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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.

XII. University Plays

§ 25. Influence of the University Drama

The civil war and the commonwealth mark a period of deep cleavage in English stage history. With the Restoration, came new men and new methods, and a forgetfulness of all but the greatest dramatists of “the former age.” It was virtually the work of the nineteenth century to rediscover the lesser Elizabethan writers for the popular stage. The university drama, bilingual in utterance, and with its memorials not easy of access, has had to wait for yet tardier recognition. It had, of course, patent faults. It produced much that was artificial, amateurish and unduly imitative, and its moral standard was as unexacting as that of the London theatre of the day. But it had behind it trully formative influences, in the renascence ardour for classical lore and delight in pageantry, in the gownsmen’s haughty resentment of the buffets of fortune to which they were exposed, and in the traditional hostility between scholars and townsmen by Isis and by Cam. Hence sprang that special type of Aristophanic comedy, unique in this period of the drama, represented by Pedantius and Ignoramus, Club Law and the Parnassus trilogy. And, in addition to these distinctively topical university plays, we owe to the academic stage a number of dramas moulded and coloured by the peculiar conditions of their origin. Such are the semiSenecan plays on religious, historical and mythological subjects, like Archipropheta, Richardus Tertius and Ulysses Redux; comedies like Laelia and Hymenaeus; allegorical pieces like Lingua, Fucus and The Floating Island; pastorals like The Queenes Arcadia and Sicelides. In these and kindred productions, noted in this chapter or merely recorded as “comedy” or “tragedy” in college account-books, the university humanists preserved elements of classic and neo-classic culture which would otherwise have been almost entirely lost to the stage. From Oxford and Cambridge, these influences permeated to the capital. For, sharp as in general was the division, social and intellectual, between academic and professional playwrights, the latter and larger class was constantly being recruited from graduates who had gained their earliest dramatic experience as spectators, actors, or, in some cases, authors, of college “shows.” The royal visits to the universities helped further to extend the range of influence of the amateur stage. And they did something more. Under the personal rule of the Tudors and Stewarts, the centre of national life was not fixed in Westminster, as at present; it moved with the movements of the sovereign. And thus, the university plays, as the principal magnet which drew Elizabeth, James and Charles with their courts to Oxford and Cambridge, performed a more important function than has been usually recognised. They helped materially for nearly a hundred years to keep the two seats of learning in contact with the throne, from which radiated, for good and for ill, the dominating forces of the age.