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.
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.