In early modern London, when women weren’t allowed on stage and a person could spot an aristocrat by the color and drape of his cape, troupes of boy actors were busy producing new and often controversial material.
Mary Bly, Ph.D., professor of English, studies these 16th- and 17th-century boys’ companies and their plays. She has found that much contemporary scholarship has lumped the companies together despite their many differences. Moreover, she said that scholars have mistakenly compared the companies en masse to the work of Shakespeare.
Bly focused her first book, Queer Virgins and Virgin Queans on the Early Modern Stage (Oxford University Press, 2000), on the homoerotic language in the repertory of a boys’ company located in a “liberty”—or neighborhood—known as Whitefriars. Bly found that the Whitefriars company’s characterizations of women engaging in long strings of phallic jokes suggested a very different view of sexual activities, morality and ethics than most scholars of the period had allowed.
“Many female characters did not act the way that Shakespeare’s characters do,” said Bly, who suggested that Shakespeare’s work shouldn’t be considered the measuring stick for early modern behavior.
Now, Bly has moved into a new vein of scholarship on the boys’ companies; she is investigating how the cultural setting and location of each particular theatre influenced the output of its playwrights.
“Scholars have overlooked the crucial differences between the suburbs, which housed the adult companies, and the liberties, which housed the boy companies,” Bly said. “While playwrights were attuned to the location of any theatre for which they wrote a play, they were far more prone to use the location when writing for a boy company located in a specific liberty.”
Bly’s latest research looks at the makeup of three liberties from 1599 to 1608 and examines them in tandem with the boys’ company theatres located there. By incorporating location and type of inhabitants into their plays, the companies created a mythical space in each liberty that outlasted the liberties themselves.
Take, for example, the Whitefriars liberty. Located just outside the walls of London, Whitefriars was a red-light district that attracted debtors, prostitutes and petty criminals. While much of the area’s clientele couldn’t afford to attend Whitefriars’ performances, those who came expected to see an exuberant sexual show in which the play’s characters were caricatures of the area’s inhabitants.
It was for Whitefriars, said Bly, that Ben Jonson wrote his play Epicœne, about a wealthy man who unknowingly marries a transvestite in an effort to disinherit his nephew. Lording Barry wrote Ram Alley, a homoerotic play that takes place on the eponymous—and notorious—Whitefriars neighborhood street.
“The plays were written explicitly for this theatre, and their wildness was meant to draw a certain audience,” Bly said. “Often these playwrights moved from theatre to theatre, and you can almost see them thinking about the new theatre as they move. In a way, the plays say more about the theatre than anything else.”
In contrast to the Whitefriars theatre, the nearby Blackfriars theatre served a very different audience. The Blackfriars had a reputation as an enclave of the rich and aristocratic. In the theatre, Bly said, the area’s inhabitants could show off their aristocratic blood by wearing velvet, or their knighthood by donning spurs.
But when laws restricting certain clothing by social rank were eliminated in 1605, even petty thieves and poseurs could dress to the nines—and they did.
Thomas Middleton’s satirical play Your Five Gallants, about rogues who dress as gentlemen to woo an heiress, ran at the Blackfriars theatre during this decade.
“It is essentially all about clothes,” Bly said, “about what quality cape you have, or how big your spurs are. The play stands on the brink of change in the Blackfriars liberty, as it transitions from money and nobility into a puritan enclave. The anxiety is all there in the play.”
Bly gives as a third example the liberty adjacent to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The cathedral attracted city dwellers who strolled the middle aisle to gossip and pose—and even engage in sexual activity—despite their pious surroundings.
“The boys’ company in the Blackfriars constantly flirted with the danger of offending the very nobility who thronged its audience,” Bly said. “But the St. Paul’s boys walked a different kind of edge—a sexually titillating, dangerous edge that . . . fed from the same transgressive juxtaposition of sex and devotion that characterized the cathedral itself in the early 1600s.”
Not surprisingly, the boys’ companies were eventually shut down. But decades after they were closed, the plays that arose from the rare intersections of time and space live on.
“Boys’ plays helped establish place-based memory by constructing the individual reputations of each liberty,” Bly said, “turning them from landmarks into ideological sites.”
Bly is no stranger to the influence of place on a person’s work. In 2009, the scholar of Shakespeare, who also writes New York Times bestselling romance novels under the pen name Eloisa James, went on sabbatical to Paris. She walked around the city every day, finding “real freedom” from the change of scenery. Based on that experience, Bly has written (under her pen name) her first memoir, Paris in Love.
Bly said her work as Eloisa James draws upon her research as a Shakespeare scholar, and that her plots have been inspired by the early modern plays that she has studied.
As the daughter of poet and writer Robert Bly, she learned early that writing could be a profitable avocation as well as a scholarly pursuit; when she found herself with student loans, she turned to writing romance novels to pay them off.
A decade later, Eloisa James has 13 New York Times bestsellers and 18,000 Facebook fans—and Bly has no more student loans.
James’ latest, When Beauty Tamed the Beast (HarperCollins, 2011), whose protagonist is based on television’s acerbic doctor Gregory House, hit No. 10 on the Times mass market bestseller list in February. Paris in Love is scheduled for release later this year by Random House.