Government Shuts Theaters: 1642

Way back when I was taking Survey of English Literature I, I learned that on September 2nd, 1642, Parliament banned public stage plays, arguing that “Public Sports do not well agree with Public Calamities, nor Public Stage-plays with the Seasons of Humiliation.” The “Public Calamities” were the English Civil Wars, then just beginning, though as later renewals of the ban made clear, Parliament’s real objection to the theater was that it was ungodly, an unfit pastime for Christians. The theaters remained closed until the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. Eighteen years. An enormous catastrophe for the theater, but (as I thought way back then) certainly a singular and remote event, unlike anything I would ever experience.

On March 16, 2020, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz ordered the closure of public places of amusement, including theaters, in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. Obviously, this has a very different purpose from the 1642 ban. But it got me reading up on 1642-1660.

When theater came back in 1660, it came back with a roar. So how did it survive? How did the people who made it survive? I can imagine that writers could find other things to write, but how did actors, costumers and technicians keep their craft alive without public performances? I was hoping to find some inspirational stories to share. I’m still hoping. Meanwhile, here are a few things I’ve learned.

Going virtual

Some actors became publishers, selling play scripts. In their dedications of these works, they pointed out that they understood that reading a play in print was not at all the same experience as attending a performance. Heidi Craig quotes a vivid example from Theophilus Bird and Andrew Pennycuicke:

By the Herodotus Reports that the Egyptians by Wrapping their Dead in Glasse, presents them lively to all posterity; But your Lordship will do more, by the Vivifying beames of your Acceptation, Revive beparents of this Orphan Poem, and make them live to Eternity. While the Stage florisht, the POEM liv’d by the breath of Generall Applauses, and the Virtuall Fervor of the Court; but since hath languish for want of heate, and now nerere shrunk up with Cold, creepes (with a shivering feare) to Extend it self at the Flames of your Benignity.

(Craig 51)

Published play as dying body.

This reminds me of recent comments I’ve seen about theater performed online being no substitute for live performance. But, like published play scripts, it keeps public interest alive in a different medium.

Talent spotting

One theater artist who went into bookselling was John Rhodes, “Wardrobe-Keeper formerly…to King Charles the First’s Company of Comedians in Black-Friar’s” (Downes and Knight 17). As a bookseller, Rhodes was “shadowy” and “unproductive” (Roberts 47). As a theater worker, he was indefatigable. Early in 1660 – before King Charles II reopened the theaters – Rhodes set up a theater company at the Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane. His actors included four young men who had worked for him in the book trade; they were probably too young to have seen live theater that they could remember. Two of them, Thomas Betterton and Edward Kynaston, quickly became stars. Betterton’s biographer, David Roberts, imagines that “Studious and youthful Thomas Betterton, child of two decades without theatre, did not need to see a play to fall in love with the theatre when he could listen to an old wardrobe keeper talking about it” (Roberts 50).

OK, I guess I did find one inspiring story.

Engraving of Thomas Betterton as Hamlet
Thomas Betterton as Hamlet

Rly, Oliver Cromwell?

In November 1657, for the weddings of his two younger daughters, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell commissioned what scholars have described as “masquelike entertainment” (Randall 183) or simply “masques” (Holberton 97).

Just to be clear. The man who led the armies for the government that banned theater, when he wanted to celebrate and impress, called in the poets and composers and the theater impresario William Davenant to put on a show.

In a spiteful way, I find this very encouraging, as evidence that people want what we do. Even the people who outlaw us want what we do.

Dale Randall puts it more kindly.

Clearly there was a continuing human need for making pretty façades and speaking from behind masks, for teaching, persuading, railing, and amusing, by means of a variety of dramatic forms.

(Randall 15)

Works Cited

Craig, Heidi. A Play Without a Stage: English Renaissance Drama, 1642-1660 – ProQuest., Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
Downes, John, and Joseph Knight. Roscius Anglicanus, or, An Historical Review of the Stage from 1660 to 1706. London, J.W. Jarvis & son, 1886. Internet Archive,
Holberton, Edward. “‘Soe Honny from the Lyon Came’: The 1657 Wedding-Masques for the Protector’s Daughters.” The Seventeenth Century, vol. 20, no. 1, Routledge, Mar. 2005, pp. 97–112, doi:10.1080/0268117X.2005.10555552.
“Minneapolis Theater Uses Modern Tech to Bring Ancient Tale to Audiences.” Star Tribune., Accessed 9 Apr. 2020.
Randall, Dale. Winter Fruit: English Drama 1642-1660. University Press of Kentucky, 1995.
Roberts, David. Thomas Betterton: The Greatest Actor of the Restoration Stage. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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