Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 16. Prynne’s Histriomastix

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

§ 16. Prynne’s Histriomastix

The foolish and short-sighted policy of the first two Stewarts was not likely to diminish, in any way, this bitter feeling against the unholy amusement which they favoured and protected. Instead, it raised up a fresh engine of reform before which both court and stage, eventually, went down. In 1625, the year of Charles’s accession, an anonymous puritan opened a new, and, in the light of subsequent events, an ominous line of attack. It was hopeless to ask the crown to cleanse the Augean stables, and the city had long since given up the task in despair; he, therefore, addressed himself to parliament, round which the hopes of all reformers were beginning to cluster. His petition, calling itself A Short Treatise against Stage-Playes, is a brief and exceedingly businesslike enumeration of the chief arguments against the drama. In these twenty-eight pages may be found the whole gist of Histriomastix; indeed, the tract reads so much like a first draft of its unwidely successor that the suspicion is forced upon us that it was either written by Prynne himself, who as we know, began to collect his materials in 1624, or taken by him from another writer to be made the basis of his book.

When we of the twentieth century hold in our hands the cube of printed matter known as Histriomastix, and turn over its eleven hundred pages, in which marginal notes and references to authorities, for the most part, long since forgotten, often take up more room than the text itself, we find it very difficult to realise just what the book meant in its own day. To us, it seems half pathetic and half ridiculous, a gigantic monument of misplaced energy and zeal, a pyramid left gaunt and useless on the sands of time. To a great extent, the work was the outcome of a peculiar personality. Prynne was a fanatic of that indomitable and most intolerant kind—the moral enthusiast. Apparently with very little of the milk of human kindness in his composition, he burned with an internal flame of righteous conviction, and this alone could have sustained him, not merely in his sufferings, but, also, in those untiring labours which his pen produced, over and above the immense Histriomastix. Yet, at the same time, he was thoroughly representative, his idiosyncrasies being extreme developments of, rather than departures from, the normal characteristics of his fellow reformers. If it be ever possible for one man to sum up a movement in his own person, Prynne summed up puritanism. And, since his book epitomises, likewise, the whole puritan attack upon the stage, a consideration of author and book together form a suitable close to the present study.

The story of its publication and of his cruel punishment is too well known to require lengthy treatment here. Nor is this the place to go into the vexed question as to whether he was technically guilty of seditious libel. After more than seven years’ labour, and after several fruitless attempts to procure a licence, he managed at last, in 1632, to get his great work through the press. About the time when the last sheets were being worked off, queen Henrietta Maria and her women were engaged in rehearsing a pastoral play for a performance at Whitehall, which, apparently, did not actually take place until the book was in circulation. The idea of women appearing on the stage was new and shocking to English spectators. In 1629, a company of French actresses, at the invitation of the queen, had attempted to give a performance at Blackfriars and had been “hissed, hooted and pippen-pelted from the stage.” Prynne referred to this incident in great glee and, whether in ignorance of the impending pastoral or of set purpose, inserted in the table of contents at the end of his book an expression stigmatising women actors as “notorious whores.” He was immediately summoned before the high commission; and, though it is not clear what was the exact charge, there can be no doubt that his chief offence was the accidental or intentional application of these words to the queen’s person. The upshot was that he was condemned to stand in the pillory, a penalty he underwent on two separate occasions, to lose both his ears, to be branded as a seditious libeller on both cheeks, to pay a fine of Pounds 5000 and to be perpetually imprisoned. Perhaps, the loss of his Oxford degree and his expulsion from Lincoln’s inn were not the lightest part of the punishment to a man of Prynne’s habits and temperament. His life sentence was afterwards cancelled by parliament; but he suffered the remainder of the sentence in patience and serenity. Prynne was a narrow-minded, dry-hearted, fierce fanatic; but, could he stand before us now, with his cropped ears and the letters S.L. burnt into his cheeks (Stigmata Laudis he interpreted them, in a rare burst of humour), we should acknowledge that the narrow-mindedness and fanaticism were not all on one side.

Despite its enormous length, there is nothing new in Histriomastix, The Player’s Scourge or Actors Tragedie, except, perhaps, the extraordinary fierceness of its denunciation. Prynne’s knowledge of the stage was of the scantiest description. He owns, indeed, with shame, that, when a “novice,” he had been enticed by evil companions to attend “foure severall Playes”; but, with these exceptions, he seems to be completely ignorant of the dramatic literature of the age, his only reference to our greatest dramatist being the indignant observation that “Shackpeers Plaies are printed in the best Crowne paper, far better than most Bibles.” But, if Prynne knew little of contemporary drama, his seeming knowledge of anti-dramatic literature was astounding. Laud asserted that, merely to read the works cited by Prynne would take sixty years of an ordinary man’s life. The truth was that Prynne could not have read a tithe of his authorities; and he quotes, for the most part, not from the authors themselves, but from the quotations of previous puritan writers. During a campaign of over sixty years, carried on by a large number of eager seekers for chapter and verse, half the accessible writers of antiquity, and most of those since the beginning of the Christian era, had been ransacked for even the slightest hint of anti-dramatic feeling, which, when discovered, was pounced upon and pigeonholed under its special argument. The same points, too, were made by puritan after puritan with scarcely a change of word, and in sublime innocence of the sin of plagiarism. Thus, the stream of argument and quotation went on swelling from year to year, until, at last, it emptied itself into Prynne’s great reservoir. In his case, such a method was extremely dangerous; for his was the pursuit of proof, not of truth. A single statement from an author in dispraise, or apparent dispraise, of plays is allowed to outweigh the testimony of the writer’s whole life and character. Thus, Plutarch, Horace and Cicero are found in company with the early fathers as abhorrers of stage plays. This must not be taken as an impeachment of Prynne’s honesty. He was honest enough; but he often quotes at second hand, and, even when he had the original before him, he was blinded by the force of zeal to anything that conflicted with his argument—as what controversialist is not?

Perhaps the most original thing about the book is its arrangement. It is divided into two parts, and these, in turn, are subdivided into acts and scenes with an occasional chorus. This dramatic setting, curious in a book written against the stage, was intended to carry out the idea of The Actors Tragedie suggested on the title-page; but, also, it was an extremely convenient form for the purposes of the argument. The first act, for example, naturally deals with the satanic origin of the theatre, while, in the seventh, Prynne triumphantly marshals his mass of authorities in seven different squadrons or scenes, according to period or character, the whole being crowned with a chorus in which he announces that none can withstand his “all-conquering troopes.” This plan of arrangement may owe something to Gosson’s Playes confuted in five Actions; but the execution and the details were all Prynne’s.

His book is the last of the series which we have to note. Its size and elaboration, the supposed insult to the queen, the celebrated trial and the sufferings of the author, must have brought the topic of stage morality very much to the fore and have greatly increased the bitterness of the puritan party. But Histriomastix had no imitators. It had completely exhausted the subject. Besides, it was now dangerous to write against the theatre, since this involved the risk of offending royalty and of thus falling into the inexorable hands of the high commission. Further than this, events were fast drifting towards revolution, and the minds of men were filled with other and greater matters than the stage. Whether, as has been suggested, Prynne’s attack did anything to reform the stage, it would be extremely difficult to determine; and, in any case, the question is a somewhat idle one. Of greater importance is the fact that the theatre was in a far from prosperous condition immediately before its suppression, as is clear from a curious little tract printed, in 1641, under the title The Stage-Players Complaint.

  • Monopolers are down, Projectors are down, the High Commission Court is downe, the Starre Chamber is downe, and (some think) Bishops will be downe and why should we then that are farre inferior to any of these not justely feare that we should be downe too?
  • Such is the burden of the author’s tale, and the atmosphere of impending disaster which pervades the tract appropriately culminates in the concluding words: “From Plague, Pestilence and Famine from Battel, Murder and Suddaine Death—Good Lord deliver us.” Few contemporary documents give a better picture of the gloom and sense of coming catastrophe that had come over a large part of the nation at this juncture in our history. But the words of the Litany were applicable to present needs and sorrows as well as to future fears. The plague had been more than usually violent since 1630, and in consequence, the playhouses had been shut for the greater part of each year. The net result of these various factors in the situation was that the ordinance of 2 September, 1642, for the total suppression of stage plays was received, not only without surprise, but almost without attention. In estimating parliament’s reasons for this step, political considerations should not be left out of account. The actor was now hated, not only on account of his profession, but, also, as the minion of the despot, and the passage just quoted shows that he realised the fact well enough. Moreover, the stage, obviously, was too dangerous an institution to be tolerated by any anti-royalist government. Players were “malignants” almost to a man, and, however efficient the censorship might be, the performance of an apparently harmless play might easily develop into a demonstration in favour of the king. Yet, for all this, we cannot doubt that the main intentions of the act were moral. The stage was swept away by the tide of puritan indignation and hatred, of which we have been watching the rise.

    It was not to be expected, however, that so drastic a measure could be carried out without difficulty. Parliament found it necessary in 1647 and, again, in 1648 to pass further and more stringent ordinances against the stage, ordering all players to be apprehended and publicly whipped, all playhouses to be pulled down and any one present at a play to pay a fine of five shillings. Protests were not wanting against this policy. In 1643, two tracts appeared: one, The Actors Remonstrance, a humble request for the restoration of acting rights in return for sweeping reforms, which, incidentally, gives an interesting glimpse of what went on behind the scenes of theatrical life; the other, The Players Petition to the Parliament, a piece of satirical verse, which mocked at the Rump under pretence of appealing to it. The sauciness of the latter, however, was nothing to that of an unknown person who, at the beginning of 1649, actually published a book called Mr. William Prynne, his defence of Stage-Players or a Retraction of his former book. Needless to say, the indignant victim of this effrontery at once issued a denial of the charge.