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Take a trip back in time

This Dal prof is digitizing a historic diary

4 min read
caption David Nicol skims through Philip Hensolwe's diary, a rare artifact from Elizabethan England
Lara Lewis
caption David Nicol skims through Philip Hensolwe’s diary, a rare artifact from Elizabethan England.
Lara Lewis

Every day, David Nicol steps 424 years into the past.

For a year, he has been reproducing the contents of Elizabethan businessman Philip Henslowe’s diary as a day-by-day blog. Henslowe was a successful theatre manager in the late 1500s.

“He owned a theatre called the Rose Theatre and (it was) on the south bank of the Thames, surrounded by bear-baiting pits and brothels and taverns,” says Nicol, who teaches theatre and film at Dalhousie University.

The Rose was built in 1587 by Henslowe and is famous for premiering plays written by Christopher Marlowe.

Nicol’s fixation on the diary stems from his interest in a famous Elizabethan performer, Edward Alleyn. The actor stood at 6’5,” which was tall for his era, and was known for originating roles in multiple Marlowe plays like Dr. Faustus and Tamburlaine. Alleyn was the lead actor at the Rose’s troupe, Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

For modern fanboys of Renaissance theatre, Henslowe’s diary is a “miraculous” discovery. Nicol explains the diary contains an extensive log of theatre performances and earnings.

This might not sound exciting, but there’s nothing else like it surviving from the Elizabethan era,” he says. “I should stress that it’s very, very nerdy and if you aren’t a nerd, you wont like it. But if you are a nerd, it’s awesome.”

The diary shows how much the business of theatre has changed between time periods.

In systems of modern theatre, generally one play will be learned over the course of a month or more, be performed for a set run and then end. By contrast, “in the time of Shakespeare every company had a repertoire of 20 or 30 plays,” says Nicol. “The idea was that the actors should be able to memorize their parts for all of them, so that if they decided to do, say Dr. Faustus tomorrow, they could just leap up there and go.”

Nicol, who lectures on Renaissance drama and the cinema of David Lynch, has been digitizing the diary piece by piece since February 2016. Nicol says no one has attempted to digitize the diary in real time before. It joins other digitized historic diaries — like that of pirate William Kidd, and that of 17th century dramatist Samuel Pepys.

Nicol says that if he had simply posted the diary word for word it would be pretty boring.

I give you pictures; I give you fun little knowledge stuff,” he says of the analysis he provides along with the diary’s original and modern text. 

He says that like today, making a career in the arts was difficult.

“Something bad always seems to happen; the bad thing at the moment is the plague,” says Nicol. “When they saw an uptick in plague victims, they would close the theatres.”

Modern historians estimate that anywhere between 25 and 60 per cent of the population died in outbreaks like these.

“The thing I like about it is the sense of duration,” says Nicol. The diary exists in chunks of a month or so at a time before taking breaks of up to months.

Up next for the diary? After a plague break, Nicol will pick up the blog again in the summer. He’ll be following the troupe on a cross-country tour through letters Alleyn sent his wife that summer. Like now, household worries dominated conversation.

“You learn stuff about being an actor on the road while your wife and family are living in a plague infested city and how that feels, which I think you could imagine doesn’t feel great,” Nicol says, but Allyen’s family’s health isn’t his top concern. 

The major thing that seems to panic Edward Allyen is his spinach patch at home,” he laughs. “He really cares a lot about it.”

Alleyn isn’t the only one with strange interests. Nicol will be working on the diary for the next five years.

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