Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 2. Theological and moral objections

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

§ 2. Theological and moral objections

In other and more obvious ways, also, dramatic performances conflicted with the religious prejudices of puritans. For example, there was a conscious rivalry, frequently referred to in the literature of the subject, between the pulpit and the stage. The function of the latter, until quite recently, had been almost entirely didactic; and, as we shall see, its defenders maintained that it was so still. But the protestant preacher, with the newly-opened Bible in his hand, would brook no competition. At the mere thought of comparing a play with a sermon, he raised the cry of “blasphemy intolerable”; or he admitted the comparison, only to declare that “enterludes weare the divells sarmons.” Again, the actor’s practice, also derived from medieval tradition, of performing on Sundays and holy days did not tend to soften the exasperation of the godly, who listened with indignant horror to the sound of the player’s trumpet passing the open door of the church and mingling defiantly with the peal of the bells. Finally, the actor, as the early fathers had discovered and every puritan was careful to point out, was bound by the very necessities of his craft to infringe the divine law which forbade one sex to wear the costume of the other; and the point was a particularly telling one in an age when it was customary for boys to act female parts. All things considered, it was natural that the stage should appear to rest under the peculiar displeasure of God. Lists of divine judgments meted out to sinful players or those who visited the theatre are a common feature in the tracts of the period. An earthquake, the fall of a scaffold or, indeed, a public disaster of any kind, also, seemed to the devout primitive intelligence of the time to indicate the Almighty’s wrath at the continued existence of playhouses. Few things of this kind made a greater impression than London’s grim annual guest—the plague. As one of the earliest writers against the stage unanswerably put the matter: “the cause of plagues is sinne, if you look to it well: and the cause of sinne are playes: therefore the cause of plagues are playes.”

Turning from the theological to the moral aspect of the matter, we may notice that here, too, puritans were walking in the steps of the early fathers. Roman shows and Elizabethan stage plays were both denounced as sinks of inquity. Led into many absurdities by his theological prejudices, the puritan reformer, nevertheless, was at one with the best tendencies of his age in his attack upon “abuses.” A considerable literature upon this subject has come down to us from the sixteenth century, the most famous example being Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses. A perusal of this and similar productions shows us that puritanism was largely a revolt against medievalism; for a great number of the evils denounced were medieval practices and observances, folk festivals and such like, often innocent enough in themselves but commonly tending to rioting and wantonness. And, in singling out the theatre from among these as the special object of his abhorrence and invective, the puritan was not actuated by theological reasons alone. Undoubtedly the stage was the main channel through which what may be called the saturnalian elements of medieval life emptied themselves into the broad stream of the renascence. Further-more, the rise of a secular theatre was one of the many problems created by the break-up of the medieval world which were engaging the attention of popular writers all over Europe in the sixteenth century. It is remarkable that, with hardly an exception, they condemned it as a sinister development, and gave moral reasons for excluding the player from the common-wealth. When a man like Montaigne, in one essay, classes “enterlude-players” with “harlots and curtizans,”and, in another, describes them as “vagabond objects,” we are not surprised to find Jean Bodin expressing the strongest disapprobation of plays in his Six livres de la Republique, and the well known Jesuit publicist Mariana, in a chapter on “Spectacles” in his De Rege et Regis Institutione (1599), denouncing the evils of the theatre and recommending its strict regulation. Not a few of these continental writers were translated into English and so came to influence the development of puritan opinion. It is interesting, for example, to notice that two of the most popular translations of the Tudor period, North’s version of the Spaniard Guevara’s El Relox de Principes (1557) and Sandford’s rendering of the German Cornelius Agrippa’s De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum (1569), contain unfavourable references to the stage. Puritans, however, did not have it all their own way. In 1559, William Bavand produced a translation of a Latin treatise, this time, appropriately enough, from Italy, under the title: A Woorke of Joannes Ferrarius Montanus touchynge the good orderynge of a common weale, which is important as being the first book in English to offer a defence of the secular drama, assigning it a place in a well ordered state on the ground secular that it “doth minister unto us good ensamples.” This was exactly the line of argument that all subsequent English defenders of the drama adopted. Equally important on the other side is Sir Geffraie Fenton’s Forme of Christian pollicie gathered out of French. In his treatment of stage plays and enterludes, the unknown French writer anticipates in a few pages all the principal arguments of the puritans, and his book, translated in 1574 just before the attack began in England, exercised an appreciable influence upon Northbrooke and was read and quoted by the author of the Third Blast. Other examples, also, might be added to our list, such as a translation from Petrarch by Francis Twynne, who introduces into his original an unfavourable comment upon the newly erected Theater and Curtain.