The London Stage and Politics

Plays had been used to comment on controversial issues even before the opening of the first permanent London theatre in 1567, and by the close of the sixteenth century the game of "applying" dramatic action to contemporary politics had become a favored recreation of fashionable London theatre goers.  The frequency with which playwrights like Ben Jonson complained about this practice, as something that provoked the authorites to punish innocent authors and actors, suggests just how widespread it was.  Jonson's professions of innocence were, of course, disingenuous: he and other playwrights knew that topical allusions attracted audiences, even if dramatists and actors had to tread carefully.  

The most openly political play of the period before the Civil War was Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chess (1624), a transparent allegory of recent diplomatic relations between England and Spain, with the Spanish represented as the black team and the English as the white.  One or more figures at court -- quite possibly Prince Charles or the Duke of Buckingham -- probably encouraged the play's production as a way of increasing pressure on the King to abandon his pro-Spanish policies.  It caused a sensation and had an unprecedented run of nine days before the enraged Spanish ambassador managed to have it shut down. Plays were vetted by the King's Master of Revels, who had authority to censor scripts.  A few passages that alluded too openly to sensitive political issues were suppressed, especially in the early part of Charles I's reign, but a good amount of more subtle and indirect political commentary survived.  Plays also satirized social manners among both London citizens and denizens of "the Town", the name given the fashionable western suburbs.

The theatres had always attracted broad and heterogeneous audiences, ranging from apprentices up to peers.  In the seventeenth century more expensive and fashionable indoor theatres opened and began competing with traditional outdoor venues like the Globe.  Although the royal court had always shown some interest in the professional stage -- the practice of summoning acting companies for "command performances" before the monarch and select court audiences goes back to Eliabeth's reign -- the court of Charles I was particularly addicted to the theatre.  The King himself provided a plot outline to the dramatist James Shirley, his wife produced and acted in French-style pastoral plays, scandalizing some English who thought it immoral for women to appear on a stage, and several courtiers tried their hand at writing plays. One of them, Sir John Suckling, had himself painted by the court artist Anthony Van Dyck, holding the first folio of Shakespeare open to Hamlet. Courtiers close to the French Queen also promoted an interest in contemporary French drama: the early plays of Corneille were quickly translated into English under their auspices.

In 1642 Parliament closed the theatres, perhaps from concern over their potential to gather crowds and excite political passions.  This naturally discouraged the writing of new plays, although a few closet dramas were written and performed in private houses during the Civil War and republican period. The habits acquired through decades of dramatic writing seem to have found an outlet, however, in the short pithy dialogues of many of the period's controversial pamphlets.  Although plays remained technically illegal under the Commonwealth, a small revival of the stage began in the 1650s.  Sir William Davenant got around the prohibition by setting a dramatic script to music and calling it an opera, something the authorities agreed to permit.  By the late 1650s a few "underground" theatres existed, where plays began once more to comment -- sometimes quite openly -- on political issues.  During the surge of political protests against the army and the purged Parliament that preceded the Restoration, London theatre goers enjoyed John Thatham's The Rump, a play mocking the pretensions and political machinations of leading army generals and civilian politicians. 

Shortly after the Restoration, Charles II granted monopoly privileges to two newly formed theatrical companies under his own patronage and that of his brother, James Duke of York.  The managers -- Sir William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew -- were both solid royalists with previous connections to the court of Charles I and from the beginning their companies had much closer connections to the court than any of the pre-war theatres.  The indoor theatres they opened employed procenium arches and moveable stage scenery modeled after court productions, and a number of courtiers, including aristocrats like the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Orrery, contributed new plays.  Another innovation was the appearance of actresses, who added an extra erotic appeal, especially in roles where they disguised themselves as men by wearing tight-fitting breeches.  The King himself frequently attended the public theatres and soon began conducting love affairs with some of the actresses, like Nell Gwynne. 

Perhaps paradoxically, in some ways these close connections to the court increased the significance of plays as vehicles for social and political commentary, since the sharp factional and personal rivalries within Charles II's entourage spilled over onto the stage.  In 1667 Robert Howard's The Great Favourite or The Duke of Lerma struck at the Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde Duke of Clarendon, who had lost the King's favor and would soon escape into exile.  A couple of years later Buckingham wrote a new scene added to another of Howard's plays that ridiculed two of his court enemies as characters named Sir Cautious Trouble-all and Sir Gravity Empty.  The loose sexual morals of Restoration high society were also satirized on the stage in the 1670s.  During the Exclusion Crisis the theatre was used both to whip up anti-popish sentiment and to feed the reaction against the 'Whig' opposition once the court and its allies began to gain the upper hand.

Long before the virtual collapse of pre-publication censorship of the press at the Glorious Revolution, the stage had therefore become an established vehicle for political commentary and social satire.  It retained this role throughout the eighteenth century.  John Gay's Beggar's Opera, with its implicit comparison of Walpole and the Whig cabinet to a gang of highwaymen, stood in a long tradition.    

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