PURITANISM AND THE THEATRE
The suppression of the theatre by the English Parliamentary revolution of the 1640s was something I found both strange and puzzling. It seems to have been abolished without debate by general agreement of a political spectrum which on other issues was bristling with internal differences and was eager to dispute. That suggested that unanimity as to the abolition of theatre had been arrived at prior to the revolution so that the decree went through on the nod once Parliament got down to business.
I could find no history of the affair. And seeing how British academia has concentrated on the 1640s during the past thirty years that struck me as being ground for suspicion. (Theatrical histories, understandably, dealt with the periods when there were theatrical performances in England, and skipped from 1640 to 1660. I can find no fault with that. It was the Marxist historians of the 1640s who acted suspiciously.)
At first out of mere curiosity, and then because of a growing feeling that the abolition of theatre brought one close to the heart of things, I rummaged around in the early 17th century. That led me back to the late Elizabethan period. I found that the Elizabethan theatre was new theatre, and that the Puritan movement against theatre arose in opposition to it.
But how did such fully fledged theatre suddenly materialise out of the blue? It came from Italy. The English gentry around 1570 were not sure how to be English or how to be gentlemen. Casting about for a role model, they caught the Italian fashion and tried it out.
In 1571 there was published in London:—
"The SCHOLE-MASTER: A plaine and perfite way of teaching children, to understand, write and speake, the Latin tong, but specially purposed for the private bringing up of youth in Jentlemen and Noble men's houses, and commodious also for all such, as have forgot the Latin tonge, and would, by them selves, without a Scholemaster, in short time, and with small paines, recover a sufficient habilitie, to understand, write, and speak Latin".
This by Roger Ascham.
At a certain point the book erupts into a tirade against Italy and the Italianate English gentleman:
"I am afraide that over many of our travelers into Italie do not exchewe the way of Circes Court: but go and ryde and runne and flie thether, and make great haste to cum to her...
"I was once in Italie my selfe: but I thanke God, my abode there was but IX. dayes: and yet I sawe in that little tyme, in one Citie, more libertie to sinne, than ever I hard tell of in our noble Citie of London in IX. yeare. I sawe, it was there as free to sinne, not onelie without all punishment, but also without any mans marking, as it is free in the Citie of London to chose without all blame, whether a man lust to weare Shoo or pantocle. And good cause why: For being unlike in troth of Religion, they must nedes be unlike in honestie of living. For blessed be Christ, in our Citie of London commonlie the commandementes of God be more diligentlie taught, and the service of God more reverentlie used, and that daylie, in many private mens houses, than they be in Italie once a weeke in their common Chirches: where making Ceremonies to delite the eye, and vaine soundes to please the eare, do quite thrust out of the Chirches all service of God in spirit and troth...
"Their care and charge is not to punish sinne, not to amend manners, not to purge doctrine, but onelie to watch and oversee that Christes treue Religion set no sure footing, where the Pope hath any Jurisdiction. I learned, when I was at Venice, that there it is counted good policie, when there be foure or five brethren of one familie, one onelie to marie: and all the rest to waulter with as little shame in open lecherie, as Swyne do here in the common myre. Yea, there be as fayre houses of Religion, as great provision, as diligent officers, to kepe up this misorder, as Bridewell is and all the Masters there, to kepe downe misorder...
"Our Italians bring home with them other faultes from Italie, though not so great as this of Religion, yet a great deale greater than many good men can well beare. For commonlie they cum home common contemners of marriage and readie persuaders of all other to the same; not because they love virginitie, nor yet because they hate pretty yong virgines, but, being free in Italie to go whither so ever lust will carry them, they do not like that lawe and honestie should be soch a barre to their like libertie at home in England. And yet they be the greatest makers of love, the daylie daliers, with such pleasant wordes, with such smilyng and secret countenances, with such signes, tokens, wagers, purposed to be lost, before they were purposed to be made, with bargaines of wearing colours, floures and herbes, to breede occasion of often meeting of him and her, and bolder talking of this and that...
"An other propertie of this our English Italians is, to be mervelous singular in all their matters: Singular in knowledge, ignorant of nothyng: So singular in wisdome (in their owne opinion) as scarce they counte the best Counsellor the Prince hath comparable with them: Common discoursers of all matters: busie searchers of most secret affaires...And beyng brought up in Italie in some free Citie, as all Cities be there: where a man may freelie discourse against what he will, against whom he lust: against any Prince, agaynst any government, yea against God him selfe and his whole Religion: where he must be either Guelphe or Gibeline, either French or Spanish: and always compelled to be of some partie, of some faction, he shall never be compelled to be of any Religion: and if he medle not over much with Christes true Religion, he shall have free libertie to embrace all Religions, and becum, if he lust, at once, without any let or punishment, Jewish, Turkish, Papish and Devillish.
"A yong Jentleman thus bred up in this godly schole...shall cum home into England, but verie ill taught, either to be an honest man him selfe, a quiet subject to his Prince, or willyng to serve God under the obedience of trewe doctrine, or with in the order of honest living."
"They mocke the Pope:" says Ascham, "They raile on Luther: they allow neyther side: They like none, but onelie themselves".
But they did, and they do, like themselves. And there is a lot to be said for people who like themselves so much as they are that they will not let themselves be put out of humour by pondering first and last things, and who are so preoccupied with being Italian that they let other people be. In the eternal city the Italian lives for the moment, not denying eternal truth but at the same time not exaggerating its importance. Eternity is the spice of time when one knows how to live amidst its ruins.
England in the time of Elizabeth was the anti-type of Italy. The Italians had an exuberant way of life but no state. In England the state had subverted the way of life. The Holy Inquisition had rooted out the first weeds of true religion in Italy, and they never made a comeback. In England the Inquisition was earnestly committed to the propagation of true religion, but it could not decide what the true religion was, knowing only that it was not the old religion, and so it kept society in a dither. In that state of uncertainty English gentlemen looked to Italy to see how life might be lived. But obviously England did not devise a new way of life patterned on the Italian mode. You need only look about you to see that.
The English state broke with Rome in 1530 for reasons that had little to do with religion. The political breach led to the reconstruction of religion by the state. But the job of reconstruction was done piecemeal and never amounted to an adequate replacement for what had been destroyed.
The failure of the state to complete what it began sparked off the generation of a new religion in the depths of the middle class. Puritanism began, and it was horrified by the Italian fashion of the gentry. Theatre revived, in great part because Elizabeth liked going to see plays—or having plays going to be seen by her. But this was not theatre which had evolved on a basis of English tradition. Its source was Renaissance Italy. And the Puritan revulsion against Italianate manners extended itself to the theatre.
The pamphlet literature against theatre, which culminated in William Prynne's Histriomastix in 1633 (see last issue) , began in the 1580s, eg: Players Confuted by Steph. Gosson (1582); A Mirour For Magestrates Of Cyties by George Whetstones (1584); Th'overthrow Of Stage-Playes by D. Rainolds (1599).
Here are a few tasters from these declarations of war:
"Certayne it is, that this life of ours is a continuall warre-fare, a pitchte fielde, wherein, as the lickerous tounge of our mother Eve hath justly provoked the Lorde, to set the devill and us at deadly feude, so is it our part to bethinke us of him, that never leaves nibbling at our heele." (p9)
"...if we flocke to Theatres to gase upon playes, we walke in the Counsell of the ungodly...; We stand in the way of sinners, because plaies are the proceedings and practises of Gentiles in their Idolatrie." (p13)
"...if an outward use of things indifferent, as meats, be to be tied to a rule of charitie, and not to be taken, when they offend the conscience of the weake;...how diligent, how circumspect, how wary ought we to be, that no corruption of idols, enter by the passage of our eyes and eares into the soule? we knowe that whatsoever goeth into the mouth defileth not but passeth away by course of nature; but that which entreth into us by the eyes and eares, must be digested by the spirite, which is chiefly reserved to honour God." (p16)
"I beseech God so to touch the heartes of our Magistrates with a perfite hatred of sinne, and feare of Judgment; that daunsing Chaplines of Bacchus, and all such as set up these wicked artes, may be driven out of Englande, may bee shutt from the companie of the Godly, and as open professors of Idolatrie, separated from us by Sea and Lande." (p21)
In The Anatomie Of Abuse Stubbs classifies the various forms of wickedness: stage plays; May games; Christmas, Easter and Whitsun festivals; "Cardes, Dice, Tables, Boules, Tennisse"; "Markets, Faires, Courtes, and Leetes"; Wakes; and Football.
"The manner of Maiegames.
"I have heard it credibly reported (and that viva voce) by menne of greate gravitie and reputation, that of fourtie, three score, or a hundred maides goying to the Woode over night, there have scarcely the third parte of them returned home againe undefiled." (p96)
"The horrible Vice of pestiferous Dauncing.
"Dauncing, as it is used (or rather abused) in these daies is an introduction to whoredome, a preparative to wantonnesse...; rather then a pleasant exercise to the mynd, or a wholesome practice for the bodie". And yet "thei are not ashamed to erect Schooles of Dauncing, thinking it an amusement to their children to be expert in this noble science of Heathen devilrie...
"And seyng mans nature is to proclive of it self to sinne, it hath no neede of allurements and allections to sinne (as Dauncing is) but rather restraintes and inhibitions fro the same, which are not there to be founde. For what clipping, what cullyng, what kissing and bussyng, what smouching and slabberyng one of another, what felthie groping and uncleane handlyng is not practised every where in these Dauncynges: Yea, the very deed and action itself, which I will not name for offendyng chast eares, shall be purtrayed and shewed forthe in their bawdie gestures of one to another." (p98/9)
"The dauncyng of our Forefathers may not be called a dauncyng, but rather a Godly triumphyng and rejoicyng in hart for joye...
"...Their dauncyng was not like ours, consistyng in Measures, Capters, Duavers, and I can not tell what, for they had no suche leasure in Egypt to learne suche vaine curiositie in that bawdie Schoole, for making of Bricke and Tiles...
"We never read, that thei ever Daunced, but at some wonderfull portent, or strange Judgement of God, and therefore made not a common practise of it, or a daiely occupation as it were, much lesse sette up Schooles of it, and frequented nothing els night and daie, Sabbaoth daie, and other, as wee doe." (p102/3)
The English Puritan acquired a new Fatherland—a new set of "Forefathers"—when he broke with Rome. The breach with Rome involved a simultaneous breach with the inherited English way of life. The Puritan attached himself to a new set of ancestors, divorcing Chaucer and adopting Moses.
The struggle against Rome was in the main a struggle against Merrie England. Everything that gave sensual pleasure was connected with Rome. In order to cease to be a slave of Rome, England had to cease to be England. And from the 1580s until 1653 the Puritan movement was intent on remaking England in the image of Mosaic Palestine. (1653 was Cromwell's moment of truth—the moment which found him wanting—when he dispersed Parliament to prevent it from replacing the English Common Law with the Law of Moses. By that action he robbed the Revolution of its purpose, and made the execution of Charles I into a crime which would be punished by Charles II.)
Stubbs would have abolished all forms of vanity, including "Looking glasses, the devils spectacles". And he urged that Whores, Adulterers and Fornicators should be put to death: or, if that was thought too severe, that they should be "cauterized, and seared with a hott Iron on the cheeke, forehead, or some other parte of the bodie that might be seen." (p57)
Regarding plays, he said:
"If thei be of divine matter then are thei most intollerable, or rather Sacrilegious", while "if thei Playes be of prophane matters, then tend thei to the dishonour of God, and nourishyng of vice, both of which are damnable." (p88/9)
"Of Comedies, the matter and ground is Love, Bawdrie, Cosenage, Flattery, Whoredome, Adulterie: The persons or agentes, Whores, Queanes, Bawdes, Scullions, Knaves, Curtezans, Lecherous olde men, Amorous young men, with such like infinite varietie." (p90)
Whetstones' Mirour For Magestrates sets out "the Ordinaunces, Policies, and Dilegences, of the Noble Emperour Alexander (surnamed) Severus, to suppress and chastise the notorious Vices noorished in Rome, by the superfluous nomber of Dicing-houses, Tavarns, and common Stewes: Suffred and cheerished by his beastlye Predecessor, Helyogabalus", and recommends them as being applicable to Elizabethan England. A point against the theatre is that it devises means by which Royal and Noble personages can be represented by "base persons".
Half a century after England asserted its national independence in religious matters and shook off the tyranny of Rome, English cultural life began to be dominated by conflict between the imitators of Renaissance Italy and the imitators of Mosaic Palestine. Continuity with pre-Reformation England was evident only in the strong central state (in whose interest, as Joe Keenan has shown, the English Reformation was begun), but two generations later the social rift between these two forms of imported culture, neither of which was effectively assimilated into national life, caused a revolution in the state.
The following account of the English Reformation is from The History Of The British Revolution Of 1688-9, published in 1817 by George Moore, a Catholic gentleman of Connacht who was strongly in sympathy with Britain:
"The Reformation in other countries proceeded with something of method. It was carried on through the channels of argumentation and discussion. It was accompanied, at least, if not effected by the labours of missionaries and divines. In England it had its beginning, in a great measure, from the caprice of a tyrant, and was always in subservience to the turns and waverings of the caprice from which it originated. It had nothing like an emanation from principle. The same hand which encouraged it in some walks and directions, severely checked and drove it back in others. Henry VIII disclaimed the Papal authority, as it was opposed to his passions. He rooted up monasteries, and plundered the shrines of saints as the spoils tempted his cupidity; but to the last he supported the principal doctrines of the church of Rome. Proselytes to the Reformation were burned alive to the end of his reign." (p4).
What is missing from that account is that Henry was the state and that he had adequate reasons of state for doing what he did in the first instance—granting himself a divorce so that he might sanctify a passion with a view to producing a legitimate male heir when the European situation prevented the Pope from granting the divorce. But it is true that the new religion was dictated erratically by Henry as expediency suggested, that he was more authoritarian in his religious decrees than any Pope, that he would have liked to continue the Pope's religion with himself in place of the Pope, and that it was with great regret that he authorised the break-up of Catholic beliefs as a tactic in his dispute with Rome as that dispute got out of hand.
"That the Catholic religion was so completely rooted up and extirpated in England, and was succeeded by a passion so generally and decidedly hostile to it, is a circumstance in history well deserving of attention", says Moore. And this rooting up is particularly remarkable, given that England was contentedly Catholic in the 1520s, and that Henry was preparing to raise a Crusade against the Lutheran heresy in Germany when the awkward matter of the Emperor not allowing the Pope to grant his divorce cropped up. The break with Rome happened over a narrow reason of state. In defence of that break, the state was then led to destroy the old religious culture which was closely interwoven with the English way of life.
In the matter of creating a new culture in place of the old the state behaved uncertainly and erratically, but in the matter of destroying the old culture it acted purposefully and effectively, with the result that the common national culture came to consist of, as Moore puts it, "a dread and hatred of Popery".
I suppose the English are not unique in prizing themselves for a quality which does not characterise them. They put it about, and as far as I can tell they believed, that they were not a society orientated on the state. They saw the Germans in recent times, and before that the French, as slaves of their states, and they depicted themselves as the antithesis in that respect of the French and Germans. This notion was projected with such assurance that it took me in for a while so that I did not see what was plainly obvious.
England is in the first place a state. English society was formed more by the action of the state than French society was, and much, much more than German society was. English society is therefore more at ease in its relationship with the state than its Continental rivals, and it takes the action of the state so much for granted that it is unaware of it.
Some years ago I attended a conference organised by the Campaign For Labour Representation in London. It was open to the public, and nothing transpired at it that I would have thought was any concern of the police. A couple of days later the organiser of the Conference had a visit from the Special Branch. Some Republican incident had happened that weekend. It had nothing whatever to do with the CLR. But an English Socialist who attended the conference heard about this incident in the news on his way home, and he trotted round to his local police station to tell them that he had been at a meeting with some Irish people in London that day, which appeared to be an innocent meeting, but you never can tell.
I had been gradually figuring out what England was. Nevertheless I was surprised at having my conclusions concretised like this.
Foreign spies figure largely in popular English literature. The picture suggested by this literature is that foreign states operate vast espionage networks while England survives largely because Providence is on its side. The fact of the matter seems to be that England since the late 16th century has operated a vast espionage network, and that the only other states with comparable espionage operations have been Soviet Russia, and the United States since it was taught espionage by Churchill's agents during the Second World War.
One becomes aware that in English life there is a very effective continuum between the citizen and the spy.
These features of modern England are consistent with, and follow from, its origins in state policy. The head and personification of the state decreed in legislation in the 1530s that the Church in England should cease to have the Pope as its head, and thereafter he devised a new religion piecemeal as the political occasion required. And English society followed his lead, with patches of resistance here and there but with overall compliance with his will. And if Henry had made a thorough job of remaking the religion instead of leaving it an inconsistent patchwork, and had not been succeeded by a sickly son and a Catholic daughter, the England that we know would never have materialised. English society would have settled down in the new religion of the state. But Henry left the job half done. And then Edward dashed off in one direction, and Mary dashed back in the other direction, and Elizabeth veered this way and that. English society was left with religion as a problem with which it became obsessed, instead of having it as a way of life which it might have lived.
The breach with Rome was not a mere matter of changing ecclesiastical discipline or theological doctrine. It involved the destruction of a way of life. And since theatre was interwoven with the way of life which was to be destroyed—the way of life which in a thousand ways connected England with the Pope—theatre had to be suppressed too.
It did not accord with the sense of decorum of Whig England to take note of what happened to the theatre—what was done to the theatre by the state—at the point of the Reformation. The Whigs were Protestant Ascendancy theatregoers with a line in political rhetoric which glorified the liberty of the individual. It would not have done for them to recognise that in the course of the glorious breach with Rome the state apparatus was made use of to suppress a flourishing theatre and whip the individual into line. And when Leninism took over the intellectual hegemony of England, it was as an exaggerated development of certain features of Whiggery. The Tories—the old Tories, who had a Jacobite streak in them—ought to have been able to see what happened to the theatre in England at the hands of Thomas Cromwell, but they don't seem to have got around to it.
For want of an account of what actually happened, one was left to understand that the mediaeval theatre had withered from natural causes before the breach with Rome, and that its flimsy remains were blown away in the excitement of the Reformation.
An associated idea was that England had been prepared for the Reformation by the movement inspired by Wycliffe over a century earlier, which had persisted in the population at large, although it had been officially suppressed.
But these impressionistic, spirit-of-the-age, notions did not seem to tally with the course of the Reformation, so I kept rummaging around in the hope of finding a detailed account of how the English theatre was affected by the English Reformation.
It was through events in Germany that the Reformation became an accomplished fact of European history. In Germany the Reformation was an event involving the populace. It was not accomplished through the action of the state on society, but was made possible by the opportunities presented to a social movement by the fragmentation of the state.
The breach with Rome in Germany was not accomplished at the cost of a break with German culture. The Protestant parts of Germany remained as German as the Catholic parts. A political compromise was effected between the two religions, and it was never doubted that the adherents of both religions were Germans. (No such compromise was possible in England, where the Reformation was produced by the totalitarian action of the state. 400 years later "The Revolution Of Destruction" was the title of a book on Hitler's state. It would be the perfect title for a book about Thomas Cromwell's regime in England in the 1530s. And Cromwell's destruction was much more thorough than Hitler's. The autonomous character of German society survived the excesses of the totalitarian state.)
The continuity of German culture through the Reformation is exemplified by the popular playwright of the time, Hans Sachs, who straddled the Reformation. There is no English counterpart of Hans Sachs.
Thomas Cromwell's playwright was John Bale, Bishop of Ossory (Kilkenny) who wrote scurrilous plays about monks and nuns:
"Within the bounds of Sodomy
Doth dwell the spiritual clergy;
Pope, cardinal and priest,
Nun, canon, monk, and friar,
With so many else as do desire
To reign under Antichrist.
They live abominably;
And burn in carnal lust.
Shall I tell ye further news?
At Rome, for prelates, are stews
Of both kinds. This is just.
The law of Nature I think
Will not be able to wink
Against the assaults of them;
They having so high prelates
And so many great estates
From hence to Jerusalem."
This is spoken by Infidelity in Bale's Three Laws. The stage directions include a guide to "The apparelling of the six vices, or fruits of Infidelity: Let Idolatry be decked like an old witch, Sodomy like a monk of all sects, Ambition like a bishop, Covetousness like a pharisee or spiritual lawyer, False Doctrine like a Popish doctor, and Hypocrisy like a grey friar."
Sodomy says of itself:
"In the first age I began,
And so persevered with man,
And still will, if I can,
So long as he endure,
If monkish sects renew,
And Popish priests continue,
Which are of my retinue,
To live I shall be sure
In Rome to me they fall,
Both bishop and cardinal,
Monk, friar, priest, and all
More rank are they than ants.
Example in Pope July,
Which sought to have, in his fury,
Two lads, and to use them beastly,
From the cardinal of Nantes."
At this moment when paedophile priests are the fashionable scandal one's first thought might be that there is something in this state propaganda of the English Reformation. But the second thought must be that Ireland in its sex perversions aligns itself with the culture of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism rather than with the Papist region of the world where Puritanism never got a grip. In Britain and America Puritanism has gone sick and tainted the sources of life, rendering family life a suspicious circumstance, while in countries where idolatry and superstition continued to thrive in immoral alliance with the Whore of Babylon, life goes merrily on.
Catholic Ireland until the mid-19th century was a blend of Christianity and Paganism such as is found on the Continent. After 1850 the Pagan elements were systematically rooted out by Ultramontanist missionaries taking advantage of the demoralisation of the old way of life produced by the Famine and the change of language. Ireland under British government was the only Catholic country which allowed itself to be remoulded in accordance with Ultramontanist and Counter-Reformationist doctrine. Counter-Reformationist Catholicism is in some respects very similar to English Puritanism. During the first half of the 19th century the old Irish culture was the target of missionary assaults by both the Protestant and Catholic Puritans. I grew up in an area where the old culture survived until circa 1950 but on which Catholic Puritanism was encroaching. I was formed by the old culture and driven out by the new.
Puritanism—the attempt to compel life to be lived in accordance with a theological doctrine—is proving to be incompatible with human nature. It does not seem to me that there is any positive structure to which human nature gives rise, but there are certain structures which it rules out. Humanity is wayward in its impulses, and not least in its sexual impulses. The working out of these impulses can be regulated by social culture to some extent, but a culture formed on the assumption that waywardness can be eliminated is unlikely to be viable in the long run.
Of course it begs the question to discuss this in the context of "the long run". The Puritan scheme did not assume an ongoing world. Humanity was to be brought into strict correspondence with a theological doctrine as a prelude to the end of the world. But the world keeps missing its date for ending. And Puritan doctrine cannot contain the waywardness of humanity in a world without end—a world whose end is related to the life cycle of the sun.
In Bale's King John, Sedition offers indulgences to the populace:
"Here is first a bone of the blessed Trinity,
A dram of the turd of sweet Saint Barnaby.
Here is a feather of good Saint Michael's wing.
A tooth of Saint Twyde, epice of David's harp string,
The good blood of Hales, and our blessed Lady's milk,
A louse of Saint Francis in this same crimson silk.
A scab of Saint Job, a nail of Adam's toe,
A maggot of Moses, with a fart of Saint Fardigo."
And the Clergy set out their ranks and orders:
"A queen, saith David, on thy right hand, Lord, I see;
Apparelled with gold, and compassed with diversity
This queen is the church, which through all Christian regions
Is beautiful, decked with many holy religions—
Monks, canons, and friars, most excellent divines;
As Grandmontensers and other Benedictines,
Premonstratensians, Bernards and Gilbertines,
Jacobites, Minors, White Carmes, and Augustines,
Sanbenets, Cluniacs, with holy Carthusians,
Hermits and Anchors, with most mighty Rhodians;
Crucifers, Lucifers, Bridgets, Ambrosians,
Stellifers, Ensifers, with Purgatorians,
Sophians, Indians and Camaldulensers,
Clarines and Columbines, Templars, New Ninevites,
Rufianes, Tertians, Lorettes and Lazarites,
Hungaries, Teutonics, Hospitalers, Honofrines,
Basils and Bonhams, Solanons and Celestines,
Paulines, Jeronomites, and Monks of Josephats Alley,
Futiques, Flamines, with Brethren of Black Alley." etc.
That world of indulgences to ease the burden of eternity on the populace and of Orders shaped by a great variety of disciplines corresponding with the vagaries of human impulse was wiped out in England and humanity was homogenised. The multifarious Catholic/Pagan framework of life was obliterated. The individual was extracted from the medieval cocoon, given a short back and sides (The Unloveliness of Lovelocks was one of William Prynne's popular pamphlets), and was left in isolated confrontation with his Creator and Eternity. Community ceased to function as a framework within which individuality might flourish, and it became a pressure on the isolated individual to produce himself according to a standard. Life became solemn and God ceased to be whimsical. And salvation by faith alone gave rise to a remarkable uniformity in the sphere of works.
I had only the vaguest impression of how the theatre fitted in with this development until I happened to come across Early English Stages: 1300 to 1660 by Glynne Wickham (1959). Wickham was head of the Drama Department of Bristol University, and he seems to have been free of ideological blinkers because of an interest in the physical mechanism of the stage. His investigations led him to the conclusion that the medieval theatre in England was in a flourishing condition when the Reformation began and was suppressed by the state to make way for the Reformation:
"...four centuries of Protestant prejudice and the disastrously narrowing effects of modern specialist education in literary subjects have combined to relegate medieval drama to a cloud-cuckoo land of remote primitivism that has got to be rudely assaulted if the genuine article is to be approached at all." (Vol 1, p9)
Wickham's discovery was not made at a fortunate moment. Leninists were beginning to dominate English academic life and publishing just then. They had a pre-set scheme centred on Puritanism and a cast of mind which did not take kindly to empirical contradiction.
"The religious stage, far from being too crude and naive in its technique to command the continued allegiance of the populace in face of competition from the new drama of Renaissance origin, was at the summit of its powers. Trade guilds responsible for play production amalgamated; not, as has hitherto been argued, because they were losing interest in the plays, but because the staging of them was becoming ever more spectacular and costly. The fact that every performance was a living representation of Catholic dogma may not have been a matter of much consequence to their audiences, but it could not fail to concern a government occupied with the political consequences of the breach with Rome. Had these plays been effete and in decline, the Government need not have taken any action: yet the evidence of recent research shows that successive governments from 1535 to 1575 first undermined the Catholic stage by ridicule, censorship and threats and ultimately forbade its continuance.
"These calculated and consistently repressive measures can only have been undertaken because nothing short of them would serve to wean performers and spectators away from the plays. This, in its turn, can only mean that on the grounds of civic pride, financial gain and spectacular entertainment the Miracle Plays commanded the allegiance of the populace to the very end. In short, the builders of the Public Playhouse of Elizabethan England were the direct heirs of a fully developed tradition of stagecraft and not novices in their profession as they have so often been represented. In the very year that James Burbage was preparing to build The Theater, 1575, Sir John Savage, Mayor of Chester, was also in London, and busy defending himself before the Privy Council for permitting a performance of the Cycle on the grounds that this was in the best interests of the citizens.
"Scarcely less important is the corollary that executive control of the Miracle Plays need only have passed from the Church to the Municipality when there was no longer a single Catholic Church to sponsor them." (p116/7)
"The Miracle Plays did not die of exhaustion, but were suppressed...
"For political reasons, arising from the Disestablishment of the Roman Church in England, the plays were suppressed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. They were suppressed at the height of their dramatic achievement, by the Government working through the Reformed Church and in the face of determined opposition from the participants who, either from natural conservatism or commercial interest or both together, favoured their continuance. The opponents of suppression, however, were in a fatally weak position. They lacked, above all, the weight of any traditional authority for exercising control over the text, since this had only recently passed into their hands. Until the period 1530-1540 it had rested with the monasteries and cathedral chapters, working, as often as not, indirectly through the secular clergy. The monasteries were silenced by dissolution and it is to be assumed that control passed then to the municipalities who, up to that time, had only exercised jurisdiction over the conditions of performance and attendance. But even then their control of the text must have been in doubt; for on what other grounds could members of the Ecclesiastical Commission in Elizabeth's reign claim the right to censor and eventually suppress?" (p118/9)
The Festival of Corpus Christi, established by Rome in 1311, was in operation throughout England by 1318. In the enacting of the Festival there was no hard distinction between Church and laity. There was a continuum from the monastic orders, through the friars and regular clergy, to the lords, merchants, artisans and peasants:
"Taking these factors into account, I think we may assume that the transition from clerical to lay production of the plays was not necessarily an abrupt one. Rather was it likely to have been smooth and gradual, with the friar and the secular clergy as the active intermediaries; for the craft guilds, although commercial institutions controlling the hierarchy of labour, themselves had a religious basis. So accustomed are we to a state of mind which regards all work as an odious necessity..., that a mentality which regarded toil as itself a devotional exercise, a return of thanks to the Creator for the endowments of skill and bodily health, is well-nigh inconceivable. Yet that was the unquestioned view of the guilds, all of which existed in the service of a Patron Saint as well as for the better conduct of trade and the regulation of employment." (p127)
Restoration theatre—theatre as revived by the monarchy in 1660 after the total suppression of theatre by Parliament—was a very narrow and stringently controlled affair. It was theatre under license for the diversion for the sort of people who revolve around a monarch. And only a couple of theatres were permitted in the whole of England at the Restoration were two or three.
By contrast, the theatre suppressed by Henry and Elizabeth was part of the way of life of the people and was widely dispersed around the country. And according to Wickham it is a fallacy that women first appeared on the English stage in 1660, as they acted in the pre-Reformation theatre.
In Germany, where culture flourishes in localities, where the whole is less than the sum of the parts, and where the idea of rural idiocy somehow does not spring to mind, one can see how England might be if it had not got involved in the Reformation by accident, or if its Reformation had had a popular source. Capitalism in Germany was not constructed with an atomised mass. It was a development within society and preserved much of the atmosphere of the guilds.
I think England is unique in Europe in having an atomised, de-socialised mass as raw material for capitalism. As far as I know there was nothing like the Enclosures in any European country, and therefore provision for social living in industrial towns had to accompany industrial development instead of being introduced long afterwards.
Some years ago I found myself close to Oberammergau and I went to have a look at it. Because of my experience of Irish Catholicism in my youth I was strongly prejudiced against Oberammergau. I expected to find a backwater of rural idiocy dominated by churches and monasteries. I found a thriving industrial town with modern painted houses and no discernible clericalist atmosphere. And I thought that if Oberammegau could produce its Passion Play and be like that, Wakefield and Coventry might be like that if they had continued producing their Miracle Plays and Morality Plays.
In Volume 2 Wickham remarks:
"Comparatively little thought has been given to the idea that one consequence of the Reformation may have been to put a brake on some aspects of the Renaissance and vice-versa. It would seem however from the evidence of the plays written at the time, and from that of documents concerning their performance, that ideas of Renaissance inspiration were in constant conflict with those of religious reform, while the aspirations of ecclesiastical reformers were perpetually obstructed by the support offered to the theatre by antiquarian apologists in high academic and social circles." (p14)
He traces the earliest effects of the Reformation on the theatre in alterations made in 1532 to the document authorising and advertising the Chester plays. It was amended to put the King in place of the Pope:
"These changes simply take note of the fact that the Pope is no longer deemed to possess any authority over the conduct of the actors or the audience. From thenceforth such matters lay solely with the monarch or his deputy on the spot, the mayor. But could the matter rest there? We have seen that in fact it did not; that the Banns and Proclamations for the Chester plays were altered again and again within the next 60 years, and that the alterations correspond closely to changes in the government of the country's religious life. We have seen moreover that the condition of the religious stage in Chester between 1570 and 1600 was paralleled in York, Wakefield, Coventry and Lincoln. In short we are confronted with a gradual introduction of State Censorship, operated by the Court of High Commission for the North on behalf of the Privy Council in London acting for the sovereign; and this is the direct consequence of the Reformation.
"If we want to know why this severe curtailing of free speech descended on ‘merrie England' at the hands of ‘good Queen Bess', we need only look at a succession of Acts of Parliament between 1543 and 1598 which survive on the Statute Book for our inspection. The earliest of them suggests that Henry VIII had good reason to ponder the startlingly widespread effects of adding the words fidei defensor to his titles, not least in the theatre: from 1531 onwards, thanks to the work of Archbishop Cranmer and Lord Chancellor Cromwell, dramatic performances, public and private, had become a hotbed of political controversy. The Act of 1543 is seemingly inoffensive, since what it sets out to control is simply ‘interpretations of Scripture': but the qualification attached, ‘contrarye to doctryne set forth or to be set forth by the King's Majestie' is less innocuous. This clause automatically links doctrinal argument with politics, since the arbiter is the sovereign.
"We must try to remember here that the individuals involved in this controversy were members of a society in which the spoken word still counted for much more than the printed word. It was this fact that made the stage so troublesome to politicians. Edward VI and Elizabeth I found it necessary to equip the occupants of pulpits with a Book of Homilies to serve in lieu of original sermons lest preachers in doubt on points of doctrine should inadvertently wander into heresy and risk a prosecution on that account. And if the pulpit served as a focus of opinion, so did the stage, since both attracted large assemblies of people most of whom were illiterate and ready to give themselves emotionally to rhetorical declarations of accomplished orators. When...the choice of sovereign had come to be inextricably linked with the form of religion to be practised in the country, preaching from stage or pulpit could quickly lead to breaches of the peace. Successive governments therefore between 1543 and 1603, whether Protestant under Henry VIII and Edward VI, Catholic under Mary, or of Protestant reaction under Elizabeth, found themselves obliged to bridle the theatre lest it serve to unseat them.
"Tudor governments found their predicament in this respect further aggravated by two specifically theatrical factors inherited from the stagecraft of the Middle Ages—the acute proximity of the audience to the actors and the convention of direct address. When audiences had been trained over many generations to regard themselves as actively engaged in the stage action rather than as passive onlookers outside it, and when actors had been schooled in techniques of communicating with those audiences through such devices as the soliloquy, the aside and the rhetorical question, it is clear that the physical conditions of performance came much nearer to resembling those of a moderate public meeting than anything made familiar to us by ‘method' actors segregated from their audience by orchestra pit, front of house curtain and proscenium arch. And since these conditions of performance frame the representation of subject matter that was essentially topical, however formal the disguise of parable and allegory, the fears which Tudor governments professed towards the theatre can at least be appreciated by us as well grounded..
"Any play or acting is by its very nature pretence: this was admitted much more frankly in Tudor England than it is nowadays, and, in consequence, it was much more natural for spectators to assume that what they saw and heard was an emblem in which truth was to be divined than that text, acting, costume and setting represented an exact copy or image of the actual world as most of us tend to assume today when watching a film or a television play.
"Control, in terms of Tudor plays therefore, if it was to be effective, had to be of two kinds: censorship of the text and policing of the auditorium." (p15/17)
The medieval theatre was comprehensively suppressed by 1590. Theatrical activity was withdrawn from society at large and put on a new basis in the form of a few professional theatre companies tightly controlled by the Revels Office. And the reason they were allowed seems to have been that Elizabeth liked going to the theatre—or having the theatre go to her—and she licensed a few theatres on a commercial footing so that plays might be made.
This new theatre was the theatre suppressed in 1642 and restored in 1660. Wickham comments on the latter: "Under Charles II drama in England had come to mean two theatres depending for their existence upon Royal Letters Patent, and functioning in London only, instead of a natural activity permitted to and pursued by the sovereign's subjects in every city, town and village in the realm." (Vol 2, p18)
The new English Theatre founded towards the end of Elizabeth's reign was necessarily secular in content for reasons of state. The secular theatre was not the expression of a secular society. The society was not secular. But it was uncertain about its religion, because the state had failed to make a definitive religious settlement to take the place of the religion settlement which it disrupted. In principle there was a religious order in the state and society no less than had been the case before 1530. But it was a notional and problematical religious order since nobody quite knew what it was. (The problematical character of the new religious order may be glimpsed in the volumes of Ecclesiastical Polity in which "the judicious Hooker" aspired to make it coherent in the 1590s).
The new theatre provided for by Elizabeth was cut off from the old English theatre by the suppression of that theatre, and it was precluded from reflecting the preoccupations of contemporary England. It was imported theatre in which exotic talents thrown up by the disruptive influence of the inconclusive English Reformation depicted alien ways of life. It was imported from Italy, but it did not, like the Italian theatre in Italy, form part of a way of life.
The Reformation engineered by the state was essentially a work of destruction. When the spirit of the Reformation caught fire in English society in the form of Puritanism, a powerful urge to make a new national settlement of religion and to stabilise it as a way of life set in. The Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre was utterly unsuitable for a place in a Puritan settlement, as was the traditional English theatre suppressed by Henry and Elizabeth. The Puritans therefore made out a case against theatre as such, on the basis of Scripture and the Fathers of the Church—a very powerful case if Scripture is accepted as authoritative. They conducted an agitation against theatre for half a century, and one of their first actions on taking power in Parliament in the 1640s was to abolish theatre in England.
A very limited form of theatre was restored in England in 1660 by the restored monarchy. n England across the ocean the Puritans could not be deprived of power as comprehensively as they were at home. Theatre stayed suppressed in the Protestant colonies in America until the late 18th century. Under English aristocratic influence there was a creeping advance of theatre in America in the 1750s, but it was stopped by anti-theatre legislation in many states when the independence movement set in. And the first Continental Congress adopted a resolution exhorting all states to suppress the theatre.
In England the suppressed Puritanism of 1660 became non-conformism and began its long war of attrition with aristocratic degeneracy. It remained hostile to the theatre well into the 19th century. The way to power was reopened to it by the 1832 Reform. Its aims remained much as they had been two centuries earlier. But in the course of the next half century English Christianity crumbled.
The two top American exports today are guns and theatre. I don't know if British theatrical exports are on the same scale as the American, but there is little doubt that in its internal life Britain is as dependent on theatre as America is. The function of theatre is different in kind in these two countries than in any others I have seen. In Spain, France, Germany and Italy theatre seems to occupy a place in life similar to the place I was familiar with growing up in Slieve Luacra (see last issue). But the two great Puritan countries which abolished theatre as being incompatible with right living now find that life without theatre is all but impossible.
When the Editor of this singular magazine feels ready to bring out another issue I will see if I can figure out the causation of that strange evolution.