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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

§ 15. Heywood’s Apology for Actors

Puritan anti-dramatic literature, with the exception of the sermon and the theological treatise, was almost as scanty under James I as it had been during the last decade of Elizabeth’s reign. The first to revive the old controversy was a writer of the theatrical party. In 1612, Thomas Heywood took upon him to defend his calling, apparently from some attack on the part of the authorities of which we have no knowledge. His tract was entitled An Apology for Actors. The poems by various of the author’s friends with which it opens are not its least interesting feature. John Webster’s name figures among them; but his contribution is scarcely so entertaining as that by Richard Perkins, which makes some amusing hits at the hypocritical aspect of puritanism. Heywood divides his book into three parts, which set out to display the “antiquity,” the “ancient dignity” and the “true use” of his profession. Much of his argument recalls that of Lodge, whose “patchte pamphlet,” A Defence of Stage-Plays, doubtless he had studied. Among new lines of defence may be noticed the observation that, though the classical stage was at its height at the time when Christ and His apostles were on earth, yet there is not a single text in the whole New Testament condemning it. Great stress is laid upon the value of the drama as a moral tonic, and the puritan method of backing an argument with lists of divine judgments is cleverly adapted to the actors’ purposes by a series of stories illustrating the strange and wonderful workings of a powerful play upon a guilty conscience. The inevitable puritan reply appeared three years later and is conjectured to have been the work of one John Greene. In A Refutation of the Apology for Actors as it is called, Heywood is laboriously answered point by point. The author borrows largely, and, at times, almost verbally, from Stubbes, while, in the methodical arrangement of his argument and in his tedious list of quotations from the fathers, he anticipates the work of Prynne.

In 1614, a new literary fashion was started by the publication of Sir Thomas Overbury’s Characters, and it was but natural that the controversy concerning the stage should be reflected in this and many similar publications. In 1616, for example, the author of The Rich Cabnit furnished with a Varietie of exquisite Discriptions devoted a chapter of his book to the character of a player. He is ready to admit that the actor possesses certain excellent accomplishments such as “dancing, song, ellocution, skill of weapon, pregnancy of wit”—a suggestive list of what was required of those who trod the Jacobean stage—but he can find no epithets strong enough to describe the immoral results of frequenting the theatre.

These character writers, however, hardly belong to the ranks of the regular combatants. We catch a better glimpse of the real strength of the feeling against the stage at this period, and of what the actor frequently had to suffer on its account, from an interesting letter, preserved among the State Papers for 1616, by Nathaniel Field, actor and playwright, to a certain “Mr.Sutton, Preacher att St. Mary Overs.” Stung to the quick by the railings, frequently, it appears, spiced with personal allusions, which the worthy minister hurled at the heads of the members of the “Hope” company who formed part of his congregation, Field, at length, felt forced to take up the pen in self-defence. His letter, manly and independent in tone, protested in almost impassioned language against the puritan conception of an actor’s mode of life, and appealed in pathetic terms to Heaven in self-justification. As the son of that doughty opponent of both bishop and stage, whose pamphlet in reference to the Paris garden disaster we have already noticed, Field was, doubtless, in a delicate position. But, having been left an orphan a year after his birth, he had been brought up as one of the children of the Chapel Royal, and, if he had ever been troubled by any scruples about the profession for which fortune had fashioned him, a diligent study of the Bible, in which he found no “trade of life except conjurers, sorcerers and witches, ipso facto, damned” had long removed them. However, it was a case of mutual irritation; for if, as Field’s letter shows, the pulpits resounded with invectives against that monster of vice and minister of sensuality, the actor, the audience at the theatre daily shook its sides over the antics of that ludicrous compound of nasal piety and furtive hypocrisy, the puritan. Lucy Hutchinson, writing of the treatment which puritans suffered at this period, declares that

  • every stage, every table and every puppet play belched forth profane scoffs upon them, the drunkards made them their songs and all fiddlers and mimics learned to abuse them, as finding it the most graceful way of fooling.
  • The drama of the age is full of references to puritans, and, as time went on, these became more and more contemptuous and insulting. Lucy Hutchinson’s words and Nathaniel Field’s letter, both brimming over with passionate resentment, give us more insight into the real exasperation of the two parties than treatises stuffed with patriotic and classical lore.