An insight into a Shakespearean playhouse

Dulwich College

Dulwich College

When I began research for my novel, I didn’t know that one of the world’s most important documents about 16th century drama was sitting in a school library less than a mile from my front door.

Philip Henslowe’s account book is an extraordinary record of the business of the theatrical entrepreneur, who built and ran The Rose playhouse on London’s Bankside in 1587. This big old vellum-bound book records the price of nails purchased to build The Rose, the fee paid to the joiner, the amount laid out on costumes and props and – most excitingly – the dates of the plays staged there, and the amount of money each performance took.

It’s one of the few sources of information about when plays by Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were first performed, how often and how popular they were. And it’s kept down the road in Dulwich College.

Henslowe’s step daughter Joan married the lead actor of the company most associated with The Rose, The Admiral’s Men. Edward Alleyn was one of the most acclaimed actors of his time, triumphing as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine the Great. On his retirement from the stage he bought a manor at Dulwich, where he founded a charitable school. Henslowe’s book passed to him, and his papers went to the school library on his death. They’re still there, available to view by appointment.

On my visit, I was met by Keeper of the Archive Mrs Calista Lucy and escorted to the inner sanctum, where the precious book was laid before me on a big round table. I worked under the understandably watchful eye of Mrs Lucy, who kindly provided me with a transcript of the account book along with the original. I needed it: Henslowe’s unfamiliar script, full of loops and unexpected spellings, is hard for a novice to read.

The account book is fascinating, from the lists of hundreds of plays staged at The Rose, to the many records of actors or playwrights receiving loans or payments. Henslowe seems to have been a lender of first resort for much of the theatrical establishment. There’s also a startling page of entries on the subject of witchcraft, including spells to cure a dog bite and find things that are lost or stolen.

Carefully turning the pages, I reflected on how lucky we are to have such a document. Most of the records of the playhouses of Shakespeare’s time have been lost; only by the chance of Edward Alleyn settling at Dulwich and founding the college was this unique account book preserved.

Image: from Stacey Shintano’s photo feed on Flickr, with CCL.

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