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SHAKESPEARIANA.

Vol. IX.

JULY, 1892.

No. 3:

THE CHILDREN'S COMPANIES.

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Could that wisest of men, who said once long ago that there was nothing new under the sun, be alive to read in this morning's newspaper a parent's complaint that boys at college spent their time more absorbingly at base-ball or at regattas than at their books, he w doubt smile to know that, in or about 1590, in London, there was a precisely similar complaint, and that his proverb of some thousands of years ago was always pertinent. In Ben Jonson's Staple of Newesperformed in London at about that date-one of the characters says that the schools and universities "make all their schollars playboys, is't not a fine sight to see all our children made Interluders? Do we put our money for this? We send them to learn their grammar and their Terence, and they learn their Play-books instead.” The allusion was to a peculiar phase which the dramatic taste of the day assumed-a phase unique and unexampled in prior no less than in later chronicles, namely, the custom of training the choristers in the Protestant religious houses into companies of actors, for whom public theatres were hired.

The episode of the Children's Companies is not one very creditable to the Protestant clergy of Elizabeth's reign, or one very illustrious in English dramatic history: but it is worth examining, not only as an incident without any rational preparative, but because, within our own times, within a very few years, in fact, almost the same appetite has dominated in matters theatrical in English-speaking countries.

The origin of this custom or phase, as will appear, must be looked for prior to or, at least, contemporaneously with, the first appearance of a “Children's Company.” The main interest of it all is, that apart from the curiosity of the thing itself, the institution of it became so prevalent, at one time, that Shakespeare himself thought it of enough importance to interrupt the course of his stateliest tragedy to interpolate the longest “localism " he ever wrote, to satirize and characterize the custom in withering terms. It was not the mere

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THE CHILDREN'S COMPANIES.

exercise of the boys in private theatricals : that might have been unworthy of adult notice; but the parson and the pedagogue played the boys entrusted to their instruction, for profit-for their own, the masters' profit; actually hiring public play-houses, and competing with the regular companies. Shakespeare may, not unnaturally, have put much personal feeling into his remonstrance, forthe proprietor of two theatres—he could not himself have escaped very serious inconvenience and competition. But at any rate, it is curious to find him supplying what must even to-day be the most succinct complaint and objection to be made against that evercurious craze for infant phenomena—as we have freshly seen it in the exploitation of baby pianists, histrionic little Lord Fauntleroys and Kindergarten opera companies—as exampled in London in the sixteenth century. In default of an Elizabethan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Shakespeare filed the protest of his day as follows it was when Rosencrantz tells Hamlet that the players have arrived. “How comes it that they travel ?" asks Hamlet. Rosencrantz replies that he thinks their regular occupation has been cut into “by the late innovation,” and then this “late innovation" is discussed in the following dialogue :

Hamlet. Do they hold the same estimation they did when
I was in the city? Are they so followed?

Rosencrantz. No, indeed, they are not.
Ham. How comes it? Do they grow rusty ?

Rosen. Nay, their tenor keeps its wonted course, but there
is, sir, an Ayrie of children, little Yassas, that cry out on the top
of question, and are most tyrannically clapt for 't; .
these are now the fashion, and so rattled the common stages (so
they call them) that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-
quills, and dare not come thither.

Ham. Who are these children? Who maintains them? How are they escorted ? Will they pursue the quality no longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players (as it is like most if their means are no better) their writers do them wrong to make them exclaim against their own succession.

Rosen. Faith, there has been much to do on both sides, and the nation holds it no sin to tarre them to controversie. There was for a while no money bid for argument, unless the poet and the player went to cuffes on the question.

Ham. ' Is't possible?

Guildenstern. Oh, there has been much throwing about of Brains.

Ham. Do the boys carry it away?

Rosen. I, that they do, my lord, Hercules and his load, too. To which Hamlet remarks that it is very likely {for peopleas a rule—are rather apt to give a higher price for the resemblance than the reality, as witness the enemies of the late king,

who hated him in life, but who, after his death, pay twenty, thirty or a hundred ducats for his “picture in little "—his miniature; and so leads the conversation back to its former burden.

The audience which throngs to see an infant prodigy (Hamlet's point is) goes to see, not an actor, but an imitation of an actor: an imitation which, as long as the boy keeps his voice, may be capitally sustained, but the audience is yet witnessing it at the boy's expense. For, sooner or later, the boy's voice will break, and the question will be, Can he who, as a child, imitated an actor, be himself a real actor ? (A question of which everybody knows the answer.) Of course Shakespeare, in putting into Hamlet's mouth a protest against the cruelty to the boys, was just as was Ben Jonson, when he complained that the boys were learning no Terence) saying one word for the boys and two for himself; that is, for the play-houses, which were being deserted while the people rushed to hear the “Boys of Paul's " and the “Children of the Chapel," and a dozen other organizations. Jonson's complaint was against the teachers, not the scholars. It was the priests who exploited whatever dramatic talent they may have believed that they had discovered in their pupils for profit to themselves, shrewdly seconding themselves by the popular outcry—not necessarily ecclesiastical—against "stage plays,” stage playing and the strolling companies. It was all an episode, no doubt, in the education of audiences (And to the audiences: to the populace, who thronged his play-houses: it must not be forgotten that we owe the perpetuation of Shakespeare himself and of his drama even unto our own day; since, had his dramas fallen dead, perished through unpopularity, they certainly would not have been printed in Quarto or collected in Folio, or thence have survived for our own latter-day perusal.)

The eccentric, in which a public taste or fashion is apt to move, is remarkably exemplified by the history of the drama in England. We call the present the age of Realism. The romantic has gone its way, , and what we ask of our theatre is the nearest possible to Fact. But the old Miracle Play was realism itself. Every item of the Bible story chosen was enacted as the age conceived it, and no detail, however coarse, was minimized or shirked. Except that death was not insisted on, nothing was trusted to the narrative of the actor, which could be represented by action or pigment, by gesture or mechanical contrivance. The progress in civilization, then, was from the real and towards the emblematic and the poetical, just as to-day it is, or has been, from the poetical to the actual.

Immediately after the Miracle Play came the Mystery, in which the realism and the pigment yielded much to the narrative in the actor's mouth for its interest. Then, a trifle later, the Morality appeared, in which the story was told by an analogy, or a fiction; that

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