The Puritans closed theatres and harrassed playwrights

Posted in Actors, Historical articles, History, Music, Religion, Theatre on Friday, 15 March 2013

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This edited article about the English theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 199 published on 6 November 1965.

C17 theatre demolition, picture, image, illustration

The Puritans ordered the demolition of theatres and banning of plays

In the years of its greatest triumphs the English theatre was in deadly danger. Its enemies, the Puritans, were waiting for their chance to destroy it, and in 1642, only twenty-six years after Shakespeare’s death, they seemed to have succeeded. Plays were banned, theatres were pulled down, and actors were forbidden to perform and threatened with imprisonment and flogging if they did so. Some of them fled to France to act there. Others joined Charles I and fought valiantly for him, while some performed secretly in the houses of noblemen when the chance occurred.

In the earlier years of the seventeenth century, such an alarming and tragic state of affairs can hardly have been imagined by the actors, even in their nightmares. They had Royal patronage, for James I and Charles I loved the theatre as much as Queen Elizabeth had done. They had a wonderfully receptive audience, eager to be thrilled and enchanted, and they had brilliant playwrights. Though Shakespeare seems to us today much the greatest of them, in his own day he was only a giant among giants.

There was Ben Jonson, his friend and rival, whose play Volpone is still popular, as is Thomas Dekker’s marvellous picture of Elizabethan life, The Shoemaker’s Holiday. There was John Ford, whose tragedies The Witch of Edmonton and The Broken Heart are still performed occasionally, and who was, apparently, an unhappy fellow himself:

‘Deep in a dump John Ford was alone got
With folded arms and melancholy hat.’

And, perhaps nearest to Shakespeare in genius, there was John Webster. His two masterpieces, The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil are horror stories of murder and intrigue and yet they have real grandeur and lines worthy of Shakespeare himself.

It was the theatre’s misfortune that these fine playwrights were either dead or in retirement when the Puritans were moving in for the final kill. Drama was becoming too violent, too foolish and too morbid, and this played into the enemy’s hands.

By now there were some indoor theatres – Shakespeare’s company performed at the one in Blackfriars. There were seats for everyone and, as the cheapest were 6d. as opposed to 1d. in the open-air theatres, they probably attracted a more respectable audience, and so should have been less open to attack by the Puritans. But attacked they were in spite of this.

For all their hard-working, God-fearing qualities, the Puritans had a peculiar dread of people enjoying themselves. The theatre excited people, so it must be evil! Excitement must only stem from religion. One preacher complained that people could listen to a play for several hours, but could only stand an hour of his sermons!

The Puritans genuinely believed that all manner of wickedness flourished in the playhouses. And so it happened that, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, one of the first acts of a mainly Puritan parliament was to order that “public stage-plays shall cease and be forborne.” Actors were to be “taken as rogues.”

It was the final death blow to Merry England. Even the masques, which had been so popular in the years before the Civil War, were no more. These had combined singing, dancing, music and acting. They were often written by the leading authors of the day, and were staged with elaborate scenery by skilled men of the theatre. Most of the performers were lords, ladies and Cavaliers of the Court. Women were allowed to take part because these performances were mainly amateur, and normally took place in the great halls of palaces.

The type of theatre built for the masques gradually began to look like the ones we know today. It was now that the proscenium arch, which surrounds the stage like a picture-frame, made its appearance, as did the curtain. Actually the curtain was at first only an additional device for achieving surprise effects – most of the scenery was changed in full view of the audience as part of the entertainment.

Much of the credit for the success of the masques goes to Inigo Jones, who, as a young man, visited Italy and brought back the latest theatrical ideas he saw and heard there.

For some years masques could only be performed in secret. Then, towards the end of Cromwell’s Protectorate, an extraordinary man named Sir William D’Avenant brought the theatre back to life.

Sir William D’Avenant was Shakespeare’s godson, and had written masques before the Civil War. He had fought valiantly for his king and had been knighted for bravery. But then he was captured, imprisoned in the Tower of London and sentenced to death.

He was saved by influential friends, among them John Milton, the poet, and Bulstrode Whitelocke, the Keeper of the Tower, who had been a composer of masques.

For a time he travelled abroad. Then, like the true theatrical genius that he was, he thought of a way of reviving the theatre in London, even though it was banned. Music had not been outlawed – Cromwell himself was fond of it – and so D’Avenant cleverly persuaded the authorities that the recently-invented art of opera was a revival of the arts of Greece and Rome, and in 1656 presented The Siege of Rhodes, with singers instead of actors taking the parts. A Mrs. Coleman appeared in the opera, and was the first woman to perform professionally on the English stage.

Other operas followed – they were more like masques than opera as we know it today – and by the time Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, D’Avenant had prepared the way for the Restoration theatre. The actors returned, and playwrights were busy again.


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