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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

X. The Elizabethan Theatre

§ 1. Early Companies of Players

WHEN Elizabeth came to the throne, she found attached to the court not only musicians and minstrels, but eight players of interludes. This body had been a permanent part of the court establishment for some reigns; and, in the new theatrical activity of Elizabeth’s reign, it was supplanted by other bodies, but not dissolved. It accompanied her occasionally on her progresses, and only gradually died out. Companies of such players had long been attached to the households of men of wealth and position, whose “livery” or badge they wore on their sleeves. A statement in Heywood’s A pology for Actors (1612) may be taken to mean that some kind of royal licence was considered necessary or advisable by these companies, so far back as the reign of Henry VIII.

In many cases, these companies supported themselves by playing before the public in various parts of the country. The practice seems to have been for players, on coming to a town, first to attend the mayor, to inform him whose servants they were and to receive his licence for public playing. If the mayor liked the company or wished to honour their master, he would pay them a sum (which the entrance money charged to the public would supplement) to give a first performance before the corporation, to which the public were admitted. Several cases are on record where players received a fee, though they were forbidden by the town’s by-laws or otherwise to give a performance. Travelling players appeared frequently, also, at private houses, at weddings and on other festival occasions; and, occasionally, even in churches. At Exeter, Yarmouth and Worcester, there seem to have been regular playhouses; at other times, the actors played at the guildhall, or in an innyard. Such incidents as the remonstrance issued by the privy council to the lord president of the north in 1556, touching the seditious plays acted by “certain lewd persons naming themselves to be the servants of Sir Frances Lake,” suggest that some, at least, of the companies attached to great houses had received no recognition or licence from the crown; while “common players of interludes,” orders for whose regulation or arrest were occasionally issued, did not belong, either in fact or in name, to any nobleman’s establishment. In addition to companies bearing the names of patrons, there were still in existence a large number of wandering troupes of jugglers and players, descendants of the old minstrels, who owned no kind of patronage. Certain municipal corporations had their band of players; and, in Cornwall and elsewhere, local associations of amateurs still met to perform town or village plays and pageants which the reformation had shorn of their old glory. The competition of travelling companies was, perhaps, as important an element in the decadence of these local bodies as was the hostility of the puritans.