THE HISTORY OF COMEDY

WELCOME TO ACT TWO 

A one liner from Tommy Cooper to get us on our way:

“They always say start at the bottom if you want to learn something. But suppose you want to learn to swim?”

We ended Act One with the fall of the Roman Empire. Hardly a laugh a year at the best of times, but drama whether tragic or comic disappeared.

But all empires come to an end. That of the Roman Empire is put at around 476AD. After that the former empire was subject to fights and battles, treaties made, treaties broken. But it would be around 1400 years from Terence to the writing of the next comedy play anywhere.

Nothing appears to have been written for performance. Royal households appear in various countries. We hear of the Court Jester or The Fool appearing at certain times but much of it is anecdotal evidence. There is a certain amount of evidence to suggest that in Saxon times mentally disabled people were plied with alcohol and allowed to wonder around the Banqueting Hall to the amusement of the guests. Not for nothing were they called the Dark Ages!

Over a thousand years there is nothing to show of any written word intended for entertainment. Only in religious orders does any form of “play” take place. Eventually these will become the “Mystery” plays performed at York and one or two other places. There may have been “Fools” and “Court Jesters” in the Royal courts of Europe but outside the palaces and castles the ordinary people would have to find their own amusement until around the 15th century. This would usually be in the form of a “Mummers Play.” This would be a masked performance normally based on old folk tales but usually performed around a notable date in the Christian calendar. But nothing was written down! The first notes for such plays would not appear until the early nineteenth century.

The first comedy written in English – Ralph Roister Doister.” Was written in about 1553 by one Norman Udall. A comedy about the failed attempt of the hero to woo a lady. Udall was a tutor at Westminster College and the play would be performed by the pupils some eleven years after his death in 1566. Udall has his place in theatrical history but would never have known it! It all seems very odd indeed. Shortly after another comedy appeared with the wonderful title of Gammer Gurton’s Needle. Author unknown. Again performed by schoolboys. The story revolves around a missing needle. No prizes for guessing how the needle is discovered!

This neatly places us in the year 1564. On Sunday 23 April in Stratford-Upon-Avon Mr and Mrs Shakespeare become the proud parents of a son. They decide to call him William. Within thirty years a theatre-writing renaissance would be in full swing. It would match the Athenian theatrical era but unlike Greece this particular period of writing would ensure that theatrical performances would continue until the present day. In Florence of course their Renaissance had begun some time before. Leonardo da Vinchi was born in 1452 and died in 1519. Michelangelo was born in 1475 and appropriately enough died in 1564. Culture had finally arrived in Western Europe!

Even before Shakespeare was born the green shoots of theatre were starting slowly but surely to emerge. Back in Henry the Eighth’s court there were “Fools” working in court and the first indication we have of an appointed Court Jester. The first one we can name that is. He was called Will Somers and survived the reign of one of the most temperamental kings of England. He must have been very good! Henry also had his own acting and dancing troupe attached to court. This would develop as the in thing across Tudor England. Those with money and large houses would have a minstrels gallery above the dining hall. At the time the travelling players and musicians were becoming evident. There were no theatres to perform in. Their usual stage would be the courtyards of large inns.

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The George Inn at Southwark. An example of Elizabethan early theatre.

The players would use the courtyard and the audience such as it was would stand in the galleries around the upper floor. The stage would be a few planks of wood thrown across a couple of trestles. But what they said or sung is not known. However someone, somewhere must have upset the authorities because in 1572 the strolling players were banned. The excuse being that by constantly moving to and fro across the country they were likely to spread the plague. I think the more likely reason is that they were taking the mickey out of their elders and betters and those in authority were quick to stamp on it. However the pressure for entertainment was growing and in 1574 the Earl of Leicester was allowed to build an outdoor theatre. From that point theatres both indoor and outdoor would be built.

Shakespeare could of course fill a whole evening of discussion. His plays continue to be performed around the world. Comedy or tragedy the language and imagery used in his plays remain unmatched. Every so often over the last five hundred years some bright spark comes up with the suggestion that only a few of the lesser plays were written by Shakespeare and that the majority of them were written by Marlow or Bacon or who ever. It has provoked endless discussion over the years. The best response I have read is this: It is all about intellectual snobbery. Bacon and Marlowe were university educated. Shakespeare only went to a Grammar School. How could he possibly have the ability to write these plays. “And he was brought up in Stratford for goodness sake!” The arguments have tended to fade in recent years. But here we are concerned with the comedies. The first one of Shakespeare’s comedies to be performed was “A Comedy of Errors.” This is the direct link between the Elizabethan theatre and that of the Roman theatre. Shakespeare took his plot from a play called “Menaechmi” by Plautus. In the Roman play the plot revolves around a set of twins and mistaken identity. In A Comedy of Errors the plot revolves around two sets of twins and mistaken identity. The play was first performed in 1594. Shakespeare wrote fourteen comedies. The final one to be performed was A Winters Tale. Although I find the play more tragic than comic but it does contain the classic stage direction. Exit pursued by a bear!  

These plays would be performed in daylight and the theatres would be structures of wood and it would more than likely be theatre in the round until bigger theatres were built. It was not until 1574 that plays were allowed to be performed on weekdays. The expensive seats were up in the galleries down to the cheap seats for the “groundlings” who sat on the floor! They would pay a penny to get in. As they came through a doorway they would be expected to put a penny in the box on the floor alongside the doorway. It soon became apparent that the number of people sitting on the floor did not always equal the amount of pennies in the box. So a recess was made by the doorway and the box placed on a shelf with someone from the theatre keeping an eye on it. From this simple operation we derive the term “Box Office!” This is the stage of the original Globe Theatre. Its modern replica is well worth a visit.

                          

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Shakespeare’s main rival and friend at this time was Ben Jonson. Jonson wrote the Alchemist, Volpone, and Bartholmew Fair among others. He was imprisoned for sedition for writing his first play, after that he fought a duel with an actor and was found guilty of murder. He escaped hanging by persuading the authorities that as the son of a clergyman he had what was known as “benefit of clergy.” This apparently gets you off a hanging! He did not stay in prison for too long and his first play on release numbered William Shakespeare among the cast. Volpone is the play most performed in modern times. All the characters are named after animals, Volpone being the Fox. He pretends to be about to die just so he can hear what people have to say about him. It all goes badly wrong!

Shakespeare died in 1616*, allegedly on the same day that he was born, 23 April. Jonson died in 1632. Between them they had established comedy as one of the driving forces of the London theatre.

Queen Elizabeth the First had died in 1603. She was a strong monarch and gave active support to the Tudor theatre. Not so some of her courtiers who saw the theatre as a threat to good order. During the reign of James the First theatre went on without any outstanding events. The plays of Johnson and Shakespeare tending to hold sway. Charles the First did little to encourage the theatre and although plays were still performed in public more and more tended to be performed in private houses. Then came the Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell, who immediately banned all theatrical performances in public theatres. This was not, as may be thought, just out of puritan dislike for people having fun but a purely practical decision. Theatres could hold up to 2000 people. A theatre audience could easily become a mob and mob could easily cause a riot. Cromwell died and so did the puritan movement as his successors lacked his skill and resolution. Charles the Second was restored to the throne in 1660.

Well you might think after all those years of puritan misery all the theatres would be opened and enjoyment would be the order of the day. Not so. Like Cromwell Charles and his followers were scared that large gatherings of people could cause problems. They did however allow theatrical performance. Letters patent were issued to two men who were allowed to operate a theatre each. This became known as legitimate theatre. Other theatres were used for musical gatherings, impromptu readings and the like. They were not allowed to charge for the performance of say Shakespeare. One of the patent theatres was at Drury Lane. The one you see now is the fourth one built on the site the other three having burnt down! The latest was built in 1822 and the last structural re-altering was in 1901. The other theatre was a converted Real tennis court in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In the mid-seventeenth century the area was a field although Portugal Street was in existence, indeed that was the address of the theatre. That is the street that runs behind the old Land Registry building. The theatre was located more or less where the College of Surgeons now stands. It was built to the latest specifications internally and contained all the up-to-date scenery and effects that money could buy. It operated for about sixty years. During the reign of Charles the Second actresses appeared on the stage for the first time. One of whom was probably famous more for her name than her acting, Nell Gwyn was her name.

What is amazing about this period is that the letters patent were not revoked until 1843! In the restoration period there were plays by Dryden, Wycherley, Goldsmith and Sheridan. Government interference continued. So much so that theatre audiences dropped off. The two high points of theatre attendance in this country set against population are during the reign of Elizabeth the First and the period of a few years before the start of World War Two. Shakespeare went out of fashion due in no small measure to someone called Colley Cibber producing his own adaptations of Shakespeares work. It would be well into the second half of the nineteenth century before Shakespeare regained his place as the most performed playwright. In 1737 Prime Minister Walpole felt offended by a play written by Henry Fielding and it is believed orchestrated the production of a play which he claimed insulted the royal family. He then enacted a bill which instructed that in future all plays had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for approval before they could be performed. Bad news all round and for the next two hundred years or so! The law was not repealed until 1968! There are playwrights living today who have had to submit their work to the Lord Chamberlain.

The 18th century saw the spread of theatre to the provinces and the establishment of repertory companies. The end of the eighteenth century saw the first versions of pantomime performed in the country. This particular form originated in Italy where the main characters were Harlequin, Columbine, Pantalone and clown. The performances were called Harliquinades. Into the nineteenth century and the theatres were bigger, by this time no notice was taken of the letters patent. Audiences were becoming more rowdy and theatre going was starting to become an unpleasant experience. Theatres were becoming grubby, shabby buildings. The actors profession was becoming one to disdain. The remedy was to improve the theatres, the lighting, the décor the onstage scenery, and the standards of performance. It worked.

However in the East End of London and in other major cities communities were setting up their own entertainment. The larger public houses would fit in a makeshift stage at one end and encourage their customers to do a turn. Thus we have the beginning of music hall. Before this comedy had been presented in a theatre and always the play would have been written by a rich middle class man. Yes people of all classes would attend depending on the play but music hall was comedy for the working class because the performers were from the same streets where they the audience lived. If we trace the birth of comedy plays back to Ancient Greece then the birth of modern comedy took place in the music halls of London and all the other major cities in the Untied Kingdom. Here for the first time someone would stand up in front of an audience and tell jokes. The audience would have paid to see them and the performer would be paid. Very quickly music hall moved out of the public houses.

And there we end Act Two … the final Act will tell the story of the Queen of Music Hall

I leave you in the tender care of Mr Tommy Cooper:

Tommy was leaving the theatre and just getting into his car when a man came running up to him, “Mr Cooper, Mr Cooper, please Mr Cooper can you give me lift, please Mr Cooper can you give me lift?” Tommy took one step back looked the man up and down and said: “ You look great, the world is your oyster, go for it!”

 

* I commend the novel ‘Fools and Mortals’ by Bernard Cornwell for a wonderful description of life in Shakesperean England. The title is taken from Pucks line in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

Coming soon! The History of Comedy Act Three

 

 

 

 

 

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