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Bowling Alleys and Playhouses in London, 1560-1590

Davies, Callan (2019) Bowling Alleys and Playhouses in London, 1560-1590. Early Theatre, 22 (2). ISSN 1206-9078. E-ISSN 2293-7609. (doi:10.12745/et.22.2.3918) (KAR id:76035)

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Bowling alleys might not seem obvious parallels to the Elizabethan spaces that staged the plays of Greene, Kyd, Lyly, Marlowe, Peele, Shakespeare, and Wilson, but they are closely tied up with the playhouse industry of mid-to-late sixteenth-century London. Among chief concerns for builders of playhouses in this period are issues of City regulation and opposition from local residents; choosing open or closed, indoor or outdoor venues; and finding skilled constructors to build or adapt acquired space to the desired ends. Each of these issues is equally pertinent to bowling alleys, whose proprietors were navigating such paths long before purpose-built structures for commercial drama were widely established in the city. Bowling alleys therefore provide a useful paradigm for understanding the construction of long-standing commercial stages in the 1560s and 1570s, and they provide essential and overlooked contexts that situate playhouses within the wider leisure ecology of Elizabethan London. Various models of influence have been posited for playhouse construction, particularly classical amphitheatres and contemporary animal baiting arenas, none of which have proved to be entirely persuasive ; by contrast, bowling alleys have not before been considered a major influence on playhouse development, but their construction, reception, and activity present striking similarities with multipurpose theatre buildings. Moreover, bowling alleys lay down models not only for those setting up and managing recreational space but also for those in opposition to it. They help supply the vocabulary of recreational enterprise later attached to theatrical playing spaces and lay foundations—in all senses—for the development of London’s

theatre industry itself.

In this article, I briefly explore the history of bowling and its sixteenth-century developments, before focusing on how bowling alleys can help historians better understand the boom in playhouse building in and around London in the 1560s and 1570s and beyond. I explore the significance of alley spaces in the Elizabethan capital—a contentious topic for lawmakers, builders, and particularly poor tenants suffering from an exploitative rental market. Recreational development of such spaces cannot be entirely separated from their domestic uses, and the proliferation of

bowling alleys should be understood alongside the housing crises and related building restrictions of these years. Playhouse builders in turn followed examples set down by alley development, and both the Curtain (c.1577) and the First Blackfriars Playhouse (1576) sat similarly within existing space in alley-like set-ups. Moreover, bowling alley construction has a long history that informs stage-construction—as illustrated by the limited evidence surrounding John Brayne’s Red Lion playhouse (1567) and by wider building regulations across the Elizabethan city. Lastly, I focus on two examples of bowling alleys in the 1570s and 1580s—the case of James Croft’s servant and Henry Naylor’s ex-ecclesiastical alleys in the Blackfriars—to show how bowling alleys can offer models for better understanding developments in and reactions to the playing industry.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.12745/et.22.2.3918
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of English
Depositing User: Callan Davies
Date Deposited: 30 Aug 2019 08:09 UTC
Last Modified: 14 Jan 2024 19:00 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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