This fragment comes from a text published in 1643 to protest the closure of the theatres by the Puritans. Not only does it reveal some interesting details about how actors and playhouses were regarded by the authorities, it also sheds charming light on the working practices and employees of a typical theatre in 17th Century London. It’s a really delightful text. I particularly love the bitter disparaging remarks about puppet shows.
The Actors Remonstrance or Complaint, for the silencing of their Profession, and banishment from their severall Play houses. In which is fully set downe their grievances, especially since Stage-playes, only of all publike recreations are prohibited; the exercise at the Beares Colledge, and the motions of Puppets being still in force and vigour.
Oppressed with many calamities and languishing under the burthen of a long and (for ought wee know) an everlasting restraint, we the Comedians, Tragedians and Actors of all sorts and sizes belonging to the famous private and publike Houses within the City of London and the Suburbs thereof, to you great Phoebus, and you sacred Sisters, the sole Patronesses of our distressed Calling, doe we in all humility present this our humble and lamentable complaint, by whose intercession to those powers who confined us to silence, wee hope to be restored to our pristine honour and imployment.
First, it is not unknowne to all the audience that have frequented the private Houses of Black-Friers, the Cock-Pit and Salisbury-Court, without austerity we have purged our Stages from all obscene and scurrilous jests such as might either be guilty of corrupting the manners, or defaming the persons of any men of note in the City or Kingdome; that we have endevoured, as much as in us lies, to instruct one another in the true and genuine Art of acting, to represse bawling and railing, formerly in great request, and for to suite our language and action to the more gentile and naturall garbe of the times; that we have left off for our owne parts, and so have commanded our servants to forget that ancient custome, which formerly rendred men of our quality infamous, namely, the inveigling in young Gentlemen, Merchants Factors, and Prentizes to spend their patrimonies and Masters estates upon us and our Harlots in Tavernes. We have cleane and quite given over the borrowing money at first sight of punie gallants, or praising their swords, belts and beavers, so to invite them to bestow them upon us; and to our praise be it spoken, we were for the most part very well reformed, few of us keeping, or being rather kept by our Mistresses, betooke our selves wholy to our wives; observing the matrimoniall vow of chastity, yet for all these conformities and reformations, wee were by authority (to which wee in all humility submit) restrained from the practice of our Profession.
That Profession which had before maintained us is now condemned to a perpetuall, at least a very long temporary silence, and we left to live upon our shifts, or the expence of our former gettings, to the great impoverishment and utter undoing of our selves, wives, children, and dependants. Besides which our extremest grievance that Playes being put downe under the name of publike recreations, other publike recreations of farre more harmfull consequence permitted still to stand namely, that Nurse of barbarisme and beastlinesse, the Bear-Garden, whereupon their usuall dayes those Demy-Monsters, are baited by bandogs, which dare not be seen in our civill and well-governed Theatres, where none use to come but the best of the Nobility and Gentry; and though some have taxed our Houses unjustly for being the receptacles of Harlots, yet we may justly excuse our selves of either knowledge or consent in these lewd practices, we having no propheticke soules to know womens honesty by instinct.
Puppit-plays, which are not so much valuable as the very musique betweene each Act at ours, are still up with uncontrolled allowance, witnesse the famous motion of Bell and the Dragon, so frequently visited at Holbourne-bridge these passed Christmas Holidayes, whither Citizens of all sorts repaire with far more detriment to themselves then ever did to Playes, Comedies and Tragedies being the lively representations of mens actions, in which, vice is alwayes sharply glanced at, and punished, and vertue rewarded and encouraged; the most exact and naturall eloquence of our English language expressed and daily amplified; and yet for all this, we suffer.
First our House-keepers, that grew wealthy by our endevours, complaine that they are enforced to pay the grand Land-lords rents during this long Vacation, out of their former gettings; in stead of ten, twenty, nay, thirty shillings shares which used nightly to adorne and comfort with their harmonious musique their large and Well-stuffed pockets, they have shares in nothing with us now but our mis-fortunes; living meerly out of the stock, out of the interest and principall of their former gotten moneyes, which daily is exhausted by the maintenance of themselves and families.
For our selves, such as were sharers, are so impoverished, that were it not for some slender helps afforded us in this time of calamitie, by our former providence, we might be enforced to act our Tragedies. Our Hired-men are disperst, some turned Souldiers and Trumpetters, others destin’d to meaner courses. Their friends, young Gentlemen, that used to feast and frolick with them at Tavernes, having either quitted the kin in these times of distraction, or their money having quitted them, they are ashamed to look upon their old expensive friends those Buxsome and Bountifull Lasses, that usually were enamoured on the persons of the younger sort of Actors, for the good cloaths they wore upon the stage, beleeving them really to be the persons they did only represent.
Our Fooles, who had wont to allure and excite laughter with their very countenances, at their first appearance on the stage are enforced, some of them at least to maintaine themselves, by vertue of their babbles. Our boyes, ere wee shall have libertie to act againe, will be growne out of use like crackt organ-pipes, and have faces as old as our flags.
Nay, our very Doore-keepers, men and women, most grievously complaine that by this cessation they are robbed of the priviledge of stealing from us with licence. Our Musike that was held so delectable and precious, that they scorned to come to a Taverne under twentie shillings salary for two houres, now wander with their Instruments under their cloaks, into all houses of good fellowship, saluting every roome where there is company, with Will you have any musike Gentlemen?
For our Tire-men, and other that belonged formerly to our ward-robe, with the rest, they are out of service: our stock of cloaths being a sacrifice to moths. The Tobacco-men, that used to walk up and downe, selling for a penny pipe, that which was not worth twelve-pence an horse-load, being now bound under Tapsters in Inns and Tippling houses.
Nay such a terrible distresse and dissolution hath befallen us, and all those that had dependance on the stage, that it hath quite unmade our hopes of future recoverie. For some of our ablest ordinarie Poets, in stead of their annuall stipends and beneficiall second-dayes, being for meere necessitie compelled to get a living by writing contemptible penny-pamphlets
To conclude, this our humble complaint great Phoebus, and you nine sacred Sisters, the Patronesses of Wit, and Protectresses of us poore disrepected Comedians, if for the present, by your powerfull intercessions we may be re-invested in our former Houses, and settled in our former Calling, we shall for the future promise, never to admit into our sixpenny-roomes those unwholesome inticing Harlots, nor any female of what degree soever, except they come lawfully with their husbands. The abuses in Tobacco shall be reformed, none vended, not so much as in three-penny galleries, unlesse of the pure Spanish leafe. For ribaldry, or any such paltry stuffe, as may scandall the pious, and provoke the wicked to loosenesse, we will utterly expell it. Finally, we shall hereafter so demeane our selves as none shall esteeme us of the ungodly, or have cause to repine at our action or interludes.
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