1822), and a pamphlet on Ratesy’s life published in 1605.

  • December 12, 2010 - 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Terrific post. What was the source?

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