Overview of Theater
Rise of Professional Theater.
In the history of drama and the theater, the seventeenth century marked the gradual acceptance and solidification of trends that had begun in the later Renaissance. In the later Middle Ages most dramas had been religious in nature, and had often been performed in conjunction with the celebration of major church feasts and holidays. During the sixteenth century religious drama had come to be rejected in much of Northern Europe, as Protestants and reform-minded Catholics found the teachings and license of these productions increasingly unacceptable. The great rambling mystery plays of the later Middle Ages, which had often been staged over many days and weeks, were by the second half of the sixteenth century prohibited in both England and France. In the Protestant regions of Germany, too, the traditional dramas had ceased to be performed, and were now being replaced by a polemical theater that defended the cause of the Reformation. Only in Spain and in the Catholic regions of Central Europe were religious dramas similar to those of the later Middle Ages to survive with a measure of vitality in the seventeenth century. But as religious drama faded from the scene, a new professional theater, licensed by state governments and often heavily censored, was just beginning to take the place of the largely amateur and religiously-oriented productions that had provided popular entertainment in the later Middle Ages. Here audiences paid modest admission fees to see plays that dealt largely with secular themes, moral dilemmas, and historical subjects. The growth of this new commercial theater was by 1600 most advanced in England and Spain, where ranks of newly minted playwrights churned out a steady stream of comedies and tragedies intended to entertain a broad audience that stretched from the urban poor and middling classes to the educated elite. While not all the new works that were performed in London, Madrid, or Seville—the home of Europe's most precocious early seventeenth-century theaters—were of a high quality, the age gave birth to a number of authors of genius, including William Shakespeare (1564–1616) and Ben Jonson (1572–1635) in England; and Lope de Vega (1562–1635) and Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681) in Spain. The breadth of the new audience these figures addressed now seems remarkable. In London, for example, it is estimated that as much as ten percent of the city's population was in the theaters on any of the six weekdays on which performances were permitted. Many patrons attended the theater more than once each week, since the cost of admission to the pit, that is, the ground floor of London's theaters, was only a penny or two, the cheapest form of leisure entertainment available in the capital.
Developments in France.
While the growth of a commercial stage was well advanced in London and the Spanish cities by the early seventeenth century, the emergence of a professional theater in France continued to lag behind these centers at the same time. As a result of the Wars of Religion (1562–1598), France entered the seventeenth century with a beleaguered economy and an embattled government and domestic scene that still faced considerable threats from religious disunity and civil conflict. During the first decade of the seventeenth century the measures of King Henri IV (r. 1594–1610) succeeded in re-establishing a modicum of order and stability throughout much of France, and a professional theater began to flourish in Paris. At the same time, royal monopolies awarded in the later Middle Ages to the Confraternity of the Passion, a group of young artisans who were junior members of the city's guild, still allowed for only one theater in the capital. When the confraternity's religious dramas were outlawed in 1548, the group began to stage farces and other secular fare at their theater in the Hôtel de Bourgogne, a relatively small indoor house that could accommodate far fewer patrons than the great outdoor arenas of London or Madrid. During the first decades of the seventeenth century the theater in the Hôtel de Bourgogne began to prosper, particularly so with the crowd-pleasing and often violent, bawdy works that the playwright Alexandre Hardy (c. 1569–1632 or 1633) created for the troupe that resided there. The size of the theatrical audience in Paris was always modest when compared against the age of Shakespeare in London or of Lope de Vega in Spain, although the influence that the Parisian stage exerted over European drama generally was far greater than the mere size suggests. Between 1630 and 1680 France produced several playwrights of great genius, and its classically inspired theater was widely imitated throughout Europe. It was Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), Louis XIII's chief minister, who first devoted significant attention to developing the theater in Paris. Eventually, Richelieu imported theatrical architects and stage designers from Italy, spawning a revolution in theater design in France that included such elements as moveable stage scenery and the small, horseshoe-shaped court theater; the intimate interiors of these enclosed spaces were notable for their improved capacities to carry the sound of actors' voices as well as their greatly enhanced sight lines. As French courtly culture came increasingly to be imitated throughout much of Northern Europe in later seventeenth-century states, the styles of theaters that were built in many European courts imitated these French and Italian examples. Richelieu was also an avid fan of the drama itself and he believed in the theater's power, not only to ennoble its audiences, but to support the absolute authority of the state. In the 1630s he patronized a group of French playwrights that followed this "party line," and although he died in 1642, his efforts were to be continued by those ministers who followed him.
Character of the Seventeenth-Century French Stage.
Among the most important of the figures that Richelieu supported was Pierre Corneille (1606–1684), a dramatist who perfected the use of the laws of unities that were then being discussed among French literary theorists and playwrights. The laws of unities were a set of canons derived from Italian humanist studies of Aristotle and they taught that all action in a play needed to be confined to a single plot that occurred on a single day in a single place. The theater that such notions fostered in France was austere and restrained, and not every dramatist that tried writing works in this style succeeded. In the careers of Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine (1639–1699), and Jean-Baptiste Molière (1622–1673), the French theater produced three figures that were more than equal to the challenge. The tragedies of Corneille and Racine and the brilliant but farcical comedies of Molière thus helped to fix the notion of classical unities in French drama as normative, and the rules, although sometimes questioned, survived in the French theater for much of the rest of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While the brilliant works that France's triumvirate of masters produced had a wide impact on theatrical developments throughout Europe, the French theater of the seventeenth century was not a popular success, but an institution by and large patronized by the aristocracy. French drama was not a naturalistic mirror of the world, but a highly stylized and rigid theater where all action was conveyed through beautiful, but inflexible patterns of verse. The verse favored by most French playwrights was the twelve-syllable Alexandrine form, noted for the noble quality of the sounds it produced. Similarly, the members of a French dramatic troupe were not expected to "act" their parts like modern actors, but to declaim or recite their verses in ways that heightened the audiences' understanding of the intellectual meanings of the lines. While such methods appealed to an audience that craved literary entertainment, they had little popular appeal. As the theater blossomed in Paris in the years between 1630 and 1680, no theatrical troupe in the city survived without rich grants from the crown; when King Louis' early love of the theater began to fade after 1680, the brilliant achievements of the age of Corneille, Racine, and Molière faded also. By 1700, only one theatrical troupe, the royally licensed Comédie-Française, still entertained Parisian audiences. The toll of France's involvement in international wars, the king's own increasing piety, and the rising popularity of opera in Paris resulted in a constriction of the brief, but brilliant episode of greatness that the French theater had experienced in the half century following 1630.
The Closing of the Theaters in England.
Even as a new age of theatrical achievement gathered strength in France, developments were moving in an opposite direction in England. Since Elizabethan times, the stunning rise of the English theater on the London scene had proven worrisome to the country's small but growing faction of Puritans. Puritanism, a reform movement derived largely from the ideas of the French Protestant leader John Calvin, upheld a sobriety in life and aimed to rid the Church of England of all vestiges of Catholicism. Puritan ministers and writers well understood that the origins of drama lay in the religious theater that had been so common throughout the late-medieval church, and during the first decades of the seventeenth century, their distaste for the stage steadily increased, even as theater grew to be a more popular pastime in England's capital. By 1630 Puritan leaders were increasingly coming to loggerheads with a crown that avidly supported the development of the theater and which used lavish spectacles, filled with many theatrical elements, as forms of political propaganda. A little more than a decade later as the Puritan movement came to dominate England's Parliament, Puritans responded by ordering the closing of all London's theaters. Except for a few loopholes in Puritan regulations that allowed some private dramas to be staged in houses and schools, the theater largely disappeared from English life during the long years of the civil wars that followed. And in the Commonwealth period that followed the execution of Charles I in 1649, most of those who had been active on London's stage in the previous generation either fled the country or took up new occupations. Thus when Charles I's son, Charles II, returned to resume the throne in 1660 and allowed the reopening of stages in London, the theater had to be largely created anew.
In the first few years of the English Restoration period (1660–1688) the newly licensed theatrical troupes in London performed works drawn from the earlier English repertory, adapting them to the contemporary demands and tastes of audiences. In time, though, the Restoration stage acquired its own new dramatists, many of whom were courtiers and sophisticated amateurs well aware of the light style of Molière that was flourishing in France at the same time. Both the court and London playwrights came in these years to favor similar light comedies, but where the French Molière's works were merely suggestive or "naughty," Restoration tastes in England frequently evidenced an appetite for the bawdy, that is, for broad sexual humor. In time a new genre of "comedy of manners" developed in which the exploits and foibles of aristocratic society were mocked and satirized without ultimately being questioned. While many of those who wrote for the Restoration stage evidenced a sophisticated wit and a great mastery over the English language, only the works of John Dryden (1631–1700) have continued to be consistently studied since the time of the Restoration, although contemporary and ongoing research continues to unearth gems of comedy and tragedy that were written and performed in the period and then were soon forgotten. In at least one crucial aspect the legacy of the Restoration stage represented a loss for England. Prompted by the popularity of the new French- and Italian-styled theater buildings, the comedies of the period now came to be performed exclusively in smaller enclosed spaces, making the cost of admission beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest members of London's elite. Unlike the richly variegated audience that had existed for plays in both the Tudor and Stuart times, the theater of Restoration England was in many ways more similar to the institution that was flourishing at the same time in France: sophisticated fare performed before small, wealthy audiences. At the same time, Charles II's reestablishment of the theater departed from previous customs by allowing women to perform for the first time in England's history. Actresses like Nell Gwyn (1650–1687) captivated London's high society, and Gwyn herself capitalized upon her position to become the mistress to the king. Gwyn's actual theatrical career was short, but other women made the theater a lifelong profession; the personal lives of some did little to dispel the notion that the theater was immoral among those who opposed the institution. It was during the Restoration period, too, that the first female playwright, Aphra Behn (1640–1689), wrote professionally for the stage. Although Behn's controversial career did not immediately inspire droves of women to imitate her example, she nevertheless opened a door through which other women were to follow in the next decades.
Rise of the Middle-Class Drama.
The exile of Charles II's successor, James II, had far-reaching implications for the stage in England, although these implications were slow to be realized. James himself was a Catholic convert, and although he had upheld the Church of England's position in the country, he also set himself squarely behind the cause of Catholic toleration in England, introducing measures that irritated the country's Anglican nobles. In 1688, these powerful figures forced James into exile and invited his daughter Mary, a Protestant, and her husband the Dutch prince William of Orange to assume the throne. During the Restoration period (the reigns of Charles II and James II), bold sexual humor and coarse language had flourished on the London stage, but during the reigns of William and Mary and their successors, the Hanoverian monarchs, the theater grew more staid and conservative. Although the Puritan party had largely been discredited in England during the struggles of the English Civil Wars and Commonwealth, moralists in Britain continued to decry the lax morality of the theater. After 1700, a growing number of playwrights produced works on themes that upheld conventional morality. This trend continued throughout the eighteenth century in London as new measures to confine and censor the theater continued. As a result of the Licensing Act of 1737, for example, all new plays had to be submitted to the government for approval before being performed, and dramas were confined to only a few theaters in the capital. For a time, such measures, which were intended to combat criticism of the government, discouraged great authors from writing for the theater. By the mid-eighteenth century, an increasing number of playwrights had begun to write novels rather than dramas, as a new market in fiction steadily expanded throughout the country. The government's attempts to stamp out unsanctioned theaters, which were popping up throughout the capital, produced some unexpected results. Licensing requirements fed the development of England's "music hall" theaters—cheap venues for the production of song, dance, and short dramatic skits. And although the government attempted to censor content and limit the growth of the London theater, England's Hanoverian kings at the same time chartered a number of royal companies in the country's provincial cities. In this way, theater flourished, not just in London, but throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. The emergence of these provincial theaters provided a training ground, a recognized career path for actors and actresses interested in developing their craft before venturing to London, the still undisputed center of drama in England. The eighteenth century, it has often been said, was a great age of the novel, and not of drama. While few of the English plays written at the time stand up beside those of Shakespeare, Jonson, or Dryden, the period saw the birth of the phenomenon of the great actor. Figures like David Garrick, Charles Macklin, and Sarah Siddons captivated the imagination of the age, and attracted an ever-larger audience to the theater. While the quality of the contemporary plays that were being written may have been of a lesser standard, revivals of Shakespeare and other great English classics became in this period a permanent part of the theatrical scene, and audiences enjoyed the new high standard of naturalistic acting that the greatest of the eighteenth century's actors cultivated.
The Bourgeois Drama on the Continent.
Theater in France may have fallen on a fallow period during the later years of Louis XIV's reign, but in the years that followed his death, the stage underwent a dramatic resurgence. During the first half of the reign of Louis XV (r. 1715–1774), the controversial Voltaire (1694–1778) dominated French developments in tragedy. Voltaire's verse style continued in the paths laid down by Corneille and Racine, and while he upheld the laws of the unities, he treated a greater range of exotic subjects, celebrating the role that human reason should play in society and calling into question traditional Christian morality. Subject to frequent imprisonment and eventually to exile from Paris, his controversial career emboldened other French Enlightenment thinkers to build upon his example. By mid-century an increasing number of Enlightenment philosophers in France were advocating the development of a new theater that might treat real-life situations and the concerns of the bourgeoisie, which now comprised a large portion of the audience in Parisian productions as well as those in the French provinces. Chief among the exponents of this new realistic theater was Denis Diderot (1713–1784), a playwright and critical theorist who exerted a profound influence on the second half of the eighteenth century in France, not so much by his heavy-handed dramas, but by his editorship of the Encylopédie, the massive, multi-volume project of Enlightenment thinkers that shaped tastes in the arts at the time. The Enlightenment's advocacy of a middle-class, or bourgeois, drama spread elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Germany where the great playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) used the new form to cultivate the development of a national theater. In France itself, a number of dramatists tried their hand at the new form in comedies and tragedies, but no one succeeded in producing a greater sensation with the new style than Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732–1799) with his wildly funny satires, The Barber of Seville (1775) and The Marriage of Figaro (1784). These dramas' mocking satire of aristocratic privilege, the church, and many of the institutions of eighteenth-century life exposed the revolutionary potential that might lie in theater to effect social change. Thus the ideas of the Enlightenment, with their emphasis on reform according to the dictates of human reason, addressed the rising demands of the middle classes for an art that was both relevant and entertaining. During the French Revolution that soon followed, the Enlightenment's championship of greater liberty produced massive changes in the theater of the late eighteenth century.