By Jason Chinn
“…this being an Exercise of sad and pious Solemnity, and the other being Spectacles of Pleasure, too commonly expressing lascivious Mirth and Levity: It is therefore thought fit, and Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in this Parliament assembled, That, while these sad causes and set Times of Humiliation do continue, Public Stage Plays shall cease, and be forborn, instead of which are recommended to the People of this Land the profitable and seasonable considerations of Repentance, Reconciliation, and Peace with God, which probably may produce outward Peace and Prosperity, and bring again Times of Joy and Gladness to these Nations.”
The “September 1642: Order for Stage-plays to cease,” banning theatre during the English Civil War.
English Politics in the Seventeenth-Century and the Emergence of Restoration Theatre
The end of the Elizabethan era, which gave rise to playwrights William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlow and Ben Jonson, and the subsequent emergence of Restoration theatre, is inextricably linked to the turbulent political landscape of England in the 1600s. The English Civil War, in particular, was instrumental in the shift from Elizabethan drama to Restoration theatre, paving the way for playwrights such as John Dryden.
The English Civil War was a result of the ongoing conflict between King Charles I and the Parliament largely composed of English aristocracy. Although Parliament had no substantial power at this time in history, it did serve to aid the king in the collection of taxes, as he "needed their seal of approval to legitimately set taxes in motion” (Masson). Charles I, nearly bankrupt after inheriting the debts accumulated by his father King James’ lavish lifestyle and the exorbitant cost of The Thirty Years’ War, found himself at the mercy of Parliament. Parliament, however, refused to finance the war. Like many English monarchs before him, Charles believed in the Divine Right of Kings, that his right to rule was the will of God. Considering himself exempt from the will of the people, Charles dissolved Parliament in March 1629.
The next eleven years saw The Personal Rule of Charles I. Although this appeared to be a time of peace and prosperity, Charles “was slowly building up opposition against him among segments of the political elite by his financial and religious policies,” and “many people were outraged by what they regarded as his non-parliamentary use of medieval laws to raise money” (The Personal Rule.). On the religious front, Charles I attempted to extend Anglican liturgy to Scotland in 1637 with the Book of Common Prayer.
This was met with overwhelming resistance from the predominantly Protestant Scots, resulting in two Bishops’ Wars. In 1639, English forces marched towards the Anglo-Scottish border. However, due to Charles I’s lack of funds, no battle ensued. Needing to raise money for his war, Charles summoned a Parliament in April of 1640 which “insisted first on discussing grievances against the government and showed itself opposed to a renewal of the war against the Scots” (Bishops’ Wars.).
Charles hastily dissolved Parliament, yet again, after only three weeks, resulting in the name the Short Parliament. When the second Bishops’ War broke out, the Scots invaded England capturing both Newcastle and Durham. Charles I was left with no choice but to reconvene Parliament once again, desperately needing funds for his army. Once reinstated, Parliament swiftly took action against the monarchy and arrested the king’s closest advisors. By 1641, with the balance of power shifting in their favour, Parliament insisted that it could not be dissolved without the agreement of its members. Lasting until 1660, it was called the Long Parliament.
The Irish Insurrection of 1941, a violent clash between Irish Catholics and Protestant colonizers/settlers, only added to the mounting pressures on the monarchy to regain order across the British Isles. The Insurrection could have been quashed fairly quickly had Charles I not been at odds with the Long Parliament. However, the insurrection lasted seven months resulting in an estimated 12,000 deaths.
The Theatre Crisis
The English Civil war began in August 1642 when King Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham, pitting his Royalist army against the Parliamentarian army. One of the first institutional casualties of the war was English theatre.
With the “September 1642: Order for Stage-plays to cease,” the Long Parliament, lead primarily by Puritans who considered the enjoyment of theatre during such turbulent times to be unseemly, swiftly put an end to theatre in England. Further efforts were made by the Long Parliament in 1647 to enforce the ban on theatre, including the issuing of “a further ordinance, giving sheriffs and justices in the London area the power to enter theatres and commit any transgressing actors to prison” (Jenkins 85).
In 1648, Parliament issued "an Ordinance for the utter suppression and abolishing of all Stage-Plays and Interludes” (Jenkins 85). During this time theatres were left abandoned and neglected or torn down entirely. Theatre closures served to suppress other activities considered unseemly by the Puritans. During the Elizabethan era, theatres were also sites for gambling, gruesome animal blood sports like bear-baiting, and prostitution.
The ban was officially lifted 18 years later when Charles II became king of Great Britain and Ireland in 1660, ushering in England’s Restoration period which saw the revival of English literature and drama. This period of newfound artistic freedom rejected Puritan values head-on. Restoration comedies in particular embraced themes of immorality and bawdiness.