Shakespearean Popcorn: Snacking in the Playhouses of London

popcorn_jf10_310After a recent performance of Doctor Faustus, theatre producer Richard Jordan was an unhappy man. Writing in The Stage, he declared the West End audience to be:

‘Possibly the worst…I have ever encountered…Many of them… (were) talking, eating…often vocally commenting…There was also…an interval for bar and ice-cream sales – here was a Friday night commercial audience out for entertainment.’

With rising outrage, he continues:

‘A couple saw nothing wrong in producing…a box of … Chicken Nuggets and a large side of fries…Munching certainly seemed to be the order of the day. The couple to my left ate their way through a large tub of popcorn…while the couple on my right chomped through a packet of crisps. It was like listening to eating in Dolby stereo.’

References to ‘fast’ food and technology aside, Mr Jordan might almost have been in a 16th century playhouse.

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We know from contemporary records that Elizabethan audiences could be unruly and raucous. In our century, recent excavations of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and, more comprehensively, the Rose, have uncovered a wealth of historical and archaeological information about the structure and organisation of the playhouses. The discovery of huge quantities of food detritus reveals what was eaten there and, to some extent, by whom.

By the 1590s, the commercial theatre as we know it, was firmly established in London. It was an innovation in mass entertainment as radical as television in the 1960s and, for the first time, dramatic productions took place in purpose-built, permanent and secure venues. London’s commercial life was thriving and an increased population meant large audiences and large takings, which sustained both actors and the fabric of the buildings .The new genre was assisted by the flowering of the talent of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

theatrePublic playhouses were usually circular or many-sided in shape, and open to the air. A roofed stage jutted out from the lowest of three galleries, with standing room in front of it. This cost a modest penny and accommodated the ‘groundlings’: Hamlet’s word, and uncomplimentary, since it referred to the small fry who feed on sludge at the bottom of streams and rivers. Superior positions in the galleries cost more while the ‘Lords’ Rooms’ were closer to the stage and catered for more prestigious playgoers.

This provision for all classes of society underlines the fundamentally commercial nature of the new theatres, some of which could accommodate up to three thousand people at a time. If theatre shows us to ourselves, then the new professional playwrights drew audiences by peopling their dramas not just with Kings and nobles, but with ‘ordinary’ folk: servants, door-keepers, porters, constables and young blades on the street. So do soap operas in our own century.

The playwright, Thomas Heywood, recorded:

‘Playing is an ornament to the Citty, which strangers of all Nations repairing hither, report of in their Countries, beholding them here with some admiration;  for what variety of entertainment can there be in any Citty of Christendome, more than in London?’

The church and the authorities did not agree: a part of Southwark and its highway, Bankside, which ran beside the river, was already the site of inns, gambling dens, animal baiting rings and brothels. It was, however, outside the city limits and its laws. Not surprisingly, the building of the new theatres was only permitted in that area. They were generally regarded as dens of vice: actors had traditionally been seen as dubious individuals, but now cut-purses and prostitutes were attracted to mass audiences who were already held responsible for spreading the Plague. Heywood, having praised the theatre, also admitted, ‘Pay thy tuppence to a player (and) in (the) gallery mayest thou sit by a harlot.’

Julian Bowsher of the Museum of London Archaeology, the moving force for the playhouse excavations, describes the procedure for going to the play:

‘You entered through a main door and paid a one penny entrance fee to the ‘gatherer,’ who would have a little money box rather like a piggy bank with a bright green glaze on it and a slot through which to put a penny…they were smashed open when they were taken back stage.’

Thousands of fragments of these money boxes were found on site. But having entered the playhouse, the buying and consuming of food became a major part of the experience.

The importance of readily available snacks was made clear by one Thomas Platter (no pun intended) who wrote that ‘during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment.’ Many theatres had tap rooms attached to them and, at the Rose Theatre, surviving accounts reveal that a grocer by the name of John Chomley purchased what we might now call a ‘catering franchise.’  Chomley’s house, at the south-west corner was ‘to keepe victualinge in’ to sell to theatre goers.

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Many samples collected on site indicate the consumption of native species: walnuts, hazels, almonds, elderberry, blackberry, raspberry, plum, pear, peach and cherry. That huge amounts of shellfish were eaten is evidenced by the remains of cockles, mussels, periwinkles, whelks and cuttlefish. It was the popcorn of the day. The standard dagger, carried by every man, was as much a tool as a weapon, and was used to winkle out the cheap shellfish. Oysters were a popular cheap treat and were associated with the groundlings.  Cheap food equalled cheap standing room and was identified with those at the bottom of the social scale.

A visitor to London, Paul Hentzner, recorded seeing apples, pears and nuts on sale according to season. The cores might be hurled at the stage by unruly audience members unimpressed by the play, and there are references to ‘pippins’ and nuts being used as missiles. With the opening of new trade routes, much fruit was imported into London and raisins, dates, currants, figs and prunes were popular. Oranges from southern Europe arrived in large quantities but were expensive and regarded as exotic. Numerous pips were found at the Rose excavations. While the privileged in London might afford to buy them, they had also reached other areas. I am indebted to my colleague Dr Jill Francis for informing me of accounts which show that oranges were given as gifts in the provinces, reiterating their status as luxury items. The seeds of marrow, pumpkin, squash and gourd represent relatively early evidence of contact with the New World.

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Apart from ‘water-bearers’ in the playhouse yard, the only other beverage seems to have been ‘bottled ale.’ This made a loud fizzing noise when opened and, along with the continual cracking of nuts, formed what may have been a disturbing accompaniment to the play. ‘When (a playwright) hears his play hissed, hee would rather thinke bottle-Ale is opening’ wrote a sardonic commentator. Ale did, however, fulfil a practical purpose when, on the occasion of the burning down of the Globe Theatre, it was used to extinguish the burning breeches of an unwary man.

forkThe privileged, meanwhile, brought their own more glamorous food along with their own wine, glasses and cutlery. An iron fork found at the Rose excavations bore its owners initials inlaid in brass, and would have sported an elegant wooden handle. This was upmarket cutlery identified as a ‘sucket’ fork, used to spear sweetmeats such as marchpane (marzipan), sugar-bread and gingerbread – the equivalent of a box of quality chocolates today. Its owner must have been someone of sophisticated tastes and some social status for such an item would not have been associated with the groundlings.

The variety of foodstuffs available in the playhouses was remarkably wide. It was also organic, and packed with the antioxidants, vitamins and enzymes which we are encouraged to consume today. The mass-produced, ‘fast ’food of our own century, laden with artificial colouring and chemically-derived flavourings may, in nutritional terms, be far worse for our health.

Bring on the whelks!

Bettina Harris (Library Support Assistant)

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