The Green Curtain: strolling players and a life upon the road

Strolling Players

Hogarth’s famous illustration of Strolling Players dressing in a barn

The players have come to town and their arrival is hailed with the beating of a drum and a scattering of playbills signalling their three nights a week entertainments. For a curly haired youth, or a brown cheeked lass it was no doubt folly to sit in front of the players’ booths, or if they were lucky, a room at the Inn and dream of an adventure upon the stage. The reality was quite different from daydreams of trailing across the countryside from town to town, dressing in fine clothes and making a fortune in London.
   If they were skilled and experienced actors, it was expected they should scour the inns of Covent Garden looking for the strolling managers or their recruiters propped up in a corner carousing on ale; these men, some unscrupulous, some charitable, were in want of an interview before any agreement was made: 

‘How many parts have you studied? To which ‘lengths’ can you go?’ 

By ‘lengths’ they were not referring to stripping naked for the 18th century equivalent of Lars von Trier, but rather the number of lines they were expected to study each night. A length was 42 lines of dialogue and it might be necessary for the country actor to learn a long part with just two or three days notice; indeed, skilled players might have to learn more than one part if the company were short of players. Sometimes experienced actors were expected to double or even triple the roles they played. The actor King recalled such an occasion when he, ‘performed one night King Richard, gave two comic songs, played in an interlude, danced a horn pipe, spoke a prologue, afterwards Harlequin, in a sharing company, and, after all this fatigue, my share came to three pence, and two pieces of candle’. Sometimes, the sheer paucity of players verged on the ridiculous: in one instance ‘Romeo had to toll the bell for his own death and dead Juliet had to sing her own dirge!’
   King’s situation was common, and this was probably after the theatre manager had dangled before his eyes a healthy remuneration and decent roles. Managers of companies were not the most honest individuals; they promised players a salary when in fact they only got a company share, some managers deserted their companies without paying the players a penny, others stole out of town leaving debts. Not all managers were the same, some deeply cared for their companies, the quality of production and the players they hired, and if they observed a player in impecunious straits they might slip him half a guinea.
   It was easy to find such players, they were everywhere. Poverty was a contagion that spread throughout entire companies and tarnished the appearance of the players; their daily uniforms were rags with hints of past glories – tiny pieces of tattered lace edged quondam swags of finery. If their money did not buy them new clothes where was it spent? Well it was not on food. Players were emaciated and a week’s work would be spent on one supper, the rest on gin. In fact fainting actresses were ubiquitous, they had spent the day quaffing alcohol barely able to stand when the candles were lit and not being able to get out of bed during the chamber scene. Their performances were often saved by their less drunk colleagues, though with no small thanks – with such stresses and the irritation of having to keep tight company, tempers frayed and quarrels ensued. Mrs Charke relates, ‘for, as they grow hungry, they naturally grow peevish, and fall out with one another…‘ and so there were inn brawls and crimes of hopelessness such as larceny – these were desperate people. Those with extra skills to exhibit found other means to earn: if they played an instrument, sang or danced they might give lessons to the townsfolk, and even if they did not possess extra talents they might give lectures and recitations.
hatever course they took, their privations were demeaning; even their fellow London colleagues looked down upon them as pure country yokels without any promise of sophistication and it was so hard to rise above it. Poor Templeton struggled with the demeaning life of the poverty stricken player, ‘he must go cap in hand,’ he wrote, ‘and with the humblest demeanour, paint his distress, and solicit their [the gentry] support: or he must attend their nocturnal revels, wait upon their smiles, and feed them with his jests. He must spout, sing and be every way subservient to their wishes, and, after thus debasing human dignity, it is well if he finds himself enriched with a few guineas.’
   The situations and reputations of players were not helped by mountebank door-keepers creaming off profits or amateur journeymen wanting to try their luck in the theatre. ‘The Strolling Companies are commonly a Set of undutiful ‘Prentices, idle Artificers, and Boys run mad with reading what they don’t understand,’ one memoirist wrote, but the curly haired boys and brown cheeked lasses were not without skill and often made it to the bright candles of the London stage. Once they had reached the heights of experienced, multi-skilled players they could argue for the best parts and also the best clothes and the best scenes – all hired from the trade centre around Monmouth Street. And the age was not without its divas, some actresses demanded so many costumes that it might take a dozen waggons to transport them! The lucky (and no doubt demanding) ones also had their own transport expense covered to from performances either by coach, waggon, or by post chaise if their manager was of the means; the unlucky ones had to walk fifteen miles to and from the venue.
   And what of the venue? Well any room or booth will do. The more reputable the company the better the circumstances: inns, inn-yards, town halls and public rooms – poorer companies had to make do with barns and stables, though some players objected at being asked to perform with a pigsty for their dressing room.
  All in all it was not a glamorous life, but it probably added up to more of an existence than the walk of a domestic servant. To find out more, I can heartily recommend, ‘Strolling Players & Drama in the Provinces, 1660-1765′ by Sybil Marion Rosenfeld – my source for this article. 

And more evidence abounds in the press of the era: 

June 22 1764

“We have of late been highly entertained with a company of Strollers, who generally play to a great audience, that is as large a company as the barn will hold, which is, as near as I could count, about one hundred ; and last night, prompted by my curiosity, I went to see them play Theodosius, or the Force of Love, which was done better than I expected. The Company consisted of two middle-aged men and one woman, an old woman, two young girls, two young fellows that look like run-a-way ‘Prentices from London, and a lad. When I went in the Play was advanced, and if I had not known it was the decoration of a Theatre, I should have taken it for the Altar of a Mass-house, as it was set out. There were three crosses, one under another ; the undermost was painted on the cloth of the table, the other was a wooden one gilded, and such as seen in the little Mass-houses, set on the table, with flowerpots, &c. on each side ; and over this was one painted on cloth… The audience were entertained between the acts by a band of musick, which, on enquiry, I found was no part of the itinerants travelling Company, but belonged to the town, though it was not so good as your blind set that I have seen play on London streets, for it consisted of one man, but then he had two eyes : the spectators, during his playing the Black Joke, Buttered Pease, &c. consumed quantities of gin and ale. After this Play the Quaker’s Wedding was given but to make comparisons is odious — The next morning the town was alarmed by the cry of ‘Stop Thief’, who had ran for a mile almost out of it before he was taken ; I, amongst the rest, must got to see who it was, when, to my great surprize, I found it no less than the great Theodosius, with his hands tied behind, and guarded by above 200 women, children, and men. — I am inclined to think, as Sarjeant Kite says, ‘That some bad Master forced this hero to mount the stage.”

MJ Holman @mishjholman

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