Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

The Beggars Bush Performance History

The Beggars Bush play is important for the both the maintenance and the distribution of the phrase, and therefore its availability as a place name. The text was available not only as a printed source, for which see the Publication History and for example, William Godwin, but also in manuscript form. Although the play is now forgotten it was widely performed, both in London and the provinces. Records of early performances of plays are fragmentary and incomplete; they depend on the chance survival of ephemeral records. When playbills were published and then plays advertised in newspapers records become better for London. We know that plays were performed in the provinces, initially by the main London companies when on tour or when the theatres in London were closed, and then by provincial companies. Even when performed in new editions the play playbills still showed The Beggars Bush. I have compiled a Chronology of Performances, available below.

It has been suggested the play may have been written as early as 1613, and performed in 1615 by Princess Elizabeth’s men. This seems unlikely. The earliest recorded performance was by The King’s Men on 27th December 1622. Fletcher’s new plays were commonly performed at Court over Christmas, so there may have been earlier unrecorded performances at theatres. There were further performances recorded at Court in 1630/1 1636, and New Years Day 1638/9.  It is a mark of the play’s popularity that in 1641 it was listed as amongst the plays of the King’s Men not to be printed without their consent. The existence of a prologue in the notebook of John Clavell suggests it may have been performed in Dublin in c.1637. There are records of performances there, and in London and regional theatres in Londonuntil the early nineteenth century.

The play was included in first folio of “Beaumont and Fletcher” published in 1647. It was published again in at least one separate edition in 1661. It was alleged that Francis Kirkman issued a pirated edition. Manuscript versions of play scripts were also available. A transcript of a prompt-copy survives, and another text was used to produce a revised edition in 1679.

Three songs from the play – “Cast your caps and cares away”, “He ran at me first in the shape of a ram” and “Bring forth your coneyskins” appeared in Merrie Drollery (1661) and were reprinted in both the subsequent editions and elsewhere. The last two songs were also included in collection Pills to Purge Melancholy (as was London’s Ordinary).

It was one of the first plays performed by the Old Actors or Mohun’s Company at The Red Bull, after the removal of the ban on plays in 1660. It is included second in the list of the company’s plays presented to the Master of Revels.

It may have been popular with audiences as one of the first in which women appeared on stage. Samuel Pepys’s diary for 3rd January 1660/1 records, “To the theatre, where was acted Beggars Bush, it was very well done; and here the first time that ever I saw woman come upon the stage”. Pepys had seen it performed by the United Company on 20th November 1660. This shows the play being in performance by three companies in London in the first months after performances became legal again. Pepys saw it again in 1661 and 1668, and it was performed at Court in 1674, 1686 and 1688. Isaak Walton must also have seen or read it.

In various forms it remained popular for 200 years. Rolfs says it was one the four Beaumont & Fletcher plays most frequently performed in the first three quarters of the eighteenth century. As The Beggars Bush it was re-published in numerous editions in London during the eighteenth century, plus one in Dublin. It was chosen for a performance before the King & Queen to mark the re-opening of Theatre Royal Drury Lane in March 1764.

Like many plays (e.g. Richard Blome’s The Joviall Crew) it was adapted as an opera in 1768 (also published in Dublin). It was re-written with very minor changes by Henry Norris as The Royal Merchant, or the Beggars Bush for the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. It also was published under this name, with versions by Joseph Broadhurst in 1815 and David Garrick in 1827.

Another version, The Merchant of Bruges or Beggar’s Bush was written by Douglas Kinnaird, Byron’s banker, in which Edmund Kean appeared during his acclaimed “Shakespeare” season at Drury Lane in 1815 and 1816. This version had some “indelicacies” removed and more songs added. The play was received well by reveiwers, with Kean’s performance described as “vigorous”, “electric” and “glowing”. This season may have been the source of the place name at Albany, Cape Province. It may have been re-written by Kinnaird after he heard that Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed to update the play. Coleredge certainly wrote that he had been working an a new version, and was put out to hear that someone else was proposing a revival for Drury Lane.

The re-naming was presumably a partly political move. The Royal Merchant was no more than a re-branding with the same text, but for The Merchant of Bruges the scenes with the drunken Boors was omitted.

There is a substantial record of performances in London, by several companies. At times it was being offered by competing companies, on one occasion on the same day. There are also records of performances at Norwich, in the west at Bath and Salisbury, and the north, at Newcastle, York, Leeds and Pontefract. There are likely to have been others as records are fragmentary for most of this period.

The only gaps are in performance records are during 1642-1660 when all theatres were closed under the Commonwealth, and later from The Glorious Revolution of 1668 until 1704. Kirkman claimed that an extract The Lame Commonwealth was performed while the theatres were closed, which is quite possible. This published by him in The Wits in 1662 & 1672 as a droll to be put on by travelling players. There is no record of such performances, but it is most unlikely that any records would exist or survive. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought Prince William of Orange to the English throne a play featuring stupid Boors, and beggars more honourable than aristocrats would have been problematic.

Although it appears to have fallen out of performance during the nineteenth century we know it remained known in literary circles. In 1841 Edward Bulwer Lytton and Washington Irving used extracts as chapter headings. In 1847 Charles Dickens considered reviving the play and performing in it as part of the schemes to support the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

The Beggars Bush Chart Performance History

(opens as pdf)


Rulfs, Donald J. Beaumont and Fletcher on the London Stage, 1776-1833, PMLA, vol.63, No.4 (Dec. 1948) pp.1245-1264

Posted: May 15th, 2011 | Filed under: The Play | Tags: , , | No Comments »

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