Exploitation in the entertainment industry is a widely known tragedy of the past and present. In the last few years huge exposés have been brought to light as people find their voices and the public become more aware. Looking back to the past century we are painfully aware of how the classical stars where mistreated. Such as Judy Garland, Natalie Wood and Elvis are among the first to come to mind. But unfortunately, the problems are as old as the very art of acting. Recent analysis has brought to light the dark side of Elizabethan theatre and its nothing short of horrific.
To begin with its important to think about the culture and dynamics of 16th century theatre. The life of a writer, actor or manager of a playhouse was an unstable one. The popular image the theatre in this time is one of hindsight and wishful thinking. Yes, it was a great era for the art and it certainly had become more popular with the masses but it’s an image that ignores the unsteady nature of the field. Just like today, productions relied on the financial help of patrons or investors. As popular as it was It was not easy to bait investors, professional acting was still relatively new and could be controversial. Those with money would sooner invest in business that had a solid reputation rather than take a gamble or worse potentially make enemies by having their name attached to a play that offended those with power. This with the addition of many theatre companies existing so close together meant that these companies had to be careful with their choices from the plays they chose to preform, the writers they worked with and the actors they kept in house.
As established money was tight for many companies so cost cutting was key to assure profit. So, what better way than to make actors reliant on the company completely? Legally and domestically. This is where the long-forgotten scandal appears. What happened was parallel to trafficking. The heads of companies would seek out young boys and contract them to serve the theatre or in many cases, literal abduction. Although these companies operated separately from the main theatres, focusing on keeping and ‘training ‘child actors. They however regularly supplied children to fill roles in main theatres as and when required, earning profit from essentially loaning them to the more mainstream theatres to play the female roles. Doing this served to protect major theatres from legal or moral scrutiny therefor maintaining their reputation for their patrons. Children’s companies where therefore the shady third party, filling a demand for cheap talent. So why ruin it by asking to many questions? However, the situation gets worse. Mainstream plays where only part of the work that these young boys were forced into. Alarmingly they were also feminised to the point of performing in sexualised plays. Evidence from studies carried out by academics at Oxford university surest that these plays where not a closely guarded secret, but popular. Famous playwrights of the time even wrote plays designed for these children’s companies. For example, Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Dido, Queen of Carthage’ was written for the Blackfriars Children’s company, or as they were known, ‘Boy Players’. Although, the practice was not without its critiques. Most notably Shakespeare was wholeheartedly against what the Children’s companies had become. Openly mocking the companies in ‘Hamlet’ as the acting troop characters arrive in Denmark claiming that competition from ‘boyplayers’ has pushed them away from the country. Additionally Shakespeare insisted that the female roles in his plays were preformed by apprentice actors from mainstream companies rather than having them contacted from Children’s companies.
Our modern sense of morality may cause us to wonder how on earth these terrible practices where able to continue. The reality is that the theatres where systematically protected by the government and blatantly skewed legislation. The power to spirit these boys away to the playhouses was granted by no less than Elizabeth I herself, complete with a royal seal. But as you might imagine it was not that simple, they still had to be careful with how they carried out gathering these boys and furthermore, careful about who they targeted. Given the reputation of ‘boy players’ people where weary of directly being affiliated with them. So, dealings where done under a few different names and linked groups. A favoured measure was to have the children named as members of the Royal chapel choir; this was the specification that Elizabeth I signed off on. In a Charter issued to the Blackfriars theatre, under the new master Nathaniel Giles permission was given to ‘gather’ this talent without persecution.
“Elizabeth, […]Queen of England[…]to take such and so many children as he or his sufficient deputy shall think meet, in all cathedral, collegiate, parish churches, chapels, or any other place or places as well within liberty as without within this our realm of England whatsoever they be” (1597)
Blackfriars theatre in particular gained a fearsome reputation for these kidnappings for its own children’s company. It was an open secret; everyone was painfully aware of just what was happening but had no legal power to fight back. This in part due to many of the boys being of a lower social standing. The average citizen lacked the financial means or legal knowledge to challenge the theatre with a court proceeding.
So, what became of these boys once they had been whisked away into the playhouses? As mentioned, they were often exposed to the seedy side of entertainment, preyed upon by older men by extension. But the day to day life was a trial too. Witness accounts from those who worked within the theatres and the boys own accounts the ‘boy players’ where abused emotionally and psychically. Obviously, they were already Vulnerable having been snatched from all they knew, being harshly reprimanded (Usually by whipping) when they failed to meet standards or preform as instructed made their despair even deeper. The suffering of the Boy Players was widely known and discussed in society at large. There is a case of a court case concerning a father fighting for his son’s release. Thomas Clifton, the son of Nobleman Henry Clifton was kidnapped in 1600 and absorbed into the Choir of Chapel Royal. What is telling is that Clifton’s fight to free his son could not legally challenge the kidnapping, as this was ‘legal’. Clifton didn’t let this stop him; he found a loophole. His case was made on the grounds that his son was not actually acting as a choirboy but was going to be forced to act at Blackfriars. Therefore, he was ‘employed’ under false pretences. On these terms Clifton won the case, freeing his son but is the only recorded case of this being challenged let alone succeeding.
Obviously the shelf life of a boy player was a short one, growing up rendered them no longer to perform in a children’s company. Little is known of these boys as individuals, even less about what may have happened to the majority after having been released from service. But we can imagine that they were at a disadvantage, having spent their main formative years practically imprisoned by their profession and potentially colouring their reputation as deviant. Although it should be acknowledged that there are cases of some going on to remain as actors in mainstream theatre becoming famous. Nathan Field was one of them and became known as a prodigy, largely for his roles in comedies. Another huge success was Christopher Beeston who went on as an actor, theatre manager and investor in theatrical arts.