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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XIV. The Puritan Attack upon the Stage

§ 10. Lodge’s Defence

This tract, the earliest publication of the future author of Rosalynde, and usually described as A Defence of Poetry, Music and Stage-Playes, must have been written immediately after Gosson’s School appeared, and printed in the late summer of 1579. It appeared surreptitiously, however; for it was refused a licence—a very striking indication of the power and determination of the puritan opposition. In other respects, there is nothing in any way remarkable about the book. A piece of very ordinary Elizabethan prose, full of classical allusions, and every now and then, attempting the euphuistic manner, it is yet in no way inferior to the work it attacks. After the controversial fashion of the age, it contains a considerable amount of personal insinuation, which, probably, bore some relation to the truth, since Lodge and Gosson, apparently had been contemporaries at Oxford and, undoubtedly, were acquaintances later in London. It is worth noticing, in view of Gosson’s accusation that Lodge had been hired by the players, that the defence of poetry and music is quite as lengthy and serious as that of plays. The last topic is treated in a remarkably moderate tone. After a discussion of the antiquity and origin of play making, which anticipates the line of defence taken up later by Heywood, Lodge proceeds to consider the condition of the contemporary theatre. Here, he is ready to own, there is much room for improvement, and he admits that he wishes “as zealously as the best that all abuse of playinge were abolished”; but this, he adds, is no reason for abolishing the stage itself. Such frank recognition of the claims of reform makes the refusal to license his book all the more remarkable.

We must turn aside from Gosson and Lodge for the moment, to notice the entrance of another combatant. The year 1580, which, as we have seen, was the beginning of the second great struggle between the city and the court, also marks a new development in the tactics of the pamphleteer. Up to this point, the stage had been attacked in company with other “abuses”; but, late in 1580, there appeared for the first time a book which devoted itself exclusively to the subject of stage plays. It was entitled A Second and third Blast of retrait from plaies and Theatres, and, lest there should be any mistake as to the source of its inspiration, it bore the arms of the corporation of London upon the reverse of its title-page. No clearer proof than this can be needed of the close connection between the administrative and literary attacks. The lord mayor had evidently discovered the usefulness of the pamphlet agitation, and the sudden increase in the output of tracts during the next two or three years points unmistakably to encouragement by the authorities. In addition to all this, the book is instructive as affording a fresh illustration of the fact that the puritan attack was largely an echo of the old conflict between the pagan theatre and the primitive church; for the Second Blast (the first, of course, had been sounded by Gosson) was a translation of Salvian’s attack on the iniquities of the Roman stage, which forms a section of his De Gubernatione Dei. But a greater interest attaches itself to the work of the other devout trumpeter whom the title proclaims, “a worshipful and zealous Gentleman now alive.” Like every other writer in the controversy, he borrows largely from his predecessors, especially from Twynne and Fenton. Being under the patronage of the city, he is naturally chiefly concerned with the administrative side of the problem. The root of the evil, he declares, as Gosson had done, is the support that players receive from the nobility; and he even goes on to say that, unable or unwilling to maintain their servants at their own cost, noblemen allowed them to live at the expense or charity of the general public. These bold words could scarcely have been uttered a year or two later when the queen herself had her company of actors. Yet, curiously enough, violent as the language of the tract is, it proposes no drastic measures of reform. The magistrate is advised to go slowly, and to begin by stopping all Sunday playing.

This tame conclusion, in all probability, may be put down to half-heartedness, or even insincerity, on the part of the author. Gosson, two years later, in his Playes Confuted, asserted that, beside himself, no playwright had written against plays “but one who hath changed his coppy and turned himself like ye dog to his vomit to plays againe.” As the author of the Third Blast himself informs us that he had previously “bene a great affector of that vaine art of Plaie-making,” it is natural to suppose that it is he to whom Gosson refers. The present writer is of opinion that the apostate playwright in question was that Elizabethan Jack-of-all-trades, Anthony Munday, who had been deliberately hired for the purpose by the opponents of the stage. If this theory, which is supported by a good deal of circumstantial evidence, be true, it throws a somewhat sinister light upon the tactics of the puritan party as having taken out a year’s lease of a scapegrace actor’s pen and paraded his sham conversion as a triumph for the cause of public morality.

Meanwhile, the players had been seeking to discredit puritans in general and Gosson in particular. They had revived two of his plays, which, as he tells us, they “impudently affirmed” to have been written since the publication of The Schoole of Abuse. Moreover, on 23 February, 1582, a drama in the manner of the old moralities was produced at the Theater under the title: The Playe of Playes and Pastimes, which Prynne, probably erroneously, ascribed to Lodge. The play is not extant, and was probably never even printed; but we learn a great deal about it from Gosson who is ever very liberal in his accounts of his antagonists’ movements. Its object was to show how dangerous Zeal, or puritanism, might become as the sole guide to Life. Only when “somewhat pinchte in the wast” and in company with Delight and Recreation was she tolerable, being then ready to allow the use of comedies, provided, of course, “that the matter be purged, deformities blazed, sinne rebuked, honest mirth intermingled and fit time for the hearing of the same appointed.”

For a long time, Gosson had been unable to procure a copy of Lodge’s suppressed pamphlet. His rejoinder, therefore, promised in An Apologie for the Schoole of Abuse, did not make its appearance until 1528, and included an answer to the players also. Playes confuted in five Actions, as he calls his book, is unlike The Schoole of Abuse in every respect, and the complete change of tone, in all probability, may be attributed to the influence of the lord mayor, for we have little confidence in the sincerity of Gosson’s sentiments. Like the author of the Second and the Third Blast, he is now concerned with the stage alone, which has overshadowed all other “abuses” in his eyes. Plays “are not to be suffered in a Christian commonweale,” for are they not “the doctrine and invention of the Devill”? Even Lodge cannot deny that they were originally dedicated to idols, or that the first theatre was erected to facilitate the rape of the Sabine women. And the style has changed with the matter. Euphuism and the classics are laid aside, and, in their stead, we are treated to divinity and the early fathers; there is no longer even a pretence at pleasantry in Gosson’s invective. The book, probably, was written in haste, for, despite its division into “five action,” which anticipates the acts and scenes of Histrio-mastix, it has no intelligible arrangement of topics. Revenge is taken for Lodge’s personalities in the dedication, which, this time, is addressed to Sir Francis Walsingham, a scarcely more fortunate choice than Sir Philip Sidney. Gosson declares that his antagonists had been “hunted by the heavy hand of God and become little better than a vagarant.” Whether these words are merely an outburst of spleen or actually referred to a discreditable passage in the doctor-novelist’s life, is not known. Lodge, at lest, did not consider them worthy of any immediate reply, and, when, two years later, he recalled the controversy in the dedication of his Alarum against Usurers (1584), he charitably excused Gosson for his spiteful remarks, declaring that he bore him no grudge for them. Thus closed the earliest and most important of those hand to hand encounters which occasionally enlivened the course of the struggle.

The next tract we have to notice deals with the Paris garden disaster of January, 1583, which was too striking not to evoke something more permanent than the inevitable broadside ballad. Within a week of its occurrence, a small octavo of forty pages appeared from the press of the puritan printer, Robert Waldegrave. It was the work of John Field, part author of the first Admonition to Parliament and posthumous contributor to the Marprelate controversy. He had long been known as an opponent of the stage, and, in a letter, dated 25 November, 1581, thanking Leicester for procuring his release from prison, into which he had been thrown for nonconformity, he actually takes occasion to chide his benefactor for his love of “these impure interludes and playes.” His Godly Exhortation, as he styled it, deals with the drama chiefly from the Sabbatarian point of view and contains the usual list of terrible judgements, among which the late disaster at Paris garden, naturally, took a prominent place. This interesting little tract is far better written than the majority of the series.