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Henslowe, Philip (155?–1616) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

theater henslowe’s rose alleyn

Though Philip Henslowe is the author of the most important document in the history of British theater, he was not a man of letters. He was, in fact, a successful businessman and entrepreneur, a dyer, pawnbroker, real estate investor, and landlord, but his most famous role was as theater owner/manager and, from 1592 to 1603, keeper of an account book/ledger/commonplace book known as Henslowe’s Diary .

Henslowe’s father was a gamekeeper in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex. By 1577, Henslowe was apprenticed to a dyer, but in the 1580s his master died, and two years later he married his master’s widow. Her money enabled him to make a number of shrewd investments. In 1584 he leased a plot of land in Southwark and in 1587, in partnership with a grocer (who was to have the food concession and half the box office), built the Rose Theater, the first Bankside theater and the only one until the Swan of 1595.

The year 1592 was perhaps the most important year in Henslowe’s colorful life. In that year, he inherited his brother’s account book and began keeping his own accounts. Among the earliest expenditures recorded is an investment of £105 for renovations, probably to enlarge the theater and roof the stage. That year also saw the beginning of his long business and personal relationship with Edward Alleyn, the leading actor of the day, who created the roles of Orlando Furioso, Barabas, Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, and perhaps Titus Andronicus. In 1592 Alleyn brought his company, the Lord Admiral’s Men, to the Rose and in October of that year married Henslowe’s stepdaughter Joan, consolidating a partnership that was to last until Henslowe’s death. Also noteworthy among the Rose performances in 1592 was the premiere of Shakespeare’s* I Henry VI .

That year was also a typical one for an Elizabethan theater in its disruptions. Puritan authorities, particularly the mayor of London, were quick to seize upon any excuse to shut down the playhouses. In June, theaters were closed, ostensibly because of a civil disturbance, and Alleyn took the company on tour. The theaters remained closed through the fall, this time ostensibly because of the plague. Closure by the authorities was a threat throughout Henslowe’s career; other problems besetting his theater management were the murder of his leading playwright Marlowe* in 1593 and the ascendancy of Shakespeare, the “upstart crow.” Competition with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, culminated with the erection of the Globe Theater a block away from the Rose in 1599.

The lack of a Marlowe (Kyd,* another Rose playwright, also died in 1593) and a theater-hungry public’s insatiable demand for new plays led to the practice of commissioning collaborative teams of authors to write plays. Sometimes a play had five coauthors. A frequent member of those teams was Dekker.* Carson has calculated that 82 percent of the spring-summer 1598 productions were collaborations. The collaborative approach to playwriting was enough of a success for Henslowe and Alleyn to build both the Fortune Theater in 1600 and the Hope in 1613. Diversification in investments by the two men also helped their finances. In 1593, perhaps because of the long forced closures of the Rose the previous year, Henslowe had begun pawnbroking (although it has been suggested that the pawn operation may have been an effort to set up a nephew in business). In 1604, he and Alleyn began sharing the mastership of the Royal Game, a post that gave them control over bull- and bear-baiting events. Henslowe may have used the 1587 Rose for bear-baiting as well as plays; a bear femur and skull were unearthed during the 1989 excavation. His last theater, the Hope, was also a multipurpose arena that could be used for plays or for animal-baiting.

Henslowe died in 1616. His papers passed to Edward Alleyn, who gave them to Dulwich College. Perhaps motivated by a desire to show the Puritans that even a player could do good works and enabled to do so by his considerable financial success as an actor, Alleyn had founded the institution in 1614. Henslowe’s papers were first brought to public attention by Edmund Malone in 1790.

Remains of the Rose Theater were discovered in 1989 on the site of a proposed office block. A large protest against the developers led by theater super-stars and academics drew worldwide media attention but failed to halt the building of the office complex and gained only a “compromise” of putting the high-rise on massive stilts, supposedly allowing archaeologists and later visitors access to the site. Before being re-covered, excavations revealed two stages and two back walls, evidence that the theater was enlarged in 1592, as suggested by the Diary expenses for that year. A temporary exhibition was opened for the summer of 1996, with a permanent exhibit to follow, but the failure to better protect the Rose Theater foundations is all the more regrettable since the remains of the Globe, with 40 percent lying under the Southwark Bridge Road and 30 percent under an eighteenth-century building, will quite possibly never be completely excavated.

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

Because the Diary first belonged to Philip Henslowe’s brother John, the beginning is filled with accounts relating to mining, smelting, and logging operations in the Ashdown Forest. Philip’s accounts begin in 1592 and include not only theatrical entries but also matters such as records of loans, rent payments, the management of his late brother’s estate, details about outfitting a soldier whom Henslowe sponsored, cures for illness and wounds, surefire ways to locate stolen goods, details about a farm he contemplated buying, a memo about putting his horse to grass, and pawn accounts. The pawn accounts shed an especially rich light on Elizabethan daily life.

Theatrical records in the Diary have furnished scholars with information about play titles—280 different plays are mentioned, reminding us of how much is lost—performance dates, box office receipts for each play, authors, how much an author was paid for a finished play, costumes and their materials and cost, and actors’ names and are the source for biographical information about authors like Dekker.* Such routine expenses in the running of an Elizabethan theater as the price of a flagstaff, of the bribe to a minor clerk in order to obtain the company’s salary for performing at court, of taking a boy actor to the hospital, and of bailing insolvent authors like Dekker and Chettle out of debtor’s prison are recorded.

Still extant in addition to the Diary are numerous miscellaneous documents, such as the deed of partnership between Henslowe and the grocer Cholmley for construction and profit sharing of the Rose Theater and the 1599/1600 contract for the building of the Fortune. The latter includes the most detailed available account of playhouse construction and dimensions for the period. The collection of Henslowe/Alleyn papers also contains affectionate letters among members of Henslowe’s immediate family and extended family of actors during tours, such as a letter from one of the child actors to Henslowe’s stepdaughter Joan. Several petitions exist, among them a 1592 letter from Thames watermen asking for the reopening of the theaters and reminding the government of the plight of the out-of-work watermen’s wives and children. Also among Henslowe’s papers are six dramatic “plots,” outlines of plays for the prompters with lists of participating actors.

Some of the most interesting documents in the collection of Henslowe-Alleyn papers are now lost but were fortunately transcribed by Malone: the inventories of goods belonging to the Lord Admiral’s Men, which include such items as (among the costumes) “a robe for to goo invisibell” (used in Act III of Dr . Faustus ) and the prop list, which includes “1 rocke, 1 cage, 1 tomb, 1 Hell mought…1 tome of Dido, 1 gowlden flece, the sittie of Rome.” Listed along with “Tantelouse tre” is the “tree of gowlden apelles” probably used in Act IV of Dekker’s Old Fortunatus .

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Henslowe’s papers were first put to scholarly use by Edmond Malone, who published extracts in an edition of Shakespeare’s works in 1790. In 1845, John Payne Collier published an edition marred by forgeries. The first complete edition was Greg’s, listed in the bibliography.

The value of the Diary as a historical document has never been disputed, but the author has been subjected to personal attack. Collier thought Henslowe ignorant and the ledger disorganized. In 1890, F. G. Fleay described Henslowe as an illiterate, money-grubbing philistine who was ignorant of literature and who exploited others for his own gain. Criticism of the man led to criticism of the plays produced at his theater as potboilers, as opposed to the works of lasting artistic merit being shown down the street at the Globe. Even company organization is supposed to have contributed to artistic success or failure; Shakespeare’s company, with artists as shareholders, supposedly ensured a better product. Recently, Henslowe has been given a more sympathetic reading by Foakes and Rickert, Carson, Rhodes, and Eccles, who have found him patient, even generous, in his business dealings. In an era before lending institutions, Henslowe was a banker to his company members. The potboiler accusation seems especially unfair. With Henslowe as impresario, after all, his theater produced The Spanish Tragedy, The Jew of Malta, Dr. Faustus, Tamburlaine , and Shoemakers’ Holiday and gave Shakespeare his start.

The 1989 demonstrations to save the remains of the Rose Theater focused media attention on Henslowe and sparked an interest in the man, his theater, and his contribution to English theater in his own right, not merely as an appendage to studies of Shakespeare.

Henslowe’s papers are the chief source for Elizabethan theater history, their worth summed up by John Barton of the Royal Shakespeare Company when he said the Diary is “my Bible.”

Henson, Josiah(1789–1883) - Abolitionist, minister, writer, Chronology [next] [back] Henryson, Robert (c. 1420–before 1505) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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