Today is the birthday of Thomas Killigrew, playwright and theatre manager, who was born in 1612. His father, Sir Robert Killigrew, was courtier to King James I. When he was thirteen, Thomas became a page to Charles I. He seems to have divided his time between life at court and visits to the theatre. He gets several mentions in the diary of Samuel Pepys, who tells us that, as a boy, Killigrew used to volunteer to play an extra at the Red Bull Theatre in Clerkenwell, so that he could see the plays for free.
He doesn’t seem to have been educated anywhere in particular, but rather to have travelled around Europe, writing plays as he went. He wrote nine of them, supposedly each in a different city. One interesting feature of his youth is that he was present at an exorcism of possessed nuns at Loudun in France in 1635. He wrote a long letter about it. The exorcisms at Loudun were completely awful, but also fascinating so therefore worth a mention.
The story concerns a local priest called Urbain Grandier who was accused of summoning devils who had apparently possessed the nuns of the convent at Loudun. The nuns began to have fits and started speaking in tongues. They claimed to be possessed by two demons called Asmodeus and Zebulun, who had been sent to them by Father Grandier when he tossed a bouquet of roses over the wall of the convent. Exorcisms followed, a lot of exorcisms, they went on for years and later became a public spectacle. Killigrew was not the only witness, maybe 7,000 people visited the convent to see priests casting demons out of nuns. Grandier was tried as a witch. One of the pieces of evidence, which you can see above, was a pact signed by him and several demons which had been stolen from the devil. Urbain Grandier was found guilty and burned alive in 1634, but the public exorcisms continued until 1637. It was all a big lie, the nuns were pretending. They staged the whole thing, perhaps to discredit the priest on behalf of someone else, maybe to encourage people to convert to Catholicism. What Grandier had actually done wrong was write a treatise against celibacy in the clergy and perhaps written a rude play about Cardinal Richelieu.
Killigrew, didn’t know about this though, and he seems to have been impressed by the display. He believed that he saw the belly and breasts of one nun swell before his eyes, as if she was pregnant. He also saw that, as a devil left one of the nuns, its name appeared on the flesh of her arm. I can’t imagine how this was done, but maybe they had run out of fancy devil names by 1665, because the demon was called ‘Joseph’. The Devils of Loudun, however made up they were, have been a fruitful source of inspiration. Aldous Huxley wrote a book about them, which was made into a play by John Whiting and then a film by Ken Russell.
Thomas Killigrew was an ardent Royalist and, as you may know, things didn’t work out too well for Charles I. His son, the future Charles II went into exile in 1646 and Killigrew followed him a year later. He returned with the prince when the monarchy was re-instated in 1660 and, along with William Davenant was given a warrant to form a new theatre company. Killigrew’s ‘King’s Company’ and Davenant’s ‘Duke of York’s Men’ would be rivals for years. He also earned himself the position of ‘Groom of the King’s Bedchamber’, Chamberlain to the Queen and, according to Pepys, the king’s jester and fool. He even insists that the king bought him a hat with bells on, but I suspect this is probably a joke. Killigrew certainly seems to have got away with insulting the king though. Charles II was a rather dissolute character who fathered no heirs, but at least twelve illegitimate children. I rather like him though. He had a difficult reign that saw the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, neither of which were his fault. He also lost a war against the Dutch. At the same time, he managed to revive theatre in London, which had been banned for years under the Commonwealth, and to found the Royal Society and the Royal Observatory. Killigrew got away with calling him: “The one who spends his time in employing his lips and his prick about the court and has no other employment.”
He and his King’s Company were no less rude at their theatre in Drury Lane. Whilst Davenant’s company tended to rather ingratiate themselves with their audiences, the King’s Company just insulted everybody in their prologues. They were an innovative troupe. Killigrew was probably the first person to employ an actress on the English stage. She played the part of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ on December 8th 1660. But there is some argument over who it was. He also employed Pepys friend Mary Knep and Nell Gwyn., who he lost to the king in 1668. In 1664, and again in 1673, he actually staged productions of his own play, ‘The Parson’s Wedding’, that was entirely acted by women. Male audience members loved to see actresses playing the parts of men, because it meant that they could look at their legs.
Historically Killigrew is seen as a bit of a rubbish theatre manager, compared with Davenant, a bit of an amateur and general example of how not to run a theatre. He left the day to day running of the theatre to a group of actors who all had shares in the company. This sometimes caused arguments and problems, especially over who owned one of the shares when one of the actors, Walter Clun, was murdered in 1664. He also had problems with getting people to turn up to rehearsals, a problem which he solved by employing a company prostitute. So, he was a bit left of field, but I think he did okay. He was the first to employ performers from overseas, including two enormous castrati from Italy, who Pepys was terribly impressed by. He also may have invented the orchestra pit.