Restoration Drama in England

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Restoration Drama in England

Drama during the Puritan Commonwealth.

Despite a decree of the Parliament in 1642 that outlawed dramatic performances, the stage did not completely disappear from English life during the English Civil Wars and the subsequent Commonwealth. In the years between 1640 and 1660, English Puritans tried to refashion many elements of English life, government, and politics. Since the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the Puritans had battled against the theater, and the movement's most outspoken critics of the stage had long judged London's playhouses to be haunts of Satan. Puritan opposition to the theater arose, in part, from an astute understanding of the role that the medieval church had played in the development of drama, and the many figures that attacked the theater in the period realized that the custom of staging plays had arisen from the mystery and morality plays that had been common in the country before the rise of the Reformation. At the same time, Puritans shared an abiding distrust for all ritualized and theatrical displays, and they believed that evil lay at the heart of the pomp and magnificence of the stage as well as in the elaborate rituals of kingship and the Church of England. But while the parliamentary ordinances enacted in 1642 against the theater were clear, several loopholes in the law still allowed some minor forms of drama to flourish. During the period of the Puritan Commonwealth (1649–1660), it became a common custom for England's great noble families—many of whom had sided with the royalist cause—to stage plays and operas in their homes. Some of these productions were actually staged by professionals and performed for paying audiences. Short dramas, too, were sometimes performed furtively at fairs or in small towns on holidays; and the rise of drolls or traveling wits that toured the country entertaining crowds with short skits was yet another way in which theater survived in England during the 1650s. In the country's great public schools, institutions that had served to educate sons of nobles and gentlemen since the later Middle Ages, dramas continued to be used, as they were in Catholic Europe, to teach Latin and Greek as well as to expose students to ancient rhetoric and style. At the same time, while regulations against the theater were sometimes ignored, circumvented, or relaxed by the government during the Puritan period, the age was nevertheless a definitive break from the vigorous tradition of public drama that had flourished in England since the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I had each thrown their support squarely behind the theater and had opposed Puritan efforts to rid the country of drama. As a result, most of London's actors, playwrights, and theater owners had been royalist supporters during the Civil War, and when their side was defeated, many were consequently forced into exile. Many of those who stayed in England took up other occupations. Very few who were active on the London stage in the years before 1642 lived to see the Restoration of the monarchy and the revival of the theater after 1660. Thus when Charles II returned to assume the throne in that year and permitted theatrical performances, the London theater by and large had to be created anew.

The New Theatres.

During his exile from England, Charles I had been a guest of the royal court of France, and thus he had witnessed firsthand the cultivated courtly entertainments that were common in Paris at the time. One of his first measures upon returning to England was to license two acting troupes. The first became known as the King's Men and was directed by Sir Thomas Killigrew (1612–1683). Killigrew was a member of a royalist family from Cornwall, and had grown up in the court of Charles I. In the king's service he had played something of the role of a court wit and had published two tragicomedies before the closure of London's theaters. When the English Civil Wars had driven the Stuarts from England, Killigrew had remained loyal to the Stuart prince Charles and had followed him into exile. Charles granted the second license for a dramatic company to Sir William Davenant (1606–1668), a supporter who had received permission to found a theater shortly before the 1642 parliamentary measures that abolished the stage in London. Davenant had a colorful life. He may have been the godson of William Shakespeare, although court gossip in the seventeenth century sometimes alleged that he was the great playwright's illegitimate child. During the Civil Wars Davenant had served King Charles I by running supply ships from the continent to England, and in 1649, the king's widow had sent him on a mission to Maryland, expecting him to serve as governor. His ship was intercepted by Puritan forces, and he was imprisoned for five years. Shortly after his release he secured permission from Oliver Cromwell's Puritan government to stage a production of an early opera in the private home of an English noble. The performances were mounted before a paying audience, and thus circumvented Parliament's prohibitions against theatrical performances. When Charles II granted Davenant a license to start a theater, controversy soon erupted among other contenders for the honor. Sir William Herbert, another contender, sued in London's courts, charging that Davenant had been a Puritan sympathizer, and that he had used his influence with Oliver Cromwell's government to circumvent Puritan regulations against the stage. Despite these challenges, Charles' decision was upheld, and Davenant's company became known as the "Duke of York's Men." Killigrew and Davenant were both aware of the advantages that a smaller, French-styled theater offered, and so they established their theaters, not in the large outdoor arenas that had been popular in London at the turn of the seventeenth century, but in smaller more intimate settings. Like the Parisian theaters of the period, both Killigrew and Davenant initially converted indoor tennis courts into playhouses, before building new structures in which to perform. In 1663, Killigrew's company moved to a new theater specially constructed in Drury Lane near Covent Garden. Although this structure was eventually destroyed and replaced by several later structures, a theater still stands on the same spot in London today. Davenant's company, the Duke's Men, moved from facility to facility throughout the 1660s, but by 1673 they had taken up residence in a theater designed for them in Dorset Gardens by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren. Both houses seem to have combined some of the latest French innovations in the theater with older English traditions. Although the stages were framed with a proscenium arch in the manner of Continental theaters, the stages curved and jutted outward so that players might act in close proximity to the audiences, as they had done in Elizabethan times. Changeable scenery was used, although each company had a relatively small supply of sets that suggested interiors and exteriors. Productions, in other words, were not designed anew, but relied on sets taken from the company's repertory of stock sets.


introduction: The English diarist Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) left one of the great records of life in the Restoration age. He attended the theater almost daily and recorded his thoughts about almost every play performed in London during the 1660s. In the entry he goes about his business during the day, attends the theater, and then goes back to work in the evening—a fairly typical pattern. The present entry from 20 February 1668, is notable because he remarks how that evening's play was intended to criticize the immorality of King Charles II, who was in attendance. Charles II, though, was fairly tolerant, and what might have caused the government to close a theater in an earlier period was now allowed to proceed relatively unhindered. It is interesting to note that Pepys refers to Nell (Nell Gwyn) speaking the prologue of the offending play, The Duke of Lerma. She herself was soon to become one of the king's mistresses.

Up, and to the office a while, and thence to White Hall by coach with Mr. Batelier with me, whom I took up in the street. I thence by water to Westminster Hall, and there with Lord Brouncker, Sir T. Harvy, Sir J. Minnes, did wait all the morning to speak to members about our business, thinking our business of tickets would come before the House to-day, but we did alter our minds about the petition to the House, sending in the paper to them. But the truth is we were in a great hurry, but it fell out that they were most of the morning upon the business of not prosecuting the first victory; which they have voted one of the greatest miscarriages of the whole war, though they cannot lay the fault anywhere yet, because Harman is not come home. This kept them all the morning, which I was glad of. So down to the Hall, where my wife by agreement stayed for me at Mrs. Michell's, and there was Mercer and the girl, and I took them to Wilkinson's the cook's in King Street (where I find the master of the house hath been dead for some time), and there dined, and thence by one o'clock to the King's house: a new play, "The Duke of Lerma," of Sir Robert Howard's: where the King and Court was; and Knepp and Nell spoke the prologue most excellently, especially Knepp, who spoke beyond any creature I ever heard. The play designed to reproach our King with his mistresses, that I was troubled for it, and expected it should be interrupted; but it ended all well, which salved all. The play a well-writ and good play, only its design I did not like of reproaching the King, but altogether a very good and most serious play. Thence home, and there a little to the office, and so home to supper, where Mercer with us, and sang, and then to bed.

source: Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Vol. 2. Ed. Henry B. Wheatley (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1896): 330–331.

Changing Tastes.

Despite the Restoration of the monarchy Puritan sentiments continued to flourish in late seventeenth-century London, and the theater consequently retained an "air of the forbidden" for many in the capital. The period's audience, while large, was drawn from more elite and cultivated circles than in Elizabethan or early Stuart times. In the first few years many of London's productions were adapted from earlier Tudor and Stuart plays, but soon the Restoration stage acquired its own stock of playwrights. While every genre of dramatic writing—from tragedy and history plays to glittering comedies—had flourished in the era of Shakespeare and Jonson, Restoration playwrights most often satisfied their cultivated and witty patrons with a long succession of satirical comedies of manners. This new genre made use of gossip, witty conversation, double entendre, and sardonic wit to mock the foibles and shortcomings of all classes of English men and women, but it especially focused on the problems of high society. Molière was one very great influence on the comedy of manners, although the English genre outdid the French comedy of the time with its overt sexual humor. And like the moral ambiguity that lay at the heart of many of the works of Molière, many English playwrights of the time were unconcerned with drawing moralistic lessons from the events around which they based their comedies. George Etherege (c. 1635–c. 1692) helped to establish the conventions of comedy of manners with his 1664 production of The Comical Revenge, or Love in a

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Tub, which treated the exploits of the man of society Sir Frederick Frollick. At this point Etherege's dramas drew their style from older traditions, relying on verse rather than prose in their dialogue. In his She Would, if She Could (1668), Etherege jettisoned the traditional verse and instead adopted a more naturalistic prose style, something that he perfected in his last work, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter (1676). For these efforts the king knighted him in 1680. Like many of the Restoration dramatists, Etherege was a brilliant amateur. The writing of plays, in other words, was only one of many pastimes and avocations for this man of letters, who also served as an ambassador for the king. William Wycherley (1640–1716) was another figure who, like many of England's late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century dramatists, combined a life of pleasure and educated pastimes with writing for the stage. Wycherley vacillated throughout his life between Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Puritanism. While he was being educated in France as a young man, he converted to Roman Catholicism, but fell under Puritan influence when he returned to England. He came to the attention of Charles II's court, and he took up a life as a wit in its circles, writing a succession of plays that mocked the hypocrisy and foibles of aristocratic society. These works reveal the internal tensions that Wycherley's accommodation to court produced. In 1680, he renounced his life of pleasure when he fell under the spell of the Puritan Countess of Drogheda, and the couple married. The countess soon died, however, and a dispute over her will left Wycherley penniless. King James II eventually rescued him from debtor's prison, awarding him a lifelong pension. By the time he died in 1716, he had reverted to Roman Catholicism once again.

John Dryden.

While he wrote brilliant comedies of manners, the greatest playwright of the period, John Dryden (1631–1700), is today best remembered for his tragedies, a type of play that was relatively undeveloped by Restoration dramatists. Dryden's family had sided with Parliament in the struggles against King Charles I, and in his early life, the future playwright attended the prominent Westminster School before obtaining a Bachelor of Arts from Trinity College in Cambridge. His first play, The Wild Gallant, was produced in 1663, and although it was notable for its bawdy language, it was not a great success. The following year he participated with Sir Robert Howard in writing the tragedy The Indian Queen, but it was not until he wrote a sequel to this play, The Indian Emperour (1665), that he scored his first definitive hit. Other successes followed, and by 1668 Thomas Killigrew retained the author to write plays to be performed solely by his company, the King's Men. The works he produced in these first years working with the King's Men were mostly comic farces and burlesques that featured a central hero's trials and tribulations set in exotic locales and filled with much blustering, on-stage fighting, and larger-than-life antics. In 1672, he began to move away from this genre of heroic plays with his lively and witty comedy Marriage a la Mode, an urbane work in the comedy of manners vein. Perhaps his greatest achievement of these first years in the theater, though, was his tragedy, All For Love (1677), a play based on William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which Dryden wrote in unrhymed or blank verse. In the following year the author severed his long-standing association with the "King's Men," which had fallen on hard times as a result of poor management, and he offered his services to their competitors, the "Duke of York's Men." During the 1680s the author concentrated more and more on his poetry, even as he also became embroiled in political controversy. A key issue of these years revolved around the question of the royal succession. Charles II's brother James was a Catholic, who supported greater religious toleration, not only for Roman Catholics, but for all dissenters generally. Although he stood in line to inherit the throne, an increasingly vocal faction in Parliament known as the Whigs favored the king's bastard son, the Duke of Monmouth. For his part in defending the opposing Tory party's views, Charles II named Dryden poet laureate, but when James did succeed to the throne and was soon forced into exile, Dryden lost the position to his Whig opponent, the playwright and poet Thomas Shadwell. Deprived of the income his royal pension provided, the poet returned to the theater in the final years of his life. His plays alternately succeeded and failed, and he began to write the dramatic librettos for some of Henry Purcell's operas in these years, too. At this time in his life, Dryden continued to write literary criticism and to translate classical works into English. When he died in 1700, he was considered the grand old man of English letters and he was buried in Westminster Abbey. Unlike many of the literary figures of the late seventeenth century, Dryden's reputation has consistently remained high over the centuries, and his works—although not of the high literary caliber of Shakespeare or Jonson—have continued to be studied, while the efforts of other Restoration dramatists have fallen in and out of favor or largely been ignored by subsequent generations.

Women and the Restoration Theatre.

While the quality of many Restoration dramatists continues to be debated, the theater of this era was innovative in allowing women roles as actresses, stage managers, and playwrights. Charles II's reestablishment of the theater in the years after 1660 lifted the traditional bans against female performers, and in the years after 1660 the first female actresses began to attract considerable attention on the London scene. The great Nell Gwyn (1650–1687) was among the first to leave her mark on the English stage. Born the daughter of a bankrupt father and a mother who was a madam, Gwyn grew up tending bar in her mother's establishment. Later she sold oranges in the theater and became the lover of a prominent actor, which paved the way for her debut in 1665. During the years that followed, Gwyn reigned as the supreme actress of the Drury Lane Theater, notable for her abilities in comic roles. By 1669 she had come to the attention of Charles II and she soon became his mistress. The king provided well for Nell. She retired from the stage and lived in an elegant house Charles provided. Known for her extravagance, she played a key role at court by virtue of the elaborate parties she held. When the king died in 1685, Gwyn was heavily indebted, but Charles's brother James II settled her obligations and awarded her the enormous pension of £1,500 a year. She did not have long to enjoy her newfound stability. Apparently the victim of a stroke, she died in 1687. Her career was extraordinary among the women who made their way into

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the theater in the later seventeenth century, and did much to earn the reputation that actresses were little more than prostitutes and courtesans. Gwyn's chief allure on the stage had consisted in her physical attributes as well as her sense of comic timing, but her actual dramatic career had been quite brief. Elizabeth Barry, who was the ward of the troupe director William Davenant, made her debut on the London stage in the late 1670s and continued to perform there until 1707. She was said to be a highly dramatic actress, widely admired for her tragic roles. Through her association with Davenant, she met John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, and the two were lovers for many years. The notoriety these famous women attracted helped to fix the dubious reputation that actresses had in the minds of many at the time, but not every woman connected with the theater moved in such illustrious and rarefied circles. In her youth Anne Bracegirdle (1671–1748) had been the ward of the actor and theatrical manager Thomas Betterton, who taught her acting and put her in his productions when she was only six years old. William Congreve and Nicholas Rowe wrote parts especially for her, and she probably secretly married Congreve. Widely admired for her piety and virtuous character, Bracegirdle, like Barry, retired in 1707, although she lived for an additional forty years. After her death in 1748 she was buried in Westminster Abbey, a testimony to the high regard in which she continued to be held. Barry and Bracegirdle's retirement from the stage prepared the way for Anne Oldfield (1683–1730) to reign supreme as the queen of London's theaters.

Female Playwrights and Stage Managers.

Women participated in the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theater in London as playwrights and stage managers as well. During the 1670s and 1680s Aphra Behn (1640–1689) entertained audiences in the capital with a string of witty comedies of manners, thus becoming the first English-speaking woman to earn her livelihood by writing. Behn's life had all the components of high drama. Born in the countryside in Kent in southeast England, she traveled as a teenager to the Caribbean where she lived for a time in Dutch Guiana. This environment may have fostered her distaste for the commercial Dutch that peppers her later writing. She was apparently forced into an arranged and unhappy marriage from which her husband's death soon freed her. Coming to the attention of the royal court because of her intelligence and humor, Charles II entrusted her with the task of spying in the Netherlands. She was imprisoned for debts for a time when she returned to England, and thus turned to writing to support herself. Her first play, The Forced Marriage, was a drama that attacked the conventions of arranged marriage. She followed this play with other serious works, but then turned to comedy. She scored a great success with The Rover, a two-part play staged in 1677 and 1681. The play still ranks as one of her most important contributions, although her fiction, including the colonial novel Oroonoko, tends to be more widely admired than her plays. She nevertheless established herself on the London stage as a powerful force. At the same time, her unconventional career subjected her to a great deal of criticism, and scandal circulated around her private life. Her career prepared the way for at least two other female dramatists—Susanna Centlivre (1667–1723) and Charlotte Charke (1713–c. 1760)—to follow her example in the eighteenth century. Both women were actresses who eventually turned to play writing, while Behn herself never performed on the stage. Nineteen works survive from Susanna Centlivre, mostly from the first two decades of the eighteenth century, but the author may have written a number of works far earlier under the pen name S. Carroll. Although her career has largely been forgotten today and her works did not rank as great art, they do nevertheless display a broad reading in French and Spanish theatrical traditions as well as those of the English masters. Charlotte Charke, by contrast, only wrote three plays during her tumultuous and scandal-ridden life, but she left behind a memoir of her time in the English theater, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke (1755), that still makes for fascinating reading. The daughter of the accomplished actor and stage manager Colley Cibber, Charke's strong personality and unconventional behavior alienated her from her family. When her theatrical career soured, she took to dressing in male clothing and to working in men's professions. Eventually, she took up with another woman and the two traveled together as husband and wife, with Charke imitating the man. The careers of those women who served as stage managers in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England were more conventional than Charke's. Most gained a role in the theater through their husbands. Lady Henrietta Maria Davenant, the wife of the troupe manager and actor William Davenant, assumed control of her husband's troupe, the Duke's Men, following his death in 1668, eventually leading to successes and merging it with the failing King's Men, the other major London troupe of the day. This newly formed company worked under the direction of the actor Thomas Betterton (1635–1710), who had married the successful actress Mary Saunderson (d. 1712). Together the Bettertons shaped tastes in the London theater, and they also trained many prominent actors and actresses, including the important actress Anne Bracegirdle.

Scope of the Restoration Theater.

Although the re-establishment of the English monarchy resulted in a great revival of the theater in later seventeenth-century London, the scale of the Restoration theater was by any standard far more modest than the great age of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson that had preceded it. Audiences, although present in the Restoration playhouses, had shrunk, due in large part to the influence of Puritanism and other radical religious teachings that attacked the theater. These groups continued to have plenty of fodder for their criticisms in the amoral and often bawdy productions that were mounted in London under the reign of the later Stuart monarchs Charles II and James II. Nevertheless, royal favor was strongly behind the theater, although the receipts of the two London troupes, the Duke's Men and the King's Men, seem to have dwindled during the 1680s. Eventually, the King's Men was threatened with bankruptcy, and the two troupes concluded a merger and set up residence in the Drury Lane Theater in Covent Garden. Thus for a time, only one theater entertained London's audiences, a sign of the relatively limited appeal that many of the theatrical productions had in late seventeenth-century London. Where a vibrant popular theatrical tradition had flourished in Elizabethan and early Stuart England, the theater now served to entertain the sons of aristocrats and their stylish circles. The theater continued to cause controversy, and in the minds of many English men and women the Stuarts' support of the institution was consonant with their Catholic sympathies. When James II was forced into exile in 1688, tastes in the capital began to change rather quickly. The following year Parliament called the Dutch king William of Orange and his wife Queen Mary, who was James II's daughter, to assume the English throne, thus cementing the Whig party's control over the monarchy, an event that has long been referred to as England's Glorious Revolution. While William and Mary did not close London's theaters, they were less tolerant and permissive of the kind of bawdy humor and license that had prevailed under the later Stuarts. Thus as the eighteenth century approached, new standards that were more overtly moralistic governed taste on the London stage, and these mores left their imprint on the drama of the time.


Deborah Payne Fisk, ed., The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration Theatre (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Frederick M. Link, Aphra Behn (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1978).

Fidelis Morgan, The Female Wits: Women Playwrights on the London Stage, 1660–1720 (London: Virago, 1981).

Margaret Sherwood, Dryden's Dramatic Theory and Practice (New York: Haskell, 1965).

Montague Summers, Restoration Theatre (New York: Humanities Press, 1964).