John Day was born in Norfolk and attended Cambridge University. He was expelled in 1593 for stealing a book and drifted to London and the disreputable entertainment district where he met the theatre entrepreneur, Philip Henslowe, and Henslowe employed him as a theatre administrator. Before long he was participating in the production of plays, collaborating with Henslowe’s playwrights.
Day is linked to twenty-two plays, including those of Thomas Dekker, Henry Chettle, William Rowley and George Wilkins. Some scholars have made the case for his collaboration He doesn’t seem to have benefited from his work in the theatre as there were times when he had to sleep rough. Ben Jonson referred to him as a ‘rogue’ and a ‘base fellow.’ On 7th June, 1599, Henry Porter, a playwright, was killed by a fellow writer, named as John Day, with a rapier through his heart. Day was charged with murder but he pleaded manslaughter on the grounds of self defence. He escaped punishment and, in fact, managed to obtain a royal pardon, which enabled him to continue with his career.
The first play Day was involved in was The Conquest of Brute, with the finding of the Bath, which has unfortunately not survived, and it is not known who he collaborated with on it. The first of the plays on which he worked that still exists, written with Chettle, is The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green (1600).
Day’s first two solo plays were published in 1609 – both comedies, Law Tricks, and Humour out of Breath. But the work for which he will be remembered is The Parliament of Bees. His reputation rests on that play, which places him among the top playwrights of his era. It is a masque, with music, dancing and a rural setting. It’s all about the life of a beehive – the bees’ births, marriages, wooings and wars. They are threatened by other insects – a bumblebee, a wasp, and others – and they appeal to the fairy king, Oberon, who hands out justice and restores peace in the insect community. It is an allegory, with each insect a type of human being. It’s an exquisite drama, and still performed.
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