In A Nutshell
Child actors have it pretty rough, especially kids who lived in Elizabethan England. Unscrupulous theater managers often grabbed boys off the streets and forced them to act in sexually explicit plays. What’s worse, these pedophilic playhouses had the support of the Queen herself.
The Whole Bushel
Forget Dick van Dyke and his magical car. For most people, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang brings back horrible images of a long-nosed child-catcher sniffing out terrified kids. Thankfully, we can all take comfort in the fact that child-catchers only exist in the fictional land of Vulgaria . . . right? Not according to Dr. Bart van Es. A fellow of St. Catherine’s College, Dr. van Es is an expert on Elizabethan literature and recently discovered disturbing documents that revealed real-life child-catchers once prowled the streets of London.
Unlike the villain of the ’60s musical, these thugs weren’t carting kids off to prison. Instead, they were stealing boys and dragging them to local theaters. Starting in the late 1500s, certain playhouses specialized in all-boy productions, and they needed a steady supply of young actors. Potential players were snatched while on their way to school or work and forced to perform on stage. Uncooperative kids who didn’t learn their lines were whipped until their memory improved. However, these villains were perfectly within their legal rights to beat and imprison young boys: Queen Elizabeth essentially gave theaters permission to capture as many kiddies as possible.
Technically, the Virgin Queen told child-catchers to draft young boys for the Chapel Royal, a choir that sang for royalty. Despite the pretense, everybody knew “Chapel Royal” was really code for “child theaters.” With the approval of the Queen, theater bosses were untouchable. As they so obnoxiously put it, they could “take any nobleman’s son in the land.” For example, in 1600, a crew from the Blackfriars Theater kidnapped 13-year-old Thomas Clifton. When Henry, Tom’s dad, went to rescue his son, the managers threatened to torture the boy if he didn’t play his part in the upcoming play.
However, there’s an even darker layer to this story. It probably won’t come as a surprise that many of these boys were sexually abused. Most of the shows put on by children’s companies had a very erotic edge, and the mostly male audiences watched these pedophile plays in near darkness, leading one playwright to describe these theaters as a “nest of boys able to ravish a man.” Many of the stories were similar to Christopher Marlowe’s “Dido, Queen of Carthage” in which a young boy is fondled and solicited by the god Jupiter. In fact, Dr. van Es said children’s plays were far more sexual than anything put on by adults.
If there’s any silver lining here at all, it’s that William Shakespeare was strongly opposed to these productions. Sure, the Bard used young boys in his plays too, but there’s a key difference between Shakespeare’s crew and groups like Blackfriars. All of the Globe’s child stars were apprentices, not slaves. Van Es also notes that in “Hamlet,” Shakespeare makes several jabs about child companies, even going so far as to mock Christopher Marlowe’s creepy play. But regardless of Shakespeare’s opinions, all-boy productions outlived the man by many years, and child-catchers kept nabbing kids and destroying countless lives. It’s like the Bard said, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”