The man to impress and fear…
Anyone involved in the production of plays in Elizabethan England, from the playwright to the theatre owners, knew that the Master of Revels was the man to impress and fear, for he auditioned acting troupes, selected the plays they would perform, and controlled the scenery and costumes to be used in each production.
During the reign of James I, the Master of Revels reached the apex of his power and had complete authority over both the production and the publication of plays.
The Master of Revels, deputy to the Lord Chamberlain, headed the Revels Office, the department of the royal household responsible for the coordination of theatrical entertainment at court. To perform at court was the ultimate goal of every Elizabethan theatre company and, even if certain renegade companies did not desire to gain a royal audience, they had little choice but to pretend to shape their every action to this end. “Practising to perform at court for the monarch’s entertainment was the only officially accepted excuse the playing companies could give for playing regularly in London” (Gurr, 19). And, without the London audiences, it was unlikely that a troupe would survive.
When the Master of Revels organized an upcoming season of performances he would summon the acting troupes so that they could audition before him and his three subordinate officers. The Master would then choose which companies would perform and which plays they were allowed to produce. If the Master saw fit, he would delete lines or passages and even request that entire scenes be inserted into the original material.
Once the Master selected the plays to be produced before the royal court, he arranged for all the required costumes and scenery to be created by his own seamstresses and workmen. Much time and money was spent on the elaborate wardrobes, and only the finest fabrics were used. “The Revels Office used large quantities of velvet, sarsenet [a type of silk taffeta, used to line cloaks and dresses], satin, damask, taffeta, caffa [coarse silk taffeta], baudekin (or baldachin) [fabric woven with metal threads] and cloth of gold and silver. These stuffs were not specially or sparingly used but furnished most of the costumes for all the masks and many plays. Many of the costumes included long or full garments which required several yards of material” (Paterson, 14). Scenery provided by the Revels Office was also often sophisticated and ornate. During the season of 1578-79 the Office created a moving cloud with blue linen, hoops, pulleys, ropes, and baskets, to be used as a backdrop.
The Master’s power extended beyond control of court entertainment to include censoring publicly performed plays, and issuing licenses to provincial acting troupes. This led to a gradual corruption of the office, and by 1603 it was common for the Master of Revels to earn ten times his yearly salary through bribes. The Revels Office reached the height of its authority under the direction of Sir Henry Herbert (1623-42), the brother of acclaimed poet George Herbert. However, following the civil war in 1642, the Puritan government closed all the theatres and the Office of the Revels became fruitless. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Herbert, still Master of Revels, tried to resurrect the Revels Office to its former glory, but his attempts were unsuccessful. The Revels Office was formally eliminated by 1737.
Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearian Playing Companies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. Paterson, Morton. The Stagecraft of the Revels Office during the Reign of Elizabeth. In Studies in the Elizabethan Theatre. Ed. Charles T. Prouty. Cambridge: Shoe String Press, 1961.