A bit of a thumbnail sketch of a post, really just to air an annoyance (surprise!) and to raise a question that someone may already have answered.

The common assumption, following, as always, as always, in Andrew Gurr’s footsteps, seems to be that James Burbage bought the hall in the Blackfriars and had it turned into a theatre in 1596 as a replacement for the Theatre, because the lease for the grounds the latter stood on was up. The twin assumptions that accompany that basic conviction are that Burbage bought the Blackfriars for the Chamberlain’s Men, and that in doing so he acted out the players’ strong desire to move indoors.

I have a ton of issues with every single aspect of those theses. But for now, here’s just one. We now pretty much know, thanks to the various archeological digs in Shoreditch and Southwark, that the Theatre, the Curtain, and the Rose were all more or less the same size — all 14-sided polygons with a diameter of about 72 feet. They all presumably had more or less the same capacity. So we can use Henslowe’s figures to guess at how much money Burbage was making with the Theatre: anywhere between 3 shillings (on the worst day) to £3 13 shillings (on the best day). On average, Henslowe made about £1 9 shillings per show between 1594 and 1597, or just over £342 a year.

So if we are to believe that Burbage thought it was good idea in 1596 to move from an open-air theatre holding 2,000-2,500 people into an indoor space with room for somewhere around 600 people (if that), we have to assume that he thought there was at least as much money to be made with an indoor theatre. But how could he have assumed that?

There hadn’t been indoor playing in London since 1591 — except for one or two of the Inns, and there is no evidence I’ve ever heard of that suggests that the Inns charged higher admission than the amphitheatres. So the only reference point Burbage had in 1596 for assessing the potential profitability of an indoor venture were the first Blackfriars and St Paul’s, theatres where plays were only performed once or twice a week, as far as we know, and data at that point at least five years old. And what would that data have told him? We don’t really know, but the three price points we have for Paul’s (if there are others, I’d love to hear about them) suggest that admission there was either “two pence” (says William Percy in 1589, for a new play); or “foure pence” (says Lyly, who surely knew, in 1589); or sixpence, which is what William Darrell paid that same year. Perhaps all three are right, and there was a range, as there was at the public playhouses, and as there would be at the indoor theatres later in the period.

Let’s assume Lyly was closest to right, and the average seat in a private theatre would have cost 4 pence. If we give the second Blackfriars a fairly generous 600 seats, that’s an even £10 on a sold-out day. Which sounds pretty good, depending on how the revenues would have been split between players and landlord in a space without a yard. In the amphitheatres, the deal seems to have been that the players received more of the takings than the landlord: half the galleries and the yard (potentially another two or three pounds). And in fact a full house at the Rose likely worked out to something like £10 and change. So financially, moving from the Theatre to the Blackfriars may have looked like pretty much a wash for Burbage.

That said, would he have assumed that he could keep the new theatre open six days a week, as would have been standard at the playhouses? If so, on what basis? And would he have assumed that there was an audience rich and large enough to fill 600 seats at an average cost of 4 pence six days a week? An audience that would basically have consisted of the people who paid for the most expensive gallery seats and the lords rooms at the Theatre, but would have excluded, pretty routinely, everyone else? Why would Burbage have assumed that this was easily possible — and why would he willingly have moved to exclude the majority of the customers whose loyalty he had depended on for the past twenty years?

Moving to the Blackfriars in 1596 year-round would surely have seemed like a massive risk; what could have made such a risk worth taking? It’s an endeavour that makes much more sense in 1608-10, when the King’s Men undertook it — partly because they were doing it right after having witnessed the success of the boys’ companies, and with an established crowd of wealthy theatregoers in place who were used to spending at least sixpence for their daily entertainment (a crowd that didn’t yet exist in 1596); and partly because they had another playhouse at their disposal. Even then, the replacement narrative makes little sense to me. But the risk involved in switching from one kind of venue and audience to another seems, to my mind, much more manageable in 1608 than in 1596. 1608 can reasonably be described as a company trading up, while keeping fallback options in place. 1596 just seems reckless, if a direct swap of Blackfriars for Theatre is what Burbage had in mind. But did he? (It might be worth remembering that he bought the property before his lease in Shoreditch ran out, and well before negotiations for a renewal broke down.)

2 Responses to Why the Blackfriars in 1596?

  1. Holger Syme says:

    Hi David —

    yes, I agree: that’s a scenario that makes some sense. I’m not sure I’m fully convinced that the Cross Keys was an indoor space (the case for the Bell seems much stronger to me), but I can buy the idea that Burbage saw the opportunity of owning a theatre inside the city walls (however awkward access to the Blackfriars may have been) as a potential asset. I wonder, though, if it’s necessary to link the purchase to the suppression of the Inns so directly: after all, the Inns had been under attack before, and it seems a bit odd that Burbage, who in 1596 couldn’t know, after all, that this time, the attackers would succeed permanently, would blow £600 on the off chance that the Inns might not come back. Doesn’t it make as much sense to say that Burbage understood the advantage of having a venue inside the walls, especially in the winter (even if it came at the cost of smaller houses), and jumped at the opportunity to purchase that rarest of things in the City: a space large enough to build a theatre in? (Which is to say, I buy the post hoc, but am not sure I quite believe the propter hoc.)

    Interestingly, if the Inns were his model rather than the earlier boys’ venues, he presumably would have expected lower revenues than I’ve guessed at. That in itself is kind of an intriguing thought!

  2. David Kathman says:

    Holger, you mention the London inns in passing, but I think they’re getting short shrift in this discussion, as usual. Strange’s Men were performing at the Cross Keys (probably an indoor venue, as I’ve argued elsewhere) in 1589, and in October 1594 Henry Carey, patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, wrote to the Lord Mayor asking that his “now company of players” be allowed to play at the Cross Keys, as they “have been accustomed for the better exercise of their quality, and for the service of her majesty if need so require”. Playing in the four London inns, including the Cross Keys, had been suppressed by mid-1596 at least, and James Burbage bought the Blackfriars in February 1596. Isn’t it just as plausible to posit a scenario where the Cross Keys had been the preferred playing venue of the Chamberlain’s Men in the wintertime, when days were shorter and curfews greatly restricted the hours available for playing far outside the City, and when the City authorities finally managed to shut down playing in the inns, Burbage bought the Blackfriars as a new indoor City venue to replace the Cross Keys? (A more upscale one, almost certainly.) Yes, he was taking a gamble, but he had done that 20 years earlier with the Theatre, and it had eventually worked out after a rough beginning. This scenario actually complements yours, since we’re both suggesting that the Chamberlain’s Men didn’t intend to make Blackfriars their only playing venue; I’m just suggesting a possible reason why James Burbage bought the Blackfriars, if it wasn’t meant as a total replacement for the Theatre.

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