08 April 2008

Social Movements: English Restoration

By Christine Koehler

The 17th century saw great change, and between Charles I and Charles II's reign saw the most change. Civil War raged across the land, taking all the reform and compromise Elizabeth I brought to Catholics and Protestants and destroying it.

Theaters were closed by a law supported by Cromwell and his fellow Puritans even before the execution of Charles I. The Globe Theater closed in 1642 when Parliament issued an ordinance halting all stage plays. It never opened again, and was demolished in 1644.

In 1647 stricter rules were put into place on all play houses, and in 1648 every structure where a play was preformed was destroyed and all players were seized and whipped. Anyone caught attending a play was fined five shillings.

In 1660, the year Charles II returned to England as monarch and theaters reopened.

Or should I say were allowed to open. They had to build them first. Charles II granted exclusive play-staging rights, Royal patents, to the King's Company--Thomas Killigrew and the Duke's Company--William Davenant. Both companies raced for performance rights to the previous generation's Jacobean and Caroline plays. Until their economic success was assured, no new plays could be produced.

Then they built theaters on Drury Lane (King's Company) and Dorset Gardens (Duke's Company). Both theaters were designed by Christopher Wren ad both looked similar because of this.

Women were allowed to perform onstage for the first time. I could find no conclusive reason for this, other than it seems the Restoration wanted to distance itself as much as possible from the Protectorate.

Samuel Pepys, a renowned diarist from the middle to late 1600s, refers to visiting the playhouse in order to watch or re-watch the performance of some particular actress. He very much he enjoyed these experiences.

It was during this time that actors/actresses became celebrities. Audiences flocked to see their favorite stars (or one of the King's many mistresses, Nell Gwyn).

The 'Restoration comedy' became widely popular, was extremely bawdy, and in direct opposition to Puritanical beliefs. It's best remembered not for specific wondrous plays but for its sexual explicitness, something Charles II, and consequentially his nobles, encouraged.

First staged in 1697, The Provok'd Wife is both a parody and a social commentary on the new regime.

The Brutes have a terrible relationship. Lady Brute married for money, Sir John for sex, and now he has been driven to drink and she to dreams of adultery. Flanked by a squadron of drunken rakes, debauched aristocrats, and lascivious French maids, the Brutes turn the town into a battlefield of love and infidelity, armed to the teeth with their dazzling, sharp-honed wit.

Sir John: If I could but catch her adulterating, I might be divorced from her by law.
Heartfree: And so pay her a yearly pension, to be a distinguished cuckold.
The very fact that playwrights got away with this shows how much things changed between one decade and the next. Not only are they in business again, they're writing about the new regime, and living to tell the tale. Sure it had sex, but if you want someone's attention, say it with sex.