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The History Of The Theatre During Its Suppression
by [?]

A period in our dramatic annals has been passed over during the progress of the civil wars, which indeed was one of silence, but not of repose in the theatre. It lasted beyond the death of Charles the First, when the fine arts seemed also to have suffered with the monarch. The theatre, for the first time in any nation, was abolished by a public ordinance, and the actors, and consequently all that family of genius who by their labours or their tastes are connected with the drama, were reduced to silence. The actors were forcibly dispersed, and became even some of the most persecuted objects of the new government.

It may excite our curiosity to trace the hidden footsteps of this numerous fraternity of genius. Hypocrisy and Fanaticism had, at length, triumphed over Wit and Satire. A single blow could not, however, annihilate those never-dying powers; nor is suppression always extinction. Reduced to a state which did not allow of uniting in a body, still their habits and their affections could not desert them: actors would attempt to resume their functions, and the genius of the authors and the tastes of the people would occasionally break out, though scattered and concealed.

Mr. Gifford has noticed, in his introduction to Massinger, the noble contrast between our actors at that time, with those of revolutionary France, when, to use his own emphatic expression–“One wretched actor only deserted his sovereign; while of the vast multitude fostered by the nobility and the royal family of France, not one individual adhered to their cause: all rushed madly forward to plunder and assassinate their benefactors.”

The contrast is striking, but the result must be traced to a different principle; for the cases are not parallel as they appear. The French actors did not occupy the same ground as ours. Here, the fanatics shut up the theatre, and extirpated the art and the artists: there, the fanatics enthusiastically converted the theatre into an instrument of their own revolution, and the French actors therefore found an increased national patronage. It was natural enough that actors would not desert a flourishing profession. “The plunder and assassinations,” indeed, were quite peculiar to themselves as Frenchmen, not as actors.

The destruction of the theatre here was the result of an ancient quarrel between the puritanic party and the whole corps dramatique. In this little history of plays and players, like more important history, we perceive how all human events form but a series of consequences, linked together; and we must go back to the reign of Elizabeth to comprehend an event which occurred in that of Charles the First. It has been perhaps peculiar to this land of contending opinions, and of happy and unhappy liberty, that a gloomy sect was early formed, who drawing, as they fancied, the principles of their conduct from the literal precepts of the Gospel, formed those views of human nature which were more practicable in a desert than a city, and which were rather suited to a monastic order than to a polished people. These were our puritans, who at first, perhaps from utter simplicity, among other extravagant reforms, imagined that of the extinction of the theatre. Numerous works from that time fatigued their own pens and their readers’ heads, founded on literal interpretations of the Scriptures, which were applied to our drama, though written ere our drama existed: voluminous quotations from the Fathers, who had only witnessed farcical interludes and licentious pantomimes: they even quoted classical authority to prove that a “stage-player” was considered infamous by the Romans; among whom, however, Roscius, the admiration of Rome, received the princely remuneration of a thousand denarii per diem; the tragedian, AEsopus, bequeathed about L150,000 to his son;[148] remunerations which show the high regard in which the great actors were held among the Roman people.

A series of writers might be collected of these anti-dramatists.[149] The licentiousness of our comedies had too often indeed presented a fair occasion for their attacks; and they at length succeeded in purifying the stage: we owe them this good, but we owe little gratitude to that blind zeal which was desirous of extinguishing the theatre, which wanted the taste also to feel that the theatre was a popular school of morality; that the stage is a supplement to the pulpit; where virtue, according to Plato’s sublime idea, moves our love and affections when made visible to the eye. Of this class, among the earliest writers was Stephen Gosson, who in 1579 published “The School of Abuse, or a Pleasant Invective against Poets, Players, Jesters, and such like Caterpillars.” Yet this Gosson dedicated his work to Sir Philip Sidney, a great lover of plays, and one who has vindicated their morality in his “Defence of Poesy.” The same puritanic spirit soon reached our universities; for when a Dr. Gager had a play performed at Christchurch, Dr. Reynolds, of Queen’s College, terrified at the Satanic novelty, published “The Ouerthrow of Stage-plays,” 1593; a tedious invective, foaming at the mouth of its text with quotations and authorities; for that was the age when authority was stronger than opinion, and the slightest could awe the readers. Reynolds takes great pains to prove that a stage-play is infamous, by the opinions of antiquity; that a theatre corrupts morals, by those of the Fathers; but the most reasonable point of attack is “the sin of boys wearing the dress and affecting the airs of women.”[150] This was too long a flagrant evil in the theatrical economy. To us there appears something so repulsive in the exhibition of boys, or men, personating female characters, that one cannot conceive how they could ever have been tolerated as a substitute for the spontaneous grace, the melting voice, and the soothing looks of a female. It was quite impossible to give the tenderness of a woman to any perfection of feeling, in a personating male; and to this cause may we not attribute that the female characters have never been made chief personages among our elder poets, as they would assuredly have been, had they not been conscious that the male actor could not have sufficiently affected the audience? A poet who lived in Charles the Second’s day, and who has written a prologue to Othello, to introduce the first actress on our stage, has humorously touched on this gross absurdity.