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SCSC Presentation Transcript

2012 November 4

The following is a transcript of the paper I gave at the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference on Saturday, 27 September 2012.

“Tracing the Steps of Touring Actors: Using REED Records and GIS to Illuminate 16th Century Performance Practices”

Theatre historians have long been using the data compiled in the Records of Early English Drama to re-contextualize our understanding of performance from the Middle Ages to 1642. More recently, REED has focused its energies on leveraging that data in new platforms, such as the “Patrons and Performances” and “Early Modern London Theatre” databases – both of which emphasize the business of performance, foregrounding place and people over play content. We are currently in the process of transitioning the vast REED assets into a fully digital platform, remediating the print volume content into more easily accessible and navigable online interfaces while, at the same time, developing new research projects that extend our understanding of the subject using diverse approaches associated with the digital humanities. My paper today is part of one of those projects, and demonstrates how we can use geospatial information systems – or GIS – to analyze information we have gathered about performance troupe touring practices to reconsider how these troupes moved around the country. Visualization of this data allows for a more nuanced understanding of touring practices that makes us rethink our assumptions about how actors engaged with provincial audiences.

My purpose here is to demonstrate how even preliminary visual analysis raises questions and provides direction for further inquiry. While the initial phase of my project covers the first five years of the Queen’s Men’s activity, for brevity’s sake I am going to focus my observations on the 25 records for 1583, their first year together. I hope to suggest how this slice of data can be expanded to a much broader examination of performance troupes over a longer period of time and potentially how the REED master dataset can be applied to other disciplines within medieval and early modern studies. I’d like to pause here and point out that this type of analysis would be close to impossible using the original print volumes; organized by county, the individual researcher would have had a much harder time interpreting data that spans time as well as space.

SCSC: Tarlton Project As part of a larger project examining the life of Richard Tarlton, a co-founder and preeminent comic actor in the Queen’s Men, I began to experiment with visual analysis of historical data over time. My project gained focus when I began to tease apart Queen’s Men performance records gathered from SCSC: REED REED’s “Patrons and Performances” site and Appendix A of Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean’s seminal “The Queen’s Men and their Plays.” The subset of dates, places, and performances was gathered from civic, ecclesiastical, and household accounts – primarily of payments made to the players, and in one case a series of legal documents that describe their role in a manslaughter case. These records are at times extensive and specific, as in the assizes transcripts for Norwich between June 16 and September 1, 1583. At other times they can be exasperatingly vague, as with this from the Lydd Chamberlain’s accounts: “Item: paid to the Queen’s players 20 shillings.” But in the aggregate they present a picture of a troupe that was remarkably active in the provinces as well as in London, virtually from its inception in winter 1583. This super group of the twelve most popular actors and playwrights in England was immediately contracted to perform in long-term arrangements at great houses and individual performances at guildhalls, universities and inns.

As with many tools used by digital humanists, a temporospatial approach to historical data is not – in itself – revolutionary. Historians have relied on maps for many years to interpret complex place-based information. And I admit that the satellite-based maps most often used in GIS software programs and platforms are not always valuable when examining medieval and early modern subjects – the details of these modern maps do not necessarily reflect the topography, urban footprint, or road systems of five or six hundred years ago. It can, however, enable us to examine the data nimbly, focusing our energy on more elusive research questions at an earlier point in the process and pointing us toward locations where we might not otherwise think to look.

I pulled all of the documented performance dates into a spreadsheet and sorted according to date. To the best of my ability I identified geographic coordinates for each of the identified places of performance, although often I had to resort to a presumed longitude and latitude related to a town due to the vague nature of some of the records. I expect, however, to correct and refine these coordinates over time. At first I experimented with using Google Earth and Google Maps to represent this data but found the interfaces labor intensive and unhelpful in articulating my approach. SCSC: ArcGIS I had played with ArcGIS, esri’s powerful mapping software suite, at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute two years ago, but limitations associated with site licenses and operating systems precluded my use of that system at this point. This spring, however, I discovered that esri had launched a web-based “light” version of its system designed to encourage sharing and collaboration over social media. While this platform does not have as much flexibility as its desktop sibling, it was very helpful in allowing me to get the project to a point where I can, in future, negotiate with departments at Georgia Tech and other universities who zealously guard their ArcGIS site licenses.

I took the data I had gathered and dumped it into ArcGIS.com. Within moments I had produced a map that looked like this: SCSC: Map 1 This is great, but doesn’t provide any kind of eureka moment different from working with traditional maps. I could have taken a survey map of England and pushed pins into it and got the same picture. Even when I color-coded the results by single performance and long-term contract
I did not really reveal anything that sparked anything truly different from traditional mapping methods. My next step, however, enabled me to begin to address specific questions in ways that I believe are distinctive from traditional investigative methods.

SCSC: Map 2 In concert with a close reading of the records for specific dates in the southwest and up to the north, between May 26 and September 2, I constructed a viable path for a summer tour that appears for the most part to be linear in progression. The first record is for a performance in Gloucester on May 26. Aside from a reference to Abingdon after June 24, all of the ensuing dates move in a northeasterly direction from Bristol to Nottingham. Again – something I could have done on paper.

SCSC: Map 3 But here is where it gets complicated. During the period from June 2 through June 24, there are documented performances in East Anglia. The Queen’s Men were contracted for that space of time at Aldeburgh on the coast. There is a payment for performance on June 3 at Kirtling, and two more on June 15 at Norwich.[nbnote]See Touring: 1583 page for my documentation of 1583 records, based on “Patrons and Performances” and McMillin & MacLean data.[/nbnote] I will talk about Norwich at more length in a moment, but I believe it is helpful to visualize how these dates begin to create questions about tour schedules. It seems unwieldy, if not impossible, for a troupe of twelve performers to manage the distance between Gloucester on May 26 and Aldeburgh on June 2, or more incredibly between Aldeburgh on June 24 (assuming that the troupe remained in Aldeburgh and honored their performance commitment) and Abingdon on or soon after June 24.

The events at Norwich have been both a boon and a challenge to theatre historians. On June 15 the Queen’s Men are recorded as having acted twice in Norwich – a midday performance at the Common Hall for a civic audience, and an afternoon performance at the Red Lion inn. While the troupe was performing in the innyard, an unruly townsman named Wynsdon tried to gain admittance without paying. A scuffle ensued, and several of the actors, including John Bentley, John Singer, and Richard Tarlton, reportedly leapt from the stage with their swords drawn. A chase through the streets around the inn began, with a number of townspeople joining the melee. A man wearing a blue coat, who was later identified by witnesses as Wynsdon’s servant, was caught up in the brawl and killed. Several of the participants were arrested on manslaughter charges, including Bentley and Singer. Over the ensuing four days those arrested remained in jail while depositions were taken. Richard Tarlton remained in the vicinity to provide sureties for their bail and a commitment to return for Sessions court on July 1, at which all three men appeared. Furthermore, Bentley and Singer were ordered to return for the Quarter Sessions court on September 23. So we have a specific place and a series of dates at which we know three of the Queen’s Men were kept in or near East Anglia.

SCSC: Map 4 Meanwhile, the tour went on. The next record for which we have a performance is at Abingdon in Oxfordshire, some 150 miles southwest of Norwich. The record as written in the REED volume for Oxfordshire reads “after June 24”, meaning that the record for payment falls immediately after another payment dated June 24. We do not know the exact date of their Abingdon performance, but we can see that it is on the way to Bath, where the troupe was committed to perform in June and July, and the next single performance date at Bristol on July 24, presumably linked to the St. James fair. We therefore have a split troupe that was committed to events hundreds of miles apart.
As the tour continued in the west and north, we also have evidence for performances in Kent, at Faversham and Rye, for August 26 and September 14 respectively. It is conceivable that at least some of the Queen’s Men covered these performances while committed to remain within easy travelling distance of Norwich.

Mapping and visualization provide us an opportunity to address more quickly an important issue to our understanding of the Queen’s Men. Elizabeth’s personal patronized troupe, whose activities were – at least in part – coordinated by her chief counselor Francis Walsingham, was developed to disseminate political propaganda throughout the country. Their performance of English history plays, such as the “Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth” suggests that the choice of plays on the road was predicated upon a need to reinforce a political point of view during a decade of increasing anxiety over international affairs. Scholars have advocated for years that such an agenda would best be served by splitting the troupe in two to more effectively cover the country. It has been supposed that this practice was undertaken once the Queen’s Men had established their reputation, some time in the middle of the 1580s. SCSC: Map 5 However, “looking” at the dates on a map enables us to better hypothesize that this practice might have been embraced from the very first year of their existence. The next step now will be to examine 1583 in comparison with the ensuing years to see if it is possible to determine whether split touring would have been an ongoing factor in Queen’s Men performance practice. A further examination of touring routes in the years before the Queen’s Men were created would also be of value: several of the members of this troupe were drawn from the Earl of Leicester’s Men in the north, while others were taken from the Earl of Sussex’s Men in the southeast. If we can determine that Queen’s Men routes were reflective of those of their predecessors, we are in a much better position to consider how specific politico-cultural objectives *mapped* against regional considerations.

It is also helpful, I think, to consider the longer-term commitments with which the Queen’s Men were engaged. While I don’t have time to reflect thoroughly on this today, there is much to be learned about the location of these commitments. The orange triangle that includes these places suggests that locations convenient to London would allow for repeated visits over the course of a year. I am not yet sure how to consider the places indicated by the yellow triangle – the points on this triangle indicate commitments for which we do not (to my knowledge) have specific dates. They do suggest a sort of complement to the other performances that might lead us to consider how specific date commitments might have been augmented by standing invitations to perform around the country.

SCSC: Map 6To close, I’d like to point to two areas where – with the further development of and access to REED sources – I intend to explore. The first relates to how the west/north tour might have been negotiated effectively using contemporary road systems. By superimposing maps of medieval roadways, I hope to point to other locations that might have augmented its financial value. Tours were expensive, and individual payments were not always sufficient to underwrite them. The opportunity to further dig into the already gathered data AND to identify new locations as yet unsearched is important to further understanding of Elizabethan performance. Likewise, there is significant value to contextualizing the performances within easy travel distance from London. An analysis of this area over a series of years could help us to better understand how troupes might have used London as a base for brief excursions rather than long-form tours.

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