Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1970.
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The dating of two plays set in Covent Garden
Two comedies, Richard Brome's The Weeding of the Covent Garden and Thomas Nabbes's Covent Garden, have the incipient suburb as their setting. They belong to a group of six plays exploiting the topical appeal of 'place-realism', of which the other four have been dated between 1631 and 1635. (fn. 2)
The first of the two plays to be published was Nabbes's, which was entered in the Stationers' Register in May 1638 (fn. 3) and published in the same year (fn. 4). It states on the title-page that it was 'Acted in the Yeare MDCXXX11' (that is, by 24 March 1632/3). The comment of one of its characters that 'Lent's at hand' (1, 4) may be topical and indicate a date early in 1632/3. This is consistent with a reference (1, 1) to rumours that Covent Garden was a 'godly' place (see page 99).
Brome's play was entered in the Stationers' Register in August 1640. (fn. 5) It does not, however, seem to have been published until five of his plays were issued together in 1659. (fn. 6) It was then prefaced by two prologues, of which one is evidently that spoken at a revival and mentions the first writing of the play 'some ten years since'. The revival can hardly have been later than September 1642, when the theatres were closed: possibly the prospect of a revival occasioned the entry in the Stationers' Register. A date not much later than 1632 is thus indicated for Brome's play.
This approximate date is also suggested by the motivation of one of Brome's characters, a cantankerous squire who determines to come to London, perversely, only when 'the Proclamation of restraint spurr'd him up' (11, 1). The reference is probably to the proclamation of June 1632 (fn. 7) which forbad country gentlemen to come to London without permission, and attracted particular attention by the rigour with which it was enforced. (fn. 8)
Both plays affect to portray the area when houses (more particularly those with balconies) were already built, but not fully tenanted: the parish ratebooks confirm that residents began to move in about 1632. In Brome's play the houses still reek of lime (111, 2): in Nabbes's the ground is ankle-deep in dirt (1, 1). Taverns and brothels are, however, already in business. Part of Brome's play is set in the Goat tavern, which was in existence in May 1632 (fn. 9) and December 1633, at the north-west corner of Russell Street and Bow Street, but probably came to an end in the course of the following year. (fn. 10) In Brome's play the church (begun in July 1631) is evidently completed externally, which it can hardly have been before the latter part of 1632, but has not yet received its consecration in 1638. Nabbes makes 'the Piazzi' the setting for a duel that can be witnessed from a house-balcony (111, 1), and Brome represents the Piazza as sufficiently advanced in building for a character to say 'yond magnificent Peece, the Piazzo, will excel that at Venice' (1, 1). The building of the main part of the Piazza probably began in 1633; but it must be noted that the work is not likely to have been far advanced in that year.
Brome's play is usually taken to have antedated Nabbes's, particularly on account of the prologue prefaced to the latter, as printed in 1638. (fn. 11) This contains unmistakeable references to Brome's play, and disclaims plagiarism from his work. It may, however, be unsafe to assume with complete certainty that Nabbes's prologue dates from the first performance, rather than a later staging of the play, or its publication. (A denial of plagiarism might have been necessary if the first performance of Nabbes's play failed, and its resurrection was prompted by the success of Brome's.) (fn. 1) This possibility should be considered because of the elements in Brome's play for which a date early in 1633 (the latest possible if it antedates Nabbes's) seems rather too early. It mentions 'a venter in the new soap-businesse', and reports that 'the women begin to grumble against that slippery project and, 'tis feard, will mutinie shortly' (11, 1). This is suggestive of an episode as late as September 1634, the riots against the activities of the government-sponsored soap company established in January 1631/2. Perhaps, however, it refers merely to premonitory symptoms of discontent. (fn. 13)
One other topical reference should be mentioned. Both plays touch on a much-debated subject: Brome's contains a west-country Puritan who has 'hang'd the head . . . ever since Holiday sports were cried up in the Countrey' (1, 1), and Nabbes's similarly mentions that 'sports' are now tolerated (1, 1). This might well refer to Charles's reissue in October 1633 of his father's Declaration of Sports. That date is, however, later than Nabbes's own dating of his play, and both references (if they signify more than the Laudian encouragement of anti-Puritan polemic) may be to the conflict of authorities in Somerset in 1632–3. (fn. 14)
Some reservation is necessary in dating these plays from internal evidence because of the possibility that as printed they contain elements introduced after the first performances, to refresh their topicality. With this qualification, and accepting that the development of the Piazza is slightly anticipated by our authors, a date c. 1633 is perhaps best for both plays.