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The Phoenix and the Cockpit-in-Court Playhouses

Abstract and Keywords

Among London's playhouses, none is so ornithological as the Phoenix, although the Cockpit-in-Court at Whitehall comes close. The Phoenix began as a cockpit: the Drury Lane property that was the precursor to the playhouse included ‘Cockepittes and the Cockhouses and shedds’. The manager, Christopher Beeston, converted it to a theatre to improve his company's profits in Jacobean London; under his management (and then under his son's), the playhouse was particularly successful before the Civil War. Performances of quasi-legality continued in the Commonwealth and legally in the Restoration, until the newer Drury Lane Theatre put it out of business. Initially called the Cockpit theatre, it was renamed the Phoenix after a disastrous fire. While both the Phoenix and the Cockpit-in-Court were converted cockpits, they were not the only such London sites. This article traces the history of the two playhouses and compares their structures.

Keywords: London, playhouses, Phoenix, Cockpit-in-Court, Whitehall, Drury Lane, theatre, Christopher Beeston, cockpits, history

The Cocke and the Phoenix

Among London's playhouses, none is so ornithological as the Phoenix, although the Cockpit-in-Court at Whitehall comes close. The Phoenix began as a cockpit: the Drury Lane property that was the precursor to the playhouse included ‘Cockepittes and the Cockhouses and shedds’ (Bentley 1941–68: ii. 48). The manager, Christopher Beeston, converted it to a theater to improve his company's profits in Jacobean London; under his management (and then under his son's) the playhouse was particularly successful before the Civil War. Performances of quasi-legality continued in the Commonwealth and legally in the Restoration, until the newer Drury Lane Theatre put it out of business. Initially called the Cockpit theater, it was renamed the Phoenix after a disastrous fire. As for the Whitehall cockpit, George Wilson remarks in The Commendation of Cockes and Cock-Fighting (1607), ‘our late Prince of famous memorie King Henrie the Eight, did take such pleasure and wonderfull delight in the Cocks of the game, that he caused a most sumptuous, and stately Cockpit to be erected in Westminster, wherein his Maiestie might disport himselfe with Cocke-fighting, among his most noble and louing subiects’ (Wilson 1607, C3r). According to John Stow, the property included ‘diuers fayre (p. 241) Tennis courtes, bowling Allies, and a Cocke-pit, all built by king Henry the eight’ (Stow 1598: 374–5), suggesting a site devoted to amusements for well-to-do sportsmen. The cockpit was altered into a playhouse in the years 1629–30 under the direction of Inigo Jones and then remodeled in 1660–2. Performances for the court were given until the Civil War; after the Restoration, the theater was used until 1664 or so. Most discussions about both playhouses suggest that their original purpose as a cockfighting pit shaped the physical space.

While both the Phoenix and the Cockpit-in-Court were converted cockpits, they were not the only such London sites (Wickham 1959–81: ii/2. 45 ff.). In a cockpit, a raised platform in the center of the eight-sided building held a pair of gamecocks that spurred and tore at one another, while all around men watched and wagered. A watercolor, painted for a visitor between 1614 and 1615, shows James I watching a fight between two cocks at a purpose-built cockpit with a lantern roof.

One [watercolor] that is especially familiar to theater historians is a view of a cock pit, labeled ‘Het Haene gefecht In Engelandt’ [‘A Cockfight in England’] … Within the theater-like structure, with brick foundation and tiled roof held up by columns, are two rings of well-dressed spectators seated or standing around the table. Gold coins are in front of them and two cocks are in the middle, fighting. A figure to the left, the only one wearing a hat and seated in a chair, is almost certainly King James. (Schlueter 2006: 310)

This picture cannot be certainly identified as the interior of either the Phoenix or the Cockpit (Whitehall), of course, yet it does suggest features that each building must have had before becoming a playhouse exclusively. Specifically, the painting shows how similar game-pits (whether for bull-and bear-baiting or for cockfighting) were to theatrical stages with seating around the stage so that observers could play close attention to the contest on which they had wagered. In a cockpit, of course, the stage was relatively small, while an arena with a bear-baiting ring was more the size of a large public playhouse. Thomas Platter, a visitor to London, described one such cockpit in 1599:

There is also in the city of London … a house where cock-fights are held annually throughout three quarters of the year (for in the remaining quarter they told me it was impossible since the feathers are full of blood), and I saw the place, which is built like a theatre. In the center on the floor stands a circular table covered with straw and with ledges round it, where the cocks are teased and incited to fly at one another, while those with wagers as to which cock will win sit closest around the circular disk, but the spectators who are merely present on their entrance penny sit around higher up, watching with eager pleasure the fierce and angry fight between the cocks, as these wound each other to death with spurs and beaks. And the party whose cock surrenders or dies loses the wager; I am told that stakes on a cock often amount to many thousands of crowns, especially if they have reared the cock themselves and brought their own along. For the master who inhabits the house has many cocks besides, which he feeds in separate cages and keeps for this sport, as he showed us. He also had several cocks, none of which he would sell for less than twenty crowns; they are very large but just the same kind as we have in our country. He also told us that if one discovered that the cocks' beaks had been coated with garlic, one was fully entitled to kill them at once. He added too, that it was (p. 242) nothing to give them brandy before they began to fight, adding what wonderful pleasure there was in watching them. (Platter 1937: 167–8)1

Platter notes that the cockpit and the theater are alike and mentions the elements of violence, money, and status that recur in the history of the two theaters that sprang from cockpits. The Phoenix theater opened to a deadly riot, was built largely to enrich one man and his family, and became a popular upper-class theater under Charles I. The Cockpit-in-Court was expensively and elaborately created, provided amusement to the court, and closed for the Civil War.

The names of the playhouses can be tricky. Before either cockpit was a playhouse, George Wilson argued that both the cock and the phoenix were excellent birds:

The Phoenix is much prized of many, but not more praysed of all then the Cocke is, for the one is not so worthy of commendations for her rarenesse and chastity (which commeth of necessity, because there is no more of that kind) as the other is for his courage and constancie, who (though he hath greate societie) will rather die, then derogate from any of his company. (Wilson 1607, C1v)

Wilson's refusal to choose between the two birds is analogous to the naming practice of scholars, who call the theater made from the cockpit in Whitehall the Cockpit, the Royal Cockpit, or the Cockpit-in-Court, while the theater made from the cockpit in Drury Lane is called the Cockpit theater, the Drury Lane Theatre, or the Phoenix theater. A further complication exists as Eleanore Boswell points out in her discussion of the Cockpit-in-Court (Whitehall): ‘The whole heterogeneous mass of lodgings, tennis court, playhouse, and chapel, lying between “the Street” and the park, and south of the Holbein Gate, were constantly referred to and even marked on maps as “the Cockpit” ’ (Boswell 1932: 11).2

As a name, then, ‘the Cockpit’ can describe a collection of properties as well as a structure or either of the playhouses under consideration. I shall use ‘the Phoenix’ to keep the first theater in Drury Lane distinct from all those other entities, and ‘the Cockpit-in-Court’ for the theater fashioned from the royal cockpit in Whitehall.

The Structures of the Playhouses

Both the Phoenix and the Cockpit (Whitehall) have histories well documented in comparison to other early modern playhouses, yet scholars interpret those (p. 243) documents in a variety of ways. A complicating factor is that both playhouses were renovated. Thus, when one considers what the Phoenix looked like, one must consider that the playhouse first went up in 1616–17, but was burned down, and was then rebuilt in 1618. The Cockpit-in-Court was built in 1629–30, underwent small renovations over the years, and a major renovation in 1660–2. Thus, the question is never ‘What did the playhouse look like?’ but rather ‘What did it look like when?’

One can begin with the locations: the Phoenix was on the east side of Drury Lane. The site was long preserved by the name of Cockpit Alley, afterwards Pitt Court, running from Drury Lane to Wild Street. A 1676 royal grant carefully describes the location of the Cockpit-in-Court. To the south stood Hampton House and its garden, on the east stood the Tennis Court, and St James's Park was on the north and west. The land was 210 feet long, and the breadth varied from 140 feet at the southern end to 80 feet at the north (Boswell 1932: 21) found the 1676 and 1684 grants that describe the property).

No other Renaissance playhouse has such a rich pictorial history as the Cockpit-in-Court. One can identify it in several contemporary drawings, such as the Agas map (c.1561) and Antony van den Wyngaerde's Panorama of London (c.1544).3 The Agas map shows a building that is polygonal on the far left-hand side toward the bottom of the sheet. Just below St James's Park is a cluster of buildings, and at their center the lantern roof of a cockpit.

A rich source of speculation about the appearance of the Cockpit-in-Court and the Phoenix comes from plans that were done by either Inigo Jones (1573–1652) or his assistant and son-in-law John Webb 1611–72), although scholars do not agree on whether these materials depict buildings to be built or renovated, plans that may or may not have been realized, nor, indeed, if they even represent the buildings in question. The documents were part of the library of the eighteenth-century architect George Clark, who left them to Worcester College, Oxford, in 1732 (Harris and Tait 1979).4 In a catalogue of the collection, James Harris and A. A. Tait (1979) identify three sets of drawings. The first of these is Gotch 1/27, the plan, plan of stage, and section through apron stage or proscenium of a playhouse (Figure 14.1). The others are Gotch 1/7B, a plan and elevation for a theater, and Gotch 1/7C, two transverse sections of the same theater (Figures 14.2 and 14.3). Gotch 1/27 is believed to be for the Cockpit-in-Court, while Gotch 1/7B and Gotch 1/7C may be for the Phoenix theater.

(p. 244) The Phoenix Theater

The latter items are the more mysterious. Harris and Tait comment that ‘These two designs are not only the oldest surviving theatre designs in England, but are of seminal importance for the development of the English stage’ (1979: 15), which is true under certain conditions. If these drawings show a theater designed by Jones in 1616–17, they show the state of the art in playhouse construction for Jacobean London. But if they were produced by a far less important designer, John Webb, in the Restoration, then the claim seems too strong. The drawings do indeed show a playhouse that could have been converted from a cockpit. The structure is shaped like a U with a line drawn across it halfway up the letter; the audience sat on tiered benches in the rounded part at the bottom of the U, while the stage and backstage, with an area for perspective scenery, filled a nearly square rectangle in the upper part of the U. The tiered seating in the rounded part is much like the traditional seating in cockpits, so a conversion would have simply knocked open the side of the rounded cockpit and extended it to form the U and add a stage. We actually know more about the sketch, for Iain Mackintosh observed that The Siege of Rhodes, first performed in Rutland House in 1656, was produced on a stage corresponding exactly to the one in Gotch 1/7B and C. Since that opera was also staged at the Phoenix in 1658–9, the temptation was to claim the drawings as being for that playhouse, although Graham Barlow objected that the building in Gotch 1/7B and C would not have fit on the Phoenix site. Nevertheless, the drawings are often found reproduced with captions, using various qualifiers or with none at all, that identify them as the Phoenix theater.

Unfortunately for the theory, Gordon Higgott has been able to identify characteristics of the inking, especially the shading, and the handwriting as John Webb's work after the Restoration. Moreover, rather than showing the theater as it was when Sir William Davenant's opera was staged at the Phoenix, Higgott suggests that the drawing is one that Webb did for Davenant when he sought to convert an old barn to the Salisbury Court playhouse in 1660 (Higgott 2006).5 In short, the drawings, splendid as they are, probably tell us nothing about the appearance of the Phoenix theater.

 The Phoenix and the Cockpit-in-Court Playhouses

Figure 14.1. Gotch 1/27, the plan, plan of stage, and section through apron stage or proscenium of a playhouse; possibly John Webb's Restoration plans for the Cockpit-in-Court, never realized.

 The Phoenix and the Cockpit-in-Court Playhouses

Figure 14.2. Gotch 1/7B, a plan and elevation for a theater; possibly John Webb's proposed plans for the Salisbury Court theater or the Phoenix.

 The Phoenix and the Cockpit-in-Court Playhouses

Figure 14.3. Gotch 1/7C, two transverse sections of the same theater; possibly John Webb's proposed plans for the Salisbury Court theater or the Phoenix. I am grateful to the Provost and Fellows of Worcester College for permission to reproduce these designs.

Little other evidence remains about the structure of the Phoenix theater after 1618. John Orrell remarks that it must have been ‘made of brick, with a tile roof, in conformity with the Jacobean Proclamation on building’ (Orrell 1988: 43). Herbert Berry notes that in 1699 the Phoenix was said to be the ‘same shape and size as Blackfriars (which was a rectangle 66′ × 46′) and Salisbury Court Playhouse’ (Berry 2000b: 629), although he is skeptical. The idea of a rectangle may be mistaken, however, for the playhouse may appear in Wenceslaus Hollar's Great Map (c.1658) (p. 245) (p. 246) (p. 247) (p. 248) as a square building with three pitched roofs.6 Such an external structure need not have erased all traces of its cockpit origins, for the octagonal shape might have been retained inside the square exterior, as was the case with the Cockpit-in-Court.

A small amount of additional information about the theater comes from the work of Thomas King, who inventoried all the plays known to have been performed at the Phoenix and every reference to its physical appearance (King 1963). He concluded that the stage had two or three doors, hangings, an acting area above the stage, and that the company used booth structures to create peripheral playing space for some works. Perhaps his most important observation is that no evidence exists for scenery before 1658, when Davenant restaged his Siege of Rhodes there, and that the Phoenix plays ‘reveal no “anticipation” of the developments in stagecraft seen in the Restoration theatre’ (King 1963: 174).

The Cockpit-in-Court

Hamilton Bell argued in 1913 that Gotch 1/27 was an architectural design for the Cockpit-in-Court, a generally accepted argument.7 While Gotch 1/27 was once attributed to Inigo Jones, scholars now follow the attribution of the drawings to John Webb. But when did he do them? The answer to that question determines whether these plans show a realized Caroline stage or an unrealized Restoration one. Jones, as Surveyor to the King, was in charge of the project to turn the royal cockpit into a royal theater in 1630–2, and one argument is that ‘Webb's drawing provides reliable evidence of the Cockpit-in-Court as reconstructed in 1629–31 according to the “Designes and Draughts given by the Surveyor”’ (Bell 1913; Harris and Tait 1979: 11). Yet features such as the stage railing and chimneys make the designs more apt to be from 1660–2, and we know that Webb sought charge of that later renovation. Recently Gordon Higgott has both demonstrated that the plans are Webb's and dated them conclusively to 1660 (Higgott 2006). Since Webb was not chosen to handle the renovation of the Cockpit-in-Court's auditorium, they show an unrealized project. That is not to say that they are without information, since they presumably incorporate features of the earlier structure, but since we cannot be certain which features originated with Jones and which came from Webb, the sketches are principally helpful in evoking speculation. Glynne Wickham remarks of the playhouse that ‘So much is now known about the Cockpit-in-Court that it would be of more use to consider rebuilding this theatre on a basis of 90 per cent fact and 10 per cent surmise than to persist in attempts to rebuild the first Globe with the proportions of fiction and fact reversed’ (Wickham 1959–81: ii/2. 119).

(p. 249) Wickham goes on to provide a detailed conjectural reconstruction of the theater (1959–81: ii/2. 121) although his account of the dimensions does depend heavily (and reasonably) on Gotch 1/27. The auditorium is an octagon, with a width of 58 feet, in a square. The pit at its center is 36 feet wide, and the stage area is 16 feet deep. (For the sake of comparison, a standard tennis court for a doubles match is 78 feet by 36 feet.) These plans show an octagonal building, a shape that reflects its original use as a cockpit and demonstrates that the power of its origin continued in its first transformation, as well as in its renovation thirty years later. Presumably the renovations planned in 1660–2 retained features of the 1630–2 refitting.

A sketch for a theatrical scene is marked ‘for ye Cockpitt for my Lo Chãberlin 1639’ in Inigo Jones's handwriting. (This design, possibly for William Habington's Queen of Aragon, or, Cleodora, is in the Duke of Devonshire's collection at Chatsworth House.8) Orrell describes it as ‘a freely drawn sketch of a full scenic stage set up behind a proscenium arch, with wings, cloud borders in an upper stage, and a “citti of rileve” before a backcloth’. But what the notation means is unclear. This sketch may have been intended for a performance at the Cockpit/Phoenix in Drury Lane or for the Cockpit-in-Court in Whitehall; the note might also be a simple direction since the Lord Chamberlain's lodgings were at the Cockpit in Whitehall (Orrell 1985: 62). If it were a sketch for a performance at the Cockpit-in-Court, perhaps the likeliest explanation, it would provide valuable information about the capabilities of the stage there. Unfortunately, the sketch does not Wt well with Gotch 1/27. Nevertheless, Higgott believes that since the Worcester College drawings show what Webb hoped to provide in the 1660 renovation, the sketch probably does represent the Cockpit-in-Court stage in the Caroline period. If that be the case, then the theater was able to use scenery of a certain kind, although not so elaborate as might be used on the stage pictured in Webb's speculative plans of 1660.

 The Phoenix and the Cockpit-in-Court Playhouses

Figure 14.4. Design by Inigo Jones, possibly for William Habington's Queen of Aragon, or, Cleodora.

Documents from the Office of Works accounts show much about the interior furnishings. The Cockpit-in-Court's function as a venue for royal entertainments means that work orders for renovations and repairs were sometimes kept, and these offer fascinating details.9 The space must have been gorgeous. The initial transformation of cockpit to playhouse (1629–31) called for the addition of light from ‘three wyndowes of Stones for ye newe staires’ and the purchase of at least fifteen ‘Candlestickes of Iron beautified wth branches Leaues and garnished wth other ornament’. Later the workmen added ‘divers Statues … Corynthian Capitalls for Collomes’, painters worked at ‘repayring &; mending twoe great peec[es] of paynted woorke that were done by Palma, thone being the Story of Dauid and Goliah, thother of Saules Conuersion’ as well as ‘vijen of the greate Emperours Heades that were done by Titian’ (Bentley 1941–68: vi. 271–3).10 Overhead the entire roof was hung with blue calico decorated with gilt stars cut from assidue (arsedine), and the eight walls were painted blue as well, although it is called a ‘fayre blew’, a phrase that suggests a lighter color than the calico. (p. 250)

After the Restoration, refurbishing and a further series of renovations began, which include adding boxes, covering the stage with green baize lined with canvas, using more green baize in the upper tiring room, ‘the walles being unfitt for the rich Cloathes’.11 Because the playhouse now included actresses, the playhouse required curtains to separate men from women in the dressing room, and ‘One looking glasse of twenty seaven Inches for the Weomen Comedians dressing themselues’. Finally, the Restoration work included a dais for the monarch, covered by a ‘Crimson velvett Canopie’ (Bentley 1941–68: vi. 280). The Commonwealth strictures on performance were gone, and Charles II was ready to sit in regal splendor and watch the pretty actresses.

(p. 251) The History of the Cockpit-in-Court

While we know more about the appearance of the Cockpit-in-Court than we do about the Phoenix, the history of the former playhouse is less interesting. Although it was not a purpose-built playhouse until 1630, the cockpit had occasionally functioned as a theater before that date. When the first performances took place is unclear, but Bentley says, ‘plays for the court had been presented there on numerous occasions before 1616’; court accounts show a dozen or fifteen entries about the preparation of the building for an entertainment, although they ‘often fail to record the character of the entertainment’ (1941–68: vi. 268). Some of these entries do specify plays instead of cockfighting (although the smell of the game-pit would have been ever present). It seems to have taken a supervisor and between eight and twelve workmen two days to make the change. By covering the pit and hanging a curtain to divide the platform into a backstage area and a performance stage, a temporary playing space emerged, as Wickham has pointed out, that would have closely resembled the Roxana and Messalina vignettes both in appearance and in scale (Wickham 1959–81: ii/2. 80–3).

When Inigo Jones transformed the cockpit into a single-purpose playhouse, the venue opened on 5 November 1630. A playbill that survives lists the works that the King's Men presented in the first season that the playhouse was open: Thomas Heywood, An Induction for the House, and John Fletcher, The Mad Lover (5 November); John Fletcher, Rollo, Duke of Normandy, or, The Bloody Brother (7 November and 21 February); Ben Jonson, Volpone (19 November); John Ford, ‘Beauty in a Trance’ (28 November, now lost); Fletcher, Beggars' Bush (30 November); Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, The Maid's Tragedy (9 December); Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Philaster (14 December); John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi (26 December); Beaumont and Fletcher, The Scornful Lady (27 December); Fletcher, Chances (30 December); Oldcastle [1 Henry IV?] (6 January); Nathan Field and Philip Massinger, The Fatal Dowry (3 February); Beaumont and Fletcher, King and No King (10 February); Thomas Dekker, The Merry Devil of Edmonton (15 February); Jonson, and Every Man in His Humor (17 February). This list means we know what was offered at the Cockpit-in-Court in its first season; while other lists of plays for the court do exist, the 1630–1 list is the only one to indicate venue. Hampton Court also had plays for the court audience, and in the 1630–1 season four were staged there. For productions that featured spectacular effects or for masques, the Cockpit-in-Court was inappropriate: ‘Clearly spectacle was reserved for the Halls in Denmark House and Whitehall, the Banqueting House, and the Masquing Houses’ (Bentley 1941–68: vi. 282). These Cockpit-in-Court plays appealed to the taste of the court, with Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher leading the 1631–2 list. Records of other plays that the King's Men presented at court, whether at Hampton Court or the Cockpit-in-Court, suggests that little changed in court tastes: as a rule, the plays are older, popular, but not challenging.12 When the Civil War drew nearer, the number of (p. 252) plays offered dropped. During the war and the Commonwealth, the theater was unused, although the lodging rooms at the Cockpit in Whitehall continued to see use.

Following the Restoration, the playhouse was renovated, and payments were made for new matting, candleholders, and upholstery. Pepys records several visits to the Cockpit in Whitehall: to meet those who lodged in the buildings there, like his friend Jeremiah Mount (23 January 1660, 25 February 1661) or General Monk (20 June 1660); as well as to see plays: The Loyal Subject (18 August 1660), an unnamed play (20 November 1660), The Humorous Lieutenant (20 April 1661), The Cardinal (2 October 1662), The Scornful Lady (17 November 1662), The Valiant Cid (1 December 1662), and Claracilla (5 January 1662/3). The notes Pepys makes suggest that audience-watching was as important as play-watching. He mentions whether or not the King is present and visible, while his observation of the Duke and Duchess of York during Claracilla was that they ‘did show some impertinent and, methought, unnatural dalliances there, before the whole world, such as kissing, and leaning upon one another); but to my very little content, they not acting in any degree like the Duke's people’ (Pepys 1893). Boswell suggests that no plays were produced there after 1664 (Boswell 1932).

The History of the Phoenix

The Phoenix has a far livelier record. A document in a 1623 lawsuit gives this abbreviated history: a grocer, John Best, added buildings to the property sometime after acquiring it on 9 October 1609, and by 1610 Best received payment as Prince Henry's cockmaster (Orrell 1985: 48). One of those buildings was a ‘messuage, house or tenement called a cockpit and afterwards used for a playhouse and now called the Phoenix’ (Berry 2000b: 626). We also know that Best leased the property to Christopher Beeston in 1616.

At the start of March 1617, Christopher Beeston prepared to open a new playhouse. For nearly two decades he had worked in London theaters, first as an actor and then as business manager for Queen Anne's Men at the Red Bull inn. Their chief rival, the King's Men, had a second indoor venue at the Blackfriars and enjoyed more success because the company could perform in winter. So Beeston's leasing of the Drury Lane property that autumn was his initial move toward a second performance space. Queen Anne's Men continued to perform at the Red Bull, while Beeston struggled to create a permanent and elegant stage house that would let the Queen's Men cut into the King's Men's profits.

Beeston began with the lease, soon moving onto the site to supervise the work. The Jacobean proclamations on building had forbidden new buildings in the city, while permitting renovations that did not require new foundations (like the playhouse), but Beeston must have thought he could quietly erect a new tenement in the midst of (p. 253) the other work under way to renovate the cockpit and tear down some of the outbuildings (Orrell 1985: 43). At the same time as all this construction and demolition, Beeston continued to manage the Queen's Men and their performances at the Red Bull. Adding to his already complicated situation came an order in early September that sent his bricklayer John Shepperd to jail for ‘working on a new foundation in Drury Lane’ (Bentley 1941–68: ii. 366). The same record insists that ‘Mr. Beeston’ must ‘appear before the Lords of the Council at their first sitting in Whitehall’ to explain himself. By 18 September the Privy Council sent a letter to the High Sheriff of Middlesex declaring that ‘Christopher Beeston hath erected a base tenement, not of bricke, and, having formerly been prohibited, did promise to make it only an addition to his owne dwelling howse, but since hath made a tenement of it, distant from his howse, and neere to his Majestys passage. To be pulled downe’ (Bentley 1941–68: ii. 366–7). Having set out on the renovation, and then slipped in the construction of a new building, Beeston was now blocked completely. The ensuing confusion over his illicit tenement scheme slowed the legitimate work on the playhouse.

By 15 October new trouble arrived in the form of a complaint filed by the benchers of Lincoln's Inn, who objected to a playhouse being developed so close to their property (Berry 2000b: 627). The complaint was doubly unfortunate since Inns of Court men were precisely the audience that Beeston hoped to appeal to with his new venue. The complaint came on the heels of a demand on the company's treasury for arrears of funds that the Queen's Men owed for highway repairs. Somehow Beeston managed to find the needed funds and placate Lincoln's Inn, the Sheriff of Middlesex, and the Privy Council. He was undissuaded as his plan met delays.

The cockpit itself would have been an octagonal building with a central circular cockpit that was raised above the ground and surrounded by amphitheater seating. The renovation would have, at a minimum, required Beeston's workers to clean the space thoroughly, cover the pit with a platform for the stage, replace the benches in the amphitheater, hang curtains, and paint. A more extensive renovation would have them level the interior space, relocate the stage, and build boxes and permanent seating. The delays caused by Beeston's desire for a new building and his other troubles evidently left him behind schedule. Certainly the construction stopped during the winter, for the playhouse that he had sought specifically for winter performances went unopened in 1616. On 23 February 1616/ 17 the Queen's Men remained at the Red Bull. But the transformation proceeded and by the spring the company was ready to move into its new playhouse. Beeston may have felt a sense of relief, hoping the company's troubles were finally at an end. If so, he was wrong.

Shrove Tuesday fell on 4 March in 1617, a holiday when London apprentices ran wild. Unhappily for Beeston, his brand-new playhouse became the focus of their displeasure, perhaps because they preferred the lower prices at the Red Bull or disliked the possibility that cockfighting would end in Drury Lane. John Chamberlain wrote to Sir Dudley Carleton about what happened (8 March 1617):

(p. 254) On the 4th of the present being our Shrove Tewsday the prentises or rather unruly people of the suburbs played theyr parts, in divers places, as Finsburie fields, about Wapping by St. Katherines, and in Lincolns Ynne fields, in which places being assembled in great numbers they fell to great disorders in pulling downe of houses and beating the guards that were set to kepe rule, specially at a new play house (somtime a cockpit) in Drurie Lane, where the Quenes players used to play. Though the fellows defended themselves as well as they could and slew three of them with shot and hurt divers. Yet they entered the house and defaced yt, cutting the players apparel all in pieces, and other theyre furniture and burnt theyre play bookes and did what other mischiefe they could … (McClure 1939: ii. 59)

A later letter (29 March 1617) reports:

Our prentises that committed the disorders on Shrovetewsday have been arraigned and acquitted for theyre lives, but found guilty of a fowle riot, and some of them fined in summes they can never pay, and to imprisonment for a yeare, two or three according to the greatnes of theyre offence. (McClure 1939: ii. 65)

Chamberlain's account, though it may be an exaggerated report, is congruent with that of Edward Sherburne in another letter to Carleton. Sherburne adds that, after vandalism inside the playhouse, the rioters ‘got on the top of the house and untiled it, and had not the justices of peace and sheriff levied an aid and hindered their purpose, they would have laid that house likewise even with the ground’ (Berry 2000b: 629). Meanwhile, the Privy Council wrote on 5 March 1617 to London's Lord Mayor, Sir John Leman, about ‘tumultuous outrages’ carried out by ‘a rout of lewd and loose persons, apprentices and others, especially in Lincoln's Inn Fields and Drury Lane, where, in attempting to pull down a playhouse belonging to the Queen's majesty's servants, there were divers persons slain and others hurt and wounded, the multitude there assembled being to the number of many thousands, as we are credibly informed’ (Berry 2000b: 628). Beeston's triumph in creating a new playhouse was short-lived. Disaster had come to the company, who lost their new playhouse as well as those more valuable commodities, costumes and playbooks. Later in the month fifty rioters were charged in the Middlesex Sessions, but if they were unable to pay the fines, as Chamberlain suggests, the company saw no compensation.

One can only admire Beeston's tenacity. The riot damaged not only his new playhouse, but also ‘his owne dwelling howse’, where he and his wife were raising their son William, who was 6 or 7. Formidably, he began again. Three months later the theater, renamed the Phoenix, opened ‘on or about the third day of June’ 1617. With Shrove Tuesday came rumors that those who had rioted the previous year would take revenge and destroy it again; the Privy Council warned the authorities to take precautions to prevent a second riot. While no new riot occurred, the company seems to have struggled at the Phoenix: in Middleton's Inner Temple Masque, a character remarks of the Cockpit (i.e., the Phoenix) that ‘the poor players ne'er thrived in't’ (line 212).13 From 1616, when construction began, through the various complaints, the riot, and the threat of a riot, Beeston had persisted, but at some point he must have wondered if the scheme was worth the trouble, particularly if the (p. 255) company did poorly. Yet over the next twenty years he would lead the playhouse and its personnel to great success.

In 1619 Beeston began a series of machinations about the company working at the Phoenix. One can regard these various shifts as sharp practice by a greedy and unprincipled man, or as astute decisions by a man who saw more clearly than his fellows what excellence required. Briefly, the company at the Phoenix was Queen Anne's (1617–19), Prince Charles's (1619–22), Lady Elizabeth's (1622–5), Queen Henrietta's (1625–37), and finally Beeston's boys (1637–9). In each instance Beeston initiated the change in company; he always retained control of the theater, while some (though not necessarily all) of the actors were evicted. The comments that survive about these changes come from lawsuits, often from actors who suddenly found themselves without a playhouse, so much contemporary comment is aggrieved.14 Yet, by making these changes, Beeston moved the Phoenix and its companies into the top rank of London theaters. From his initial attempt to skirt the building rules or to rebuild a ruined playhouse, he led the Phoenix into its place as the only serious rival to the King's Men and their Blackfriars theater.

If the Queen's Men did fail to thrive at the Phoenix, Beeston had an excellent chance to make a change when Queen Anne died on 2 March 1618/19. He seized the moment and dismissed his old company, reforming the players as Prince Charles's Men. The troubles of Queen Anne's Men were evidently long-standing, since a deposition for a 1620 lawsuit said the company had begun to break up three years previously and complained that Beeston had sold the company's costumes. In another suit, from 1619, a witness complained that Beeston had been cooking the books for his own benefit; in a further 1623 lawsuit the actors who were all that was left of the company had more complaints about Beeston's management. Yet no complaint is clearly supported, while no disinterested party made any claims that Beeston behaved badly.

Within a few years, however, a second company change occurred, as Beeston shifted patrons from the Prince of Wales to his sister Princess Elizabeth, wife of the Elector of Palatine. The company of Prince Charles's Men seems to have departed amicably, going to the Curtain, and Hotson suggests that Beeston may have controlled this playhouse as well (Hotson 1962: 92). Beeston replaced them with a provincial company, the Lady Elizabeth's company. Bentley says that Beeston used only one performer from the previous company, so the manager was in effect establishing a completely new troupe. The new company seems to have succeeded: on the company's behalf, Beeston both provided substantial gratuities to the Master of the Revels and gave generously to the parish church. Furthermore, allusions in the front matter to Shakespeare's First Folio, in the text of The Obstinate Lady, and in a letter by James Howell all couple the Phoenix with the Blackfriars as the leading London theaters.

(p. 256) In 1625 two things happened. First, the plague closed the theaters; then the monarch died. Rather than remaining affiliated to Princess Elizabeth, Beeston found a new patron in a more powerful woman, as the company became Queen Henrietta's Men. This sponsorship was a fortunate one, and, as Queen Henrietta's men, the company and the playhouse became prosperous and successful. Some of the Lady Elizabeth's Men reappear in the new company, so the change was less radical than Beeston's earlier company changes. They were granted royal livery in 1630 and were frequently called to perform at court. In commendatory verses (1629) for Sir William Davenant's The Iust Italian, Thomas Carew speaks querulously of ‘men in crowded heapes that throng / To that adulterate stage’ of the Red Bull or the Phoenix playhouses, and this complaint of a rival suggests the Phoenix was flourishing (Davenant 1630, A4r). Bentley notes that not only the Duke of Buckingham but also the King and Queen attended performances there (1941–68: vi. 63). Nor is such success due simply to the actors or venue. The playhouse dramatists included James Shirley, John Ford, and Thomas Heywood, so the material that the company performed was particularly good.

Beeston's own management deserves praise as well. He was the one who bought for various companies such mainstays of the canon as Dekker, Ford, and Rowley's The Witch of Edmonton (1621), Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling (1621), Dekker and Ford's The Spanish Gypsy (1621), Heywood's The Captives (1624) and The English Traveller (1625), Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1625), Shirley's The Witty Fair One (1628), Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1629?–1633) and Perkin Warbeck (1629–34), and Brome's A Jovial Crew (1641). And it was Beeston who smoothed the paths of his company by giving gratuities to the Master of the Revels, Sir Henry Herbert, of around £60 a year (as well as giving gloves to Herbert's wife). Bentley suggests that Beeston even made Sir Henry Herbert a shareholder (1941–68: vi. 64). Furthermore, Beeston contributed with great generosity to the parish church on behalf of the performers. Such contributions would go far to disarming any neighborhood irritation with the playhouse. After the initial riot, whatever company Beeston had in residence faced relatively little trouble.15 An incident in 1632 illustrates Beeston's success in making his company secure. Herbert notes:

18 Nov. 1632. In the play of The Ball. Written by Sherley, and acted by the Queens players, ther were divers personated so naturally, both of lords and others of the court, that I took it ill, and would have forbidden the play, but that Biston promiste many things which I found faulte withal should be left out, and that he would not suffer it to be done by the poet any more, who deserves to be punisht; and the first that offends in this kind, of poets or players, shall be sure of publique punishment. (Bentley 1941–68: vi. 63)

As Bentley notes, the status of the audience is suggested by Herbert's belief that spectators could penetrate the imitations of court figures. It seems likely that the play would have been sufficient to close another company, but Herbert not only permitted (p. 257) Queen Henrietta's Men to continue, but allowed Beeston to produce a revised version of the play.

Beeston had a special position, and while the source of his success may have been the financial sweeteners, it is tempting to speculate that he may have enjoyed special privileges because of the Queen. Both Henrietta Maria and Beeston were Catholic, and while membership in London's Catholic community scarcely ensured a personal knowledge of the Queen, he might well have shared acquaintances who recommended the manager to the monarch. One notes that the Queen's influence brought a troupe of French performers to London in February 1634/5. They performed first at court and then at the Phoenix ‘only on those days in Lent which were customarily forbidden to the English actors’ (Bentley 1941–68: vi. 65). Evidently the company was well received, unlike their experience on an earlier visit when the spectators at the Blackfriars hissed and threw fruit. Beeston may have offered his playhouse as a favor to his patron, while the atmosphere there may have been more friendly to their performance than elsewhere. In any case, he is unlikely to have lost money on the deal. Bentley also quotes an odd piece of gossip from 1637: ‘Here hath been an horrible Noise about the Lady Newport's being become a Romish Catholick; she went one Evening as she came from a Play in Drury-Lane to Somerset-House, where one of the Capuchins reconciled her to the Popish Church, of which she is now a weak Member’ (1941–68: vi. 69). Beeston might have permitted other recusants to pass messages at the venue. Still, this analysis is speculation, although it might help explain the anomaly that, while Beeston turned his other companies out of the playhouse in three years or so, Queen Henrietta's Men remained for a decade.

The recurrence of the plague, however, led to the final change that Beeston made. On 10 May 1626 the Privy Council closed the playhouses, and this suspension of performance would last over a year. In the months of forced inactivity, Beeston decided to repeat his tactic of changing his company, perhaps from financial need. In a 1640 document, a witness said that ‘Mr. Beeston, being master of said playhouse [the Phoenix] … takes occasion to quarrel with the company to the end that he might have a company that would take what he would be willing to give them’ (Berry 2000b: 633). Beeston sent Queen Henrietta's company away and began recruiting children. A sign of his confidence, or of his desperation, was his decision to present the first production by Beeston's boys in May 1637, despite the plague prohibition, only to have the Privy Council shut them down. In October playing was finally permitted and the company officially launched. They would enjoy great success in the years before the Civil War, but Beeston would not see it. By 10 August 1639 Christopher Beeston was dead.

His son William inherited the company, or rather shared with Beeston's widow in the shares that Beeston had. William had lived in and around the Cockpit for almost all of his life, since Christopher Beeston was resident at the site from 1616, when William was a child. (It is worth noting that the Beestons leased and did not own the property, however.) Richard Brome praised William's skill as a manager, and certainly he inherited control over one of the two most important London companies. While Christopher Beeston could bargain with Sir Henry Herbert about Shirley's The (p. 258) Ball or placate the Privy Council after directly violating their orders, William was less effective. In May 1640 the company gave offense by performing an unlicensed play that referred to ‘the K.s journey into the Northe, and was complayned of by his Majestye’. Bentley suggests that the work was Richard Brome's The Court Beggar, which mocked members of the Queen's circle, such as Suckling and Davenant (1941–68: iii. 61–5). As a result, Beeston found himself dispossessed of his company and sitting in prison. The Master of the Revels handed the company over to Sir William Davenant, one of the playwrights who worked regularly for the Phoenix and the target of Brome's satire. While it seems implausible that William Beeston could regain the position he had held, that reversal is precisely what followed. During 1641 he was released from prison, Davenant was in prison for his political activities, and the company once again changed hands, going from Davenant to Beeston. The former would be too busy once the Civil War broke out less than a year later, while after 1642 the latter was a theatrical manager forbidden to produce.

Though William Beeston made some effort during the Commonwealth years to purchase the Phoenix, he never succeeded; John Rhodes leased the property around 1649 and was still in control at the Restoration (Hotson 1962: 99). By 1646 the playhouse was evidently used as a school since records note that sixpence was paid ‘to the teacher at the Cockpitt of the children’ (Hotson 1962: 24 n. 88). Yet the shift to pedagogy was quickly set aside for illicit performances. According to the royalist news-sheet Mercurius Elencticus, ‘Threescore [coaches] are observed to wheele to the Cockpit, which is very offensive to the Brethren’ (January 1647/8; Hotson 1962: 29). One finds several other references to performances and to raids on those performances. For example, James Wright in Histrio Histrionica says a company that included Lowen, Taylor, Pollard, Burt, and Hart was giving secret performances (Wright 1699). While the company was performing Fletcher's Rollo, Duke of Normandy, or, The Bloody Brother,

a Party of Foot Souldiers beset the House, surprised 'em about the middle of a Play, and carried 'em away in their habits, not admitting them to Shift, to Hatton-House, then a Prison, where having detain'd them sometime, they Plunder'd them of their Cloths, and let 'em loose again. (Hotson 1962: 40)

Finally, the government's refusal to permit playing throughout the 1640s led the actors ‘of Black-Friers and the CockPit’ to petition Parliament around 1650 for permission to play (Hotson 1962: 43–4):

To the Supream Authoritie the Parliament of the Commonwealthe of England The humble Petition of diverse poor and distressed men, heretofore the Actors of Black-friers and the CockPit. Sheweth,

That your most poor Petitioners, having long suffered in extream want, by being prohibited the use of their qualitie of Acting, in which they were trained up from their childhood, whereby they are uncapable of any other way to get a subsistance, and are now fallen into such lamentable povertie, that they know not how to provide food for themselves, their wives and children: great debts being withall demanded of them, and they not in a condition to satisfie the creditours; and without your mercifull and present permission, they must all inevitably perish.

(p. 259) May it therefore please this Honourable House to commiserate their sad and distressed condition, and to vouchsafe them a Libertie to Act but some small time (for their triall of inoffensiveness) onely such morall and harmless representations, as shall no way be distastfull to the Commonwealth or good manners. They humbly submitting themselves to any one of knowing judgement and fidelitie to the State, appointed to oversee them and their actions, and willing to contribute out of their poor endeavours, what shall be thought Wt and allotted them to pay weekly or otherwise, for the service of Ireland, or as the State shall think fitting.

And as in dutie they are ever bound, shall pray, & c.

Despite the overwrought petition and the offer to allow Parliament close supervision of their ‘morall and harmless representations’, the actors' petition failed. No plays were permitted.

Operas, however, were an entirely different matter. Oliver Cromwell's regime encouraged operatic performances.16 Captured and imprisoned after the war, Sir William Davenant had been released in 1652, returning to London to live. He decided to stage entertainments with music, finding support from the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke, and John Thurloe. His first such production was the Entertainment at Rutland (1656), soon followed by the first English opera, The Siege of Rhodes (1656). These were successful, but Davenant required a larger venue to make more money from his new form. Since he had once been the manager at the Phoenix, and since it had been in good enough condition to hold illicit performances in the 1640s, he moved his activities there. First, he staged a revival of The Siege of hodes (1658), following it with The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru (1658), and Sir Francis Drake (1659). While the government of Richard Cromwell was increasingly suspicious about Davenant's entertainments, their downfall made their concerns irrelevant. In 1660 the theaters opened again and the Phoenix was back in business with John Rhodes as the manager.

Yet the reopening of the theaters destroyed the Phoenix as the Puritans could not. It remained open for a while: in October 1660 Pepys saw Othello, Beaumont's Wit Without Money, and Fletcher's The Tamer Tamed. But this initial success soon met with competition. The Drury Lane Theatre was open by 1663 and the Phoenix was soon out of business for good. (p. 260)


(1) On cockfighting as a powerful cultural site, one cannot do better than the anthology The Cockfight (Dundes 1994).

(2) See also Wickham (1959–81: ii/2. 45–8, 78).

(3) For information on the Agas and van den Wyngaerde maps, I have consulted Fisher 1981. The materials provided in various publications of the London Topographical Survey are also excellent.

(4) This work uses the numbers originally assigned by J. A. Gotch. The square design associated with the Cockpit-in-Court is reproduced as Harris and Tait (1979, pl. 5) (Gotch 1/27). The designs for the U-shaped theater thought to have been the Phoenix are plates 11 and 12 (Gotch 1/7B, 1/7C). I am grateful to Joanna Parker, head librarian at Worcester College, Oxford, and her colleague Natalia Perevezentseva for allowing me to examine these materials.

(5) I am deeply grateful that Gordon Higgott was willing to share a copy of his work with me since it rescued me from confusion and saved me from error. Higgott's argument that the plans actually show the Salisbury Court playhouse follows one that John Orrell had made earlier in The Human Stage (Orrell 1988: 188).

(6) Leslie Hotson 1962 first made the suggestion that the Phoenix is the three-gabled building shown in the Hollar map, although no one else seems to have followed his idea until Berry. See Berry (2000b).

(7) The design that Bell considered is reproduced as Harris and Tait (1979, pl. 5).

(8) A good reproduction may be found in Orrell 1985: 61).

(9) Bentley prints the main details of these work orders (1941–68: vi. 271–81).

(10) Palma is the Venetian Jacopo Palma il Vecchio (1480–1528).

(11) That last item may be the source of the term ‘green room’.

(12) Andrew Gurr lists court performances in Gurr (2004c: 302–7).

(13) Quoted from The Inner Temple Masque, ed. James Knowles, in Middleton (2007: 1320–30).

(14) Accounts of the litigation can be found in Bentley (1941–68: ii. 47–77, 363–70) and Hotson 1962: 88–100).

(15) The principal complaint against the playhouse came from William Prynne, who linked the playhouse and bawdyhouses.

(16) On Cromwell and opera, see Sherwood 1977.