It’s easy enough to see how concerned the establishment must have been with the rapid rise of the London Theater. Theater history from the period shows clearly the stringent efforts made by the authorities to get rid of it. But decades of pronouncements by the Crown, laws passed in Parliament, sermons from the pulpit, diatribes published against it and offices created and officials appointed to censor it, were ineffectual against the powerful force unleashed by the commercial Stage. The genie was out, and there was just no getting it back in the bottle.
Had William Butler Yeats been writing back then, he may have asked, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, shuffles towards London to be born?” We don’t usually think of the Elizabethan theater as a “rough beast” today, but a great many did at the time. After all, it wasn’t all Shakespeare by any means (nor was the author Shakespeare yet himself). Most of us love the music of our youth, but that’s because we remember only the good stuff––the bad (Paul Anka? Leslie Gore? Patti Page?) gets forgotten.
Beginning within a year of the opening of the two commercial theaters, verbiage began pouring forth against the commercial theaters showing how worried were the City and the Church over this force that was erupting in their midst. The mayors complained of the dangers in having such large groups of people come together, of contagion of the plague and civic disruption. Publicly the bishops complained about the danger to men’s souls, privately about the empty isles in their churches.
As William Ringler shows, there were no such worries prior to the building of Burbage’s Theater, yet within a single year the howls of indignation began. November 1577, Thomas White preached from the Church’s bully pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:
the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theater houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly. But I undersand that they are now forbidden because of the plague. I like the policy well if it hold . . . for a disease is but . . . patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin,. . . and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays. (58-9)
In the following year and a half, nine more invectives would be published (63), none of them causing much of a stir. The tenth, however, brought a reaction.
Plays as schoolhouses of sin
1n 1579 the former playwright Stephen Gosson attacked the theaters and his former friends, the playwrights and actors, in a pamphlet titled The Schoole of Abuses. Educated at Oxford, Gosson adopted the currently popular style of euphuism to make the standard points: 1) that plays wasted valuable time, 2) that they were dangerous to both public health and morals, 3) that by allowing men and women to sit next to each other they encouraged sin, 4) that they attracted criminals (pickpockets, con men, and whores), 5) that they taught innocent folk dangerous ideas and naughty language., and 6) that they kept people from church.
Yet none of these were likely to have much more of an influence than similar arguments that had already been voiced to no effect. That Gosson was himself a converted playwright might have carried a bit more weight, but the really effective argument was the one he got from his training in Theology, namely that the door to the Theater was the door to Sin and Damnation––the first step downward in an irresistable spiral to Hell. For Gosson wasn’t just after the actors and the playwrights. According to him, and to certain freely quoted classical sources, it was Poetry itself that was the real evil.
Ringler claims that Gosson wasn’t condemning Poetry itself, only its abuse, but that is hardly the impression I got, or obviously that the actors and playwrights got. Apart from the prefatory and concluding material, of the 73 pages of Schoole of Abuse, 28 were devoted to attacking plays, 12 to attacking poetry (meaning fiction of any kind), 8 to music, and the rest to various other offenses such as fencing, dicing, dancing, tumbling (acrobatics?), and bowling (29).
Gosson used the euphuistic style he learned from John Rainolds at Oxford to lash the poets with their own whip. With a school as his metaphor for the theater, one where he himself was, as he said:
matriculated . . . I will imitate the dogs of Egypt, which coming to the banks of Nylus [the Nile] to quench their thirst, sip and away, . . . lest they be snapped short for a prey to crocodiles. I should tell tales out of . . . school and be ferruled [beaten] for my fault or hissed at for a blab if I laid all the orders open before your eyes. You are no sooner entered [into the school/theater] but liberty looseth the reins and gives you [your] head [choice], placing you with Poetry in the lowest form. When his skill is shown to make his scholar as good as ever twanged, he prefers you [transfers you] to Piping [playing music], from Piping to playing [acting], from play to pleasure, from pleasure to sloth, from sloth to sleep, from sleep to sin, from sin to death, from death to the Devil, if you take your learning apace [accept the regimen] and pass through every form [level] without revolting. Look not to have me discourse these at large, the crocodile watcheth to take me tardy. . . . Trip and go, for I dare not tarry.
Who he meant by “the crocodile” is anyone’s guess. Burbage? Oxford and his coterie at Fisher’s Folly? As for being “hissed at for a blab,” he was right about that. The playwrights and actors didn’t care much about the other accusations––the same had been used by civic leaders against public entertainments since the dawn of time––but accusing them of worshipping, or at least facilitating, the Devil, really got to them. The crocodiles responded with a series of angry missives, and at least one play.
One member of the Folly group lashed out within a few weeks. In his Honest Response, Thomas Lodge (or someone using his name) tore into Gosson, point for point. Although it was never registered with the Stationers and was probably suppressed shortly after publication––or else, published in a short run, was immediately sold out––at least two copies have survived, so at least two readers thought it worth saving. Ringler shows that Lodge, pressed for time, took most of his examples from a single book (68). Still, one line came straight from the heart: “Who then doth not wonder at poetry? Who thinketh not that it procedeth from above?”
Nor were any of these shots in the dark at an unknown target, for Gosson, Lodge, and the players were not exactly unknown to each other. According to his biographer, until his “repentance,” Gosson himself was either a member of the company that played at Burbage’s Theater, or was closely involved with them, both as an actor and a playwright. Though Ringler doesn’t say it, this makes Gosson an early member of the University Wits. In August 1578, a year before penning Schoole of Abuses, he contributed a short poem to John Florio’s First Fruites, in which were also included several commendatory poems by leading actors from Burbage’s company. In any case,“trip and go” he did, for Lodge complains that Gosson disappeared as soon as his pamphlet was published.
Later Gosson would claim that he wrote for the theater only until he could get a job as a tutor. That may be true, but it is also true, first: that however good a writer, he was unsuccessful as a playwright; and second: that he was paid to write Schoole For Abuse, since someone––the City fathers? the bishops?––also paid for an unusually immense first run of 3,000 copies (26). Thus the impact of Gosson’s pamphlet was probably due less to his writing than to the quantities with which the City was bombarded. By the time a second edition hit the streets in 1587 there must have been hardly a literate Londoner who had not read the pamphlet, nor anyone, literate or otherwise, who hadn’t at least heard about it.
It must be said for Gosson that although not constituted to write for the Stage, he was an excellent and original writer, as noted by several of his contemporaries. Even Lodge would have kind words for his style in 1584, as did both Spenser and Lyly. And although Nashe didn’t unleash his own furious style until after Martin Mar-Prelate showed him the way, both he and Martin must have taken hints from Gosson, whose free-wheeling, down home style was (so far as we know) the first of its kind. That Gosson himself had acquired this aspect of his style from the kind of spontaneous stage routines of comedians like Tarleton and Kempe, seems likely enough to warrant the suggestion.
From then on Gosson had a much easier time of it, not only from the City but also from a grateful Church. Having been ordained in 1585, he went on to score one lucrative benefice after another, ending finally close to where he began back in 1578. In 1600 he was made Rector of St. Botolph’s Bishopsgate, directly across the street and two doors down from Fisher’s Folly, which by then was in the hands of a nephew of Oxford’s old friend, Edward Manners, Earl of Rutland.
“Nest of the Devil and sink of all Sin”
This image of the theater comes not from Gosson, but from a preacher in a later attack. As Gosson himself put it:
The carpenter raiseth not his frame without tools, nor the Devil his work without instruments. Were not Players the means to make these assemblies, such multitudes would hardly be drawn into so narrow [a] room. They seek not to hurt but desire to please; they have purged their comedies of wanton speeches, yet the corn which they sell is full of cockle and the drink that they draw, overcharged with dregs. There is more in them then we perceive, the Devil stands at our elbow when we see not, speak when we hear him not, strikes when we feel not, and woundeth sore when he raiseth no skin nor rends the flesh. In those things that we least mistrust the greatest danger doth often lurk.
This is a potent threat indeed. Not only is the Devil irresistable, he’s invisible!
Gosson has been called a Puritan, which assuredly he was not; indeed, when he wrote Schoole for Abuse the term had yet to be coined. He was a Church of England man, born and raised in Canterbury, trained at the King’s School there and then at Christ Church College, Oxford, by leading theologians, chief among them John Rainolds, often credited (wrongly) with the first use of euphuism, and who would take the lead years later in creating the King James Version of the Bible.
Gosson’s message, however, was one that was shared by both branches of the Church, the embattled Episcopalian establishment and the rising tide of Presbyterian dissenters, a potent belief in the Devil and his powers, and a terrifying vision of what could happen to someone once the Fiend got his claws into them. For along with the rise of the fourth estate, the vox populi, unleashed by the birth of the London Stage, another equal and opposite force was rising within the London population, one that would tear the still young reformed Church in halves and quarters, sending some to found new colonies in America while rousing others to attack the Crown. Driven, not just by belief, but by an overwhelming need to be certain about the life after death. A harsh certainty, in their view, and one that cast a dark light on the burgeoning commercial theater and on any form of entertainment or pleasure-seeking.
Why this focus on perdition?
These were uncertain times. The very universe itself seemed to be turning upside down. As astronomers were gradually becoming aware, through the development of better telescopes and lenses, that it was the sun, not the earth, that stands at the center of the solar system, the reliability of the Church and of its medieval cosmology came increasing into question. Some few well-educated and scientific-minded welcomed this brave new world, but a great many more, uneducated and ignorant of science, were simply terrified by it. Times of great fear and uncertainty give rise to the need for a universal belief system, something that can be depended upon to be unchangeably and eternally true. A topsy-turvy world in the shadow of the plague required a stable Heaven. Schooled in dialectic, if there was a God, there had to be a Devil, and if there was a Heaven there had to be a Hell (the sweeter the one, the more terrible the other) which was where all were headed who recklessly stepped inside a theater.
Why such terror?
Why the Reformation Hell took the particular form it did is a subject for the psychiatric community. Perhaps humans, limited by Nature and constrained by Time, must express mass emotions in terms of recognizable images, hope and joy into visions of a glorious afterlife, fear into visions of eternal torment, torture, and pain. For whatever reason, fears of the Devil and horrifying images of Hell began to overwhelm men’s minds, not just in Reformation countries, but in the Catholic countries as well, as witness the horrors of the witch hunts in France and the Inquisition in Spain. [images of Hieronymus Bosch] (See The Plague, the Pox, and the Protestant Reformation)
This helps to explain some rather bizarre phenomena associated with the publication, not just of poetry, but of every kind of original literature. First there is the inevitable claim on the cover that the work is something of value (today we don’t feel the need to promote a collection of sexy stories as something that will improve the reader). This then was usually followed by a dedication which immediately contradicted the claim that the work was of value, by begging the forgiveness of the patron to whom it was dedicated for giving them something so utterly worthless.
This might be accompanied by a disclaimer, either by the author, the printer, or a “friend,” explaining, often at some length, that what the author wrote purely as a lark to entertain his pals was so highly regarded by them that while he was out of town, one of them had it printed. Point being, of course, that the author’s conscience was clear and his reputation intact since he was not responsible for having it published.
Why did Court writers think it necessary to hide their identity when they published? Why did Philip Sidney hide his interest in poetry from all but his closest friends until his thirties (Ringler)? Why did some Court officials, like Thomas Norton and Lord Buckhurst, give up creative writing, or at least, publishing? Why did Francis Bacon refer to himself as a “sorry bookmaker”? Why, when England was at the peak of its literary Renaissance, did the Queen never trust any post of importance to a courtier who showed more than a dilettante’s interest in writing poetry or music? (See The Devil, the Queen, and Shakespeare) More than just a convention based on the idea that peers shouldn’t be professionals, more than just the idea that writing verse was a childish thing, a mere toy for green youths, lurked this hellish image of the Poet as a tool of the Devil, the wonton author of love poetry and songs, luring innocents, not just to ecclesiastical court or the dunking pool, but to perdition.
Gosson’s image is truly bizarre: Poetry leads everyman from the theater to “piping, from piping to playing, from play to pleasure, from pleasure to sloth, from sloth to sleep, from sleep to sin, from sin to death, from death to the Devil.” Is this the image of someone drinking after a play, getting drunk in a pub while listening to music, falling asleep, waking with a whore, coming down with a venereal disease, dying, and going to Hell? Is this an early version of the Rake’s Progress?
All of this is conventional, of course, but how did these strange and contradictory conventions arise? The cover claims of value, however empty, were meant to reassure the anxious reader that their souls would not be be in jeopardy (at least, not until they paid their penny). The extreme humility of the dedication was simply the equivalent in print of the obeisance made by a person of humble background in the presence of someone of higher rank, that is, the low sweeping bow known as “making a leg.” The disclaimer that the author had nothing to do with having the work printed was meant to protect the author’s reputation.
There was another way to make sure that the author’s reputation didn’t suffer, which was to hide his (or her) identity altogether. This was the solution chosen by three of the greatest writers of the English literary Renaissance, namely to hide their identities behind the names of men who had no reason to be concerned that their reputations might suffer from publishing poetry.