Master of the Revels
Or: The Tudor Casting Couch

In 1495, the English King Henry VII's appetite for light entertainment--the War of the Roses being apparently insufficient--caused him to single out one man to be responsible for the organization of his often complicated and increasingly frequent festivities. The Master of the Revels started out being directly responsible for essentials such as set design and painting, but as the theatre grew in sophistication, so did the position. By Charles I's reign, the keeper of those keys had immense creative control--with no requisite devotion to artistic or aesthetic merit.

You may be reminded of a certain entertainment industry.

The Studio System

If the Studio is the Crown, then the Master of the Revels is the Producer, reporting to the Lord Chamberlain--a sort of none-too-silent Executive Producer, if you will.

It was Sir Thomas Cawarden, member of Henry VIII's privy council, however, who in 1545 was appointed Master of the Revels for life and really ushered in a new era in theatre. It was Carawden's lease to James Burbage of rooms in Blackfriars that established the first 'public' theatre within London's City walls. The realm of theatre soon began to extend beyond the immediate Court to an increasing number of aristocrats, calling for a corresponding increase in the power of his office--just after he left it. Burbage's theatre didn't get running until Carawden retired from his life appointment, and hence, his life.

Revised Job Description

During Elizabeth I's reign, the Master of the Revels became responsible not only to the Crown, but to the Public, which could be every bit as fickle an audience. There were also religious conflicts percolating throughout Europe--so you had to keep it somewhat clean onstage. We won't get into a discussion about the typical convention of men playing women playing men and having romantic scenes with men just playing women, and why that was considered morally aboveboard--must have been a Church thing.

By 1581, decrees made the Master of the Revels responsible for:

  • Finding material
  • Auditioning acting troupes
  • Licensing theatres
  • Collecting fees
  • Costume design
  • Scenic design
  • Closing and Reopening Theatres
  • Censorship

That's right, censorship. So that wiseass remark you made in Act II about how much of a prat you thought the Archibishop of Canterbury was would never have seen the light of day--and indeed could have endangered your whole career. If Shakespeare had told the truth, and made MacBeth's Duncan appear the inept King he really was, it would never have gotten made. The Master of the Revels would have stopped it. King James I was a distant relation of Duncan. The same would have occured with Richard III, who in fact was probably not a total maniac, and almost certainly not deprived of the use of his left arm. But Richard landed on the wrong side of Bosworth Field, and the Tudors took the throne--so it was no good making anything but a villain of the other guy. If you did, you could get your whole theatre closed for sedition, if it wasn't already closed because of the Plague.

Power Corrupts, Etc., Etc.

As the Master of the Revels could dry up your patronage in a heartbeat, you had to stay on his good side--therefore, the power exercised by the Master was both directly and indirectly responsible for shaping the face of drama, right down to the characater, page, and line.

Unsuprisingly, then, at the height of its power in the 1620s, under the direction of Sir Henry Herbert, it was common for Revels Officials to make ten times their salaries through bribes or other 'favors'.

Wow. So some people got into show business just for the money, power, and sex. So THAT's how so much drivel gets made. I mean got made. Excuse me. Heh heh. Woo...

Of course, the industry was soon to face a much larger problem--Puritans.

These People Make Disney Seem Like...Well, Disney, Really.

Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate slapped a big immorality sticker on just about everything, and closed the theaters in short order. The entire country was cleaned up, if you don't rate the huge amounts of blood spilled as a result of the Civil War.

The Puritans kept the playhouses closed for fully ten years--which took a big chunk out of the box office, and left the Master of the Revels sitting about not having much of anything to do. The office never really recovered from it, even after the Restoration.

Herbert, who was still in charge when Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, attempted to revitalize the position, but to no avail. You're not a producer if you don't produce, and the office was gradually stripped of its power over the next fifty years.


In 1737, the Licensing Act put an end to the Office of the Master of the Revels. The power of censorship fell solely to the Lord Chamberlain.
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