Category Archives: Theatre

Restoration Drama in England (1600–1800)

Restoration Drama in England (1600–1800)

Drama during 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.

The exterior of the Drury Lane Theater, London. MARY EVANS PICTURE LIBRARY.

The exterior of the Drury Lane Theater, London. MARY EVANS
PICTURE LIBRARY.

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. Read the rest of this entry

Torquato Tasso

Torquato Tasso

Poet, Playwright
(1544–1595)

Torquato Tasso

The last major literary genius the Italian Renaissance produced was Torquato Tasso (1544–1595). His life and work show the influence that the increasingly puritanical tastes of the Counter Reformation produced upon literary fashions in the second half of the sixteenth century. Tasso was born in Sorrento near the city of Naples in southern Italy, where his father Bernardo served as a courtier to the Baron of Salerno. Bernardo was forced to leave that position when he opposed the establishment of the Inquisition in nearby Naples.

During the 1550s, Torquato traveled with his father, who had to take a series of insecure court positions in northern and central Italy to support the family. While on these travels, Tasso acquired an excellent education, but he also became familiar with the uncertainties that could plague a courtier’s life if he failed to please his prince. In 1560, he entered the University of Padua, where his father wanted him to pursue a legal career that would free him from the need to secure literary patronage. Young Tasso, though, preferred poetry and philosophy to the law, and in these years, he began some of the poems that would eventually establish his fame.

He began the chief of these works, Jerusalemme liberata or Jerusalem Delivered, at this time, although he did not finish it until many years later. Tasso conceived the poem as a chivalric epic similar to those of Ariosto, Boiardo, and Pulci. Its tastes, though, were more moral and religiously profound than these earlier works. While Tasso did not completely abandon the complex plot twists, eroticism, or adventurism of the chivalric romance, he sublimated these features to the higher themes of love and heroic valor.

Completing Jerusalem Delivered, though, proved to be a lifelong, tortuous task. After leaving the university, Tasso received patronage from a wealthy and influential cardinal at Ferrara. He had few duties except to write and amuse the cardinal’s court in the city of Ferrara. In this environment Tasso circulated his poems, realizing that his works might cause offense in the heightened moral climate of the day. Over time, Tasso grew suspicious of his critics, and he feared being denounced to the Inquisition. He confessed his wrongdoings to the body when he had not even been summoned. Eventually, he stabbed a household servant whom he suspected of spying on him and then fled Ferrara. Read the rest of this entry

Euripides

Euripides

EuripidesTragic playwright
(480 B.C – 405 B.C)

There are more than twice as many surviving plays of Euripides than of either Aeschylus or Sophocles (eighteen as compared with six or seven apiece of the others). There is also a parodic portrayal of the playwright in Aristophanes’ Frogs and a fanciful biography of him written in the third century B.C.E. which relied on details from the playwright’s own works as well as various other spurious sources. Even so, it is difficult to discern the facts of the playwright’s life, and ultimately there is as little known about him as about most famous people from antiquity. Euripides was born to a wealthy family in the Athenian deme of Phyla, though there were stories that he came from modest origins as well, most likely because he often portrayed humble people in his plays.

The tale that he isolated himself in a cave at Salamis to write his plays probably more reflects his lack of interest in politics or public life than an actual physical isolation. He first competed at the City Dionysia in 455 B.C.E. He won fewer first prizes only four than did Aeschylus or Sophocles during his career, but the story that he fled Athens for Macedon in disgust at his lack of popularity is undoubtedly false. Nevertheless, he did die at the court of King Archelaus of Macedon in approximately 406 B.C.E.; the story has it that he was torn to pieces by the king’s guard dogs, which echoes his propensity in tragedies to include unusually violent deaths for his characters, such as the demise of King Pentheus in Bacchants, who is ripped apart by a raving band of maenads led by his own mother. Euripides had three sons, one of whom, also named Euripides, may have produced some of his tragedies after his death .

Works

Eighteen of Euripides’ plays survive. (A nineteenth, the Rhesus, is of doubtful authorship.) The plays securely attributed to Euripides include: Medea (last place in 431 B.C.E.); Electra (417 B.C.E.); Trojan Women (second prize in 415 B.C.E.); Bacchants and Iphigenia at Aulis (first-prize winners produced together posthumously in 405 B.C.E.); and a satyr play, Cyclops (date unknown). In addition, there are substantial fragments of eleven others, including Oedipus, Cretans, and Archelaus, written for his patron in Macdeon. Euripidean drama focuses on individual characters and their personal circumstances, the paradoxical nature of human life and its vicissitudes, and the internal struggle that the tragic hero undergoes. As a consequence, the structure of his plays sometimes follows a predetermined plot to its foreseeable, if regrettable, outcome; at other times, his plays swerve as unpredictably as his characters do. Euripides featured characters who commit the most extreme acts humans are capable of incest, rape, betrayal, murder and allowed them to stand up for themselves. He sometimes drew criticism for portraying women who defended roles that were contrary to Athenian values, like Agave in The Bacchants, who glories in her newfound bloodlust, and Medea in the play that bears her name.

Euripides often added startling innovations to familiar stories from myth. Some of his tragedies, like Ion, include elements more familiar to Middle and New Comedy: a son born out of wedlock is eventually recognized and reunited with his parents with the help of the gods. The amazing variety of Euripidean plots, from the very bleak Trojan Women, portraying women who must face a future as the sexual slaves of the men who killed their families, to the almost lighthearted Helen, which chronicles the awkward reunion of Helen and Menelaus after the Trojan War, ultimately de fies categorization. Euripides was criticized in his own time for portraying ordinary people as they were instead of noble denizens of a tragic past, but he often seems like the most “modern” playwright. His plays were among the most popular in later revivals.

Nell Gwyn

Nell Gwyn

Actress
(1650–1687)

Nell GwynWhen she was just a child, Eleanor Gwyn lost her father, who likely died in a debtor’s prison. The future great actress of the Restoration stage therefore grew up under the care of her mother, who ran a house of prostitution near Covent Garden, then in the western end of the city of London. In her childhood years she was a barmaid in her mother’s establishment before becoming a fruit seller at the nearby Drury Lane Theater. She came to the attention of the theater’s major actor, Charles Hart, and although only fifteen at the time she became his lover. Hart saw to it that she was given roles in productions and she continued in the company until 1669 when she became pregnant by the king. She returned to the theater for one production after the birth, but then soon retired to devote herself to her love, King Charles II. In the years that she had performed at the Drury Lane Theater, Gwyn premiered a number of roles in plays by John Dryden and James Howard.

Although she acted in dramas, it was in comic roles that her talents were most evident. Observers noted that she had a quick and ready wit, and althoug hilliterate, was able to charm even the most educated by the intelligence of her conversation. She was also considered to be an excellent singer and dancer, and she was admired for her abilities to recite the poetic prologues and epilogues that were common in the theater of the day. In her retirement the king granted her a house, where she entertained Charles and members of the aristocracy. She was twice coaxed back onto the stage during the 1670s, the first time to play the female lead in Aphra Behn’s comedy of manners, The Rover (1677) and again in a role in the author’s Sir Patient Fancy a year later. These productions were staged, not at her former establishment the Drury Lane Theater, but at the Dorset Gardens, the house belonging to the troupe known as “The King’s Men.”

In the years after she became the king’s lover, she devoted almost all of her energies to entertaining Charles and members of his court and to tending to her mother and children. Since she had the royal ear, she frequently became involved in intrigues at court, although she seems never to have tried to interfere in politics. Charles richly rewarded her with a generous allowance and a handsome house in the St.James’ section of London so that she could be near the palace. He elevated the two sons she bore him to the nobility. With her newfound wealth, Gwyn provided a house for her mother in fashionable Chelsea, but her mother died in an accident in 1679 brought on by a bout of drunkenness. Despite the king’s great largesse, Gwyn spent prodigiously and when Charles died in 1685, she was in danger of being sent to debtor’s prison. Read the rest of this entry

Pedro Calderon de la Barca

Pedro Calderon de la Barca

Actor
(1600 – 1681)

Pedro CalderonPedro Calderon de la Barca grew up in a strict household, an experience that left its mark on his later plays, many of which treat characters who disobey their dictatorial fathers. He was trained to take up a life in the church, but by his early twenties he was writing dramas for the court and serving in a noble household. Soon he became part of the small inner circle of confidantes to King Philip IV (r.1621–1665), and he was eventually to be knighted in1636. In these years his plays were performed, not only at court, but in the public theaters that were then popular in Madrid, Spain’s capital. With the death of Felix Lope de Vega in 1635, Calderón came to be recognized as the greatest living Spanish dramatist.

In 1640, Pedro Calderon took up a military career when rebellion broke out among King Philip’s Catalanese subjects, but when he was injured in the conflict, he retired from military service. In the years that followed he sired an illegitimate child, but a few years later decided to enter the priesthood. In 1651, he announced that he would write no longer for the stage. Although he largely held to this vow, refusing to write for the public theaters in Madrid, he did author plays for private performance in Spain’s royal court. For the remaining thirty years of his life he also authored each year autos sacramentales, or religious plays, for Madrid’s celebrations of the Feast of Corpus Christi. In these years he also served as the priest to the king.

Pedro Calderon’s career coincided with massive changes in Spain’s political andcultural life. At the time of his birth Spain had recently suffered setbacks as a result of its conflicts with England and its prolonged involvements in the Dutch revolts. At the same time, the country possessed strong reserves of wealth and of intellectual life that continued to make it one of the most cultivated centers of learning in Europe. The Spanish public theater, which had begun to grow in Madrid and other cities throughout Iberia, had developed the form of the comedia in the first three decades of the seventeenth century into a high art form. At first, there was little difference between the dramas that were performed in the many corrales in towns like Madrid or Seville and those that entertained Spain’s cultivated aristocrats, and the troupes that had performed in these theaters had often staged their productions before the king and court.  Read the rest of this entry