The Commercial Theater in Early Seventeenth-Century England
The Commercial Theater in Early Seventeenth-Century England
The Religious Legacy.
In the final quarter of the sixteenth century commercial theater experienced a sudden rise in popularity in England's capital of London. The new theaters were run by professionals, an unprecedented development in the country, since all of the elaborate medieval religious dramas had been staged by amateur actors. By 1600, Londoners and visitors to the capital could take their pick of a number of daily performances, staged in both outdoor public playhouses as well as in new "private theaters" that catered to a more elite clientele. Although England's new commercial theaters staged plays that made use of religious symbols and imagery to convey their ideas, the themes treated in the many plays staged in the capital's theaters were secular, a fact that arose from the country's religious Reformation. Around 1500, the most popular dramatic performance in England had been the great mystery cycles, performed in conjunction with the celebration of religious holidays, as well as the morality plays, which also treated religious themes. Growing criticism of these forms of drama in the first half of the sixteenth century from religious reformers had eventually resulted in the suppression of religious drama by the mid-sixteenth century. In the years that followed, the theater became a vehicle for religious propaganda, sometimes with undesirable results as audiences sometimes rioted in the wake of a particularly vigorous play that did not align with their own religious convictions. As a consequence, regulations enacted in 1590 stipulated that plays must not treat religious subjects or controversies. Such requirements were also a concession to the many Puritans who lived in and around London at the time who found the theater morally degenerate and its staging of biblical and religious themes particularly objectionable. Puritanism, a form of Protestantism inspired in England by the ideas of the French Reformer John Calvin, rejected theater for a number of reasons. First, the Puritans knew well that the origins of drama lay in the great mystery cycles that had been performed in conjunction with church festivals in the later Middle Ages. Thus they attacked the theater as an art form whose origins lay in "popery," the term the Puritans used to discredit all cultural features of medieval religion. Further, the Puritans advocated a sober and godly attitude toward everything in life and they came to detest the light comedies and other fare performed on London's stages as an affront to Christian living. A certain disreputability accrued to the theater as well, since to skirt London's regulations troupes often built their theaters at the edges of the city in quarters that were known to be haunts of thieves and prostitutes. Thus although Elizabeth I and her Stuart successors were to tolerate it, and in many cases to support its development, the theater remained controversial nonetheless in seventeenth-century England.
Legacy of the Renaissance.
When compared to the types of theater that flourished in many other parts of Europe, England's brand of entertainment was unusual for a number of reasons. During the fifteenth century the cultivated Renaissance courts of Italy had tried to revive ancient drama, and a number of authors had begun to fashion their plays according to the five-act structure that had flourished in the comedies of the Latin writers Plautus and Terence. In the most sophisticated circles, study of the ancient masters had given rise to vigorous attempts to recreate the ancient theater, and playhouses modeled on ancient examples had been just one of the consequences of the new fascination with Antiquity. By the mid-sixteenth century the elite fascination with antique drama produced in Italy and somewhat later in France a number of experiments in writing and staging tragedies based on Greek models. The appeal of many of the plays that resulted from these experiments had always been quite limited since the complex allusions with which they were filled and the structures upon which they were based were not fixed in native dramatic traditions but in historical cultures that were, by and large, foreign to most audiences. Thus these experiments in reviving ancient comedy and tragedy—which were largely influenced by the culture of Renaissance humanism—rarely flourished outside court circles and small groups of cultivated elites. England's relative isolation from these currents of theatrical production, as well as the financial realities of the London stage—which depended on ticket sales rather than royal patronage for financial stability—meant that the influences it derived from the culture of the Renaissance were always relatively slight. The greatest of England's Elizabethan and seventeenth-century dramatists were, to be sure, men of learning, and many were certainly aware of the experiments in dramatic productions that had occurred over the previous generations in Continental Europe. Yet the plays that they wrote in great profusion in the final decades of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had to be pitched to a "middle-brow" audience. Thus rather than treating obscure subjects drawn from classical Antiquity or adopting the strict conventions of classical drama, England's playwrights chose themes that were well known to their audiences, or they wrote about subjects in ways that had a more universal appeal. This tendency can be seen in the great works of the eminent playwrights Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) and William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Marlowe was one of the best educated of the late Tudor-era dramatists. He had taken the bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Cambridge before embarking on his career as a writer for the London stage. In his great tragedy Tamburlaine the Great, Marlowe pioneered the use of blank, or unrhymed verse, a departure from the conventions of the day that relied on elaborate rhyme schemes. The use of blank verse allowed Marlowe's characters to speak with great naturalness and propelled the action of his drama forward in ways that held his audiences spellbound. In his slightly later Dr. Faustus, the dramatist treated elevated themes—the personal nature of evil, the quest for worldly success, and the damning consequences of pride—yet he did so in a way that could be understood by both the educated and uneducated classes. For instance, he relied on the traditional conventions of the late-medieval morality play rather than the more foreign structures of Greek tragedy. In this way his audiences found familiar signposts in his dramas that allowed them to follow themes and incidents that were nonetheless presented with considerable sophistication.
Despite his ability to stage elevated themes and complex incidents in ways that did not sacrifice intellectual depth, Christopher Marlowe's career as a writer for the London stage also exemplified the dangers that existed in this choice of profession. In the years immediately preceding his death, Marlow repeatedly answered charges of immorality and religious heresy, and his death in a barroom brawl was most likely a planned execution, brought on by his unpopular religious opinions as well as his prominence on the London theatrical scene. The sudden rise of the English commercial theater—a phenomenon made possible only in 1574 by the crown's decision to allow public, week-day performances in London—was undoubtedly popular, but controversial all the same. In the city of London, public officials feared the theater as a forum that might foment rebellion and immorality, and the town's growing cadre of Puritan ministers also detested the stage as a violation of Old Testament prohibitions against idolatry. The town's first public playhouses thus were situated, not inside the area of the city controlled by London's town government, but in fringe zones known as the "Liberties," where the municipal government held no authority. It was in these areas that dubious trades, prostitution, and other morally suspect enterprises had long flourished, and as the theater took up residence in these zones, it did little to dispel the dubious notoriety that already accrued to the entire dramatic enterprise. And while the crown tolerated London's stages, and even supported their cause against the municipal government, the monarchy promised censorship and persecution to those playwrights and actors who skirted too close to the edge of what was permissible. A distinguished lineage of playwrights in Tudor and Stuart times fell afoul of the law, including Ben Jonson (1572–1637), Thomas Nashe (1567–1601), Thomas Middleton (1580–1627), and Philip Massinger (1583–1640). Ben Jonson, the greatest London dramatist in the years after Shakespeare's retirement from writing for the theater, was imprisoned on a number of occasions; his association with the ill-fated production of The Isle of the Dogs (1597) landed Jonson in jail, and London's theaters were subsequently closed for a number of months. While Jonson was later released for his role in the "seditious" play, his partner in the enterprise, Thomas Nashe, fled to the Continent and died in exile. The whims of royal fancy and displeasure, which continued to blow hot and cold during the reign of the Stuarts, made play writing and acting hazardous, and the profession was often financially untenable. Once successful on the London stage, William Shakespeare invested in a brewery and other country enterprises to ensure that he had a safe and sustained income. He likely did so to prevent the very same problems suffered by his fellow professionals Jonson and Nashe, and to protect himself against any future theatrical closures.
Other Practical Considerations.
By the time of James I's accession as king of England in 1603, the city of London's major commercial theaters were well established landmarks on the capital's scene, and despite sporadic problems with censorship and the imprisonment of playwrights, theater was flourishing quite vigorously. The first of London's commercial playhouses had been built in 1576 by a partnership of John Brayne and the actor James Burbage and was called merely the "Theater." Located in suburban Whitechapel, its stage consisted of three galleries superimposed on top of each other, an attempt to imitate the ancient Roman styles of stages that were becoming better known throughout Europe at the time as a result of humanistic research. Besides its covered stage, however, the Theater, like most of London's public playhouses, was exposed to the open air. Performances were thus held during daylight hours. The success of the Theater was soon followed by a string of new playhouses, including the Curtain founded one year later on a site close by the Theater, the Rose, the Swan, and finally, the famous Globe, a theater that was, in fact, moved from an earlier location north of the river Thames. These last three institutions were built, not to the northeast of the city of London in Whitechapel, but on the south bank of the River Thames, establishing a small theater district that persisted there for a number of years. At this early stage in the theater's development in England, men and young boys performed all roles since women were not allowed on the stage. London had several "boy troupes" at this time which were particularly popular among the audiences who visited London's "private theaters"—more expensive venues that were enclosed to the elements and consequently provided a smaller and more intimate setting for drama. These stages were candlelit, and thus performances could be held at night. There were eight of these private theaters in London before Puritan measures enacted in 1642 forced all the capital's theaters to close. The evidence suggests that, despite their higher price of admission, the private theaters became more popular and profitable than the large open-air public facilities throughout the reign of James I and Charles I. Although their patrons may have initially been drawn from higher echelons of society, the private theaters of London in this period were anything but luxurious. Poorly ventilated, and filled with bleacher-style seating, they afforded each patron a space only about eighteen inches wide on which to sit. The presence of hundreds of patrons in these cramped spaces, too, must have been particularly uncomfortable in the summer months when the atmosphere within the private theaters was quite close and the ventilation inadequate. Despite these hardships, many seem to have preferred the smaller houses, and the old arena-styled theaters became associated in many people's minds with lower-class disorderliness. Like most theatrical venues in Europe, all of London's theaters at the time continued to be subject to periodic closures when epidemics struck or during periods of royal mourning.
Troupes and Playwrights.
The new theaters were thoroughly commercial ventures, although many of the troupes augmented their incomes by performing at court. Actors founded some of the city's playhouses after receiving backing from an investor. In this type of arrangement, the profits of the venture were split between commercial backers and the actors of the troupe. In other arrangements the troupe owned its own props and venue, and the profits of a production were split between the troupe members. And in still a third kind of arrangement, many troupes took up residence in theaters that were owned by others, splitting the profits of their productions between the house and the performers. Licensing regulations in effect in England since the 1570s insisted that a troupe of actors had to be supervised by and affiliated with a member of the nobility, and the titles that acting troupes adopted thus honored their noble patrons. The patron of the Chamberlain's Men, the troupe of which Shakespeare was a member, was Queen Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey. When the company came under the patronage of King James I in 1603, the troupe renamed itself the King's Men. In this way the titles of many troupes changed over time. Perhaps no company ever changed its name so frequently as that which began as the Lord Howard's Men around 1576. As Lord Howard was elevated to the position of Lord Admiral, the company became the "Lord Admiral's Men." But later in the early seventeenth century as the group came under different patrons, it became known as "Nottingham's Men," "Prince Henry's Men," and "Palsgrave's Men." Many of these troupes retained their own playwrights, who crafted the dramas and sometimes doubled as actors in the troupe itself. In this regard William Shakespeare's path to becoming a successful playwright was not unusual. He began as an actor in the company before beginning to write plays for the Chamberlain's Men around 1590. Thereafter, his success elevated him in the company until he had become its director in the early seventeenth century. While great milestones of English literature survive from the Tudor and Stuart period, most of the dramas that were produced at this time were considered ephemeral, that is, they were staged for a time and then put aside. The popularity of the theater meant that audiences craved new works, and playwrights often obliged by dramatizing incidents that had recently occurred in London and around Europe. The great works of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare continue to fascinate audiences today with the depths of their psychological insight and their examination of characters' strengths and weaknesses, although it must be remembered that few of the hundreds of plays performed in London at this time rose to this level of greatness. Many were topical works, hurriedly written to take advantage of the interests of the day and then discarded when fashions shifted. London troupes were also jealous of their properties. Plays were not usually printed until well after they had been performed so that other troupes working in the capital could not pirate their productions. Such was the secrecy surrounding the script that most actors did not even receive an entire copy of the play they were performing, but were only given their own lines with appropriate cues so that they could not sell the play to another troupe. While plagiarism and artistic theft was a consistent problem between theaters, playwrights who wrote for the London scene were enthusiastic theatergoers, and they visited the plays written by their rivals for other houses. In his early days as a playwright, even William Shakespeare received accusations that he had plagiarized the works of other London writers. In truth, the practice of imitating successful works was as common then as it is among film producers in the modern world. Playwrights and troupes longed to exploit the themes and plots that had already proven to be successful with audiences, and over time plays treating similar themes and subjects were produced until the appetite for them was exhausted.
Despite commercial considerations and censorship, the achievements of early seventeenth-century drama in England still manages to astound modern observers. During the first years of the reign of James I (r. 1603–1625), the writing of William Shakespeare and a group of other accomplished playwrights reached a new level of maturity and finesse. During the 1590s, Shakespeare's plays had most often treated historical or comic themes, but in the first part of the seventeenth century, he conducted a number of experiments in genres that undermined and extended the traditional confines of popular Elizabethan forms, producing works that refashioned comedy, tragedy, and romance. The first signs of the author's growing mastery over his craft came in the series of "problem" plays that he produced just after 1600. In these works—Measure for Measure, All's Well that Ends Well, and Troilus andCressida—Shakespeare extended the boundaries of comedy by resolving his works in unexpected ways that undermined the neat moralistic formulas the genre had traditionally served. Characters in these dramas are forgiven their foibles and shortcomings even when they do not deserve to be forgiven, or the heroes of these dramas achieve success despite significant moral failings and personality flaws. Shakespeare continued in this vein of experimentation in the series of tragedies and historical dramas in the years that followed. In his Othello (1603), for instance, the author explored the psychological consequences of racism. The central character, Othello, is a Moor (a black African) who is married to a much younger and white Desdemona. When driven mad by the adulterous accusations brought against her by his treacherous friend, Iago, Othello murders her, and then realizes afterward that he must live with the consequences of his rush to judgment. Thus Othello is a fatally flawed tragic figure, but his flaw is curiously inexplicable given his status as the very model of propriety and good judgment prior to his rash act of murder. His willingness to believe the false accusations of Iago, though, results from his doubt about his interracial marriage. Iago, in other words, has been able to play upon Othello's own fears that a black man's marriage to a white woman is unnatural. In his King Lear (c. 1605), Shakespeare continued to examine his characters with great psychological insight. Like Othello, Lear is a flawed character who has unjustly banished his daughter Cordelia from his presence, but who is subsequently driven insane by the even greater injustice and monumental ingratitude of his two remaining daughters, Goneril and Regan. In his mad ravings he contemplates the nature of justice and the order of the universe, observations that are made more chillingly forceful because a seeming madman utters them. In the final of these late tragedies, Macbeth, Shakespeare explored the consequences of incivility, and, as in both Othello and King Lear, he brought major insights to bear on the dark emotions that produce enormous crimes.
Historical Plays and Later Comedies.
Even as the great dramatist was at work on these masterpieces, he continued to produce historical plays and a series of brilliant romances. In contrast to the histories of comparatively recent English kings he had produced during the 1590s, the author turned to ancient Roman and Greek figures in the seventeenth century, finding in the relative obscurity and distance of Antiquity a vehicle for producing some of his great late masterworks, including his Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606), perhaps his greatest historical work. Shakespeare produced some of his most insightful portraits of kingship and political power, not by concentrating on the kings of the near English past, but by examining the more remote universe of Antiquity. In this way the playwright circumvented the draconian censorship that James I's officials sometimes practiced in the theater. While these later ancient historical plays show a development of Shakespeare's art to a level of dramatic ease and fluency—a level that most critics agree has never been surpassed—the later comedies of this period also show a similar experimental spirit. These plays—The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest—are alternately termed "romances" or "comedies." All three works are full of various kinds of entertainments, complex plots, and sub-plots, and their meanings have proven difficult to ascertain over the years. This favoring of a complex and highly sophisticated art may likely have been caused by commercial factors. In 1608, Shakespeare's troupe, the King's Men, took up winter quarters in the Blackfriars Theatre, a private theater located in an ancient London monastery that had been dissolved during the Reformation. The audience who frequented the Blackfriars was likely better educated and craved the elaborate concoctions that Shakespeare supplied them with in the years between 1608 and his retirement from the troupe after 1611. These productions were filled with dancing, singing, and "masques" that imitated the customs of courtly society, and their complex allusions and sophisticated poetry are very different from the world of the author's youth. Some critics have detected a strain of increasing self-doubt and critical self-examination in these works, a strain they have connected with the approach of the author's old age. Yet in 1611, when Shakespeare went into semi-retirement from his troupe, he was not yet fifty, and with his fortunes relatively established, he seems to have hoped to play the role of a country gentleman in his native Stratford-Upon-Avon. Although he probably returned to assist on one or several occasions, his increasing isolation meant that his company, the King's Men, turned to his associate John Fletcher for dramas. Fletcher ruled for many years as one of the most prolific of Jacobean playwrights, although the quality of authors who wrote for the stage in these years was generally very high.
While many of the details concerning the life of William Shakespeare continue to be debated, scholars are on far firmer ground in exploring the life and career of Ben Jonson (1572–1637), the figure who is today considered the second towering genius of the early seventeenth-century English stage. Jonson was probably a native Londoner, although his family hailed
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originally from Scotland. Educated at Westminster School and later for a time at St. John's College in Cambridge, he first pursued a career as a bricklayer before becoming an English soldier in forces that were then helping the Dutch achieve their independence from Spain. When he returned to England, he became an actor, performing as a character in the Tudor dramatist Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. This was one of the most popular plays of the late Elizabethan period, and it was frequently revived in the decades that followed. Jonson eventually wrote additional dialogue for the play, as he seems to have done for other works performed during the 1590s. By 1594, Jonson was successful enough to marry, and he seems to have worked as an actor in several London theaters, although he eventually joined the troupe known as "Pembroke's Men." In 1597, he wrote his first play for the group, and soon afterwards he took part in the ill-fated The Isle of Dogs, the production that landed him in jail. The play was considered so seditious at the time that all copies of it were seized and destroyed, and thus historians have long debated about what its contents must have included. The title refers to an island situated in the Thames just across from the former site of the royal palace at Greenwich, but the drama itself apparently mocked the intrigues of court. Jonson was imprisoned for several months, and when the London theaters reopened in 1598, he achieved his first great success with the play Every Man in His Humour, a sophisticated comedy set in the urban world. It made use of the notion of the then-reigning scientific theory of the "four humors," the forces that were believed to govern health and the human psyche. During 1598, Jonson again fell afoul of the law when he killed a fellow actor. While in prison for this offense, the playwright repented and converted to Catholicism, a decision that dogged him for the rest of his life. Upon his release, Jonson returned to write for the theater, but by 1603, he had again fallen under suspicion, this time for Catholicism and also for the treason that members of Elizabeth I's Privy Council felt littered his recent play Sejanus His Fall. In the years that followed, Jonson labored to rehabilitate himself with King James I. At the same time suspicions continued to hover around him, and he was frequently detained for questioning because of his Catholic beliefs and the fear that he was secretly practicing his religion. He was imprisoned again in 1605, this time for a play that seemed to mock the manners of James I and his Scottish nobles, but he soon attained his release. During the crisis of the Gunpowder Plot in the same year—a foiled scheme to blow up the Houses of Parliament in Westminster—Jonson again fell under suspicion, although he acquitted himself by giving evidence against the conspirators.
Jonson 's Rising Success.
Despite lingering suspicions about his loyalties, Jonson's career flourished in the years after 1605. In that year he began producing masques for the Stuart court in partnership with the accomplished designer and architect Inigo Jones (1573–1652). These imaginative productions were widely admired, and the partnership spread across several decades before the two parted company. In 1605, he also wrote perhaps his most biting and satirical comedy Volpone, a work that showed little of his associate Shakespeare's propensity for happy endings. Volpone bristles with the firsthand knowledge that he had acquired of the corruption that reposed in royal courts. Prudently, though, Jonson set the play in Republican Venice, but the deceit and trickery that he related might just as easily have occurred in the Stuart halls of power. In 1610, James I enacted a series of new measures directed at English Recusants, that is, those that espoused and practiced the Catholic religion, and in the wake of these measures, Jonson renounced his Catholicism and returned to the Church of England. Successes continued, and in the years that followed, the great playwright entertained ever-greater notions of his success as a scholar. For his efforts in entertaining the king, and his achievements in the theater, he was granted a royal pension in 1616, the same year that William Shakespeare died. With Shakespeare's death, Jonson reaped even greater praise as England's greatest living writer. A folio edition of his work appeared in 1616, and by 1619, he was granted an honorary degree from the University of Oxford. This increasing fame, though, exacted a toll on his writing, and between 1616 and 1626 he produced no major works, although he did continue to produce masques for the court. One year following James I's death, Jonson produced his first play in a decade, The Staple of News, a work that, like several of the play-wright's earlier pieces, satirized the growing tendency for trust to be generated in the business world and society merely by deceit and fast talking. The play was topical, since it was staged merely a year after the death of James I and seemed to mock the controversial Stuart practice of granting monopolies to trade in certain industries as well as problems in the new King Charles I's court. A few years following its production, Jonson suffered a stroke, although he was granted an office as London city historian soon afterwards. The king increased his pension, and he continued to write, completing an additional three comedies before his death in 1637. None of these, though, matched the success of his earlier works.
Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare were the great geniuses of early seventeenth-century English theater. Critics have long debated about the relative merits of each figure's works, some advocating that Jonson's plays show a greater range of learning and depth of examination than do those of the more famous Shakespeare. Certainly, Jonson was a more varied artist than Shakespeare. In addition to the dramas and poetry that he wrote, he also made significant contributions to English prose, and his interests were more wide-ranging and philosophical in nature than those of Shakespeare. It remains, however, a matter of taste as to which artist one prefers, and even if these two admittedly brilliant figures had never lived, the theatrical writing of the reign of King James I and Charles I might still appear particularly brilliant. Of the many capable dramatists who wrote in this period, Thomas Middleton (c. 1580–1627), Thomas Heywood (1573–1641), Thomas Dekker (c. 1570–1632), Francis Beaumont (c. 1584–1616), and John Fletcher (1579–1625) rank among the most prolific and accomplished, and they kept audiences entertained with a considerable out-pouring of high-quality works. Thomas Middleton, for example, excelled in the genre of "city comedy" that was then very much in vogue. These witty and sophisticated comedies concentrated on the problems of court and city life. Middleton achieved dubious notoriety for one of these productions, A Game at Chess (1624), a biting satire that mocked the attempt by James I's son, Charles, to conclude a marital alliance with Spain. In particular, the work's most penetrating barbs were reserved for the then-serving Spanish ambassador to England. The work caused a sensation in London, earning an extraordinary sum of £1,000 in its nine consecutive days of performances, and inducing crowds to stand in long lines to purchase tickets. Middleton and his troupe recognized that the production was going to cause controversy, and they carefully timed their staging of A Game at Chess to coincide with the royal court's absence from London. But James I soon learned of the production and banned all future performances. In performing the work, Middleton and his actors played on popular anti-Spanish sentiment that had seethed below the surface of English society since the late sixteenth century. At the same time, the writer's attempts to capitalize on these sentiments helped to shape royal policy, as Charles turned eventually to France, and not to Spain, in search of a royal bride. This work also affected other plays, as most playwrights became more guarded, practicing self-censorship in the wake of the famous suppression. Middleton may be best known for his part in this famous scandal, but more recently, the structure of his poetry has been studied with the aid of digital technology. This research has shown that he collaborated with a number of early seventeenth-century authors and that the stamp of his prose is considerable in some of Shakespeare's works, including Macbeth. Such research reminds us that the concept of "authorship" was very different in the seventeenth-century world, and that many plays that we have long thought of as the works of a solitary genius like Shakespeare were actually hammered together from the efforts of more than one author. Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood were two such figures who produced their own works, but who also collaborated with a number of other playwrights. Heywood claimed to have written or have participated in the writing of more than 200 plays. Unfortunately, only a small portion of them—about thirty—survive. Thomas Dekker's stamp appears in about 50 works from the period, and the author was notable among playwrights of the time for his populist perspective as well as for the openly Puritan position he took in some of his plays. In contrast to the common stamp evident in Thomas Dekker's works, the theatrical writing team of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher produced many dramas that focused on the values of the nobility and gentry. Their works were long thought to be merely an apology for the Stuart's political theory of the "divine right of kings." More recent inspection, though, has shown that they worked a fairly sophisticated analysis of the concepts of kingship into their plays, and that they were even suspected of treason at one point in their careers for depicting the assassination of a monarch. After Beaumont's death in 1616, Fletcher continued to produce a number of works with other Jacobean-era authors.
A ROYAL INVESTIGATION
introduction: The staging of Thomas Middleton's play, A
Game at Chess, was notable for the great furor it caused in London when performed in August of 1624. The play mocked the royal family and high-ranking officials, so the company known as the King's Players had timed their performance of it to occur when King James I was out of town. Word of the spectacle, however, soon came to the king, and he suppressed the performances of it. He also demanded that his officials conduct an investigation, the progress of which is reported in the following letter. A key point in the investigation hinged on just why the royal censor, the Master of Revels as he was known, had allowed the play to be performed in the first place.
… According to His Majesty's pleasure signified to this Board by your letter of the 12th of August touching the suppressing of a scandalous comedy, acting by the King's Players, we have called before us some of the principal actors and demanded of them by what licence and authority they have presumed to act the same: in answer whereunto they produced a book, being an original and perfect copy thereof (as they affirmed) seen and allowed by Sir Henry Herbert, Knight, Master of the Revels, under his own hand, and subscribed in the last page of the said book. We, demanding further whether there were no other parts or passages represented on the stage than those expressly contained in the book, they confidently protested they added or varied from the same nothing at all.
The poet, they tell us, is one Middleton who, shifting out of the way, and not attending the Board with the rest as we expected we have given Warrant to a messenger for the apprehending of him.
To those that were before us we gave sound and sharp reproof, making them sensible of His Majesty's high displeasure therein, giving them straight charge and command that they presume not to act the said comedy any more, nor that they suffer any play or enterlude whatsoever to be acted by them, or any of their company, until His Majesty's pleasure be further known …
As for our certifying to His Majesty (as was intimated by your letter) what passages in the said comedy we should find to be offensive and scandalous, we have thought it our duties for His Majesty's clearer information to send herewithal the book itself, subscribed as aforesaid by the Master of the Revels, that so, either yourself, or some other whom His Majesty shall appoint to peruse the same, may see the passages themselves out of the original, and call Sir Henry Herbert before you to know a reason of his licensing thereof who (as we are given to understand) is now attending at court.
So, having done as much as we conceived agreeable with our duties in conformity with His Majesty's royal commandments, and that which we hope shall give him full satisfaction, we shall continue our humble prayers to Almighty God for his health and safety.
source: "A Letter from the Privy Council to the King's secretary reporting on the performances of A Game at Chess, 21 August 1624," in English Professional Theatre, 1530–1660. Ed. Glynne Wickham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 127–128.
The Closing of the Theaters.
During the first quarter of the seventeenth century the popularity of the theater had been great in London. In the 1630s, however, the capital's theatrical landscape began to alter. At this time Puritans began to redouble their long-standing efforts to eradicate theatrical performances, and they engaged the Crown in a number of disputes over the religious policies the country should pursue. In 1633, William Prynne, a prominent Puritan lawyer in London, published one of the most vociferous of the movement's many attacks on the theater, his Histrio Mastix. The almost 1,000 pages of this volume derided the stage and criticized the Crown for its support of the "popish" rituals of the theater. Although Prynne was soon imprisoned for his words, his example emboldened others, and the rising tide of Puritan sentiments in and around London meant that by the 1640 attendance was falling at London's theaters and the quality of their productions was in decline. In the years that followed, few great playwrights continued to write for the London stage, and when Puritan forces gained control of Parliament in the early 1640s, they soon outlawed the theater altogether. Their first measures of 1642 forced the capital's theaters to close, but clandestine performances continued to be mounted, prompting Parliament to pass an even tougher measure against all forms of drama in 1647. Those who participated in or who watched any performance were now threatened with stiff penalties. The course of the English civil wars made these measures possible. In 1642, King Charles I had abandoned London altogether, as the capital had become too dangerous a place in which to reside. He retreated to the west of England and there raised a force that engaged with Puritan forces on battlefields throughout the British Isles. By 1647, royalist forces were in retreat, although the king continued to scheme against the rising power of Parliament. In August of 1648, Charles was finally captured, tried, and executed, thus giving rise to the period of the Puritan Commonwealth, which lasted until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. During this period the theater largely ceased to exist in England, and when Charles I's son, Charles II, returned to England and soon restored the theater, very few of the great playwrights that had flourished on the London scene in the first half of the seventeenth century were still alive. Only two notable playwrights from Charles I's age—James Shirley (1596–1666) and William Davenant (1606–1668)—
PARLIAMENT CLOSES THE THEATERS
introduction: In 1642, a Puritan-controlled Parliament issued an ordinance that ordered all stages closed in London on moral grounds. Although these measures were relatively clear, players continued to ignore them on occasion. In 1647, Parliament reiterated its demands that theaters be closed in England's capital, and in no uncertain terms it outlawed all attempts to evade the statute. The act notably termed those who defied it (i.e., actors who continued to perform) "rogues" and insisted that they and those who watched them would face swift punishments for defiance.
Whereas the Acts of Stage-Plays, Interludes, and common Plays, condemned by ancient Heathens, and much less to be tolerated amongst Professors of the Christian Religion, is the occasion of many and sundry great vices and disorders, tending to the high provocation of God's wrath and displeasure, which lies heavy upon this Kingdom, and to the disturbance of the peace thereof; in regard whereof the same hath been prohibited by Ordinance of this present Parliament, and yet is presumed to be practiced by divers in contempt thereof. Therefore for the better suppression of the said Stage-Plays, Interludes, and common Players, It is Ordered and Ordained by the Lords and Commons in this present Parliament Assembled, and by Authority of the same, That all Stage-Players, and Players of Interludes, and common Plays, are hereby declared to be, and are, and shall be taken to be Rogues, and punishable within the Statutes of the thirty-ninth year of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, and the seventh year of the Reign of King James, and liable unto the pains and penalties therein contained, and proceeded against according to the said Statutes, whether they be wanderers or no, and notwithstanding any license whatsoever from the King or any person or persons to that purpose.
It is further Ordered and Ordained by the Authority aforesaid, That the Lord Mayor, Justices of the peace, and Sheriffs of the City of London and Westminster, and of the Counties of Middlesex and Surrey, or any two or more of them, shall, and may, and are hereby authorized and required to pull down and demolish, or cause or procure to be pulled down and demolished all Stage-Galleries, Seats, and Boxes, erected or used, or which shall be erected and used for the acting, or playing, or seeing acted or played, such Stage-Plays, Interludes, and Plays aforesaid, within the said City of London and Liberties thereof, and other places within their respective jurisdictions; and all such common Players, and Actors of such Plays and Interludes, as upon view of them, or any one of them, or by Oath of two Witnesses (which they are hereby authorized to administer) shall be proved before them, or any two of them to have Acted, or played such Plays and Interludes as aforesaid at any time hereafter, or within the space of two Months before the time of the said Conviction, by their Warrant or Warrants under their hands and seals, to cause to be apprehended, and openly and publicly whipped in some Market Town within their several Jurisdictions during the time of the said Market, and also to cause such Offender and Offenders to enter into Recognizance, or Recognizances, with two sufficient Sureties never to Act or play any Plays or Interludes any more, and shall return in the said Recognizance, or Recognizances, into the Sizes or Sessions to be then next beholden for the said Counties and Cities respectively; and to commit to the common Jail any such person and persons as aforesaid, as shall refuse to be bound, and find such Sureties as aforesaid, until he or they shall so become bound. And in case any such person or persons so Convicted of the said offence, shall after again offend in the same kind, that then the said person or persons so offending, shall be, and is hereby Declared to be, and be taken as an incorrigible Rogue, and shall be punished and dealt with as an incorrigible Rogue ought to be by the said Statutes.
source: Houses of Parliament, An Ordinance For, The utter suppression and abolishing of all Stage-Playes and Interludes (London: John Wright, 1647): 1–3. Text modernized by Philip M. Soergel.
were to live to see the stage revived during the Restoration of the monarchy that occurred after 1660. In those years, though, a new tradition, perhaps less brilliant but no less prolific, developed in London, and restored the commercial theater to its eminent position as a noteworthy art form in early-modern England.
Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Playing Companies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
George K. Hunter, English Drama, 1586–1642 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Glynne Wickham, Herbert Berry, and William Ingram, eds., English Professional Theatre, 1530–1660 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Louis B. Wright, Shakespeare's Theater and the Dramatic Tradition (Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1963).