The Relapse, or, Virtue in Danger

Background: theatre company split

In the early 1690s, London had only one officially countenanced theatre company, the "United Company", badly managed and with its takings bled off by predatory investors ("adventurers"). To counter the draining of the company's income, the manager Christopher Rich slashed the salaries and traditional perks of his skilled professional actors, antagonising such popular performers as Thomas Betterton, the tragedienne Elizabeth Barry, and the comedienne Anne Bracegirdle. Colley Cibber wrote in his autobiography that the owners of the United Company, "who had made a monopoly of the stage, and consequently presumed they might impose what conditions they pleased upon their people, did not consider that they were all this while endeavouring to enslave a set of actors whom the public… were inclined to support." Betterton and his colleagues set forth the bad finances of the United Company and the plight of the actors in a "Petition of the Players" submitted to the Lord Chamberlain. This unusual document is signed by nine men and six women, all established professional actors, and details a disreputable jumble of secret investments and "farmed" shares, making the case that owner chicanery rather than any failure of audience interest was at the root of the company's financial problems. Barely veiled strike threats in the actors' petition were met with an answering lock-out threat from Rich in a "Reply of the Patentees", but the burgeoning conflict was pre-empted by a suspension of all play-acting from December until March 1695 on account of Queen Mary's illness and death. During this interval, a cooperative actors' company took shape under the leadership of Betterton and was granted a Royal "licence to act" on 25 March, to the dismay of Rich, who saw the threat too late.

The two companies that emerged from this labour/management conflict are usually known respectively as the "Patent Company" (the no-longer-united United Company) and "Betterton's Company", although Judith Milhous argues that the latter misrepresents the cooperative nature of the actors' company. In the following period of intense rivalry, the Patent Company was handicapped by a shortage of competent actors. "Seducing" actors (as the legal term was) back and forth between the companies was a key tactic in the ensuing struggle for position, and so were appeals to the Lord Chamberlain to issue injunctions against seductions from the other side, which that functionary was quite willing to do. Later Rich also resorted to hiring amateurs, and to tempting Irish actors over from Dublin. But such measures were not yet in place for the staging of The Relapse in 1696, Rich's most desperate venture.

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