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«Trip to Jerusalem», Edward Marston

Edward Marston

Dat poenas laudata fides

To Lord Lucas of Ormeley

I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolisht lines to your Lordship, nor how the worlde will

censure mee for choos ing so strong a proppe to support so weake a burthen, onelye if your Honour

seeme but pleased, I account my selfe highly praised, and vowe to take advantage of all idle homes,

till I have honoured you with some graver labour.

She was a worthy worn man al hir lyve

Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve

Withouten oother compaignye in youthe-

But thereof nedeth nat to speke as nowthe.

And thrice had she been at Jerusalem.

CHAUCER: The Canterbury Tales

 

Chapter One

Enemies surrounded them. Though theatre flourished in London as never before, bestowing vivid entertainment upon the nation's capital and earning daily ovations from large audiences, its practitioners were under constant threat. Acting was a perilous enterprise. Players had to walk a tightrope between fame and oblivion-with no net to soften their fall. They faced the official disapproval of the Lord Mayor and the civic worthies, and endured the outright hostility of religious leaders, who spied the hand of the Devil at work on the stage, and the hand of the lecher, the harlot and the pickpocket moving with licensed freedom among the spectators. Voices of protest were raised on all sides.

Nor could the acclaim of the onlookers be taken for granted. The public was a fickle master. Those who served it with their art were obliged to perform plays that were in vogue, in a manner that was acceptable to their patrons. Indifference was a menace. So indeed were the other theatrical companies. Naked competition was rife. Players could be poached and plays could be pirated. War could be waged between the different troupes in ways that ranged from the subtle to the blatant.

Those who survived all this could still be brought low by fire or by fighting. Tobacco smokers had more than once ignited the overhanging thatch in the theatres, and there was always the risk that drunken spectators would start an affray. If human intervention did not harm or hamper a performance, then bad weather might. Arenas that were open to the sky were vulnerable to each wind that blew and each drop of rain that fell. God in his wisdom washed away countless stabs at theatrical immortality.

But the silent enemy was the worst.

It came from nowhere and moved among its prey with easy familiarity. It showed no respect for age, rank or sex and touched its victims with fond impartiality, like an infected whore passing on her disease in a warm embrace. Nothing could withstand its power and nobody could divine the secret of that power. It could climb mountains, swim across oceans, seep through walls and bring down the most well-fortified bastions. Its corruption was universal. Every man, woman and child on the face of the earth was at its mercy.

Here was the final enemy. Doom itself.

Lawrence Firethorn spoke for the whole profession. 'A plague on this plague!'

'It will rob us of our livelihood,' said Gill.

'If not of our lives,' added Hoode.

'God's blood!' said Firethorn, pounding the table with his fist. 'What a damnable trade we follow. There are daggers waiting to stab us at every turn and if we avoid their points, then here comes the sharpest axe in Christendom to chop off our heads.'

'It is a judgement,' said Hoode mournfully.

'We might yet be spared,' said Gill, trying to inject a halfhearted note of optimism. 'Plague deaths have not yet reached the required number per week.'

'They will, Barnaby,' said Firethorn grimly. 'This hot weather will soon begin to unpeople the city. We must look misfortune in the eye, gentlemen, and foreswear all false hopes. 'Tis the only sensible course. This latest visitation will close every theatre in London and put our work to sleep for the whole summer. There's but one remedy.'

'Such a bitter medicine to take,' said Hoode.

Barnaby Gill let out a sigh as deep as the Thames.

The three men were sitting over cups of sack in the taproom of the Queen's Head in Gracechurch Street, the inn which was the regular venue for performances by Lord Westfield's Men, one of the leading companies in the city. Lawrence Firethorn, Barnaby Gill and Edmund Hoode were all sharers, ranked players who were named in the royal patent for the company and who took the major roles in its wide repertoire. Westfield's Men had other sharers but company policy was effectively controlled by this trio. Such, at least, was the theory. In practice, it was the ebullient and dominating figure of Lawrence Firethorn who generally held sway, allowing his two colleagues the illusion of authority when they were, in fact, simply ratifying his decisions. He bulked large.

'Gentlemen,' he announced bravely, 'we must not be crushed by fate or curbed by circumstance. Let us make virtue of necessity here.'

'Virtue, indeed!' Gill was sardonic.

'Yes, sir.'


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