I’m still thinking about the 18-year theater closure during the English Commonwealth, especially now that the Guthrie Theater has announced they will be dark until March 2021. When I wrote about the 1642-1660 closure last month, I sidestepped the story of one of its famous survivors, because in one way, his actions are absolutely NOT a good model for theater artists in the current pandemic. Except that, in another way, they are.
When the theater ban was enacted, William Davenant was England’s Poet Laureate, the author of a number of plays, and the manager of the Cockpit Players (Nungezer 112). He may also have done some service in the army (Campbell 237, Levao 104). When he was “pleasant over a glass of wine” (Aubrey, “Sir William Davenant”), he would hint to his friends that he was the bastard son of William Shakespeare. A bout of syphilis disfigured his nose.
The year before the ban, Davenant had conspired with other supporters of King Charles I to march the English Army into London and seize the Tower (Russell 89), and consequently had to leave the country for a while to avoid prosecution for treason. During the Civil Wars, he served in the royalist army. In 1650, Charles II sent him to Maryland to “supersede” (Campbell 239) its governor, Lord Baltimore, who supported Parliament. Davenant was arrested before his ship left the English Channel, and spent the next four years in prison.
Two years later – that is, four years before the theater ban was lifted – Davenant was producing…not theater…oh no…”Recititave Musick”…that told a story…with costumed performers…and sets…but not theater. His “straining the law against public playing” (Randall 170) is not something we should be emulating now. If we don’t want our theater closure to last eighteen years, we can’t stretch the definition of social distancing or push the boundaries on washing our hands.
But there is something worth emulating about those almost-but-not-quite illegal performances. Davenant changed what and who appeared on the English stage. His genre-bending productions are considered the first English operas. He also introduced movable scenery, an idea possibly adapted from court masques he worked on with architect and designer Inigo Jones (Levao 105). And his cast for The Siege of Rhodes included a woman in the role of the staunch military wife Ianthe. Actually, judging from the scene where Ianthe is ordering her maids to sell her jewels, it appears to me that there must have been multiple women performers in the show, but Catherine Coleman, who played Ianthe, is the one who gets scholarly attention as “the first professional histrionic female singer to take to the English stage outside the masque” (McManus 225). Coleman was the daughter of court composer Alfonso Ferrabosco, who collaborated on a number of masques (Wikipedia, “Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger”). I suspect Davenant knew her because he had worked with her father. In any case, it’s thanks to William Davenant that women first appeared on the professional English stage.
I don’t suppose that Davenant spent the years of the theater ban cogitating how he might foster technological innovation and gender equity. I’m sure he was hustling as best he knew how. Who do I know who’s talented but hasn’t been seen on the stage before? What have I seen that people might bestir themselves to come to the theater and see?
And those aren’t bad questions to keep in mind.