'Bred a player', the young Alleyn studied at a church choir school, and was known as an accomplished musician. His stage career peaked, and was over, soon. At sixteen his name appears in a list of the prominent actors of Worcester's Men who were in trouble with the authorities in Leicester for behaving in an aggressive way when refused a license. In 1587 he played the title rôle in the first performance of Marlowe's Tamburlaine, at the age of twenty. By 1594 he was so well known that the title-page of The Knack to Knowe a Knave says it was performed by 'Ed. Allen and his Company', rather than the formal title of the company, the Lord Admiral's. By 1597 at the age of 31 a State document says he has 'left playing', to the regret of Queen Elizabeth herself. Alleyn was busy with more lucrative projects, running theatres and bear-pits and with his position as Master of the Royal Game of Bears, Bulls and Mastiff Dogs. His menagerie performed at court, and his deputies could demand mastiffs to be 'taken up' in the provinces, (particularly in Lancashire and Cheshire where the best were to be found). Alleyn managed a male lion and a tiger, and also two polar bears; bears appeared from time to time in stage plays. Even so, the greater part of Alleyn's fortune derived in the end from his speculation in property and houses.
Alleyn first gave life and breath to Marlowe's resonant lines when Faustus sees Helen of Troy:
Is this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
and at his death:
O lente lente currite noctis equi.
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike.
The devil will come and Faustus must be damn'd.
O I'll leap up to my God: who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament.
One drop would save my soul, half a drop, ah my Christ.
Doctor Faustus was Alleyn's most famous part, played in a surplice with a cross stitched on it. To this play we possibly owe Alleyn's College of God's Gift: the performances seem to have released some hysteria at the black arts - John Aubrey visited the College in 1673 and heard there the tradition that 'in the midst of the Play [Alleyn was] surpris'd by an apparition of the Devil [among six actors playing devils], which so worked on his Fancy that he made a vow, which he perform'd at this Place'.
Alleyn was said at the time, like Burbage, to make even poor plays interesting: he was 'able to make an ill matter good'; the two of them (with Richard Tarleton) were the first 'stars' whom audiences went to see rather than the plays. Certainly Alleyn must have had extraordinary physical and mental stamina - he had to memorise over 800 lines for many of the plays; he sometimes took part in as many as fifteen a month. He fenced - in Orlando a stage direction reads 'they fight a good while and then breathe'.
Alleyn's style was praised as 'majestic'. It is also likely that he could not resist over-acting. There is a tradition that when Shakespeare wrote the lines in Hamlet (1600) telling the players how not to act - strutting, bellowing and tearing a passion to tatters - he was condemning, through the mouth of Burbage, the less subtle gestures and delivery of his rival. Shakespeare certainly makes fun of Marlowe's mighty lines in the pub scene in Henry IV, Part II, where Pistol burlesques phrases from Alleyn's famous melodramatic lines. The orotund style that suited Marlowe's extravagant heroes or the Revenge heroes was popular - 3000 packed the Rose. The 'robustious periwig-pated fellow' of an actor mocked by Hamlet certainly seems to indicate Alleyn's Tamburlaine, which was played in a wig; robustious means 'violent, boisterous, self-assertive'. Ben Jonson also mocked the 'Tamerlanes of the late age' with their 'strutting and furious vociferation', the 'terrible teare-throats' and their 'ignorant gapers' in the audience. It is clear that the 'garlic-breathed stinkards' (in Dekker's phrase) loved this style. Ben Jonson wrote a short poem, however, which has the ring of sincerity, in which he makes Alleyn the equal of the great Roman actors and praises his vocal powers and his range of characters. It is probably too easy to polarise Alleyn as bombastic, turgid and blustering and Burbage as discriminating and finely modulated. The understated naturalistic acting in vogue nowadays would hardly have registered in the large open-air amphitheatres such as the Rose and Globe; one should think of the performances as tending more to Verdi than to Chekhov.
The practices recommended by Hamlet to the players for enunciation and suiting the action to the word were consistent with the subject of 'Rhetoric' taught in schools and colleges, which (in addition to composition) included recitation and declamation, body and hand language. What was 'ye play' played by Alleyn's boys at the College on Twelfth Night in 1621? Surely he coached them himself?
In 1604 Alleyn was chosen to welcome King James I from Scotland on behalf of the City of London in an out-of-doors play, The Magnificent Entertainment, in which the court and dignitaries walked in procession to allegorical scenes played from a series of elaborate Triumphal Arches. Tall and imposing as the Genius (Spirit) of the City, he was the most famous lungs of his day; the description in the printed text says that Alleyn performed with 'excellent action and a well-tun'd audible voice'. We can see him in the engraving of the Triumphal Arch in his niche, the River Thames played by a boy at his feet, and musicians above him. On the pediment stood three-dimensional models of the principal churches and buildings of the City. Alleyn is striking an attitude, perhaps sawing the air with his hand in the style that Hamlet mocked. In a scene at the fourth Triumphal Arch Alleyn (presumably running down the back streets and changing his costume) appeared a second time in the character of a priest at an altar in a speech written by Ben Jonson, in which he presented James with the flaming heart of London, an emblem of charity. When the childless actor founded his charity of God's Gift he determined a heraldic crest for the College: from 'a ring of flames an arm with a hand holding a heart'. In this Alleyn doubtless remembered what he had received from the streets of London in fame and fortune; in return he was giving to the city his idealistic scheme to raise up boys from the streets; with the emblem he recalls the flaming heart of charity from the speech that was the high point of his career.
Jan Piggott is writing chapters for and editing a new illustrated history of Dulwich College, with contributions by Terry Walsh, Allan Ronald and Colin Niven, to be published on Founder's Day, 2006.