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We cannot allow Shakespeare 400 completely to overshadow the anniversary of another giant of Elizabethan theatre.

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Edward Alleyn (1566 – 1626) was born 450 years go this day in Bishopsgate to a quite well-off family with some royal connections. He was pretty much Shakespeare’s exact contemporary.

Alleyn eschewed the family innkeeping business to take to the stage, supported by his elder brother John. From a teenager in the early 1580s to about 1600 he was spectacularly successful as a leading actor with great stage presence. Working successively for the Earl of Worcester’s Men, the Admiral’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men, the young actor performed both in the capital and on tour. His best-known roles were written by Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson.

Alleyn’s only significant performing rival was Richard Burbage (1567 – 1619), who worked primarily with Shakespeare. Alleyn had teamed up with his stepfather-in-law Philip Henslowe (1650 – 1616). These, then, were the two dominant rivals in the London theatre business at the turn of the 17th Century.

Despite the rise of puritanism at this time, entertainment in London was nonetheless massive business. Alleyn and Henslowe coveted the mastership of the bears, the patent to run all animal baiting shows (bears, bulls and even lions for King James himself, a noted connoisseur of animal cruelty). They succeeded in securing this from 1604, until 1612, a period during which they also won the direct patronage of young prince Henry. Meanwhile, the two business partners invested in and built a new playhouse, the Fortune, in St Giles Cripplegate. Despite local and puritan opposition against the venture, the impresarios had more than enough influence in very high places to win through.

Still only in his thirties, Alleyn retired from acting completely around 1600 to concentrate on co-managing the business which had made him exceptionally wealthy. Conspicuous philanthropy was a particular leitmotif of the age. Edward Alleyn – twice-married yet childless – wished to cement his name, reputation and memory through worthy foundations. Having purchased the manor of Dulwich in its entirety in 1605 and moved there, he endowed Dulwich College which was formerly opened on 13 September 1619. The ceremony was attended by Francis Bacon, Inigo Jones and other worthies. Old Alleynians of note include Sir Ernest Shackleton, P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler.

Please remember to raise a glass to this Londoner of great note.

** It just so happens that a week today is our Annual Lecture for 2016 at Gresham College. Professor Sheila Cavanagh will be talking about the whole theatrical environment and business during Shakespeare’s time. Preceded by a wine reception. There are about a dozen places still available at time of writing. **


Edward Alleyn in Wikipedia
Edward Alleyn in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required).

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