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Alice Mustian’s scandalous backyard performance

The year 1614 was an eventful one for the London theatre world. Shakespeare’s Globe playhouse, rebuilt after having burned to the ground during an ill-fated performance of Henry VIII, was reopening its doors. Playgoers across the city could see performances of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. However, ninety miles away from London, in Salisbury, another play was performed that year, which was quite different from all of those: it was written by a middle-class woman, and it was staged in a temporary theatre in her backyard. Like much of the evidence about early modern performances in England, the story of this backyard performance was hidden away in archives for centuries; however, a recently reexamined lawsuit reveals the sensational tale of adultery, slander, and revenge behind this remarkable event.

On 4 September 1614, a Salisbury woman named Alice Mustian erected a stage in the backyard of her house on Catherine Street. Neighbours trickled in, paying a small admission fee (pins or pieces of ribbon) as they gathered in front of the make-shift stage constructed on top of tubs and barrels to watch a play that Mustian herself had written. The cast for the performance was a group of local children, including Alice’s ten-year-old son Phillip. The subject of the play, however, was hardly juvenile. Instead of a fictional tale, Mustian’s backyard play dramatized a very real piece of local gossip: that Mary Roberts, the wife of a joiner, had been caught having an adulterous affair with a baker named Robert Humphries. In some ways, Mustian’s astonishing decision to stage this salacious real-life story for her neighbours represented a kind of vigilante justice. When the townspeople of Salisbury had learned two years prior that Roberts was caught in a compromising situation with Humphries, some expected that the adulterous pair would be subjected to the traditional shaming ritual known as “carting,” in which the two would be paraded through the streets in a cart. This, however, never happened. Alice Mustian, thinking that their punishment was long overdue, took it upon herself to shame them both. In her backyard play, the troupe of local children, at Mustian’s direction, enacted the precise moment that Mary Robert’s husband, accompanied by a town constable, caught his wife with the undressed Robert Humphries, thereby exposing the affair. It wasn’t long before news of this backyard play reached the real Mary Roberts. Fiercely maintaining her innocence and furious that Mustian would try to shame her so flagrantly, Roberts immediately sued for defamation.

While the story of Mustian’s scandalous backyard play is remarkable, it is in one respect highly representative of early modern drama: the play itself does not survive and we only know anything about it through secondhand accounts, namely, the witness statements prepared for the ensuing defamation trial. Indeed, the majority of plays written and performed in the time of Shakespeare were never published and, in most cases, no complete scripts survive today in any form. Instead, theatre historians know about these plays through a wide range of types of evidence, such as playgoers’ diaries and letters, financial accounts, professional records, and manuscript fragments. This evidence might include titles, descriptions of performances, translations or quotations, backstage playhouse documents, payments to playwrights, or expenses for costumes and properties. As editors of the Lost Plays Database, a collaborative digital resource for compiling historical evidence and scholarly insights, we are dedicated to discovering as much as we can about these lost works of drama by examining the original documentary evidence.

The case of Alice Mustian proves to be a perfect example of just how much can be uncovered by locating and analyzing these primary archival sources directly. The six witness statements prepared for Mustian’s defamation trial are preserved in a single handwritten volume, a so-called “deposition book” prepared for ecclesiastical court cases, currently held at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham. The first scholar to discover these records was the historian Susan J. Wright, who mentioned them briefly in her doctoral dissertation about the social life of seventeenth-century Salisbury; a few years later, Martin Ingram cited the same case in the context of early modern English shaming rituals. While these brief early references were enough to alert later scholars to the name of Alice Mustian, no one had returned to the original legal sources of evidence to learn more about her. The amusing anecdote remained an anecdote and wasn’t investigated further.

In recent decades, however, scholars have increasingly turned their attentions to the fascinating body of dramatic writing by early modern women, including such plays as Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam (printed in 1613), or Mary Wroth’s Love’s Victory (c. 1617) and Jane Cavendish and Elizabeth Brackley’s The Concealed Fancies (c. 1645), both preserved in manuscript. In light of this scholarly work, a more complete story of Alice Mustian’s backyard play demanded to be told. Even though her play itself does not survive, the legal records that do provide clear evidence that a woman from a very different social world than Cary, Wroth, Cavendish, and Brackley could write a play—and indeed that, like the professional dramatists of the London stage, a woman could write a play for the express purpose of public performance. The story of Mustian’s backyard play, in other words, underscores Ramona Wray’s claim that “Early modern women’s drama was restricted neither by social status nor by site of activity” and that “the extraordinary richness of kinds of performance […] sensitise us to women who purposefully engaged in playing actions across of range of institutional and informal, licensed and unlicensed, settings.” For us, the case of Mustian reminds us that the evidence awaiting discovery in the archives might very well change our understanding not only about the kinds of plays that were written in early modern England but also of the kinds of voices who once wrote those plays and poems that may not have survived into the present. It exemplifies the kinds of stories that have yet to be discovered in the archives, stories that can profoundly change what we think we know about the drama of Shakespeare’s time. In the case of Alice Mustian, we find a powerful revision to our ideas about who could be a playwright.

Feature image by Joanna Kosinska via Unsplash.

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