Female actors did not start appearing on the English stage until the middle of the Seventeenth Century. Prior to this date, women's roles were played exclusively by male actors, often adolescent members of the acting troupes, whose smooth, beardless faces and higher-pitched voices made for more convincing females. This is a fairly well-known fact about English theater history. But what many people don't know is that there were, in truth, entire Elizabethan acting companies comprised entirely of boys.
Some boy acting companies had their origins as choir boys performing in royal pageants up through the reign of Henry VIII. Yet it wasn't until after Elizabeth I took the throne that these groups became professional acting companies. In 1576, The Chapel Children (or Children of the Chapel) moved into a playhouse in the Blackfriars area (pictured above) in London--the same year the first adult players' theater was constructed. At around the same time, the Children of Paul's, or St. Paul's Boys, performed plays by John Lyly. Various changes of management occurred, and in 1582, the two boy companies united. They lost their commercial stage in 1584, but continued giving royal performances until 1590.
The boys were between the ages of eight and twelve. Just as in an adult acting troupe, the boys' companies had a repertory group of actors who each performed specific "type" roles. Sometimes, performing in the troupe was not a matter of choice, but rather the boys could be conscripted into the company if they had good voices and attractive faces. The companies had masters, including Richard Farrant, Henry Evans, Sebastian Westscott and Thomas Giles. These masters were responsible for training the boys in all aspects of theatrical performance as well as education. In addition to these responsibilities, the masters served as directors, costumers, set designers and theatrical managers. Boy troupes performed with their companies, and also acted alongside adult troupes, wherein they would often take the female roles.
In Hamlet, Rosencrantz does not look favorably on this trend of boy actors, perhaps voicing Shakespeare's feelings toward rival theatrical companies:
...there is, sir, an aerie of children, little eyases, that cry out on top of the question and are most tyrannically clapped for't. These are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages--so they call them--that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills and dare scarce come thither. (II.ii.)The success of the boy troupes continued until 1589. The Martin Marprelate religious controversy caused Lyly and his acting troupe to be officially disowned by the crown. They stopped performing in 1590, and didn't resurface for many years.
Two boy companies returned in 1598. Theater impresario Richard Burbage rented the second Blackfriars Theater to the Chapel Children. With the accession if James I in 1603, the company received a new patent and a name change, when the troupe became Children of the Queen's Revels. The plays the troupe performed were not "dumbed down" versions of plays, nor were the plays altered in order to accommodate the child performers. The company performed plays by Ben Jonson, George Chapman, Thomas Middleton and John Marston and specialized in satirical, witty plays that appealed to a genteel audience.
Controversy continued to afflict the troupe. The play Eastward Ho, by Jonson and Chapman, caused the authors to be jailed and the company to lose its royal patent. More name changes followed, and yet more scandals due to the political and satiric nature of the works performed. They won, then lost royal favor, then regained it once more. Eventually, with profits declining and interest in child acting troupes waning, the boys' companies were incorporated into adult acting troupes. The group Lady Elizabeth's Men, granted a patent in 1615 was comprised largely of adult veterans of the boys' companies.
Later attempts to revive the boys' companies followed. One such attempt came in 1637 when Christopher Beeston founded the King and Queen's Young Company. The company was known more informally as Beeston's Boys. This company was variably successful, and was managed by Beeston's son after the elder's death, until the closing of all English theaters in 1642. After the theaters were reopened in the Restoration, Beeston's Boys performed again, but only briefly. Female actors had already begun to be seen on English stages, and the era of the child acting troupes was over.