Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Elizabethan drama diary

Philip Henslowe, one of the great theatre impresarios of the Elizabethan period, died four centuries ago today. It is thanks to an accounts book he kept - generally referred to as his diary - that we have details about the plays and playwrights of the Elizabethan period, as well as information about the practical and financial details of providing entertainment in London at the time.

Henslowe was born in Lindfield, Sussex, around 1550, the son of a forest game manager. He moved to London, was apprenticed to a dyer, and then, when his master died, married his rich widow, Agnes Woodward. The couple bought much property in the Southwark area of London, and Henslowe became involved in building theatres, the most famous of which was The Rose, on the south bank of the Thames. He was also a churchwarden and held minor court offices, becoming a groom of the chamber.

North of the river, Henslowe, with the famous actor Edward Alleyn (married to Henslowe’s step-daughter), built the sumptuous Fortune Theatre. In 1613, he built the Hope Playhouse, designed for plays as well as bear baiting. Henslowe’s theatres and company (The Admiral’s Men) gave the first productions of many Elizabethan dramas. Later in life, he served as one of the governors of the nearby free grammar school, and, with four others, purchased the rectory of St Saviour’s ‘for the general good of posterity’. He died on 6 January 1616. For further information see the Luminarium Encyclopaedia Project or Wikipedia.

Henslowe’s papers are mostly housed in the Wodehouse Library at Dulwich College, which was founded by Alleyn in 1619 as a ‘hospital’ for orphans and homeless pensioners. Among the papers, Henslowe’s diary - although no more than a business record book - is undoubtedly the most important, for it provides unique information about the Elizabethan theatre world. Thanks to The Henslowe-Alleyn Digitisation Project, co-sponsored by the University of Reading and King’s College London's Centre for Computing in the Humanities, images of every page in the diary are available online.

Arthur Ponsonby, in his early 20th century classic English Diaries, suggests that Henslowe’s record is not a diary: ‘It consists of memoranda of receipts and payment connected with the plays produced between 1592 and 1603 in the theatres of which he was proprietor. While it contains much valuable information from the point of view of literary archaeology, it cannot by any stretch of the definition be classed as a diary.’

Nevertheless, Henslowe’s record book was first edited by J. Payne Collier and published for the Shakespeare Society in 1845 as The Diary of Philip Henslowe, from 1591 to 1609, and ever since it has been referred to as Henslowe’s diary. In the diary, Henslowe mentions payments to 27 Elizabethan playwrights, though not Shakespeare whose name never appears in the diary, probably because Shakespeare was not connected with Henslowe’s theatres. However, Henslowe does mention a number of plays with titles similar to Shakespearean plays, yet with no author listed. Most of these occur during a period when Henslowe’s troupe, The Admiral’s Men, joined forces with The Chamberlain’s Men (for whom Shakespeare wrote) as a consequence of the plague closing many playhouses.

Collier’s edition of the diary is freely available at Internet Archive, as is a further edition edited by W. W. Greg and published as Henslowe’s Diary by A. H. Bullen between 1904 and 1908 (Part One - Text; Part Two - Commentary). In 1961, Cambridge University Press published a new edition of Henslowe’s Diary, as edited by R. A. Foakes, and a newer, second edition of this, can be previewed at Googlebooks. All three editions have informative introductions and notes providing a history of the diary itself, much background, and plenty of context needed to understand the importance of the contents.

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