Chasqui has been a follower of ATWC since the beginning, and I honestly don’t think I can thank her enough for reaching out and not only submitting things but emailing me just to chat. So when she informed me that she was interested in writing a book, obviously I wanted to help give her a platform to start sharing! Feel free to check out her other posts to this website click here, and here!
Christopher Marlowe – The Muses’ Darling
The New Playwright
There were tears in the eyes of the young man standing in the wings of The Rose, the newly opened playhouse in Southwark. He could barely conceal his emotions as the closing lines of the play were spoken, immediately followed by the deafening enthusiasm of the audience while the cast took a bow. As the actors walked backstage, many of them shook his hand, praising his writing and predicting a long run for Tamburlaine the Great. Christopher Marlowe accepted these compliments with a smile and a nod, uncharacteristically lost for words, as The Admiral’s Men filed past him. Edward Alleyn was the last, for he – the embodiment of Tamburlaine himself – had stayed on stage a minute or so longer to accept the applause and the cheers which were reverberating around the theatre. He had stopped to speak to the playwright when they were joined by Philip Henslowe, owner of The Rose.
“Kit, Tamburlaine is a triumph! More tickets sold than expected and the audience still cheering. This calls for a celebration.”
Kit felt somewhat overwhelmed and wondered if he were dreaming. It was late 1587, only a matter of months since he had gained his MA from Cambridge University and had made the decision to abandon, or at least postpone, studying for his doctorate. Instead he was keen to try his luck at earning a living by writing for the London stage. While at Cambridge he had written Tamburlaine the Great, and had hoped to offer this to the theatres of the capital. Following a recommendation and a read-through, Philip Henslowe had accepted the play, paying the new playwright £5 – a veritable fortune for the former student. The play had an innovative feel to it. Written in blank verse in iambic pentameter, this was a departure from previous playwriting trends and Kit had not only been courageous enough to try it out but had also implemented the style very well, and Philip Henslowe had a shrewd idea that this would be taking theatre in a new and exciting direction.
Ned Alleyn had been equally enthusiastic when he had read the script and readily accepted the lead role. Though still a young man, he had an imposing stage presence, enhanced by his 6-foot height, and he, like Kit, seemed destined for a bright future. In fact, so impressed was Ned by this apparent genius’s playwriting skills that he had been about to offer to take him for a few drinks when Philip Henslowe had come along and suggested it.
“Yes, Philip”, agreed Ned Alleyn. “Let’s go to the tavern to celebrate our newest and best playwright! Give us all time to divest ourselves of these costumes and we’ll join you and Kit at our favourite drinking and eating establishment.”
Before he could give much thought to it, Kit was whisked off by Philip, and was treated to a meal by the theatre owner. The conversation and ale flowed freely when the cast arrived, with Kit thinking that he could get used to this, but realising it was a one-off. He hoped the takings for the remainder of the week would be as lucrative, but he need not have worried – Tamburlaine was set to stay, at least for a while.
As time passed, word spread and Tamburlaine became so popular that tickets sold out daily and many people were turned away, only to return a day or so later, their money clutched in their hands, so eager were they to see this latest sensation. At 1d to stand, the theatre was an affordable outing but, with no roof, the audiences had to take their chances with the weather. Those in the 2d seats upstairs had the luxury of a canopy but, basically, were also open to the elements.
While the performances of Tamburlaine mostly ran smoothly, at one there was a tragic accident in which a pregnant lady and a child were killed, and a man injured, when an on-stage cannon misfired. Although he didn’t witness it, having decided not to attend every performance but to use that time for more writing, Kit was extremely upset by this incident. Via Philip Henslowe and his contacts, Kit managed to find the names and addresses of the victims, then visited their families to offer condolences and some money to help them through the hard times. He felt guilty for having included firearms in the story, and had done so for dramatic effect – if only it had been just a stage prop, incapable of firing, but that would have had less impact. He knew he should have realised the dangers of using live ammunition but there was nothing else available and audiences liked realism. He lived to regret this very unfortunate event and vowed that no one else would die as a result of his writing and stage directions.
While Christopher Marlowe did not become a household name overnight, Tamburlaine did. The play was like a breath of fresh air, with its strong characters, and blank verse, highlighting Kit’s skilful use of words in transforming Timur the Lame, the real Asian Emperor of noble birth, into Tamburlaine, the fictional Scythian shepherd, whose battle victories secured for him the title Emperor. With this success, Kit hoped to offer Mr Henslowe another play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, which he had written in Cambridge, where it had been performed by a theatre company of boy players. However, Philip Henslowe had other ideas and, driven by the money he was coining in from Tamburlaine and its popularity with the audiences, he asked Kit for a sequel.
“You mean Tamburlaine Part Two?”
“Yes, Kit, I do mean Tamburlaine Part Two.”
“But there is no Part Two. I wrote the whole story in Tamburlaine the Great.”
“Well, write some more”, replied Henslowe, a little amazed that Kit had not jumped at the chance.
“But, as I said, there is no more.”
“There’s plenty more – use your imagination.”
“Well,” said an unconvinced Kit, “I could take his story up in later life.”
“No, we want the sequel soon, not years from now.”
“Yes, I realise that; I meant Tamburlaine’s later life so there is a gap in years between the end of Part One, when he and Zenocrate marry, and the start of Part Two, when their children are growing up.”
“Sounds promising, Kit. Can you work on it, making it the same length, 5 acts and all the trimmings?”
“Yes, I could try but I was hoping you might consider Dido, Queen of Carthage which I wrote at Cambridge.”
“Let me see it, but I think Tamburlaine Part Two will take priority.”
And so, very reluctantly, Kit agreed to write a sequel to Tamburlaine the Great. As he feared, he lived to regret this, feeling it was forced and lacked the innovation of Part One, in which he had said all he had wanted, especially having reached the end of his research possibilities. Therefore, for Part Two he needed to rely on his skills of looking into human nature and creating a more in-depth study of the character of Tamburlaine, ending it with his death so Part Three could not even be suggested.
It wasn’t too long before Kit was able to present Tamburlaine Part Two to Philip HensIowe who lost little time in arranging its performance. It was a success but not on the same scale as its predecessor. Part Two was often unfavourably compared with Part One, so much so that Kit vowed never to write another sequel and told Philip Henslowe of his decision. Henslowe, realising that perhaps virtually compelling Kit to write this play had not been a wise move, decided to leave the playwrights to come up with their own ideas and he would judge each play on its merits.
However, in recognition of Kit’s ability to write a crowd-drawer, Henslowe paid him another pound so each part of Tamburlaine earned him £6. It was only later that Kit discovered this was the going rate and the original £5 he had received was lower than average, though as Christopher Marlowe was a new playwright, it was prudent of Henslowe to hold back the extra 20 shillings; after all he was known as a good businessman.
As the first run of Tamburlaine Part Two drew to a close, Kit shook hands with Philip Henslowe and promised to return with another play before too long. In the meantime, Kit had another job – working for the government but the exact nature of his role was never revealed. Kit himself made no mention of this clandestine part-time job which had supplemented the meagre funds from his student scholarship and, later, his playwriting. Nevertheless, he knew it would provide him with sufficient free time to produce another play, and this freedom to write had been one of the carrots dangled before him, persuading him to accept this secret job offer. He had neatly merged the writing of Tamburlaine Part Two with his government duties and once back in London had begun research on his latest idea which he hoped would prove to be another innovation for the Elizabethan stage. As long as he could buy ink and parchment, he was confident he could write enough acts to bring the crowds into the theatre. While on his next government assignment he planned to write that play and, on his return to London, give Philip Henslowe first refusal.
However, before all that he had to make an important detour into Kent to see his family and take the presents he had bought for each of them from the £12 earned from both Tamburlaines. Life was being good to Kit but he knew he’d have to work hard to maintain his new status and he was excited about the future and the possibilities it held.