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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

§ 7. Attacks on the Stage from the Pulpit

A detailed account of the struggle would be scarcely possible in the present state of our knowledge—so meagre, fragmentary and tantalising is the evidence hitherto brought to light upon the subject. The normal course of the controversy may, however, be followed in the correspondence between the privy council and the lord mayor, to be found in the council’s register and in the city archives known as Remembrancia. The letters are amusing enough. The city’s trump card, played with wearisome monotony, was the plague, almost as inevitable in Shakespeare’s London as smoke is in ours. While the sickness raged, the privy council was as ready to close the playhouses as was the corporation. But, ordinarily, the plague was only a summer visitor. In the autumn, therefore, the lord mayor would receive a letter from the council reminding him that the queen must have her Christmas amusements, and requiring him to allow the actors an opportunity of practising their art. The city usually resisted these recommendations with all the power and ingenuity at its command.

Matters remaining in this constant state of tension, an occasional crisis was inevitable; especially when an unusually severe epidemic gave the lord mayor an excuse for attempting to suppress the stage altogether. The documents at our disposal give us the particulars of three such crises, two of which had an appreciable influence upon the character and number of the tracts we are to examine later. We even catch a glimpse of a possible fourth at the time of the great plague in 1563, when Grindal, then bishop of London, is found writing to Cecil to advise a year’s inhibition of all plays in the city and for three miles round, adding, significantly, “and if it were for ever it were not amiss.” Our records, however, do not begin till 1572 when, as Harrison tells us, with approval, in his Chronologie, players were expelled because of the plague; and it seems that the lord mayor refused to re-admit them, if we may judge from the letters of the privy council on their behalf in 1573 and, again, in the spring of 1574. These letters, evidently, were of no avail; for, on 7 May, 1574, the court party found it necessary to take out a royal patent in favour of the earl of Leicester’s company, giving it express permission to play within the city notwithstanding any orders to the contrary, and eluding the consequences of the proclamation of 1559 by stipulating that its performances should be licensed by the master of the revels. This is the beginning of the policy of subordinating the stage to the revels’ office. Its immediate effect was to force the city to open its gates; but, later in the same year, the lord mayor retaliated by procuring an order of the common council requiring that all playhouses, companies and plays should be licensed by the corporation, and enumerating in a preamble all the “great disorders and inconvenyances” occasioned by the drama; which proves beyond doubt that the city’s attitude was largely influenced by puritanical convictions. At this juncture, our information becomes insufficient to follow the sequence of events. But the upshot of the conflict is clear. Certain players, finding the city obdurate and unwilling to submit to its severe regulations, began to look about them for some means of carrying on their business out of reach of the mayor’s authority. Thus, while the innyards of the city continued to be used for dramatic purposes, in 1575, the foundations of the first permanent playhouse in London were laid “in the fields to the North of the City,” and, in 1576, or the following year, the buildings were completed. The puritan watched with horror the rise of these “houses of purpose, built with great charges for the maintenance of them and that without the liberties, as who shall say: there, let them say what they will, we will play”; but he could not do anything save vent his rage in sermons and tracts.

The second crisis appears to have centred round the great plague of 1582–3, though there are signs of its approach several years earlier. In 1578, we find Fleetwood, the city recorder, referring to certain standing orders by Burghley for dealing with plays; and, in the correspondence of 1580, it is evident that a campaign is on foot for the abolition of the stage not only in the city but also in the fields. An earthquake in April that year, celebrated in a contemporary ballad beginning:

  • Comme from the plaie, comme from the playe:
  • the house will fall so people saye:
  • the earth quakes lett us hast awaye,
  • probably did much to strengthen the city’s cause, and the plague came to its assistance in 1581, so that the playhouses were shut all through the summer. Then began the customary struggle over the players’ re-admission. In December, we find the privy council, in answer to a pitiful petition from the acting companies, obliged to renew in a stronger form its usual reminder to the lord mayor that the Christmas festivities were approaching. And, on 24 December, the master of the revels was granted by royal patent certain wide, if vague, powers over the whole stage which seem to have been intended to counterbalance, if not to override, the powers of the lord mayor. It was probably this patent which called forth, as an answer from the city, the famous undated act of common council for the permanent prohibition of plays in the city which has been usually, but, as has now been proved, erroneously, ascribed to the year 1575. London had followed in the wake of Marseilles; the filthy player had been expelled. At the beginning of 1582, the privy council pleaded with the mayor to invoke his late “inhibityon,” but in vain, and further discussion was stopped for that year by the plague.

    It was not until the autumn of 1583 that the plague abated sufficiently to allow of a renewal of the dispute. But, in the meantime, two events of great importance had taken place; the first probably doing more than a thousand learned treatises to stamp the stage as an unholy institution. On Sunday, 13 January, 1583, great crowds were gathered to watch the bearbaiting at Paris garden, a pleasure resort outside the jurisdiction of the city, when a wooden scaffold on which many were seated collapsed, killing a few and injuring many more. It seemed a direct fulfilment of the prophecies of puritans, a “judgment” which not even the most abandoned playgoer could disregard. Yet the court hardened its heart like Pharaoh, for, on 10 March, it once more stepped in on the players’ behalf. At Walsingham’s suggestion and under the direction of the master of the revels, “a companie of players for her Majestie” was formed. This, obviously, was intended as a move against the lord mayor, though it led, also, to important consequences for the stage. As in the case of the Leicester company ten years before, the city was forced to yield for the moment, and, by arrangement with the privy council, the royal company was admitted into the city from the autumn of 1583 till the following Shrovetide. When, however, her majesty’s players sought re-admission in the autumn of 1584, they were met with the absolute refusal of the lord mayor. He had been tricked the season before, for all the playhouses had been filled with men calling themselves the queen’s players. The company could do nothing beyond appealing to the privy council. The text of this appeal, together with a detailed answer from the city and certain other documents connected with it, has been preserved for us among the Burghley papers; but we are completely ignorant of the events that followed. In much the same tantalising fashion, we catch a glimpse of an attempt upon the Theater and the Curtain in the same year. The lord mayor’s letters of 1580 tell us that he was then already preparing to stretch forth his hand against the impudent Jerichoes in the fields; and, in 1583, we find him pleading with Walsingham that they should be closed. In June, 1584, he actually seems to have accomplished his purpose; for, apparently, by reason of a brawl outside the Theater entirely unconnected with actors or their craft, he managed to procure an order from the privy council for the destruction of the houses. Again the curtain falls at the most exciting point. We do not even know whether the order was ever carried out.

    The year 1584, evidently, was a very critical one in the history of the English stage; yet we cannot doubt that the players successfully weathered the storm. Certainly, plays did not cease to be acted in London; nor do the houses in the fields appear to have suffered any material damage. Meanwhile, the stage drifted more and more under the control of the revels’ office, until, in 1592, we find the lord mayor, apparently on the advice of archbishop Whitgift, proposing that the master, Edmond Tilney, should be bought over to the city’s point of view by an annuity.

    The third, and, so far as we know, the last, serious crisis in the relations between the city and the stage occurred in 1597. Thomas Nashe, writing to a friend in 1596, complains that

  • the players … are piteously persecuted by the Lord Mayor and the Aldermen; and however in their old Lord’s time they thought their estate settled, it is now so uncertain they cannot build upon it.
  • The “old Lord” here referred to was lord Hunsdon, lord chamberlain, a staunch supporter of the players’ interests in the privy council. He died on 22 July, 1596, and was succeeded in office by the puritanically-minded lord Cobham. We do not know to what measure of persecution in 1596 Nashe is here referring; but, on 28 July, 1597, we find the lord mayor addressing an interesting letter to the council and enclosing a statement of “the inconveniences that grow by stage playes,” which we recognise as the basis of many earlier letters. The council was desired to take measures “for the present staie and fynall suppressinge” of plays both within and without the liberties, and it immediately complied by sending an order to the justices of Middlesex for the dismantling of the Theater and Curtain “so as they maie not be ymploied agayne to suche use.” Once again, however, we are left in the dark as to the fate of the houses in the fields. As a matter of fact, the Theater was closed this very month and year, but the cause appears to have been nothing more serious than a difficulty in renewing the lease. Perhaps, the death of lord Cobham and the influence of the new lord chamberlain, another lord Hunsdon, may have weakened the force of the order. In any case, the civic authorities do not seem to have gained much from a fight of over a quarter of a century. Sunday performances were abolished, at least in theory; playing was forbidden in Lent; and certain other restrictions were placed upon the freedom of the actor. But the enemies of the stage had aimed at abolition, not regulation.