Henslowe

A Victorian statue of Henslowe. No image of the impresario is known to be extant.

Philip Henslowe (c.1560 – 1616) is one of history’s great theatre entrepreneurs and managers. He oversaw and managed the construction of the Rose Theatre in the suburbs of London’s South Bank in 1587/8, and was business partners with Edward Alleyn, the most famous actor of the day. A prolific businessman, Henslowe was well-acquainted with the need for multiple revenue streams that still preoccupies theatre trusts and management today.

In the course of a long career, he had a hand in dying, manufacturing starch, bear baiting, cock fighting, bull-baiting, brothel keeping, property management, trading in goat skins, moneylending, and pursued a fulfilling career at the court of Queen Elizabeth 1 and King James 1 as a Groom of the Chamber from 1592 and a Gentleman Sewer (Steward) of the Chamber from 1603.

The Fortune Theatre, designed by Henslowe in 1599. It was an innovative and popular theatre.

Henslowe was able to pursue a costly career at Court principally because of the funds generated by his theatrical and entertainment investments.

Responding to demand, Henslowe and his business partner and now son-in-law Alleyn built the innovative Fortune Theatre for the Admiral’s Men in Cripplegate north of the Thames in 1600, incorporating many of the features of the famous Globe Theatre (where many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed). His interest in innovation was shown by creating the first square theatre building – all previous theatres such as the Globe had been round – with much better cover for actors and audience, and with a more decorative interior. The Fortune enjoyed outstanding success until 1621, when it burnt down. A replacement was promptly built on the same site.

The Paris Gardens, leased by Henslowe and Alleyne, were the ultimate multi-channel entertainment venue.

Henslowe and Alleyn by this time were tenants of the infamous Paris Gardens, a former manor house enclosed by a moat and with extensive gardens, which was well-known as an exclusive brothel and bear/bull baiting entertainment complex.

In 1604, they acquired the lucrative patent for the Mastership of the Royal Game. This jointly held patent, as S. P. Cerasano puts it,

“[…] allowed the men to procure animals for baiting and to bait bears and dogs at Court and at Paris Garden, as well as to license traveling bear wards and to breed, for their own purposes and for sale, English mastiffs, which were highly sought after as watchdogs. From all of these privileges Henslowe and Alleyn stood to earn quite a tidy sum. Owning the Bear Garden alone was similar to owning a modern racetrack where much of the profit is generated by the placing of bets.” (S P Cerasano, http://www.henslowe-alleyn.org.uk/essays/bearsandbulls.html)

In 1614, Henslowe created the first flexible use theatre, the Hope Theatre on the Bankside, built on the site of an earlier Bear Garden. It had an adaptable arena that would function as both a theatre and, with its removable stage, as an animal-baiting ring, allowing the building to be used for as many purposes as possible and increasing both time-in-use and box office receipts.

Henslowe is an inspiration to modern theatre managements. He relentlessly pursued the business of theatre by presenting high-quality product, engaging the services of the leading playwrights of the day (Ben Jonson, Dekker, Middleton and Webster) and building venues that consistently drew crowds. His entrepreneurial focus was clearly on creating spaces for multiple entertainment channels – mixing the popular bear-baiting with the ‘high-brow’ plays of Jonson, for example – and he ensured his assets were heavily programmed by making the spaces as flexible as possible. He also kept relatively good records – his diary remains the best source of information on pre-English civil war theatres available.