May 30th – Murder in Deptford

1593

Tonight in a drinking house owned by a widow Eleanor Bull in Deptford , three miles from London, four men are spending the evening.

A witness would later testify that an argument broke out between two of the men over payment of the bill. One man grabbed a dagger and attacked the other giving him two head wounds. In retaliation the injured man stabbed the other straight through the right eye killing him instantly.

When the authorities arrived, the dead man was identified as the famous actor and playwright Christopher Marlowe.

An anonymous portrait in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, believed to show Christopher Marlowe

An anonymous portrait in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, believed to show Christopher Marlowe

Marlowe was hugely admired by his colleagues and critics alike, penning such long-standing works as Dr Faustus and The Jew of Malta, and was a contemporary and friend of Shakespeare.

Conspiracy theories still abound about his death, including that it might have been over a woman. It seems highly likely that Marlowe had been recruited by Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham to join his immense and complex network bent on protecting the Queen and her church from heresy and attack.

Marlowe was known to have a volatile temper and many of his escapades, including the production of counterfeit coins, had been brushed under the carpet or somehow “absolved” by the government.

A few weeks before his death he had even been arrested himself for possessing a heretical tract however he was murdered before any action was taken against him.

His body was buried in an unmarked grave in the church of St Nicholas in Deptford. In 2002 the Marlowe Society gifted a memorial window to be placed in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

 

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May 19th – All the Kings Men

1603

Today a royal patent was issued by James I of England naming his official licenced troupe of actors, The Kings Men.

The company included such popular actors as “Richard Burbage, William Shakespeare, Augustine Phillips, John Heminges, Henry Condell, William Sly, Robert Armin, Richard Cowley… and the rest of their associates”.

The nine honoured names became Grooms of the Chambers and were presented with four and a half yards of red cloth each to wear for the Coronation procession the following year.

globe-theatre-london-mapAll players had to be licenced following a proclamation from Elizabeth I in 1559 and the groups of informal travelling players were replaced by official touring companies.

Shakespeare belonged to one or other of these troupes through most of his career, acting and writing at the Globe and the Rose theatres.

The Kings Men were a big hit working gruelling schedules in their first two seasons after which they had to take on more actors.

In 1642 during the Civil War, all the play houses were closed and the Kings Men disbanded. An attempt was made to reform after the Restoration but times had changed. Women were on the stage, open air theatres were out of fashion and the old ways and old actors were no longer needed.

May 10th – Astor Place Riots

1849

One of the biggest riots in the history of New York City occurred today at the Astor Opera House leaving at least 25 dead and more than 120 injured.

The nominal cause of the riot was the rivalry between two Shakespearean actors and their followers. British star William Charles Macready was already called the greatest Shakespearean of his generation and his followers were amongst the well-heeled of society. Edwin Forrest was one of the first American-born home-grown theatre stars.

"As one window after another cracked, the pieces of bricks and paving stones rattled in on the terraces and lobbies, the confusion increased, till the Opera House resembled a fortress besieged by an invading army rather than a place meant for the peaceful amusement of civilized community."  - New York Tribune

“As one window after another cracked, the pieces of bricks and paving stones rattled in on the terraces and lobbies, the confusion increased, till the Opera House resembled a fortress besieged by an invading army rather than a place meant for the peaceful amusement of civilized community.” – New York Tribune

Their rivalry was set against the backdrop of growing antipathy between America and Britain, often uniting the working and immigrant communities in their common hatred.

The American theatre’s need to prove its cultural prowess was centred around trying to “do” Shakespeare better than the English. On Macready’s second tour of the US, Forrest had taken to following him around the country and often staging the same play on the same night. Three nights before the riot, Macready’s performance of Macbeth had been pelted by rotten vegetables by Forrest’s supporters. After much persuasion he agreed to play the role again.

On the 10th May, handbills were given out asking “SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE THIS CITY?” and by curtain up more than 10,000 people swarmed the streets around the theatre pelting it with rocks. They tried and failed to set fire to the theatre and inside the audience were in a state of siege. In panic the authorities called out the troops who eventually opened fire on the crowd killing and injuring many innocent bystanders.

March 6th – Barrymore Debuts

1920

John Barrymore

John Barrymore

Today the stage actor known for light comedy roles made his Shakespearean debut as Richard III at the Plymouth Theatre, New York.

The news was received with scepticism and indeed the stage was not Barrymore’s career of choice, preferring art and commercial illustration. But, unlike today, it was the “easiest place to earn a decent living”.

But before long it was obvious that they were dealing with no ordinary talent. Critics described his Richard as “an intellectual, stealthy, crafty and subtly malevolent royal monster”.

Despite coming from a highly respected theatrical family (including his grandmother, both parents, uncle and his brother and sister, Lionel and Ethel) Barrymore had never taken himself or his relationship with the theatre seriously. However for this pivotal move he worked day and night to prepare himself for the role, studying intensively and throwing himself into a rigorous routine of vocal training.

It all caught up with him however when Barrymore suffered a nervous breakdown after only a four week run and hundreds of ticket holders had to be refunded. Barrymore’s reputation however had been made as one of the finest Shakespearean actors of the 20th century.