John Heywood (c. 1497 – c. 1580) was an English writer known for his plays, poems, and collection of proverbs. Although he is best known as a playwright, he was also active as a musician and composer, though no works survive.
Heywood was born in 1497, probably in Coventry, but he moved to London some time in his late teens. He spent time at Broadgate Hall, Oxford, and was active at the royal court by 1520 as a singer. Though he did not have the education of some of his peers, he was very intelligent, as can be seen by his translation of Johan Johan from the original French La Farce du paste. By 1519, Heywood was being paid 100 shillings four times a year for being a ‘synger’ in the royal court of Henry VIII. In 1523 he became a member of the Mercers' Company in London. He began receiving a salary as a virginal player in 1527. By 1523 records of London Freemans indicate John Heywood was married to Elizabeth Rastell, daughter of John Rastell the printer. Through this marriage Heywood would have entered into a very dramatic family. Rastell was a composer of interludes himself, and the very first publisher of plays in England. When Rastell built his own house in Finsbury Fields, he built a stage explicitly for the performance of plays, and his wife made costumes. The whole family appeared to be involved in these productions, including Thomas More. In this private theatre, Heywood would have found an audience for his early works, and a strong artistic influence in his father-in-law. In the fifteen-twenties and fifteen-thirties, however, he was writing and producing interludes for the royal court. He enjoyed the patronage of Edward VI and Mary I, writing plays to present at court. While some of his plays call for music, no songs or texts survive.
One of the extraordinary things about Heywood is that he was successfully retained at four subsequent royal courts (Henry, Edward, Mary, Elizabeth), despite the unpopular political views of his family and himself. Heywood was a devout Catholic, and there are signs that he was a favourite of King Henry despite his religious beliefs. In 1530 he was made the Common Measurer of the Mercer company though he didn’t appear to work with cloth in any way in his career, and in 1533 he received a gilt cup from the king. However, he was in a politically unstable environment during the creation of the Church of England, especially as he was not timid about letting his political views be known. Greg Walker notes that Heywood actually wrote a poem in defence of Princess Mary shortly after she was disinherited. In plays like the Four PP, (which would have been pronounced Ps) Heywood takes a page from Chaucer’s book in representing a corrupt Pardoner, but at the end of the play the Pedler chastises the Pothecary for “raylynge her openly / At pardons and relyques so leudly” (1199-1200). Heywood is a playwright whose representations cater to popular tastes but contain an undercurrent of Catholic conservatism. The Palmer ends the play with the blessing “besechynge our lorde to prosper you all / In the fayth of hys churche universall” (1234). Walker reads this as an indication of Heywood’s desire to convince the King to refrain from creating any sort of schism. Heywood is therefore more conciliatory than his famous uncle-in-law Thomas More who was executed for his religious beliefs in the face of Henry VIII’s changes. Heywood was actually arrested in a plot in 1543 to arraign Archbishop Cranmer for heresy, and even walked to the gallows, but a contemporary writer, Sir John Harington, observed that Heywood “escaped hanging with his mirth” (7). Heywood was most successful in Mary’s court, but in the end, though Heywood had performed for Elizabeth’s court, he was forced to flee England due to the Act of Uniformity against Catholics in 1564, and died in Mechelen, in present-day Belgium.
While Fraser and Rabkin argue that Heywood’s plays represent primitive drama, the long monologues in his text would have required actors with an extraordinary range. Many scholars have conjectured that Heywood was likely a performer in his own plays due to the frequent references in royal expense accounts to Heywood as a performer of various kinds. The plays might seem simple due to their lack of plot in the modern sense, but the ideas that Heywood explores are developed through the exposition of the characters in an equally complex way, even if it might seem foreign to modern sensibilities. Greg Walker has argued that the lack of plot (for example, in the Four PP’s where as soon as the Palmer has mastery over the Pardoner and Pothecary, he gives it up) has a lot to do with Heywood’s political views. As these plays can logically be assumed to have been performed in the presence of the king on at least one occasion, it is a very fruitful reading of the plays to consider the ways in which Heywood is in fact arguing for a peaceful resolution to the conflicts caused by events leading up to the schism of 1531. Richard Axton and Peter Happé observe that Heywood’s longer plays would likely take at least an hour and a half to perform including the songs and acrobatic routines. Their sparse staging requirements (most of the plays require no more furniture than perhaps a table and a chair) would mean that they could be performed almost anywhere, whether it be in a dining hall or as Cameron Louis suggests, the Inns of Court. Most of his works would require four actors or less, and would have been performed by adult performers. Axton and Happe conclude as there is no doubling of roles, the plays would have not used professional actors. The major exception would be his play The Play of the Weather which required ten boy actors, and elaborate staging.
A partial list:
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