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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VII. The Restoration Drama

§ 2. Public Interest in Acting

The drama on the re-opening of the theatres was subjected to a flood of new influences. Paramount among these was the influence of the court, to which dramatists and actors alike hastened to pay the homage of servile flattery. This lack of independence on the part of the dramatists of the day, coupled with the general relaxation of morals consequent on the restoration, account, in a large measure, for the degradation into which tragedy in England sank. While comedy retained, in its brightest manifestations at all events, some redeeming wit and humour, tragedy fell to a level of dulness and lubricity never surpassed before or since. It should not be overlooked that, in this period attendance at the theatre became a constant social habit, and the theatre itself a great social force; and in this way alone can be explained the success on the stage of much portentous rubbish. People went to the theatre not because they were interested in the drama but because, to the exclusion of almost all other interests, they were interested in one another. This is strikingly brought out by Crowne in the epilogue to Sir Courtly Nice, where he says of the audience:

  • They came not to see plays, but act their own,
  • And had throng’d audiences when we had none.
  • It must also be remembered that this was an age which bred a succession of great actors and actresses, who occupied an unprecedentedly large share of the public attention. As Colley Cibber said, speaking of Lee’s Alexander the Great:
  • When these flowing Numbers came from the Mouth of a Betterton the Multitude no more desired Sense to them than our musical Connoisseurs think it essential in the celebrate Airs of an Italian Opera.