What if I were to tell you there was a forgotten form of British theatre? An illegal type of rough, anti-establishment sketch comedy, performed in the aftermath of Shakespeare, that used sex jokes and stupid slapstick as rebellion against an oppressive fundamentalist religious government? Approximately 350 years since the surviving scripts were printed, they have only been republished once, and that was for a small (and very hard to track down) print run in 1932. Almost nobody has any idea that these things ever existed and they’re being re-staged publicly for the first time since their original performances. Any idea what I’m talking about?
In 1642, when the Puritans ousted the monarchy and gave Britain its brief republic, theatre was made illegal (so was Christmas – fun guys, those Puritans). The vast majority of Shakespearean scholarship takes the rather naïve view that if something’s illegal then it stops happening. And so, generally speaking, we are taught that theatre then died out until the Restoration in 1660, when Charles II came along and re-legalised laughter and you couldn’t move for maypoles. However, theatre didn’t die. The literal theatre buildings were closed, of course, but even in their heyday performances at the purpose-built playhouses had never accounted for all shows. The rest were performed in pubs, private houses, public yards and town halls (both in London and on tours of the provinces) – rather than simulacrums of the Globe. Most performance spaces were not a million miles away from the varied collection of fringe venues we fill today.
Funding had gone right out the window. Prior to 1642, theatre was paid for in part by wealthy, aristocratic patrons in exchange for a nice, public boost to their social standing. With the outlawing of the stage, patronage immediately dried up – passing the hat after the show for drinking money or a hot meal was all that the performers of Drolls could count on (an early form of crowdfunding?). Costumes and props became minimal and sparse by necessity – not least because getting caught with them could be evidence of illegal activity.
The Drolls are, undoubtedly, bizzare and approximately 30 have survived. In “John Swabber” a sailor catches his wife sleeping with a barber, and so they convince him that the barber is, in fact, his 12 month old baby (born while he was away at sea). The cuckolded sailor, excited to have a baby with such a good beard, force-feeds him a gallon of pancake batter. Alongside the surrealism, however, is a surprisingly effective, rough, carnival humour – think of Monty Python drunkenly performing Shakespeare as a pantomime and you’re probably in the right ball park (three of the drolls are, in fact, taken directly from Shakespeare’s plays). Not only that, but illegally depicting unpunished adultery and overt sexuality during a restrictive Puritan regime is a bold and dangerous statement in its own right. There’s even evidence that they were performed by women (gasp!).
So why have so few people ever heard of or seen them? The drolls have only been published once in modern times, and though they are available online the transcripts are unreliable. It’s hard not to place some of the blame on a literary snobbery that has seen the Drolls roundly dismissed by generations of (non-theatrically-minded) academics as worthless doggerell. It takes performance to understand the value of the Drolls, and the right kind of performance at that.
At the Owle Schreame theatre company, we’ve been exploring Drolls for a year now; the first professional company to have touched them, and the first to actively experiment with their flexibility in performance. Combining Shakespearean Original Practice with concepts from immersive theatre, we’ve developed a very particular approach which recreates something of the rough, raw, tongue-in-cheek, beer-in-hand theatre that the Drolls were designed for. Our long term aim is to build up a core company of actors with a repertoire that encompasses the entire canon of surviving Drolls, cram them in the back of a van-turned-pageant-wagon, and perform these strange pieces of folk theatre throughout the UK.
For obvious reasons, the Drolls have resonance today. They’re strange and important remnants of our performance history that deserve recognition and performance. The Drolls are worth reviving.
the Owle Schreame theatre company will be performing Droll at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.