Legal Realism in Drama

Dr Subha Mukerji explores what happened when drama, extortion and the law collided in the seventeenth-century London underworld.

The Names of the Actors in this Murky Affair

A motley crowd of Londoners:
Tobias Audley, tobacconist
Nicholas Cartmell, minister and quack physician
Mary Spencer, prostitute
Marjorie Terry, bawd
Francis Holliday, conjurer and fortune-teller
Robert Taylor, Thomas Hopkins and Francis Wise, taverners
Edmund Ward, lawyer
Anne Elsden, a rich widow
Benjamin Garfield, gentleman, Beadle and Master of Bridewell, son-in-law to Anne Elsden
Theatre folk:
Thomas Dekker, John Webster and John Ford, playwrights
Ellis Worth, principal actor of Queen Anne’s Company from 1612
Aron Holland, owner of the Red Bull theatre
John Snow, parishioner of St Giles and theatre-goer

Today, the far-fetched plots of Jacobean comedies seem obviously fictitious – and not very realistic fiction at that.

But looking at the legal records of 1623, we see how a bizarre attempt at extortion by a group of London criminals was turned into a play on the London stage. How did these real-life characters reacted to seeing themselves in the theatre?

Read on!
Tobias Audley was a smart young man living in Jacobean London, whose expensive tastes had made him very poor and needy; he lived, as the Star Chamber (a very senior court in seventeenth-century England) was later to hear, ‘by selling of tobacco and hot waters’. Anne Elsden, a widow, had a fortune of 3000 pounds, making her extremely wealthy by the standards of the day. She also possessed a great personal estate in addition to her inheritance from her dead husband.

Audley set out to trick Anne into marrying him, which would have given him control over her money.

Cronies and henchmen His first attempt to trick Anne into marriage took place at the Greyhound Inn in Blackfriars, not far from the Blackfriars Theatre. He assembled a group of cronies and henchmen: Rector Nicholas Cartmell, in debt and looking for money, Edmund Ward, a supposed lawyer, and Francis Holliday, a fortune-teller. They were all promised gold if their scheme was succesful. And Margery Terry, a bawd, persuaded a number of other people, including a man called John Snow, to visit the tavern that night.

When Audley appeared with Anne, his associates pressed ‘drugs’ upon Anne, making her drink great quantities of ‘wine and hot water’ to ‘intoxicate and distort her senses, that he [Audley] might draw her to what he would’. But the drugs were not effective enough, and the morning after, when Anne was ‘very much distempered’, the jolly crew ‘enticed’ her to Lambeth, where they applied more wine. Then they took her to St George’s Fields where Simon Holliday ‘[conjured]’ her till ‘she became senseless’.

They now ‘came with her to Nag’s Head in Cheapside to effect a match’.

What happened next?

Anne, though ‘weakened’ in her ‘senses’ when dragged into the Nag’s Head, the court later heard that she still had enough memory to remember refusing ‘to marry the said Tobias Audley’. Cartmell here ‘infused and mingled’ some special drugs into wine which was forced down Anne’s throat, ‘so that her senses were taken from her’. At this point, one of the tavern boys ‘[carried] up a Book in the said room’ – the Book of Common Prayer. John Snow was in another room at that time, but Terry and Spencer came and told him that:

‚Äò… the said Anne Ellesden sat in a Chair and was unable to stand, and … Cartmell read some parts of the words of matrimony, what pleased him; but when she the said Anne should have said after the said Cartmell, she … could not speak a word and that then the said Mary Spencer took her by her chin and shaked her, and made her cry “oih, oih” and these were all the words they said they could get from her‚Äô

After this sham marriage, followed by supper, Audley and his company had a bed set up in a room in the Nags Head Tavern, ‘and did after consummate the same marriage, and lay there together in bed not only that night but also on the next night … and the third night’ elsewhere, ensuring that the churchwardens came and found them in bed together.

“…married to none but her grave…”

Anne awoke from her nightmare to declare ‘that she was married to none but to her grave’. Wise, the tavern’s vintner, and Ward, the bogus lawyer, then presented her with the license and said, ‘Look you here, you old hag, you have cozened [tricked] others, but now you are cozened yourself’. The reports from the court case make harrowing reading:

‚Äò… on the Sunday morning next … Anne … then lying in bed in the said Tavern and exclaiming that some rogues had robbed her and gotten away her keys … Mary Spencer and Margery Terrie councelled [Audley] to go to bed with her and make much of her, and so stop her exclamacions, unto which … Audley replied, that he had as leive [willingly] go to bed to an old Sow.‚Äô

Audley had taken the key to Anne’s house from her pocket while she was stupefied, and had gone there with Wise to steal money, rings and silver spoons, and twenty pounds, ‘to buy them all drink from the said tavern.’ A second raid yielded goods worth 1500 pounds. The profits were shared out amid self-congratulatory jubilation.

When Anne wanted to go home, the criminals forced her to stay, and knocked her out with yet more wine. Though she finally made her way home a few days later, she ‘remained senseless for 9 or 10 days’.

A widow is drugged and cheated out of thousands of pounds, and the case is heard in one of the highest courts of the land.

Where does the theatre come in to this story?
The court heard from a man by the name of John Snow, who had seen a play called Keep the Widow Waking acted at the Red Bull Theatre, a play which was apparently based on the story of Anne Elsden and the events in the two London taverns. Audley‚Äôs plot to cheat Anne out of her money didn’t just resemble a dramatic scenario – it inspired one.

The dialogue between law and drama

The interrogators turned their questions to the issue of whether the incidents in the London taverns had indeed taken place ‘as is acted at the Bull’ Рwhether the play was an accurate reflection of events.

In a series of questions to seven of Audley’s entourage, they asked:

‚ÄòDid you or any other of your Company … there knock with a pot and upon the same knocking did a boy of the same house answer ‚ÄúAnon, Anon, Sir‚Äù, and is not or hath not the same manner of knocking … been since acted upon the Stage at the Red Bull when the play called Keep the Widow Waking is acted or played there?‚Äô

‚ÄòWere you privy consenting or acquanted with the contriving, acting or playing of the play or interlude called Keep the Widow Waking? By whom was the said contrived and who gave instructions for [its] contriving …How often hath [it] been acted or played at the Red Bull? … Did you go thither on purpose to see the same played?‚Äô

The legal process actually referred to the drama for its own investigative purpose. The dialogue between law and drama could hardly be more immediate.What happened when this link between crime and the theatre was discovered?
Webster, Ford, Dekker, Rowley and company were brought to court by the Puritan Benjamin Garfield, Anne Elsden’s son-in-law, on a libel charge. They were accused of havin made a play out of his family’s misfotunes, spawining a salacious balad which was sung under Anne’s chamber-window.

The moral of the ballad:
Therefore let young men that are poor,
Come take example here,
And you who fain would hear the full
Discourse of this match making,
The play will teach you at the Bull
To keep the widow waking.

It is implied that they shared in the booty too, contriving with Audley’s entourage in protracting this exploitative event.

These reports evoke a picture of a news-hungry market, waiting to snap up any sensational trifles emerging from contemporary legal events.