Plague never stopped Shakespeare. Credit: IMDB

March 18, 2021   5 mins

It was a year ago this week that Britain’s 250 theatres were shut, placing tens of thousands out of work and freezing the country’s cultural life indefinitely. Yet it’s not been the first lockdown that London’s theatre land has endured, and the lessons from the first great closure offer hope for an industry that suffered as much as any these past 12 months. Indeed, it could be said that lockdown helped shape our theatre.

Back in August 1592 plague had broken out in London and, fearing that plays might be super-spreader events, the city closed its playhouses, keeping them shut for two years.  It was not the first time: thirty years earlier, in 1564, the Lord Mayor had worried that “the great and frequent confluences, congregations and assemblies of great numbers and multitudes of people pressed together in small rooms” was a key factor in the spread of disease. The Bishop of London, Edmund Grindal, wrote the same year that “there is no one thing” that “is more like to have renewed this contagion than the practice of an idle sort of people, common players, who now daily set up bills [adverts for performances], whereunto the youth resorteth excessively and there taketh infection”. As we all know, the authorities like to blame the young for spreading illness.

In times of disease, performances were often cancelled. “For the avoiding of Infection”, the Lord Mayor wrote in 1569, “all great resort, assembly, and concourse of people assembled and drawn together by reason of any plays, interludes or other shows should be forbidden”. Serious breakouts of plague, lasting several months, swept through London every few years between 1570 and 1583. But the theatre was never completely closed. By the end of this period, the Lord Mayor was writing, “one very great and dangerous inconvenience” was “the assembly of people to plays, to which do resort great multitudes of the basest sort of people, and many infected with sores running on them, which be otherwise perilous for contagion”.

For almost ten years after 1583, plague outbreaks had been more manageable. The 1592-94 pestilence was therefore a shock both in its suddenness and in its duration, and theatre people were of course not immune. Margaret Brayne was amongst those who died in this vicious resurgence of the disease — a woman who had helped to finance, build and run at least one of the earliest London playhouses, the Theatre. She may also have helped her husband John to build the oldest Elizabethan playhouse that we know of, the Red Lion, the pair helping to invent theatre as an architectural space.

But plague presented opportunities for those willing and able to pursue them. These were the years that Simon Forman started to build a public reputation by working as both doctor and magician in plague-stricken London districts. Through these early years of fame, Forman established a distinctively early modern reputation that spanned medicine, psychology, astrology and necromancy. He would later become much consulted by ordinary and famous Londoners, becoming an early modern celebrity.

Likewise, other professionals used this year as an opportunity to grow their profiles. The book publisher Joan Broome printed a play in 1592 and explained to her readers in a preface that “Since the plays in Paul’s were dissolved, there are certain comedies come to my hands by change”. In other words: the playhouse on London’s St Paul’s Cathedral site has now been closed, and I am therefore publishing some of its plays. Here a professional woman responds to closure by treating it as a business opportunity. Play publication increased widely in these years, and is a key reason why these texts survive today: in some ways we have plague, and the consequent theatre closures, to thank for the development and our knowledge of the period’s drama. And though we don’t know when Shakespeare’s writing career began, these were the years in which that writing started to make itself known, both onstage and in print.

But other Londoners found themselves utterly without work — and there was no furlough scheme in the 16th century. In 1593 the London watermen, who made money ferrying people across the Thames, petitioned the government for the reopening of the Rose playhouse in Southwark. These men depended on the audiences for much of their income: a reminder that it is not just the hospitality and entertainment industries that suffer at a time like this, but all those who enable the public to get out and about.

It’s worth remembering, here, that early modern playhouses were the product of an enormous rupture in society: the English Reformation. As Catholicism was cancelled, its religious spaces were confiscated by the state. Many of them became stages for a new kind of English theatre. The Theatre and the Curtain, for instance, were both built outside the London city walls in Shoreditch on former monastery land; in the city itself there was Blackfriars, whose name records the Dominican Order who used the venue before the Reformation. Closures, cancellation and societal shifts laid the groundwork for a dramatic revolution.

And in many ways early modern theatre companies were much better placed to respond to challenges than today’s. They were lighter on their feet, always touring, and in their early years only rarely took up a long-term residency in particular playing venues. This gave them enormous flexibility and meant that when a particular part of London or the country was affected by plague, the company could just go somewhere else.

Moreover, early modern performance took place outdoors. Even the large amphitheatre spaces, of which London’s modern Globe is a replica, did not have roofs, and though theatre historians have often explained this in terms of the natural lighting it provides — which allowed companies to avoid the expense of candles — this is also a very sensible ventilation system in a time of plague. We generally think of modern theatre as happening in buildings, but perhaps we need to embrace the rich tradition of outdoor performance as we explore theatre under Covid.

Early modern actors also had a rehearsal and performance schedule that would make most modern practitioners panic. Whereas today’s theatres often stage a single play for months at a time, early modern theatre companies constantly rotated their offering, sometimes putting on as many as ten different plays in a single fortnight. They were able to do this because they thought of both rehearsal and performance in terms very different from the dominant model in contemporary Anglo-American theatre today. Rehearsals were often about agreeing who would be onstage when, where people would stand, leaving the finer details — often considered to be the very stuff of rehearsal nowadays — to be worked out during the show itself. This means that early modern drama was much more amenable to improvisation and much less centred on text than the theatre we know.

One of the reasons that theatres will find it difficult to reopen under Covid is that rehearsal periods take place across several weeks, requiring a company to finance periods of rehearsal for a show that may never get to open. The planning time is itself now the problem; taking inspiration from the early modern precedent may be a way out of this impasse. Outdoor playing, innovation and more improvisation would make public entertainment more viable as we enter our second year of living with Covid. Fluidity and change have always been core parts of theatre’s business model. After all, the industry took shape at a time of plague.