A Letter from Nathan Field, Robert Daborne and Philip Massinger to Philip Henslowe (c. 1614)
MSS 1, Article 68
(R. A. Foakes and Grace Ioppolo)
MSS 1, Article 68 (MSS-1/Article-068/01r)
You vnderstand or vnfortunate extremitie and I doe not thincke you so void of christianitie but that you would throw so much money into the Thames as wee request now of you; rather then endanger so many innocent liues, you know there is xl [i.e., £10] more at least to be receaued of you, for the play, wee desire you to lend vs vl [£5] of that, wch shall be allowed to you wthout wch wee cannot be bayled, nor I play any more till this be dispatch’d, it will loose you xxl [£20] ere the end of the next weeke, beside the hin=derance of the next new play, pray Sr Consider our Cases with humanitie, and now giue us cause to acknowledge you our true freind in time of neede; wee haue entreated Mr. Dauison to deliuer this note, as well to wittnesse yr loue, as or promises, and allwayes acknowledgment to be euer
yr most thanckfull; and louing freinds
the mony shall be abated out of the mony remayns for the play of mr fletcher & ours
I have everfounde you a true lovinge freinde to mee & in soe small a suite yt [i.e., that] beeinge honest I hope yow will not faile vs. Philip Massinger
In the spring of 1614, Philip Henslowe was in his sixties, an old man in that period, and was taking on a theatre and a company, the Lady Elizabeth’s Men, new to him. He had had already established a modus operandi, first at the Rose and later the Fortune theatres, between 1592 and 1604, the period documented by his famous Diary, or account-book. During those twelve years, he acted in effect as banker to the actors, collecting their share of the admission money at the playhouse and advancing money on their behalf at the behest of sharers to dramatists for new or revised plays and costumes. However, after 1604, not much is known about Henslowe’s theatrical activities until he bought the Bear Garden from his son-in-law, Edward Alleyn, in 1611. He had this torn down in 1613, and in partnership with Jacob Meade, a waterman, he erected the Hope theatre, which was designed to serve as a playhouse and for bear- and bull-baiting one day in every four days. Henslowe and Meade entered into agreements with ‘Nathan Field, gentleman’, a celebrated actor and dramatist, and with Robert Dawes, an actor, as sharers in the Lady Elizabeth’s Men, to provide the company a playhouse.
Henslowe and Mead agreed, according to Muniment 52 (mun-1/052/01r), to ‘lay out . . . such sums of money as shall be thought fitting by four or five of the sharers of the said company’ to pay for ‘any play which they shall buy or condition or agree for’, provided that the company reimburse Henslowe and Meade on the second or third day of the play’s performance. This echoes the arrangement Henslowe had with the Admiral’s Men in the 1590s, but then, as now in 1614, many deals were made directly with individual actors or dramatists, no sharers perhaps being available. It is in this context that Article 68r needs to be understood.
Nathan Field made his name as a boy actor playing female roles, and aged about 27 or 28 at the time of this letter he had become the leading adult player of the Lady Elizabeth’s Men. Field had been arrested, by whom and for what reason is not known, but in a litigious age arrests for minor matters such as unpaid debts were common: for example, Thomas Dekker, the dramatist, was discharged by Henslowe from arrest at the suit of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1598 (Henslowe’s Diary, MSS-7/053r). Without Field, the company could not perform, and it seems that he was collaborating in the writing of a play with Daborne and Massinger, who add their support. As a working dramatist Daborne had negotiated for several years with Philip Henslowe. Philip Massinger later wrote many plays, often in collaboration with John Fletcher, for the King’s Men.
Other records in the Henslowe-Alleyn archive suggest that the play which Daborne refers to as John Fletcher’s ‘and ours’ is The Honest Man’s Fortune, contracted by Henslowe in 1613 (a manuscript of the play survives at the Victoria and Albert Museum). In some ways, this letter is a routine reiteration of the relationships between dramatists and those who employed or contracted them—mutually dependent and beneficial and, not unusually, underlined by the fact that dramatists and theatre entrepreneurs could become ‘true and loving friends’. This collaborative letter implies here that the three authors are familiar with Henslowe’s character, as well as his paternal relationships with theatre personnel. Indeed, some dramatists did refer to Henslowe as ‘Father’ and signed their letters ‘your loving son’, as in Article 69 (MSS-1/Article-069/01r), probably because many of them had worked for him in other capacities over the years as boy or adult actors or company-sharers or managers. Perhaps they aspired to the affectionate father-son relationship Henslowe shared with another actor—Edward Alleyn.
At this time, being arrested for debt or other minor offences did not imply that men like Field were considered dissolute wastrels by society. Henslowe knew that actors and dramatists had to rely on the variable nature and income of their work. This income depended on the size of the audience, and playhouses could be closed in time of plague. Even if they were on an exclusive contract, dramatists were usually paid per play in small increments. For example, if a dramatist was paid a total of £6 for a play in the 1590s (or £20 by the 1610s), the payment was usually made in stages over a few weeks, or months, of several 20-shilling (i.e., £1) advances at a time, plus a final payment when the play was finished. This meant that dramatists’ income was variable and sporadic, not regular and predictable per annum.
Living on this type of deferred income could lead a dramatist into debt, and into asking his employer or contractor, eventually, to bail him against future potential or real income. What is most notable about these requests directly from an actor and dramatists to Henslowe is his willingness to offer immediately the sum requested. Judging from various records in the archive, Henslowe lost more than he made in providing loans or bail money to dramatists. In fact, he appears to have simply forgiven many dramatists their debts, including the sizeable sum of £20 owed to him by Daborne in 1616. Perhaps Henslowe considered this loss to be worth the ‘true and loving friends’ he maintained in return.