Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The History of the Theatre During its Suppression.

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, Æsopus, bequeathed about £150,000 to his son;1 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.2 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.”3 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.

Our women are defective, and so sized,

You’d think they were some of the Guard disguised;

For to speak truth, men act, that are between

Forty and fifty, wenches of fifteen;

With brows so large, and nerve so uncompliant,

When you call Desdemona — enter Giant.

Yet at the time the absurd custom prevailed, Tom Nash, in his Pierce Pennilesse, commends our stage for not having, as they had abroad, women-actors, or “courtezans,” as he calls them: and even so late as in 1650, when women were first introduced on our stage, endless are the apologies for the indecorum of this novel usage! Such are the difficulties which occur even in forcing bad customs to return to nature; and so long does it take to infuse into the multitude a little common sense! It is even probable that this happy revolution originated from mere necessity, rather than from choice; for the boys who had been trained to act female characters before the Rebellion, during the present suspension of the theatre, had grown too masculine to resume their tender office at the Restoration; and, as the same poet observes,

Doubting we should never play agen,

We have played all our women into men;

so that the introduction of women was the mere result of necessity:— hence all these apologies for the most natural ornament of the stage.4

This volume of Reynolds seems to have been the shadow and precursor of one of the most substantial of literary monsters, in the tremendous “Histriomastix, or Player’s Scourge,” of Prynne, in 1633. In that volume, of more than a thousand closely-printed quarto pages, all that was ever written against plays and players, perhaps, may be found: what followed could only have been transcripts from a genius who could raise at once the Mountain and the Mouse. Yet Collier, so late as in 1698, renewed the attack still more vigorously, and with final success; although he left room for Arthur Bedford a few years afterwards, in his “Evil and Danger of Stage-plays:” in which extraordinary work he produced “seven thousand instances, taken out of plays of the present century;” and a catalogue of “fourteen hundred texts of scripture, ridiculed by the Stage.” This religious anti-dramatist must have been more deeply read in the drama than even its most fervent lovers. His piety pursued too deeply the study of such impious productions; and such labours were probably not without more amusement than he ought to have found in them.

This stage persecution, which began in the reign of Elizabeth, had been necessarily resented by the theatrical people, and the fanatics were really objects too tempting for the traders in wit and satire to pass by. They had made themselves very marketable; and the puritans, changing their character with the times, from Elizabeth to Charles the First, were often the Tartuffes of the stage.5 But when they became the government itself, in 1642, all the theatres were suppressed, because “stage-plaies do not suit with seasons of humiliation; but fasting and praying have been found very effectual.” This was but a mild cant, and the suppression, at first, was only to be temporary. But as they gained strength, the hypocrite, who had at first only struck a gentle blow at the theatre, with redoubled vengeance buried it in its own ruins. Alexander Brome, in his verses on Richard Brome’s Comedies, discloses the secret motive:—

—— ’Tis worth our note,

Bishops and players, both suffer’d in one vote:

And reason good, for they had cause to fear them;

One did suppress their schisms, and t’other JEER THEM.

Bishops were guiltiest, for they swell’d with riches;

T’other had nought but verses, songs and speeches,

And by their ruin, the state did no more

But rob the spittle, and unrag the poor.

They poured forth the long-suppressed bitterness of their souls six years afterwards, in their ordinance of 1648, for “the suppression of all stage-plaies, and for the taking down all their boxes, stages, and seats whatsoever, that so there might be no more plaies acted.” “Those proud parroting players” are described as “a sort of superbious ruffians; and, because sometimes the asses are clothed in lions’ skins, the dolts imagine themselves somebody, and walke in as great state as Cæsar.” This ordinance against “boxes, stages, and seats,” was, without a metaphor, a war of extermination. They passed their ploughshare over the land of the drama, and sowed it with their salt; and the spirit which raged in the governing powers appeared in the deed of one of their followers. When an actor had honourably surrendered himself in battle to this spurious “saint,” he exclaimed, “Cursed be he who doth the work of the Lord negligently,” and shot his prisoner because he was an actor!

We find some account of the dispersed actors in that curious morsel of “Historica Histrionica,” preserved in the twelfth volume of Dodsley’s Old Plays; full of the traditional history of the theatre, which the writer appears to have gleaned from the reminiscences of the old cavalier, his father.

The actors were “Malignants” to a man, if we except that “wretched actor,” as Mr. Gifford distinguishes him, who was, however, only such for his politics: and he pleaded hard for his treason, that he really was a presbyterian, although an actor. Of these men, who had lived in the sunshine of a court, and amidst taste and criticism, many perished in the field, from their affection for their royal master. Some sought humble occupations; and not a few, who, by habits long indulged, and their own turn of mind, had hands too delicate to put to work, attempted often to entertain secret audiences, and were often dragged to prison.

These disturbed audiences were too unpleasant to afford much employment to the actors. Francis Kirkman, the author and bookseller, tells us they were often seized on by the soldiers, and stripped and fined at their pleasure. A curious circumstance occurred in the economy of these strolling theatricals: these seizures often deprived them of their wardrobe; and among the stage directions of the time, may be found among the exits and the entrances, these: Enter the red coat — Exit hat and cloak, which were, no doubt, considered not as the least precious parts of the whole living company: they were at length obliged to substitute painted cloth for the splendid habits of the drama.

At this epoch a great comic genius, Robert Cox, invented a peculiar sort of dramatic exhibition, suited to the necessities of the time, short pieces which he mixed with other amusements, that these might disguise the acting. It was under the pretence of rope-dancing that he filled the Red Bull playhouse, which was a large one, with such a confluence that as many went back for want of room as entered. The dramatic contrivance consisted of a combination of the richest comic scenes into one piece, from Shakspeare, Marston, Shirley, &c., concealed under some taking title; and these pieces of plays were called “Humours” or “Drolleries.” These have been collected by Marsh, and reprinted by Kirkman, as put together by Cox, for the use of theatrical booths at fairs.6 The argument prefixed to each piece serves as its plot; and drawn as most are from some of our dramas, these “Drolleries” may still be read with great amusement, and offer, seen altogether, an extraordinary specimen of our national humour. The price this collection obtains among book-collectors is excessive. In “The bouncing Knight, or the Robbers robbed,” we recognise our old friend Falstaff, and his celebrated adventure: “The Equal Match” is made out of “Rule a Wife and have a Wife;” and thus most. There are, however, some original pieces, by Cox himself, which were the most popular favourites; being characters created by himself, for himself, from ancient farces: such were The Humours of John Swabber, Simpleton the Smith, &c. These remind us of the extemporal comedy and the pantomimical characters of Italy, invented by actors of genius. This Cox was the delight of the city, the country, and the universities: assisted by the greatest actors of the time, expelled from the theatre, it was he who still preserved alive, as it were by stealth, the suppressed spirit of the drama. That he merited the distinctive epithet of “the incomparable Robert Cox,” as Kirkman calls him, we can only judge by the memorial of our mimetic genius, which will be best given in Kirkman’s words. “As meanly as you may now think of these Drolls, they were then acted by the best comedians; and, I may say, by some that then exceeded all now living; the incomparable Robert Cox, who was not only the principal actor, but also the contriver and author of most of these farces. How have I heard him cried up for his John Swabber, and Simpleton the Smith; in which he being to appear with a large piece of bread and butter, I have frequently known several of the female spectators and auditors to long for it; and once that well-known natural, Jack Adams of Clerkenwell, seeing him with bread and butter on the stage, and knowing him, cried out, ‘Cuz! Cuz! give me some!’ to the great pleasure of the audience. And so naturally did he act the smith’s part, that being at a fair in a country town, and that farce being presented, the only master-smith of the town came to him, saying, ‘Well, although your father speaks so ill of you, yet when the fair is done, if you will come and work with me, I will give you twelve pence a week more than I give any other journeyman.’ Thus was he taken for a smith bred, that was, indeed, as much of any trade.”

To this low state the gloomy and exasperated fanatics, who had so often smarted under the satirical whips of the dramatists, had reduced the drama itself; without, however, extinguishing the talents of the players, or the finer ones of those who once derived their fame from that noble arena of genius, the English stage. At the first suspension of the theatre by the Long Parliament in 1642, they gave vent to their feelings in an admirable satire. About this time “petitions” to the parliament from various classes were put into vogue; multitudes were presented to the House from all parts of the country, and from the city of London; and some of these were extraordinary. The porters, said to have been 15,000 in number, declaimed with great eloquence on the bloodsucking malignants for insulting the privileges of parliament, and threatened to come to extremities, and make good the saying “necessity has no law;” there was one from the beggars, who declared, that by means of the bishops and popish lords they knew not where to get bread; and we are told of a third from the tradesmen’s wives in London, headed by a brewer’s wife: all these were encouraged by their party, and were alike “most thankfully accepted.”

The satirists soon turned this new political trick of “petitions” into an instrument for their own purpose: we have “Petitions of the Poets,"— of the House of Commons to the King — Remonstrances to the Porters’ Petition, &c.: spirited political satires. One of these, the “Players’ Petition to the Parliament,” after being so long silenced, that they might play again, is replete with sarcastic allusions. It may be found in that rare collection, entitled “Rump Songs,” 1662, but with the usual incorrectness of the press in that day. The following extract I have corrected from a manuscript copy:—

Now while you reign, our low petition craves

That we, the king’s true subjects and your slaves,

May in our comic mirth and tragic rage

Set up the theatre, and show the stage;

This shop of truth and fancy, where we vow

Not to act anything you disallow.

We will not dare at your strange votes to jeer,

Or personate King PYM7 with his state-fleer;

Aspiring Catiline should be forgot,

Bloody Sejanus, or whoe’er could plot

Confusion ‘gainst a state; the war betwixt

The Parliament and just Harry the Sixth

Shall have no thought or mention, ‘cause their power

Not only placed, but lost him in the Tower;

Nor will we parallel, with least suspicion,

Your synod with the Spanish inquisition.

All these, and such like maxims as may mar

Your soaring plots, or show you what you are,

We shall omit, lest our inventions shake them:

Why should the men be wiser than you make them?

We think there should not such a difference be

‘Twixt our profession and your quality:

You meet, plot, act, talk high with minds immense;

The like with us, but only we speak sense

Inferior unto yours; we can tell how

To depose kings, there we know more than you,

Although not more than what we would; then we

Likewise in our vast privilege agree;

But that yours is the larger; and controls

Not only lives and fortunes, but men’s souls,

Declaring by an enigmatic sense

A privilege on each man’s conscience,

As if the Trinity could not consent

To save a soul but by the parliament.

We make the people laugh at some strange show,

And as they laugh at us, they do at you;

Only i’ the contrary we disagree,

For you can make them cry faster than we.

Your tragedies more real are express’d,

You murder men in earnest, we in jest:

There we come short; but if you follow thus,

Some wise men fear you will come short of us.

As humbly as we did begin, we pray,

Dear schoolmasters, you’ll give us leave to play

Quickly before the king comes; for we would

Be glad to say you’ve done a little good

Since you have sat: your play is almost done

As well as ours — would it had ne’er begun.

But we shall find, ere the last act be spent,

Enter the King, exeunt the Parliament.

And Heigh then up we go! who by the frown

Of guilty members have been voted down,

Until a legal trial show us how

You used the king, and Heigh then up go you!

So pray your humble slaves with all their powers,

That when they have their due, you may have yours.

Such was the petition of the suppressed players in 1642; but, in 1653, their secret exultation appears, although the stage was not yet restored to them, in some verses prefixed to RICHARD BROME’S Plays, by ALEXANDER BROME, which may close our little history. Alluding to the theatrical people, he moralises on the fate of players:—

See the strange twirl of times; when such poor things

Outlive the dates of parliaments or kings!

This revolution makes exploded wit

Now see the fall of those that ruin’d it;

And the condemned stage hath now obtain’d

To see her executioners arraign’d.

There’s nothing permanent: those high great men,

That rose from dust, to dust may fall again;

And fate so orders things, that the same hour

Sees the same man both in contempt and power;

For the multitude, in whom the power doth lie,

Do in one breath cry Hail! and Crucify!

At this period, though deprived of a theatre, the taste for the drama was, perhaps, the more lively among its lovers; for, besides the performances already noticed, sometimes connived at, and sometimes protected by bribery, in Oliver’s time they stole into a practice of privately acting at noblemen’s houses, particularly at Holland-house, at Kensington: and “Alexander Goff, the woman-actor, was the jackal, to give notice of time and place to the lovers of the drama,” according to the writer of “Historica Histrionica.” The players, urged by their necessities, published several excellent manuscript plays, which they had hoarded in their dramatic exchequers, as the sole property of their respective companies. In one year appeared fifty of these new plays. Of these dramas many have, no doubt, perished; for numerous titles are recorded, but the plays are not known; yet some may still remain in their manuscript state, in hands not capable of valuing them. All our old plays were the property of the actors, who bought them for their own companies. The immortal works of Shakspeare had not descended to us, had Heminge and Condell felt no sympathy for the fame of their friend. They had been scattered and lost, and, perhaps, had not been discriminated among the numerous manuscript plays of that age. One more effort, during this suspension of the drama, was made in 1655, to recal the public attention to its productions. This was a very curious collection by John Cotgrave, entitled “The English Treasury of Wit and Language, collected out of the most, and best, of our English Dramatick Poems.” It appears by Cotgrave’s preface, that “The Dramatick Poem,” as he calls our tragedies and comedies, “had been of late too much slighted.” He tells us how some, not wanting in wit themselves, but “through a stiff and obstinate prejudice, have, in this neglect, lost the benefit of many rich and useful observations; not duly considering, or believing, that the framers of them were the most fluent and redundant wits that this age, or I think any other, ever knew.” He enters further into this just panegyric of our old dramatic writers, whose acquired knowledge in ancient and modern languages, and whose luxuriant fancies, which they derived from no other sources but their own native growth, are viewed to great advantage in COTGRAVE’S commonplaces; and, perhaps, still more in HAYWARD’S “British Muse,” which collection was made under the supervisal, and by the valuable aid, of OLDYS, an experienced caterer of these relishing morsels.

1 Macrobius, Saturn., lib. iii. 1, 14.

2 Several of them have been reprinted by the Shakespeare Society since the above was written. Particularly the work of Gosson here alluded to.

3 The “Historica Histrionica” notes Stephen Hammerton as “a most noted and beautiful woman-actor,” in the early part of the seventeenth century. Alexander Goffe, “the woman-actor at Blackfriars,” is also mentioned as acting privately “in Oliver’s time.”

4 One actor, William Kynaston, continued to perform female characters in the reign of Charles II., and his performances were praised by Dryden, and preferred by many to that of the ladies themselves. He was so great a favourite with the fair sex, that the court ladies used to take him in their coaches for an airing in Hyde Park.

5 Ben Jonson was one of their hardest enemies; and his Zeal-of-the-Land-busy, Justice Over-doo, and Dame Pure-craft, have never been surpassed in masterly delineation of puritanic cant. The dramatists of that era certainly did their best to curb Puritanism by exposure.

6 The title of this collection is “THE WITS, or Sport upon Sport, in select pieces of Drollery, digested into scenes by way of Dialogue. Together with variety of Humours of several nations, fitted for the pleasure and content of all persons, either in Court, City, Country, or Camp. The like never before published. Printed for H. Marsh, 1662:” again printed for F. Kirkman, 1672. To Kirkman’s edition is prefixed a curious print representing the inside of a Bartholomew-fair theatre (by some supposed to be the Red Bull Theatre in Clerkenwell). Several characters are introduced. In the middle of the stage, a figure peeps out of the curtain; on a label from his mouth is written “Tu quoque,” it represents Bubble, a silly person in a comedy, played so excellently by an actor named Green, that it was called “Green’s Tu-quoque.” Then a changeling and a simpleton, from plays by Cox; a French dancing-master, from the Duke of Newcastle’s “Variety;” Clause, from Beaumont and Fletcher’s “Beggar’s Bush;” and Sir John Falstaff and hostess. Our notion of Falstaff by this print seems very different from that of our ancestors: their Falstaff is in extravaganza of obesity, not requiring so much “stuffing” as ours does.

7 PYM was then at the head of the Commons, and was usually deputed to address personally the motley petitioners. We have a curious speech he made to the tradesmen’s wives in Echard’s “History of England,” vol. ii. 290.

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