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By W. J. LAWRENCE
When the Higher Criticism, in its quest after shapeliness and prime literary quality, proceeds to sit in judgment on the profuse dramatic output of that wonderful half century which began with Shakespeare's nascent creativeness, and sternly discards all that fails to answer to its footrule, it speaks with authentic voice and yet says not the last word. By an irony of circumstance the old minor playwright has a virtue which preserves him from extinction. Devoid though his work may be of delicate aesthetic appeal, it has strong sociological interest; and therein lies the antiseptic. It is in it rather than in the bold creations of genius one best savours the quintessence of the times. The inferior dramatist wrote exclusively for the popular audience, and it stands to reason that he whose aim was merely to amuse the masses should be the man to yield the fullest and most faithful reflex of their capacity of make-believe, their child-like hankering after the absurdly romantic, their lurking savagery and blunt animalism, their love of roughand-tumble fun, and their many idle superstitions. In very truth the higher criticism blunts its scapels on the adamantine surface of this mirror. It is wise to recall that, even though genius does what it must, Shakespeare would not have been precisely the Shakespeare we know had he been condemned solely to satisfy the cravings of a Red Bull audience. Yet we have reason to believe that he excelled in his own time partly because he was player, since it was the player rather than the poet who kept his finger on the popular pulse and was keenly susceptible to all its changings. This point is vital. It will be found after careful examination that the purveyors of drama for the masses came almost wholly from the ranks of the players. So far indeed was this the case that when the Elizabethan investigator seeks the identity of some inferior dramatist concerning whom nothing is known or strives to trace an anonymous play of the normal pedestrian order to its source, his safest course is to look round about the old tyring-house for a solution. Once before 1 this method has yielded me good results, and through
* See my article on Thomas Drew, entitled “Found: a missing Jacobean Dramatist,” in The Times Literary Supplement for March 23, 1922.
pursuing it, it is now my happy fortune to be able to add another name to the motley list of early actor-dramatists, that of John Kirke, the author of The Seven Champions of Christendom.
Concerning this steadfast camper on the lower slopes of Parnassus there has been little speculation. Fleay, despite his fatallyfacile resourcefulness, for once remains silent. The Dictionary of National Biography alone hazards a conjecture as to Kirke's identity. It draws attention to the possibility that he may have been the John Kirke, godson of Edward Kirke, Spenser's friend, mentioned in 1613 in Edward's will. One need not be surprised, however, over this reticence on the part of early investigators, seeing that the documents which largely enable us to determine that the author of The Seven Champions of Christendom was an actor only came to light fifteen years ago.
Our first glimpse of John Kirke is at Reading on November 30, 1629, when he formed one of a troupe of strollers who craved permission to act in that town. Evidently they had not been long on the road as the license under which they travelled was scarce three weeks old. It gave authority for country acting to
William Perry and Richard Weekes, his Majesties sworn servantes, with the rest of their company, John Kerke, Edward Armiger, Hughe Tatterdell, Deavid Ferris, Robert Hint, and George Williams, all of the Red Bull company.❜
How long Kirke led a strolling life we do not know, but six years later we find him firmly established in London and about to be made a Groom of the Chamber. Precisely how this distinction came his way requires some elucidation, but the point to some extent is one of conjecture. In May 1632, about five months after the establishment of the recently organised Prince Charles's Company at the new Salisbury Court Theatre, Ellis Worth and ten other of its members were sworn in as Grooms of the Chamber nominally in attendance on the young Prince, though he was then only two years old. Whether by death or disruption, or both, certain changes had taken place in the composition of the company by the time of their removal to the Red Bull three years later, and
J. T. Murray, English Dramatic Companies, 1, p. 272.
Shakespeare Jahrbuch, XLVI (1910), p. 96, Mrs. C. C. Stopes on "Shakespeare's Fellows and Followers" (extracts from the Lord Chamberlain's Books).
to complete their quota at court several new Grooms had to be appointed. Consequently on December 12, 1635, the Lord Chamberlain issued a Warrant
To swear in Grooms of the Chamber in ordinary without fee to attend the Prince his Highness in quality of players, viz., William Bankes, William Cooke, Henry Hamerton, John Kirke.*
Apparently Kirke was now in a fair way of doing, but, in common with the rest of the London players, he was soon to have an ugly experience. An outbreak of plague of more than common severity necessitated the closing of all public places of resort from early in May 1636 to October 2, 1637. At the fag-end of his dreary period of inaction, Kirke, in his need—as one takes it-sold two old plays to John Okes the printer, one from his own pen and the other the work of the unfortunate Henry Shirley, who was killed in a quarrel in October, 1627. Both were published in 1638, Shirley's play, The Martyr'd Souldier, with an epistle dedicatory from Kirke to Sir Kenelm Digby, with whom, as he acknowledges, he was personally unacquainted. It had been an early Cockpit favourite. Kirke's own play, The Seven Champions of Christendome, the only one of his ever published, was described on the titlepage as “acted at the Cockpit and at the Red Bull in St. John Street with a generall liking," and dedicated by the author to his “much respected friend, Master John Waite.” It is to be noted that the entry of the play on the Stationers' Register on July 13, 1638, to John Oakes, reads:
A play called the seven Champions of Christendome with the Life and death of Jack Strawe and Watt Tyler by John Kirke . . . . vjd.
Seeing that there is nothing about Jack Straw and Wat Tyler in Kirke's play, it is not surprising that one or two investigators have been mightily puzzled by this entry and have gone the length of searching for some other work of Kirke’s to give it meaning. The solution of the riddle, however, lies in knowledge of Okes's little tricks. Simply to save a trivial fee, (though it must be acknowledged that sixpence then had quite three or four times its present purchasing power), he was in the habit of registering two publications of a wholly different order under the one composite and specially concocted title. By this means when he paid for the
+ Vide ibid., p. 98.
entry of a play he secured the registration of a tract or chapbook free. One searches in vain for any cripple or reference to a cripple in Rowley's comedy, A Shoomaker a Gentleman, yet when Okes, having possibly obtained the play from Kirke, came to register it in 1638, he gave the title as "A Shoemaker is a Gentleman, with the life and death of the Cripple that stole the Weather Cock of Paul's."
A single extant play by an author who is known to have written more may be likened unto the brick of Empedocles. It might have been prentice work: he may have done better and he may have done worse. We should think little of Shakespeare if nothing of his save Titus Andronicus had come down to us. Judging, however, by the quality of The Seven Champions of Christendom, Kirke was of the school of Heywood and Will Rowley (actor-dramatists both) and had glibly learnt his lesson. All the popular ingredients are skilfully compounded, combats, witches, ghosts, hobgoblins, deeds of enchantment, thunder and lightning, heavy witted clownery, uproarious song. Romance runs wild in this undeniably effective theatre-piece; it was admirably calculated to grip the unthinking public. But it is curious how little the early actor-dramatist who wrote for the masses spares the players. Like Heywood in his playgroup of "The Ages," Kirke indulges in a formidable number of characters, close on forty, a profusion which meant hard work and much "doubling." Assuredly the stinkard in the Red Bull yard got full value for his penny.
Historians today who have occasion to discuss The Seven Champions of Christendome invariably style it tragi-comedy, but it is noteworthy that Kirke himself in describing its characteristics, is careful to avoid using that term. Writing in his Epistle Dedicatory he says:
For this Worke of it selfe, I may say thus much without blushing, it received the rights of a good Play, when it was acted, which were Applauses and Commendations. Whether it merits them or not, I leave to your Judgement: the Nature of the Worke being History, it consists of many parts, not walking in one direct path, of Comedy or Tragedy, but having a larger field to trace, which me thinks should yield more pleasure to the Reader, Novelty and Variety being the only objects these our times are taken with; the tragedy may be too dull and solid, the Comedy too sharp and bitter; but a well mixt portion of either, doubtless would make the sweetest harmony.
One can readily understand why Kirke fought shy of the term tragi-comedy. It had not when he wrote precisely the broad, welldefined meaning it has now. Of Italian origin, and limited for long in its application to pastoral because of the mingling of the grave and the gay in that genre, the term on its transference to England preserved traces of its initial significance. Slow in coming into common usage, it was little known when Fletcher, in maintaining its association with pastoral, gave his definition of it in his Address to the Reader prefixed to The Faithful Shepherdess. Long before that Gascoigne, an exclusively academic dramatist, had denominated his Glass of Government a tragical-comedy because, as he explained, therein were handled “as well the rewards for virtues as the punishments for vices.” But of Gascoigne's definition one might echo what Dr. W. W. Greg has so well said of Fletcher's, that it is “obviously borrowed from the academic criticism of the renaissance, and bears no relation to the living tradition of the English stage.”
Since The Seven Champions of Christendom had more of a legendary than a strictly historical basis, one is moved to speculate whether Kirke's stress on the term History signifies that originally the term, (as distinguished from Chronicle History), had precisely the import that tragi-comedy has now. A good deal might be advanced in support of that theory, but unfortunately the issue is confused by painful carelessness in the use of early dramatic nomenclature. Primarily one gains the impression that the term History once upon a time conveyed the meaning of the latter day tragicomedy after finding it applied to plays on all sorts of subjects, both ancient and contemporaneous, in the Revels Accounts of the middle of Queen Elizabeth's reign; and the impression is considerably strengthened by the apparently significant collocation in the record for 1579, “A Pastorell or historie of a Greeke Maide.” 6 But one turns over a few leaves and a dash of disappointment
In 1581 the Revels Clerk, after recording “A Comodie called delighte” enters the five remaining plays as “stories ” (e. g., “A storie of Pompey”). Perhaps he intended this literally and was not indulging in contractions; plays in his day were rather
* Greg, Pastoral Poetry and Pastoral Drama.