Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 21. Thomas Tucker, the Christmas Prince

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

XII. University Plays

§ 21. Thomas Tucker, the Christmas Prince

The stimulus of the royal visit to theatrical activity at Oxford, especially at St. John’s college, seems to have lasted for some time afterwards. To this, we have remarkable testimony in a unique memorial of the academic stage preserved in the St. John’s library. It is a manuscript written by Griffin Higgs, a member of the college, who successively became fellow of Merton and chaplain to Elizabeth of Bohemia, and entitled A true and faithfull relation of the risinge and fall of Thomas Tucker, Prince of Alba Fortunata, Lord St. Johns &c., with all the occurrents which happened throughout his whole domination. No extant document, not even Gager’s letter to Rainolds, lets us so completely behind the scenes of the collegiate theatre, or brings home to us so intimately the hopes and fears, the labours and difficulties, connected with the performances. The manuscript is an account of a series of festivities which lasted from All Saints’ eve (31 October), 1607, till the first Sunday in the following Lent. On All Saints’ eve, Thomas Tucker, a bachelor of arts (later, a fellow of the college and canon of Bristol) was elected “Christmas Lord or Prince of the Revells … to appoint & moderate all such games and pastimes as should come.” Two “bills” were, therefore, sent out to the masters craving allegiance to his authority and “money & maintenance.” Among those who contributed were Laud and Juxon, each assessed at ten shillings. But, in order to raise an adequate sum, Tucker (like a true Stewart ruler) had to levy a further requisition on ex-fellows and commoners and on college tenants. Sufficient provision thus made, he was publicly installed on St. Andrew’s day by means of a Latin “devise,” Ara Fortunae. In this, the prince, with his leading councillors, visits the temple of Fortune and is assured by her priestess of the favour of the goddess. He accordingly announces that he no longer reigns by popular favour but by divine right, and that he is preparing “pomps and triumphs” for the entertainment of his faithful subjects.

On Christmas day, the prince sat at high table in the vice-president’s place, and a boar’s head was carried in as “the first messe” by the “tallest and lustiest” of his guards, to the accompaniment of a brisk carol. In the evening, a short Latin interlude, Saturnalia, was performed, introducing a Dominus and a Servus in the inverted relation peculiar to the Roman festival, and afterwards Hercules, who, by interpreting aright an equivocal Delphic oracle, shows that waxen lights and not human sacrifices are the offerings enjoined at this anniversary. As the season of the Saturnalia coincided approximately with Christmastide, these waxen lights, it is hinted, are the source of Christmas candles; and, in a prose epilogue, an ingenious parallel and contrast are drawn between the pagan and the Christian festival.

The same sense of classical and Biblical analogies dictated the choice of a play for Innocents’ day. A Senecan tragedy on the story of Philomela was written for the occasion, as it was thought that the subject “well fitted the day, by reason of the murder of Innocent Itis.” But the performance had to be postponed for a day because the carpenters were “no way ready w[char] the stage.” Then a further mishap occurred. “The Prince himself who was to play Tereus had gott such an exceeding cold that it was impossible for him to speake, or speaking to be heard.” However, with the unnamed author of the tragedy in reserve as an understudy should he be “constrained to leave,” the resourceful Tucker got through his part with credit. “The whole play was wel acted and wel liked,” a more favourable verdict than had been pronounced on Calfhill’s tragedy on the same story acted before Elizabeth at Christ Church in 1566.

It is characteristic of the academic taste of the time that Philomela was much more appreciated than an English play Time’s Complaint acted on New Year’s day as part of “the princes triumphs.” The failure of this piece, which received only “two or three cold plaudites,” was partly due to the blunders of amateur actors, of which Higgs gives amusing details, and to the overcrowding on the stage. But, doubtless, the fault also lay largely in the plot, which combines awkwardly a semi-allegorical tale of Time’s attempt to recover his daughter Veritas, kept in thraldom by Opinion and Error, and a farcical series of mistakes and entanglements arising out of the theft of goodwife Spigott’s goods by a drunken cobbler, Swallow. Yet, Time’s Complaint is far from being without interest. It contains genre pictures of characteristic Elizabethan types, such as the dispossessed countryman, the cashiered soldier and the professional beggar. It introduces, also, in Studioso, the poor and embittered scholar, and in Philonices, the grasping pompous lawyer and justice, two figures akin to those in the Parnassus plays.

The spirits of the St. John’s actors, which had been grievously depressed by the cold reception of Time’s Complaint, were revived by the success of an amusing show, The Seven Dayes of the Weeke, acted at the president’s lodging on Sunday, 10 January, and repeated by special request before the vice-chancellor and other dignitaries a week later. Equally successful was a Latin comedy Philomathes mingling abstractions with Plautine characters. After its performance “the stage & scaffold were pul’d downe Wch had stood from Cristmas”; but they were set up again on Shrove Tuesday for the prince’s resignation. This, like his public installation, was solemnised in the form of a play, Ira seu Tumulus Fortunae, The goddess has now grown angry with the prince because he has not paid her sufficiently constant homage. His ministers resign their symbols of office and desert him. In vain he visits again the altar of Fortune, and seeks to placate her wrath. He, therefore, strips himself of the emblems of sovereignty, and lays them in a sepulchre in her temple, dedicating himself henceforth to the service of Minerva.

Thus ended the memorable reign of Thomas Tucker; but, as the stage and scaffolds had been re-erected, and, as an English tragedy on the story of Periander, tyrant of Corinth, had been prepared, it was decided to perform this on the following Saturday. It attracted such a concourse that hundreds could not find room in the hall. They “made such an hideous noice, and raised such a tumult w[char] breaking of windows all about the colledge, throwinge of stones into the hall, and such like ryott” that the officers of the college had to rush forth, “w[char] about a dozen whiflers well armed and swords drawne.” The rioters then ran away, but some of the ringleaders were arrested, and imprisoned in the porter’s lodge till the play was over.

Curiously enough, about a week later, on 20 February, there was a similar riot at Cambridge, when there was “foul & great disorder committed at the time of a comedy in King’s College,” probably a lost play by Phineas Fletcher. In the same month, four years later, there was a yet more serious disturbance at Cambridge, when the St. John’s men, angry at being excluded from a comedy acted at Trinity college, began an affray outside the Great Gate, which led to proceedings in the vice-chancellor’s court. In sharp contrast to these tumultuous proceedings was the scene in the hall of Trinity on 2 March, 1613, when prince Charles and Frederick, the elector palatine, saw Samuel Brooke’s comedy called Adelphe, and when the elector slept during the greater part of the performance, which lasted from seven in the evening till one. On the following evening, the princes were again provided with solid entertainment by the performance of Scyros, a Latin version by Brooke of Bonarelli’s pastoral drama, Filli di Sciro.