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

V. The Restoration Drama

§ 3. Relaxation of the Laws against Dramatic Entertainments towards the Close of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate; Sir William D’Avenant’s Entertainments: The Siege of Rhodes

Towards the close of Cromwell’s rule, the laws against dramatic entertainments appear to have been somewhat relaxed, and Sir William D’Avenant, who had been governor of the king and queen’s company of players, acting at the Cockpit, and had held a patent, dated 1639, empowering him to erect a new playhouse, was obviously the man first to provide for a returning interest in plays. D’Avenant’s earlier plays and masques have already been mentioned in a previous volume of this work. The son of an Oxford tavern keeper, and, if the story be authentic, Shakespeare’s godson, D’Avenant had been taken up by the court; he had staged plays in the manner of Fletcher as early as 1630; had succeeded Ben Jonson as poet laureate in 1638, and later, had served the royal party through many vicissitudes afield and in intrigue abroad and at home, suffering imprisonment for several years and narrowly escaping the gallows. In the later years of the commonwealth he had lived more quietly in London and, at length, chiefly through the influence of the lord-keeper, Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke, obtained authority for the production of a species of quasi-dramatic entertainment which, though given at private houses, was public in so far as money was taken for entrance. D’Avenant’s earliest venture in this kind was entitled The First Day’s Entertainment at Rutland House, “by declamation and music, after the manner of the ancients,” printed in 1657, and staged 21 May of the previous year. By some, this venture has been called “an opera”; and, strangely enough, D’Avenant refers to it by this title in his prologue and elsewhere. The First Day’s Entertainment is really made up of two pairs of speeches, the first by Diogenes and Aristophanes successively “against and for, public entertainment, by moral presentation,” the second, in lighter vein, between a Parisian and a Londoner on the respective merits of the two cities. The whole was diversified with music by Coleman, Lawes (composer of the music of Comus) and other musicians of repute in their day. D’Avenant had made provision for four hundred auditors but only a hundred and fifty appeared. Emboldened, however, by this qualified success, he projected a more ambitious entertainment. This was the celebrated Siege of Rhodes, “made a representation by the art of prospective in scenes and the story sung in recitative music,” presented in August, 1656. In an address “To the Reader,” which appears in the first edition of that year, but was not afterwards reprinted, D’Avenant points out that

  • the story as represented … is heroical, and notwithstanding the continual hurry and busy agitations of a hot siege, is (I hope) intelligibly conveyed to advance the characters of virtue in the shapes of valour and conjugal love.
  • The author was too close to triumphant puritanism not to feel it necessary to justify the moral aspects of his art. Of the recitative music, an “unpracticed” novelty in England, the author tells us that it was “composed and exercised by the most transcendent of England in that art”; and it is clear that the cast was chosen with reference to this important operatic feature. As to the five changes of scene, he regrets that “all is confined to eleven foot in height and about fifteen in depth including the places of passage reserved for the music”: a “narrow allowance,” he continues, “for the fleet of Solyman the Magnificent, his army, the Island of Rhodes and the varieties attending the siege of the city.” The Siege of Rhodes, on the dramatic side, is an amplified situation, laying no claim to plot, characterisation or variety save such as arises from change of scene, appropriate costume and attendant music. The Rehearsal ridicules a battle “performed in recitative music by seven persons only”; and it must be confessed that this “first English opera” is dramatically as absurd as its species has continued, with certain exceptions, ever since. The Siege of Rhodes is often described as the first English play to employ scenery and the first in which an actress appeared on the English stage. Neither of these statements is correct. Changes of scenery and even “perspective in scene” were in vogue, if not common, long before 1656. As to women on the stage, not to mention some earlier examples, Mrs. Coleman, who “played” the part of Ianthe in The Siege had already sung in The First Day’s Entertainment and was chosen, doubtless, in both instances for her voice rather than for her acting. In 1658, D’Avenant opened the Cockpit theatre in Drury lane, producing there two similar operas, The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru and The History of Sir Francis Drake. Their “historical” intent and scenic novelty may well have disarmed puritan suspicion, though Richard Cromwell is said to have ordered an enquiry into the performance at the Cockpit, of which, however, nothing came.