​Drolls: The Illegal Comedies Time Forgot

At the largest arts festival in the world, it's easy to forget that theatre wasn't always welcome in Britain. When the Puritans made theatre illegal, the scene was driven underground. This working man's theatre of the Seventeenth Century has been largely unknown, but now The Owle Schreame Theatre Company aims to revive and revitalise the bawdy 17th-century drolls for a new audience. Broadway Baby’s James T Harding interviewed actor and artistic director Brice Stratford to learn more about the historical context of the drolls, the process of turning them into a performance, and the best type of milk to pour over an actor’s face.

People put far too much focus on text being unassailable

The drolls are a genre of short comic plays that were performed illegally during the Puritan Interregnum. “They tend to be individual scenes from popular Shakespeare plays. They're edited slightly, taken out of context, and turned into comic sketches, plays in their own right. A bit baser, bawdier, a bit more fun.” Extracts from other plays were used too, including “a few from plays which haven't survived (which is obviously quite valuable) and some which it is theorised were original writing by Robert Cox.”

Robert Cox is significant because he was the best-known of contemporary droll performers. “He had been a boy actor for Beeston’s Boys, which means that essentially all he knew was acting. There is one trace of Robert Cox's name as an adult actor as well as part of a company, but aside from that he left no dent on the historical record. From which we can surmise he was a fairly unsuccessful actor in the Jacobean period.”

“But then theatre became illegal,” and Cox “devoted himself to travelling around the country and collecting drolls. His collection was published after his death as The Wits, or Sport Upon Sport.” This book, published in 1662, was edited by Francis Kirkman.

Having collected so many drolls was more of an achievement than it might sound. “People forget how unimaginably brutal life was.” The drolls “were made under a religious dictatorship, an oppressive regime which based it's entire moral code on a fundamentalist view of Christianity. Christmas was illegal because there is too much revelry. Englishmen were killing Englishmen in the streets. It was a dark time.” Cox was arrested at least once for performing the drolls.

In that context, “seemingly stupid jokes about cuckolds and horns are quite significant.”

If it wasn’t for Robert Cox’s compilation, we wouldn’t have much of an idea what drolls were like.There is approximately thirty in there, and that's all the drolls that survive. There are a few others scattered here and there, but single figures.”

But how good was Robert Cox as an actor? There is actually “a comment on how good he was in Simpleton on record - so good that a blacksmith in the audience said he'd take him on as an apprentice any time.”

The introduction of the 1930s academic edition of the drolls “talks about how strange it is that that was said, because he doesn't really do any actual blacksmithing in the play.” Which rather misses the point.

The Owle Schreame’s performance at the Fringe consisted of three of the drolls: John Swabber, Simpleton, and a jig.

I was interested in what level of editing was needed to make them work for a modern audience. “Almost none. People were surprised.”

What about verbal play or historical references which would be lost on a modern audience? Unlike a full Shakespeare, “they’re easy to do without any further reading. There's not much in the way of obscure allusion. You can pick one of these up, rehearse it in a day, and perform it that evening. Most of the references you can just cut out, and it genuinely doesn't matter” because the spirit of the plays lies in their performance.

“The way that we find the humour - if we did it to a Shakespeare play - would be bad practice. We're not finding the humour from the text, we're imposing a gag over the top, distracting from the text.”

“People put far too much focus on text being unassailable. The drolls would have been edited and changed around depending on how many people were available, where they were performing - just like a contemporary performance.”

In any case there are very few stage directions in the texts to follow. “We're used to hundreds of years of people guessing what the stage directions might be and just writing it in, but generally when we go back to the original text there aren't many.” And the few that were there were difficult to interpret for a modern audience. “In the text, they ‘whistle’ for mice and ‘hem’ for the dogs. I've no idea what that was about.”

For the entrance of Young Simpleton in Simpleton, he “comes on carrying a massive loaf of bread and butter. And then everyone laughs. 'You can't eat that much bread!’ That was a classic bit that Robert Cox would do - he'd always come on with a massive bit of bread, and everyone would go, 'There he is with his massive bread. Ridiculous!’ What we've done now is inflated a huge bin bag with ‘haggis’ written on the side. But basically it's the same thing.”

I was surprised by how little racism there was in the plays. “We did cut some racism. There was very little though, I think three lines in John Swabber.” None from Simpleton or the jig. “When Swabber gets stuff all over his face, in the script it's supposed to be soot… I don't think it's supposed to be blackface in the sense that we know it today, he's just meant to look ridiculous as white was the standard form of beautiful powder that people would wear to make themselves look attractive.” But the connotations today are unfortunate. It was changed for the performance “because the show isn't about any of that stuff.”

For most people, the highlight of the Owle Schreame’s performance is the waterboarding sequence, where John Swabber clumsily tries to feed a fully grown man pretending to be his baby (don’t ask) a bottle of milk. Historically “it would probably have just been flour and water” as this would have been cheaper for the cast to obtain than milk. The script describes it as pancake batter.

“We thought initially skimmed would be better than whole milk, but it doesn't make any real difference. Soy milk is way too sticky” and the actor had difficulty getting it out of his beard. “We tried rice milk. I vetoed coconut milk because it doesn't look enough like milk.”

“There was one night when we let some semi-skimmed milk get warm and it came out in chunks. It was hideous. It looked like it had gone off. That was the best night. Chunky, gone-off pasteurised milk is the best thing to drown in.”

Stratford has grand plans for working with the drolls beyond his performance at the Fringe, including an expanded version of the existing show, a competition inviting different directors to put forward their own interpretations, and publishing accessible editions of the texts. “You can find them all online, but nothing that's easily readable. A lot of them have been done with optical character recognition - where they just scan it in - so there's loads of weird little symbols.” In any case, the 1930s edition which Stratford found on Amazon set him back £70 and “an extortionate postal fee”.

Stratford is, in general, scathing about the academic work that has been done so far on the drolls. “I don't think you can really appreciate them when you just read these texts in a library, if you don't have the mind of a performer. They have very little hard literary merit - they're not literature, they're fun, stupid comedy.”

As a result of their performance-reliant nature, “there’s almost nothing written about them. The received idea is that theatre stopped in 1642, and then there was the Restoration and theatre started again. That broke the living tradition. But it is not true. The drolls disprove that completely”

“That said, there is an academic who came in and was taking copious notes. She has just started working on a project about drolls. That could be cool.”

Read Broadway Baby’s review of Droll at theSpace here: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/droll/715699

Find more information about Owle Schreame from their website http://www.theowleschreame.com/ and get updates @OwleSchreame.

Related Listings



Drolls, Brice Stratford tells us in the show’s scholarly introduction, were originally performed by half-drunk actors in covert locations on raucous evenings during the Puritan Interregnum... 

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this article has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now