Like the Fortune, the Red Bull was enormously popular with the citizens of Stuart London, becoming famous for rousing spectacles and plays with a nationalistic emphasis. Noteworthy plays staged included The Four Prentices of London by Thomas Heywood, John Webster’s The White Devil, and the anonymous Swetnam the Woman Hater. The Red Bull came into being when it was built by tradesman Aaron Holland, though later in the Jacobean period it was run by the entrepreneurial Christopher Beeston, who soon after set up the indoor Cockpit playhouse.
In the first decade of the seventeenth century the outdoor theatres – particularly the Fortune and the Red Bull and the older Curtain, all to the north of the City of London – appear now to have gained a strong reputation for putting on plays that appealed to the lower end of the market. Theatre historians have characterised the Fortune and the Red Bull as ‘citizen playhouses’ catering for the lower orders of the London community who wished to view scenes of sensational action played at inexpensive outdoor amphitheatres. After about 1600, it does seem clear that such audiences preferred the old plays. Although these plays were anything but knockabout sensationalism, it is fair to describe them as more violent and exaggerated in tone than were the plays of William Shakespeare and John Fletcher being written for the King’s Men by the time the company started to use the Blackfriars. Indeed, it is easy to visualise a large group of working men and women enjoying The Spanish Tragedy or Tamburlaine at the Fortune in the early 1600s, just as the previous generation had done in the late 1580s at the Rose on Bankside. In 1620 it was said that ‘men go to the Fortune in Golding Lane to see the Tragedy of Doctor Faustus. There indeed a man may behold shag-haired devils run roaring over the stage with squibs in their mouths, while drummers make thunder in the tiring house and the twelve and the twelve penny hirelings made artificial lightning in their heavens.’
Meanwhile at the Red Bull, other playwrights were providing texts for what was probably an even lower end of the citizen audience than that of the Fortune, though that should not in any way diminish the artistry and passion in the writing of such Jacobean plays. For example, a number of Red Bull plays survive from this period written by the talented dramatist Thomas Heywood, an author whose two parts of If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody from 1605 and 1606 were performed by Queen Anna’s Men at the Red Bull. Such performances must have maximized the nostalgic emphasis that these play texts embodied, of an era of former British greatness under Queen Elizabeth, coinciding as it did with a time when the Jacobean court was rocked by various scandals, sometimes of a sexual nature. Similarly, Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness gave an onstage voice to the less privileged in society, staging an adulterous relationship and its aftermath in a middle class domestic, rather than a courtly setting.
Like the Fortune, the Red Bull continued to enjoy great success with its working class spectators, not only through the Jacobean period, but also in the years 1625 to 1642 during the reign of Charles I. Furthermore, the idea of the playhouse as exclusively ‘citizen’ is slightly problematised by the fact that the Red Bull occasionally shared playtexts with its elite indoor partner the Cockpit, a theatre also set up and run by Christopher Beeston.