Because the only records that we have from the period that we can rely on, the Revels records and the Court Calendar, vary continuously with the amount of information they provide, in our effort to determine what actually happened and when, we are in a situation similar to the detective who finds a mysterious letter in the pocket of a dead man’s coat, or even just a matchbook, or a ticket stub to a train or a movie. While hugely grateful for E.K. Chambers, who has provided these records––largely without annoying comment––we can’t rely on the narratives provided by historians, for they must fit their scenarios to the timeline forced on them by the biography of William of Stratford.
One of the things that we can establish from these limited records are the times when a name appears for the first time. From the Revels records we see that Lawrence Dutton was the first to appear during the holiday of 1571-72, a season which notable for its unusual profusion of titles: “Lawrence Dutton and his fellows (Dec 27 St. John’s Day), in Lady Barbara by Sir Robert Lane’s Men.” and then twice on Feb 22 and 29, in Cloridon and Radiamanta, the latter unknown, but sounding very much like a spin on one of the Greek romances that fascinated Oxford and others at this time. Of interest is the fact that Dutton appears for the first time under the auspices of a new Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Sussex, who seems to have given Oxford a much freer reign than he had while Leicester was handling Court entertainment.
The following season, Dutton’s team, now recorded as “servants to the Earl of Lincoln,” perform once, Leicester’s Men (Burbage’s team) three times, the rest all by the various Children’s companies. While titles are included only occasionally, it’s clear that it’s with Sussex that the boom in plays as the Queen’s favorite Court entertainment begins, with seasons showing eight or more plays from what was always the opening of the Court’s holiday season, December 26, St. Stephen’s Day (before then it was all Church ceremonies), until the season ended with Shrovetide (aka Epiphany, Fat Tuesday,, Mardi Gras, Carneval, then Lent). The season of 1574-75 there were twelve plays, three by Clinton’s Men. In 1574-75 John Dutton joins his brother as payees for Warwick’s players, opening the season on December 26 and playing again on New Year’s and again in March. They play twice the following season, 1575-76, twice in 1576-77, a season that records a number of titles, many of them likely early titles for some of Shakespeare’s plays, and three times in 1577-78.
On December 26, 1578, Warwick’s Men open the season with “A play of the three Sisters of Mantua,” but by the first of March, when they perform again, it seems they were led by Jerome Savage. We don’t see either of the Duttons again in the Revels records, although they do turn up elsewhere in Chambers.
As reported in a letter from the Lord Mayor to the Queen’s Lord Chancellor on April 12, 1580, his Honour was distressed at the news that “some great disorder” had been committed at “the Theatre, but foreasmuch as I understand that your Lordship with other of her Majesty’s most honorable Council have entered into examination of that matter,” he forebore to do more than remind him that “tumblers and such like are a very superfluous sort of men, and of such faculty as the laws have disallowed, and their exercise of those plays is a great hindrance of the service of God. . . .”
According to Alan Nelson, the Council dealt with this “disorder” on three separate occasions, beginning the day after the Mayor’s letter: “Robert Leveson and Lawrence Dutton, servants unto the Earl of Oxford, were committed to the Marshalsea for committing of disorder and frays upon the gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” where apparently they remained incarcerated until mid-July, when, on a promise of good behavior, they were released (Monstrous 240).
Three years later, when the death of Sussex handed control of the Court Stage over to Sir Francis Walsingham, and he organized yet another company with a select crew taken from the top three companies, Walsingham named John Dutton as company payee , which suggests he played an important part in the functioning of the company. Named the Queen’s Men, they avoided controversy by spending most of the year on the road, returning to London for the winter holidays. (That Walsingham would choose John Dutton as his company payee is a fact that clearly had Nelson stumped.)
It seems that the fight at the Theatre in 1580 caused quite a stir. Nelson includes a nasty jape against them written in rhyming couplets, describing in mock heraldic terms a filthy coat of arms (241). Although neither Chambers nor Nelson identify the “gentlemen” who wrote it, or which of the Inns of Court was involved, because they were obviously acting in defense of the Earl of Warwick, a stalwart member of the noble City establishment where his brother Leicester ruled the roost, why not identify them as members of the Inner Temple? Also, although the fray was blamed on the actors, that the aggressors were in fact, the “gentlemen” in question should be just as obvious.
The Mayor also suggested that the Council take action against the actors because a session of parliament was on the calendar for September. Oxford may have felt it necessary to reclaim the company in advance of the coming of Parliment, the first since before his trip to Italy. Considering the strong likelihood that one of the reasons why Privy Councillors like Sussex and Hunsdon were okay with the creation of a theater so close to Whitehall, was because a play, if carefully worded, could be a most useful means for addressing the 500 or so MPs from all over the nation who gathered there every three or four years. This would mean that plays like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, The Spanish Tragedy, and, earlier, The Play of Sir Thomas More, would reach a much wider and much more influential audience.
In his extremely helpful 1991 article in Notes and Queries on the Elizbethan actors, Mark Eccles provides a few helpful details on the Dutton brothers. According to him, John Dutton first appeared in the record in 1568, having “furnished 47 musicians” for an event at Lincoln’s Inn” (Chambers 2.314). His younger brother Lawrence first appeared three years later as payee for, first Lane’s Men, then for Clinton’s (or) Lincoln’s Men, then for Warwick’s Men until he finally ended up, officially, as payee for Oxford’s Men in 1580, the year Oxford finished renovating Fisher’s Folly.
Eccles shows that the Duttons were natives of London, that by 1606 John “owned the Dolphin Inn without Bishopsgate” where he “let out the drinking rooms and cellars to tapsters.” This was the same Inn, formerly known as the Pye, where Oxford crossed paths in the early 1580s with the teenaged Edward Alleyn, to whose family it then belonged (Cerasano). According to Eccles, in 1572 the Duttons attempted to launch out on their own by investing in a new boys company. This failed; when they sued for the return of their contract they described themselves as “very poor and simple men.”
The Bridewell Court Minute Books record in 1577 that Lawrence Dutton, player, was charged with “keeping Fuller’s maid Margaret at the Bell beyond Shoreditch,” an inn not far from Burbage’s Theatre. In 1581 Lawrence gave bail for a yeoman of Stratford at Bowe, a few minutes walk from Fisher’s Folly; and in 1585, when he was accessed in St. Botoph, Bishopsgate [across the street from Fisher’s Folly] for five shillings tax, he failed to pay. One Richard Britten of Ludgate (near the First Blackfriars Theater) testified that Lawrence, “being a player, came to him divers times to hire girdles [belts, sword hangers] to use about his playing.”
Lawrence was described as a “handsome man in a fair cloak not altogether black but somewhat green and a straw-coloured doublet with a little beard”; another said that he had “somewhat a red beard.” Recall Nashe’s depiction of Robert Greene’s beard in 1593 in Strange News, or Foure Letters Confuted: “a jolly long red peak, like the spire of a steeple, he cherished continually without cutting,” and of his clothes: “a very fair cloak with sleeves of a grave goose-turd green.”
When the Queen’s Men folded in 1592 just as Oxford was recovering from his two years of involuntary exile, it seems the Duttons too, were through with the Court Stage, but they were not through with the Stage, for they remained in contact with their former colleagues. According to Eccles, John Dutton was “about sixty in May 1608 [two years older than Oxford] when he testified concerning the share he had bought in part of the farm of the subsidy . . . that James I had granted in 1605 to [the] Duke of Lennox [who] had a company of players, several of whom had been Queen’s Men,” like the Duttons (Chambers 2.241).
Much like the Earl of Oxford, it seems the Duttons played an important, if largely hidden, role in the story of the early London Stage. Although Chambers has failed to integrate them with their fellows, he does note: “Before 1576 the Earl of Leicester’s men and the Duttons were alone conspicuous” (2:4). Recall that 1576 was the year that Oxford returned from Italy and that Burbage built the first public stage in Shoreditch.
Were I to let my imagination roam, I would see the Duttons connecting with Oxford in the late 1560s or early 1570s, while he was managing the Children’s companies, and they were looking a way to get involved with the Stage. Finding them to his liking, putting them in charge of the company that he began under the patronage of one gullible Court figure after another, until he, and they, ran afoul of the Earl of Leicester. With the death of Walsingham and the takeover of his offices by Robert Cecil, the Duttons, wisely, made themselves scarce, investing in the Dolphin Inn. Recall what Oberon said to Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Since once I sat upon a promontory
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the seamaid’s music?
What “certain stars” were those?
When King James and the Earl of Pembroke took the London Stage under their collective wing, that John Dutton would, as Eccles claims, return to work with some of his former colleagues, makes sense. What also makes sense is that Nashe, seeking a figure to describe as Robert Greene, described Lawrence Dutton. Why not, when we know so little for certain.