The Age of the Baroque and Enlightenment 1600-1800: Theater

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 5. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

The Commercial Theater in Early Seventeenth-Century England

The Religious Legacy

In the final quarter of the sixteenth century commercial theater experienced a sudden rise in popularity in England’s capital of London. The new theaters were run by professionals, an unprecedented development in the country, since all of the elaborate medieval religious dramas had been staged by amateur actors. By 1600, Londoners and visitors to the capital could take their pick of a number of daily performances, staged in both outdoor public playhouses as well as in new “private theaters” that catered to a more elite clientele. Although England’s new commercial theaters staged plays that made use of religious symbols and imagery to convey their ideas, the themes treated in the many plays staged in the capital’s theaters were secular, a fact that arose from the country’s religious Reformation. Around 1500, the most popular dramatic performance in England had been the great mystery cycles, performed in conjunction with the celebration of religious holidays, as well as the morality plays, which also treated religious themes. Growing criticism of these forms of drama in the first half of the sixteenth century from religious reformers had eventually resulted in the suppression of religious drama by the mid-sixteenth century. In the years that followed, the theater became a vehicle for religious propaganda, sometimes with undesirable results as audiences sometimes rioted in the wake of a particularly vigorous play that did not align with their own religious convictions. As a consequence, regulations enacted in 1590 stipulated that plays must not treat religious subjects or controversies. Such requirements were also a concession to the many Puritans who lived in and around London at the time who found the theater morally degenerate and its staging of biblical and religious themes particularly objectionable. Puritanism, a form of Protestantism inspired in England by the ideas of the French Reformer John Calvin, rejected theater for a number of reasons. First, the Puritans knew well that the origins of drama lay in the great mystery cycles that had been performed in conjunction with church festivals in the later Middle Ages. Thus they attacked the theater as an art form whose origins lay in “popery,” the term the Puritans used to discredit all cultural features of medieval religion. Further, the Puritans advocated a sober and godly attitude toward everything in life and they came to detest the light comedies and other fare performed on London’s stages as an affront to Christian living. A certain disreputability accrued to the theater as well, since to skirt London’s regulations troupes often built their theaters at the edges of the city in quarters that were known to be haunts of thieves and prostitutes. Thus although Elizabeth I and her Stuart successors were to tolerate it, and in many cases to support its development, the theater remained controversial nonetheless in seventeenth-century England.

Legacy of the Renaissance

When compared to the types of theater that flourished in many other parts of Europe, England’s brand of entertainment was unusual for a number of reasons. During the fifteenth century the cultivated Renaissance courts of Italy had tried to revive ancient drama, and a number of authors had begun to fashion their plays according to the five-act structure that had flourished in the comedies of the Latin writers Plautus and Terence. In the most sophisticated circles, study of the ancient masters had given rise to vigorous attempts to recreate the ancient theater, and playhouses modeled on ancient examples had been just one of the consequences of the new fascination with Antiquity. By the mid-sixteenth century the elite fascination with antique drama produced in Italy and somewhat later in France a number of experiments in writing and staging tragedies based on Greek models. The appeal of many of the plays that resulted from these experiments had always been quite limited since the complex allusions with which they were filled and the structures upon which they were based were not fixed in native dramatic traditions but in historical cultures that were, by and large, foreign to most audiences. Thus these experiments in reviving ancient comedy and tragedy—which were largely influenced by the culture of Renaissance humanism—rarely flourished outside court circles and small groups of cultivated elites. England’s relative isolation from these currents of theatrical production, as well as the financial realities of the London stage—which depended on ticket sales rather than royal patronage for financial stability—meant that the influences it derived from the culture of the Renaissance were always relatively slight. The greatest of England’s Elizabethan and seventeenth-century dramatists were, to be sure, men of learning, and many were certainly aware of the experiments in dramatic productions that had occurred over the previous generations in Continental Europe. Yet the plays that they wrote in great profusion in the final decades of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had to be pitched to a “middle-brow” audience. Thus rather than treating obscure subjects drawn from classical Antiquity or adopting the strict conventions of classical drama, England’s playwrights chose themes that were well known to their audiences, or they wrote about subjects in ways that had a more universal appeal. This tendency can be seen in the great works of the eminent playwrights Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Marlowe was one of the best educated of the late Tudor-era dramatists. He had taken the bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Cambridge before embarking on his career as a writer for the London stage. In his great tragedy Tamburlaine the Great,Marlowe pioneered the use of blank, or unrhymed verse, a departure from the conventions of the day that relied on elaborate rhyme schemes. The use of blank verse allowed Marlowe’s characters to speak with great naturalness and propelled the action of his drama forward in ways that held his audiences spellbound. In his slightly later Dr. Faustus,the dramatist treated elevated themes—the personal nature of evil, the quest for worldly success, and the damning consequences of pride—yet he did so in a way that could be understood by both the educated and uneducated classes. For instance, he relied on the traditional conventions of the late-medieval morality play rather than the more foreign structures of Greek tragedy. In this way his audiences found familiar signposts in his dramas that allowed them to follow themes and incidents that were nonetheless presented with considerable sophistication.

Legal Realities

Despite his ability to stage elevated themes and complex incidents in ways that did not sacrifice intellectual depth, Christopher Marlowe’s career as a writer for the London stage also exemplified the dangers that existed in this choice of profession. In the years immediately preceding his death, Marlow repeatedly answered charges of immorality and religious heresy, and his death in a barroom brawl was most likely a planned execution, brought on by his unpopular religious opinions as well as his prominence on the London theatrical scene. The sudden rise of the English commercial theater—a phenomenon made possible only in 1574 by the crown’s decision to allow public, week-day performances in London—was undoubtedly popular, but controversial all the same. In the city of London, public officials feared the theater as a forum that might foment rebellion and immorality, and the town’s growing cadre of Puritan ministers also detested the stage as a violation of Old Testament prohibitions against idolatry. The town’s first public playhouses thus were situated, not inside the area of the city controlled by London’s town government, but in fringe zones known as the “Liberties,” where the municipal government held no authority. It was in these areas that dubious trades, prostitution, and other morally suspect enterprises had long flourished, and as the theater took up residence in these zones, it did little to dispel the dubious notoriety that already accrued to the entire dramatic enterprise. And while the crown tolerated London’s stages, and even supported their cause against the municipal government, the monarchy promised censorship and persecution to those playwrights and actors who skirted too close to the edge of what was permissible. A distinguished lineage of playwrights in Tudor and Stuart times fell afoul of the law, including Ben Jonson (1572-1637), Thomas Nashe (1567-1601), Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), and Philip Massinger (1583-1640). Ben Jonson, the greatest London dramatist in the years after Shakespeare’s retirement from writing for the theater, was imprisoned on a number of occasions; his association with the ill-fated production of The Isle of the Dogs (1597) landed Jonson in jail, and London’s theaters were subsequently closed for a number of months. While Jonson was later released for his role in the “seditious” play, his partner in the enterprise, Thomas Nashe, fled to the Continent and died in exile. The whims of royal fancy and displeasure, which continued to blow hot and cold during the reign of the Stuarts, made play writing and acting hazardous, and the profession was often financially untenable. Once successful on the London stage, William Shakespeare invested in a brewery and other country enterprises to ensure that he had a safe and sustained income. He likely did so to prevent the very same problems suffered by his fellow professionals Jonson and Nashe, and to protect himself against any future theatrical closures.

Other Practical Considerations

By the time of James I’s accession as king of England in 1603, the city of London’s major commercial theaters were well established landmarks on the capital’s scene, and despite sporadic problems with censorship and the imprisonment of playwrights, theater was flourishing quite vigorously. The first of London’s commercial playhouses had been built in 1576 by a partnership of John Brayne and the actor James Burbage and was called merely the “Theater.” Located in suburban Whitechapel, its stage consisted of three galleries superimposed on top of each other, an attempt to imitate the ancient Roman styles of stages that were becoming better known throughout Europe at the time as a result of humanistic research. Besides its covered stage, however, the Theater, like most of London’s public playhouses, was exposed to the open air. Performances were thus held during daylight hours. The success of the Theater was soon followed by a string of new playhouses, including the Curtain founded one year later on a site close by the Theater, the Rose, the Swan, and finally, the famous Globe, a theater that was, in fact, moved from an earlier location north of the river Thames. These last three institutions were built, not to the northeast of the city of London in Whitechapel, but on the south bank of the River Thames, establishing a small theater district that persisted there for a number of years. At this early stage in the theater’s development in England, men and young boys performed all roles since women were not allowed on the stage. London had several “boy troupes” at this time which were particularly popular among the audiences who visited London’s “private theaters”—more expensive venues that were enclosed to the elements and consequently provided a smaller and more intimate setting for drama. These stages were candlelit, and thus performances could be held at night. There were eight of these private theaters in London before Puritan measures enacted in 1642 forced all the capital’s theaters to close. The evidence suggests that, despite their higher price of admission, the private theaters became more popular and profitable than the large open-air public facilities throughout the reign of James I and Charles I. Although their patrons may have initially been drawn from higher echelons of society, the private theaters of London in this period were anything but luxurious. Poorly ventilated, and filled with bleacher-style seating, they afforded each patron a space only about eighteen inches wide on which to sit. The presence of hundreds of patrons in these cramped spaces, too, must have been particularly uncomfortable in the summer months when the atmosphere within the private theaters was quite close and the ventilation inadequate. Despite these hardships, many seem to have preferred the smaller houses, and the old arena-styled theaters became associated in many people’s minds with lower-class disorderliness. Like most theatrical venues in Europe, all of London’s theaters at the time continued to be subject to periodic closures when epidemics struck or during periods of royal mourning.

Troupes and Playwrights

The new theaters were thoroughly commercial ventures, although many of the troupes augmented their incomes by performing at court. Actors founded some of the city’s playhouses after receiving backing from an investor. In this type of arrangement, the profits of the venture were split between commercial backers and the actors of the troupe. In other arrangements the troupe owned its own props and venue, and the profits of a production were split between the troupe members. And in still a third kind of arrangement, many troupes took up residence in theaters that were owned by others, splitting the profits of their productions between the house and the performers. Licensing regulations in effect in England since the 1570s insisted that a troupe of actors had to be supervised by and affiliated with a member of the nobility, and the titles that acting troupes adopted thus honored their noble patrons. The patron of the Chamberlain’s Men, the troupe of which Shakespeare was a member, was Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey. When the company came under the patronage of King James I in 1603, the troupe renamed itself the King’s Men. In this way the titles of many troupes changed over time. Perhaps no company ever changed its name so frequently as that which began as the Lord Howard’s Men around 1576. As Lord Howard was elevated to the position of Lord Admiral, the company became the “Lord Admiral’s Men.” But later in the early seventeenth century as the group came under different patrons, it became known as “Nottingham’s Men,” “Prince Henry’s Men,” and “Palsgrave’s Men.” Many of these troupes retained their own playwrights, who crafted the dramas and sometimes doubled as actors in the troupe itself. In this regard William Shakespeare’s path to becoming a successful playwright was not unusual. He began as an actor in the company before beginning to write plays for the Chamberlain’s Men around 1590. Thereafter, his success elevated him in the company until he had become its director in the early seventeenth century. While great milestones of English literature survive from the Tudor and Stuart period, most of the dramas that were produced at this time were considered ephemeral, that is, they were staged for a time and then put aside. The popularity of the theater meant that audiences craved new works, and playwrights often obliged by dramatizing incidents that had recently occurred in London and around Europe. The great works of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare continue to fascinate audiences today with the depths of their psychological insight and their examination of characters’ strengths and weaknesses, although it must be remembered that few of the hundreds of plays performed in London at this time rose to this level of greatness. Many were topical works, hurriedly written to take advantage of the interests of the day and then discarded when fashions shifted. London troupes were also jealous of their properties. Plays were not usually printed until well after they had been performed so that other troupes working in the capital could not pirate their productions. Such was the secrecy surrounding the script that most actors did not even receive an entire copy of the play they were performing, but were only given their own lines with appropriate cues so that they could not sell the play to another troupe. While plagiarism and artistic theft was a consistent problem between theaters, playwrights who wrote for the London scene were enthusiastic theatergoers, and they visited the plays written by their rivals for other houses. In his early days as a playwright, even William Shakespeare received accusations that he had plagiarized the works of other London writers. In truth, the practice of imitating successful works was as common then as it is among film producers in the modern world. Playwrights and troupes longed to exploit the themes and plots that had already proven to be successful with audiences, and over time plays treating similar themes and subjects were produced until the appetite for them was exhausted.

William Shakespeare

Despite commercial considerations and censorship, the achievements of early seventeenth-century drama in England still manages to astound modern observers. During the first years of the reign of James I (r. 1603-1625), the writing of William Shakespeare and a group of other accomplished playwrights reached a new level of maturity and finesse. During the 1590s, Shakespeare’s plays had most often treated historical or comic themes, but in the first part of the seventeenth century, he conducted a number of experiments in genres that undermined and extended the traditional confines of popular Elizabethan forms, producing works that refashioned comedy, tragedy, and romance. The first signs of the author’s growing mastery over his craft came in the series of “problem” plays that he produced just after 1600. In these works—Measure for Measure, All’s Well that Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida—Shakespeare extended the boundaries of comedy by resolving his works in unexpected ways that undermined the neat moralistic formulas the genre had traditionally served. Characters in these dramas are forgiven their foibles and shortcomings even when they do not deserve to be forgiven, or the heroes of these dramas achieve success despite significant moral failings and personality flaws. Shakespeare continued in this vein of experimentation in the series of tragedies and historical dramas in the years that followed. In his Othello (1603), for instance, the author explored the psychological consequences of racism. The central character, Othello, is a Moor (a black African) who is married to a much younger and white Desdemona. When driven mad by the adulterous accusations brought against her by his treacherous friend, Iago, Othello murders her, and then realizes afterward that he must live with the consequences of his rush to judgment. Thus Othello is a fatally flawed tragic figure, but his flaw is curiously inexplicable given his status as the very model of propriety and good judgment prior to his rash act of murder. His willingness to believe the false accusations of Iago, though, results from his doubt about his interracial marriage. Iago, in other words, has been able to play upon Othello’s own fears that a black man’s marriage to a white woman is unnatural. In his King Lear (c. 1605), Shakespeare continued to examine his characters with great psychological insight. Like Othello, Lear is a flawed character who has unjustly banished his daughter Cordelia from his presence, but who is subsequently driven insane by the even greater injustice and monumental ingratitude of his two remaining daughters, Goneril and Regan. In his mad ravings he contemplates the nature of justice and the order of the universe, observations that are made more chillingly forceful because a seeming madman utters them. In the final of these late tragedies, Macbeth, Shakespeare explored the consequences of incivility, and, as in both Othello and King Lear, he brought major insights to bear on the dark emotions that produce enormous crimes.

Historical Plays and Later Comedies

Even as the great dramatist was at work on these masterpieces, he continued to produce historical plays and a series of brilliant romances. In contrast to the histories of comparatively recent English kings he had produced during the 1590s, the author turned to ancient Roman and Greek figures in the seventeenth century, finding in the relative obscurity and distance of Antiquity a vehicle for producing some of his great late masterworks, including his Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606), perhaps his greatest historical work. Shakespeare produced some of his most insightful portraits of kingship and political power, not by concentrating on the kings of the near English past, but by examining the more remote universe of Antiquity. In this way the playwright circumvented the draconian censorship that James I’s officials sometimes practiced in the theater. While these later ancient historical plays show a development of Shakespeare’s art to a level of dramatic ease and fluency—a level that most critics agree has never been surpassed—the later comedies of this period also show a similar experimental spirit. These plays—The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest—are alternately termed “romances” or “comedies.” All three works are full of various kinds of entertainments, complex plots, and sub-plots, and their meanings have proven difficult to ascertain over the years. This favoring of a complex and highly sophisticated art may likely have been caused by commercial factors. In 1608, Shakespeare’s troupe, the King’s Men, took up winter quarters in the Blackfriars Theatre, a private theater located in an ancient London monastery that had been dissolved during the Reformation. The audience who frequented the Blackfriars was likely better educated and craved the elaborate concoctions that Shakespeare supplied them with in the years between 1608 and his retirement from the troupe after 1611. These productions were filled with dancing, singing, and “masques” that imitated the customs of courtly society, and their complex allusions and sophisticated poetry are very different from the world of the author’s youth. Some critics have detected a strain of increasing self-doubt and critical self-examination in these works, a strain they have connected with the approach of the author’s old age. Yet in 1611, when Shakespeare went into semi-retirement from his troupe, he was not yet fifty, and with his fortunes relatively established, he seems to have hoped to play the role of a country gentleman in his native Stratford-Upon-Avon. Although he probably returned to assist on one or several occasions, his increasing isolation meant that his company, the King’s Men, turned to his associate John Fletcher for dramas. Fletcher ruled for many years as one of the most prolific of Jacobean playwrights, although the quality of authors who wrote for the stage in these years was generally very high.

Ben Jonson

While many of the details concerning the life of William Shakespeare continue to be debated, scholars are on far firmer ground in exploring the life and career of Ben Jonson (1572-1637), the figure who is today considered the second towering genius of the early seventeenth-century English stage. Jonson was probably a native Londoner, although his family hailed originally from Scotland. Educated at Westminster School and later for a time at St. John’s College in Cambridge, he first pursued a career as a bricklayer before becoming an English soldier in forces that were then helping the Dutch achieve their independence from Spain. When he returned to England, he became an actor, performing as a character in the Tudor dramatist Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. This was one of the most popular plays of the late Elizabethan period, and it was frequently revived in the decades that followed. Jonson eventually wrote additional dialogue for the play, as he seems to have done for other works performed during the 1590s. By 1594, Jonson was successful enough to marry, and he seems to have worked as an actor in several London theaters, although he eventually joined the troupe known as “Pembroke’s Men.” In 1597, he wrote his first play for the group, and soon afterwards he took part in the ill-fated The Isle of Dogs, the production that landed him in jail. The play was considered so seditious at the time that all copies of it were seized and destroyed, and thus historians have long debated about what its contents must have included. The title refers to an island situated in the Thames just across from the former site of the royal palace at Greenwich, but the drama itself apparently mocked the intrigues of court. Jonson was imprisoned for several months, and when the London theaters reopened in 1598, he achieved his first great success with the play Every Man in His Humour, a sophisticated comedy set in the urban world. It made use of the notion of the then-reigning scientific theory of the “four humors,” the forces that were believed to govern health and the human psyche. During 1598, Jonson again fell afoul of the law when he killed a fellow actor. While in prison for this offense, the playwright repented and converted to Catholicism, a decision that dogged him for the rest of his life. Upon his release, Jonson returned to write for the theater, but by 1603, he had again fallen under suspicion, this time for Catholicism and also for the treason that members of Elizabeth I’s Privy Council felt littered his recent play Sejanus His Fall. In the years that followed, Jonson labored to rehabilitate himself with King James I. At the same time suspicions continued to hover around him, and he was frequently detained for questioning because of his Catholic beliefs and the fear that he was secretly practicing his religion. He was imprisoned again in 1605, this time for a play that seemed to mock the manners of James I and his Scottish nobles, but he soon attained his release. During the crisis of the Gunpowder Plot in the same year—a foiled scheme to blow up the Houses of Parliament in Westminster—Jonson again fell under suspicion, although he acquitted himself by giving evidence against the conspirators.

Jonson’s Rising Success

Despite lingering suspicions about his loyalties, Jonson’s career flourished in the years after 1605. In that year he began producing masques for the Stuart court in partnership with the accomplished designer and architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652). These imaginative productions were widely admired, and the partnership spread across several decades before the two parted company. In 1605, he also wrote perhaps his most biting and satirical comedy Volpone, a work that showed little of his associate Shakespeare’s propensity for happy endings. Volpone bristles with the firsthand knowledge that he had acquired of the corruption that reposed in royal courts. Prudently, though, Jonson set the play in Republican Venice, but the deceit and trickery that he related might just as easily have occurred in the Stuart halls of power. In 1610, James I enacted a series of new measures directed at English Recusants, that is, those that espoused and practiced the Catholic religion, and in the wake of these measures, Jonson renounced his Catholicism and returned to the Church of England. Successes continued, and in the years that followed, the great playwright entertained ever-greater notions of his success as a scholar. For his efforts in entertaining the king, and his achievements in the theater, he was granted a royal pension in 1616, the same year that William Shakespeare died. With Shakespeare’s death, Jonson reaped even greater praise as England’s greatest living writer. A folio edition of his work appeared in 1616, and by 1619, he was granted an honorary degree from the University of Oxford. This increasing fame, though, exacted a toll on his writing, and between 1616 and 1626 he produced no major works, although he did continue to produce masques for the court. One year following James I’s death, Jonson produced his first play in a decade, The Staple of News, a work that, like several of the play-wright’s earlier pieces, satirized the growing tendency for trust to be generated in the business world and society merely by deceit and fast talking. The play was topical, since it was staged merely a year after the death of James I and seemed to mock the controversial Stuart practice of granting monopolies to trade in certain industries as well as problems in the new King Charles I’s court. A few years following its production, Jonson suffered a stroke, although he was granted an office as London city historian soon afterwards. The king increased his pension, and he continued to write, completing an additional three comedies before his death in 1637. None of these, though, matched the success of his earlier works.

Other Playwrights

Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare were the great geniuses of early seventeenth-century English theater. Critics have long debated about the relative merits of each figure’s works, some advocating that Jonson’s plays show a greater range of learning and depth of examination than do those of the more famous Shakespeare. Certainly, Jonson was a more varied artist than Shakespeare. In addition to the dramas and poetry that he wrote, he also made significant contributions to English prose, and his interests were more wide-ranging and philosophical in nature than those of Shakespeare. It remains, however, a matter of taste as to which artist one prefers, and even if these two admittedly brilliant figures had never lived, the theatrical writing of the reign of King James I and Charles I might still appear particularly brilliant. Of the many capable dramatists who wrote in this period, Thomas Middleton (c. 1580-1627), Thomas Heywood (1573-1641), Thomas Dekker (c. 1570-1632), Francis Beaumont (c. 1584-1616), and John Fletcher (1579-1625) rank among the most prolific and accomplished, and they kept audiences entertained with a considerable out-pouring of high-quality works. Thomas Middleton, for example, excelled in the genre of “city comedy” that was then very much in vogue. These witty and sophisticated comedies concentrated on the problems of court and city life. Middleton achieved dubious notoriety for one of these productions, A Game at Chess (1624), a biting satire that mocked the attempt by James I’s son, Charles, to conclude a marital alliance with Spain. In particular, the work’s most penetrating barbs were reserved for the then-serving Spanish ambassador to England. The work caused a sensation in London, earning an extraordinary sum of £1,000 in its nine consecutive days of performances, and inducing crowds to stand in long lines to purchase tickets. Middleton and his troupe recognized that the production was going to cause controversy, and they carefully timed their staging of A Game at Chess to coincide with the royal court’s absence from London. But James I soon learned of the production and banned all future performances. In performing the work, Middleton and his actors played on popular anti-Spanish sentiment that had seethed below the surface of English society since the late sixteenth century. At the same time, the writer’s attempts to capitalize on these sentiments helped to shape royal policy, as Charles turned eventually to France, and not to Spain, in search of a royal bride. This work also affected other plays, as most playwrights became more guarded, practicing self-censorship in the wake of the famous suppression. Middleton may be best known for his part in this famous scandal, but more recently, the structure of his poetry has been studied with the aid of digital technology. This research has shown that he collaborated with a number of early seventeenth-century authors and that the stamp of his prose is considerable in some of Shakespeare’s works, including Macbeth. Such research reminds us that the concept of “authorship” was very different in the seventeenth-century world, and that many plays that we have long thought of as the works of a solitary genius like Shakespeare were actually hammered together from the efforts of more than one author. Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood were two such figures who produced their own works, but who also collaborated with a number of other playwrights. Heywood claimed to have written or have participated in the writing of more than 200 plays. Unfortunately, only a small portion of them—about thirty—survive. Thomas Dekker’s stamp appears in about 50 works from the period, and the author was notable among playwrights of the time for his populist perspective as well as for the openly Puritan position he took in some of his plays. In contrast to the common stamp evident in Thomas Dekker’s works, the theatrical writing team of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher produced many dramas that focused on the values of the nobility and gentry. Their works were long thought to be merely an apology for the Stuart’s political theory of the “divine right of kings.” More recent inspection, though, has shown that they worked a fairly sophisticated analysis of the concepts of kingship into their plays, and that they were even suspected of treason at one point in their careers for depicting the assassination of a monarch. After Beaumont’s death in 1616, Fletcher continued to produce a number of works with other Jacobean-era authors.

The Closing of the Theaters

During the first quarter of the seventeenth century the popularity of the theater had been great in London. In the 1630s, however, the capital’s theatrical landscape began to alter. At this time Puritans began to redouble their long-standing efforts to eradicate theatrical performances, and they engaged the Crown in a number of disputes over the religious policies the country should pursue. In 1633, William Prynne, a prominent Puritan lawyer in London, published one of the most vociferous of the movement’s many attacks on the theater, his Histrio Mastix. The almost 1,000 pages of this volume derided the stage and criticized the Crown for its support of the “popish” rituals of the theater. Although Prynne was soon imprisoned for his words, his example emboldened others, and the rising tide of Puritan sentiments in and around London meant that by the 1640 attendance was falling at London’s theaters and the quality of their productions was in decline. In the years that followed, few great playwrights continued to write for the London stage, and when Puritan forces gained control of Parliament in the early 1640s, they soon outlawed the theater altogether. Their first measures of 1642 forced the capital’s theaters to close, but clandestine performances continued to be mounted, prompting Parliament to pass an even tougher measure against all forms of drama in 1647. Those who participated in or who watched any performance were now threatened with stiff penalties. The course of the English civil wars made these measures possible. In 1642, King Charles I had abandoned London altogether, as the capital had become too dangerous a place in which to reside. He retreated to the west of England and there raised a force that engaged with Puritan forces on battlefields throughout the British Isles. By 1647, royalist forces were in retreat, although the king continued to scheme against the rising power of Parliament. In August of 1648, Charles was finally captured, tried, and executed, thus giving rise to the period of the Puritan Commonwealth, which lasted until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. During this period the theater largely ceased to exist in England, and when Charles I’s son, Charles II, returned to England and soon restored the theater, very few of the great playwrights that had flourished on the London scene in the first half of the seventeenth century were still alive. Only two notable playwrights from Charles I’s age—James Shirley (1596-1666) and William Davenant (1606-1668)—were to live to see the stage revived during the Restoration of the monarchy that occurred after 1660. In those years, though, a new tradition, perhaps less brilliant but no less prolific, developed in London, and restored the commercial theater to its eminent position as a noteworthy art form in early-modern England.

Court Spectacle in Stuart England

Rising Splendor

Under the Stuart kings James I and Charles I the celebration of court entertainments and spectacles rose dramatically. The Tudor queen Elizabeth I had always been relatively restrained in the staging of court spectacles when compared to the grandiose continental standards of France, Italy, and Germany. To keep royal finances in check, Elizabeth had practiced a strict economy, and while the scale of the Tudor court was grand, it paled in comparison with that of France or of her later Stuart cousins. During the first years of James I’s reign, the court’s expenditure on clothing, food, and entertainment rose dramatically. James and Charles both admired masques, a complex entertainment that emphasized dancing and that had been introduced into England by Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century. The masques continued to be celebrated throughout the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), particularly at Twelfth Night (that is, Epiphany, the final celebration of Christmas) and on Shrove Tuesday just before the beginning of Lent. Masques combined singing, poetry, and dancing, and they employed both members of the court as well as professional dancers, players, and acrobats. The core of these productions always lay in the masked dances that littered them, and oftentimes the choreographed figure dances that occurred in the staging of a masque lasted several hours. The masque was thus a hybrid theatrical spectacle, and one that Elizabeth I’s successor, James I, transformed into a major tool of royal glorification. His spectacles served important propagandistic purposes, both domestically and abroad, as the masques staged at court increasingly supported James’s theory of the divine right of kings. In James’s reign, the number of such productions rose steadily. In Tudor times the masques had been used primarily as a diversionary entertainment at Christmas and before the onset of Lent, but now they were performed at the conclusion of marital alliances, at royal births, and at the signing of treaties. Gaining entrance to one of the spectacular productions mounted at court was a highly sought honor among the foreign dignitaries who lived in England during James’s reign. The texts and scenarios of many of these productions still survive, but the literary and dramatic impact of these spectacles always paled in comparison to their theatrical values. Inigo Jones, chief architect to both James I and Charles I, designed the scenery for many productions, and his great Banqueting Hall, constructed between 1619 and 1622 near Whitehall Palace in London, was built to provide a suitably grand venue in which to stage the court masques. To entertain his royal patrons, Jones kept abreast of the latest advances in theatrical machinery that had been developed in recent times in France and Italy, importing the tools of his trade from abroad or building anew machines from continental designs. Besides the many high-quality masques that Ben Jonson wrote and Inigo Jones staged for the court, a number of other Stuart playwrights also were commissioned to produce masques, including Thomas Middleton, George Chapman, and Francis Beaumont. As the tide of lavish productions rose in England during the first quarter of the seventeenth century, many playwrights, including Shakespeare, inserted smaller theatrical masques into their own plays. Thus in this way the fashion of the court for spectacle exerted an influence over the commercial theater.

The Masque Under Charles I

The scale of royal productions of masques continued to rise during the reign of James I’s son, Charles I (r. 1625-1649). Charles’s wife, Henrietta Maria, was a daughter of King Henri IV and Queen Marie de’ Medici of France, and as such she brought with her to the English court a taste for dance and elaborate spectacles. During the first few years of Charles’s reign, a taste for new French styles of dance flourished in the court masques, and the cost and scale of these productions increased to new, unheard-of levels. At the same time, Puritan dissatisfaction with Charles’s religious policies as well as those of his archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, steadily mounted. One of the most outspoken of these critics was William Prynne, who detested the lavish ceremonialism of the Church of England’s rituals and was also a vociferous opponent of the theater generally and of court spectacle especially. Prynne’s pamphleteering against these “popish,” or Roman Catholic, influences began soon after Charles I’s accession, and by 1527 he was already being tried for sedition. Trained in the law, Prynne beat these first charges on a technicality, but from 1630 onward he was under almost constant threat by the royal government for his opinions and publications. He continued to write, however, and in his Histrio Mastix (1633) he attacked the contemporary theater, dancing, and the court of Charles I as well as the king’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. By any standard, Prynne’s more than 1,000-page attack on theatrical spectacle was extreme, since it accused any woman who took part in dances and theatrical productions of whorishness. It was a daring charge since Prynne well knew that Henrietta Maria was an avid lover of both the theater and the dance. Yet Puritan distaste for these arts ran deep, and Prynne’s onslaught against the stage continued even during the seven years he was imprisoned, and his determination encouraged others to speak out against the theater as well. Beside imprisoning Prynne, Charles I’s reaction to the Histrio Mastix was swift and determined. Prynne had been a member of Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four guilds of lawyers who practiced in London’s courts. Charles immediately demanded that London’s law guilds provide him with a suitably grand theatrical to demonstrate their loyalty to the crown. The members of the law guilds thus were required to stage The Triumph of Peace,a production that cost them more than £21,000 to mount—a prodigious sum when most Englanders survived on less than £100 per year. The production of this masque and the many hours of processions and pageantry that preceded it in the streets of London set new standards for profligate royal display and did little to heal the growing enmity between the Crown and Puritan Londoners. Thus the theater played a role in the rising sentiment that was to produce the Puritan Revolution in England, and ultimately result in King Charles I’s execution in 1649.

Theater in Golden-Age Spain

A Century of Greatness

Although Spain suffered military and economic setbacks in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, this same period was one of brilliance in the arts and literature in the country. By 1600, the cities of Spain had already developed a vigorous theater that was in many ways even more vital than that of London. The origins of Spanish theater can be traced to the late-medieval dramas that were performed on solemn religious occasions. Like England, the Feast of Corpus Christi in late spring was an important occasion that was often celebrated with the staging of imposing religious dramas. Unlike many parts of Europe where Protestantism gradually restricted religious drama, such productions remained a vital part of urban piety in the seventeenth century, inspiring a new genre of auto sacramentals, or sacramental plays, that aimed to teach the Spanish the tenets of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. In particular, these sacramental plays focused on the theology of the Eucharist, and their series of scenes often demonstrated the biblical events that had produced the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as well as the rise of Christianity. Even as such religious theater remained a growing tradition in Spain’s Golden Age, popular secular drama was undergoing a dramatic expansion, although its roots also lay in the religious institutions of the country. In the second half of the sixteenth century religious confraternities—brotherhoods of lay and clerical members—began to stage performances of secular dramas and comedies for paying audiences. Many of these brotherhoods cared for the sick and dying, and the profits of their dramatic performances were used to underwrite their charitable efforts. The typical Spanish theater of the time was known as acorral, a word that referred to the walled-in courtyards in which plays were performed. At one end of these corrals a raised stage provided the setting on which the dramas were performed. Usually these stages were two stories high, with an upper gallery that was decorated to suggest towers, houses, and other elements of urban architecture. The first two of these theaters—the Corral de la Cruz and the Corral del Principe—were constructed as makeshift affairs in the newly named Spanish capital of Madrid. Others developed there and at Seville, and by 1600, these two cities were home to the most vigorous theater life in Spain, although other theatrical troupes thrived elsewhere in the country. By 1630, Madrid had seven theaters that accommodated crowds of around 2,000 people in each for daytime performances. As theatergoing became an increasingly popular pastime for Spaniards, the country’s corrales—that is, its open-air playhouses—were often remodeled and roofed over to acquire a greater sense of permanence. Wealthy merchants and aristocratic patrons rented boxes in the galleries that stretched above the stage, while the poor were relegated to the ground from which they looked up at the stage. The staging used in these productions was still quite rudimentary since painted scenery and other elements of stage machinery did not become popular in Spain until later in the seventeenth century. The relatively modest production values aside, an incredible number of plays were written and performed in the period. No one has ever been able to ascertain the total number of dramas produced in this period, but estimates of the number of plays written in seventeenth-century Spain range from between 10,000 and 30,000. A list of Spanish playwrights compiled by a commentator in 1632, for instance, noted more than eighty authors then active in the province of Castile alone, and the most prolific of these figures produced hundreds of works during their lifetimes.

Links to Renaissance Italy

Because of close ties in trade, culture, and language, Italy’s influence upon Spain in the sixteenth century had been great. Renaissance humanism, with its emphasis on the study of classical Antiquity, had made many inroads in the country. As the new forms of secular drama became popular in Spanish society toward the end of the century, playwrights experimented with ways to adopt classical forms to the developing professional stage. In Italy, however, the comedies and tragedies of the Renaissance had frequently been performed in courts, where long hours might be devoted to watching elaborate stage productions that were frequently punctuated with imposing interludes known as intermedi. Comedies modeled on ancient examples had usually consisted of five acts, and when the full complement of accompanying interludes was figured into an Italian production, these plays might last for as long as six hours. The corrales of the Spanish Golden Age had no such luxury. Performed in the open air, dramas were required by law to be completed one hour before night fell. Thus a taste developed for shorter, three-act dramas known as comedias. Short verse preludes often preceded the beginning of the first act to set the mood for what followed. In between acts, comic skits or dances were usually performed. While the roots of the word comedia are similar to the English “comedy,” the Spanish used the term to refer to any drama—serious, tragic, or comic—that was performed in verse. Much of the quality of poetic writing displayed in these plays was of a high artistic standard. Like the writing of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson, Spanish seventeenth-century playwrights labored mightily to please an audience that seems to have appreciated language in all its complex and difficult forms. The effect of many of these works is thus musical in nature since authors altered the verse structure throughout their works, relying on one rhyme and syllabic structure in a scene to suggest a certain mood and then changing it to fit another in other portions of the play. Commoners were frequently depicted using simpler, native rhyme structures, while noble characters were often portrayed with more complex meters drawn from Italian Renaissance examples.

Character of the Comedias

In place of thorough character development and psychological exploration, Spanish audiences in the seventeenth century seem to have preferred fast-moving action. Cases of mistaken identity, deceits, and disguised characters abound in the plays from the era, and dramas were often punctuated with duels and other violence. The precise subjects of the dramas were drawn from other literary forms like short stories, medieval and Renaissance epics and romances, from history, and from the classics, but in many of these works the theme of honor figured prominently. Spanish playwrights did not consider this abstract human quality to be something associated merely with aristocratic status or wealth. Instead the tone of most dramas was highly moralistic, insisting that everyone in the social structure—from the highest noble grandee to the lowest peasant—shared a human dignity and a mission to fulfill, but this precise duty was peculiar to a character’s specific station. Along the way to the conclusion of the comedias, characters’ honor is frequently called into question and subjected to a test. But almost always, the conventional morality of the plays ensures that the wicked are punished and the good rewarded. For this reason the Spanish theater of the Golden Age has long been viewed as a force of social control and conformity. Unlike England where playwrights were constantly testing the boundaries of royal censorship, Spanish dramatists were often content to uphold the established social order, and seem to have infrequently cast a penetrating, critical gaze on established social realities. Instead their high-quality productions were notable for the artistry of their words and meter. At the same time, the enormous output of writers at this time reveal that in many works authors did examine critically elements of the Spanish character, making all easy generalizations about the lack of social criticism in the Golden Age theater difficult to maintain. The continuing discovery of new works that have been forgotten for centuries means that the sheer variety and complexity of themes treated at this time will continue to be debated for many years to come.

Lope De Vega

Of the many competent and even accomplished seventeenth-century dramatists active in Madrid, Seville, and other theatrical centers in Spain, two figures stand out as particularly brilliant: Felix Lope de Vega Carpio (1562-1635) and Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681). Lope de Vega was the son of an embroiderer; despite his humble origins, he learned to read and cultivated a rudimentary understanding of humanism through his broad exposure to noble circles in Madrid. By the 1580s he was already writing works for the stage in that city, but by the later part of the decade he was named in a libel case for verses he wrote against a local noblewoman who rebuffed his advances. Sent into exile from Madrid for eight years, he eventually overcame his legal troubles and returned to the capital. He ingratiated himself with several members of the nobility, lived in their houses, and served as a secretary to a duke until 1605. Lope also began to experiment with new dramatic forms, eventually establishing the comedia style that dominated the Spanish stage for much of the seventeenth century. A gifted writer of lyric poetry, the dramatist perfected his work during these years and thus began one of the most brilliant outpourings of dramas in history. Although the precise number of his plays cannot be definitely established, one of his admirers noted shortly after Lope’s death that he had written at least 1,800 dramatic works. Of these, more than 300 survive today that appear to be definitely from his hand, while another almost 200 have long been attributed to him. Thus Lope seems to have written at least 500 comedias intended for the professional stage in Madrid, but he also wrote shorter dramatic works, as well as an enormous amount of poetry. Many of his most important dramatic works treated events from Spain’s history, but the author was also well known for his comedies, which often included figures of wise peasants and servants as prominent characters. For his dramatization of the life and death of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, Lope de Vega was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from the pope in 1627. While his enormous productivity continued throughout his life, numerous trials continued to punctuate his personal life. A string of mistresses brought the playwright a number of children, but the difficulties associated with these liaisons spurred him to take up the religious life around 1610. But after toying with several religious orders, Lope de Vega began another romance and gave up all thoughts of becoming a member of a religious order. Somewhat later, he lost a treasured mistress, and two beloved children died under trying circumstances—circumstances that Lope de Vega commented upon in his poetry. When he died in 1635, his larger-than-life romantic exploits as well as his enormous productivity had already made him a hero in and around Madrid, and his death was mourned as a national tragedy in Spain.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Pedro Calderón de la Barca, by contrast, was born into the minor nobility of Madrid and received his early education from the Jesuits. He intended to become a lawyer, but he eventually turned to writing plays in his twenties while serving the Constable of Castile. Like Lope de Vega, Calderón produced a number of sparkling comedies, writing the majority of his 120 works before he was in his mid-forties. Among the most famous of these, El médico de su honra (The Surgeon of His Honor) and El pintor de su deshonra (The Painter of His Own Dishonor) held up a mirror to Spanish society, examining its preoccupations with honor. In other works Calderón defended Catholicism and gently mocked the inequities that noble privilege produced. While he flourished as a writer for Madrid’s professional troupes until about 1640, Spain’s worsening political crisis eventually led him to abandon his career as a professional dramatist. During the 1640s, revolts in Portugal and Catalonia resulted in the closure of Spanish theaters, and Calderón entered a religious order. In this new role, he authored Madrid’s religious plays, or autos sacramentales, which were performed in conjunction with the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi and other major religious festivals. He also wrote plays and directed productions for the crown. Besides providing the dramas for these events, he continued to rework his own plays and to edit and rewrite those of others. His efforts helped finally to perfect the three-act comedia structure that Lope de Vega and others like Tirso de Molina (1584-1648) had developed. He is credited with developing the form to a high art that possessed considerable intellectual integrity as well as sensual poetry, but although the theater did not disappear in Spain, no author of similar genius arose to take his place following his death in 1681.

The French Stage at the Beginning of the Baroque

Crisis and Recovery

The later sixteenth century in France had been punctuated by religious wars and economic and political instability. With the accession of Henri IV (r. 1594-1610) and his promulgation of the Edict of Nantes—a royal decree that granted a limited degree of religious toleration to French Calvinists—a new tenuous stability began to develop in the country. Although Henri IV was assassinated in 1610, France did not sink into civil war again as might have been expected. Instead under the regency of Henri’s wife Marie de’ Medici and the rule of her son, Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643), the country’s political systems and economy gathered renewed strength and the way was prepared for France’s rise to European dominance in the second half of the seventeenth century. Developments in the professional theater were very much affected by these trends as well. In 1600, Paris, which was by far the country’s largest city, possessed a theater that was little developed when compared against the high standards of professionalism being developed in England and Spain at the time. A half-century later, a new generation of playwrights was producing quality tragedies and comedies that were eventually to shape drama, not only in France, but throughout Europe as well. While the sudden rise of several generations of playwrights that included such geniuses as Pierre Corneille (1606-1684), Jean-Baptiste Molière (1622-1673), and Jean Racine (1639-1699), may appear meteoric, their successes nevertheless stemmed from the traditions of theater that had flourished in France before them.

The Sixteenth-Century Theater

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, a variety of genres of drama were popular in France and were being performed by mostly amateur troupes of actors in the country’s cities. As in other parts of Europe at the time, the popularity of religious drama was still strong, and mystery plays performed on important feast days often consumed the efforts of scores of actors in France’s cities. Allegorical morality plays were also popular throughout the country, while for lighter fare, French audiences enjoyed silly farces and satirical dramas known as soties. In the second half of the century, however, the impact of humanism began to manifest itself in the writing of new kinds of comedies, tragicomedies, and tragedies inspired by the works of Antiquity. In comedy, the impact of the five-act form of the ancient writers Terence and Plautus began to produce subtle modulations around 1550 in French farces and comedies, as a group known as the Pleiades tried to adopt classical forms to the country’s theater. This group took its name from the celestial constellation that, according to Greek mythology, had been formed out of the remains of seven prominent poets. The most prominent of these figures, Joachim du Bellay (c. 1522-1560) and Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), had studied classical forms with the intention of raising the standards of French drama to compete with the brilliance they saw in Italian humanist theater of the time. While many of the dramatic structures of ancient comedy came to be applied to the works of the Pleiades, much of the writing of the group continued to be faithful to French traditions of farce common in the later Middle Ages. As a group, the Pleiades still favored the octosyllabic, or eight-syllable, verse writing that had been commonly used in the writings of French comic farces to this date. They did not, in other words, emulate the use of prose that was common among Italian humanist dramatists of the day. At the same time many writers adopted plots that were drawn directly from Antiquity, from the works of Terence and Plautus. Plays treating adulterous husbands and wives, scheming family members, and lovelorn students derived many of their plots from Antiquity, while continuing to be set in the urban world of the time. At about the same time that these experiments in new forms of comedy were appearing, French humanists also turned to the tragedies of Latin Antiquity for inspiration as well. Like Italian tragedies of the day, the many French tragedies that date from the second half of the sixteenth century evidenced the use of ancient canons of dramatic writing. A renewed interest in the Roman tragedies of Seneca and in the Greek works of Euripides was important in prompting French writers to emulate the ancient five-act structures of classical tragedy as well as to develop a role for the chorus. At the same time, many of the tragedies written in this period were not performed, but were primarily “closet dramas” intended to be read by educated elites. In this way ancient stories about figures like Julius Caesar, Medea, or Cleopatra often became a vehicle for commenting upon the grave circumstances of the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598). Writers saw in these ancient episodes events that might provide virtuous moral lessons for their contemporary readers, who were suffering through a time of uncertainty and political instability.

The Confraternity of the Passion

The sixteenth century also saw the rise of a nascent professional theater in Paris around the institution known as the Confraternity of the Passion. In 1402, this organization, which was comprised of young amateur performers who were usually apprentices and journeymen in Paris guilds, had been granted a royal monopoly over all dramatic productions in the city. This monopoly was to be upheld well into the seventeenth century before being formally abolished by Louis XIV, who began to charter new theaters in the city. For much of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance the Confraternity of the Passion had been responsible for the annual staging of the city’s mystery plays, religious dramas that accompanied the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi and other important religious holidays throughout the year. During the sixteenth century the Confraternity came under increasing criticism for the liberties that it took in producing religious dramas. Churchmen attacked the organization for including spurious material in their productions. French Protestants, in particular, detested the group’s productions, fearing that the theater provided an entree into idolatry and immorality. By 1548, the Parlement of Paris, the local governing body, forbade the group from performing religious dramas in the city. At the same time, the Confraternity of the Passion retained its rights to use the Hôtel de Bourgogne, a palatial residence that the group owned in the city. Deprived of their ability to perform religious dramas, the members of the Confraternity began to perform light farces and other kinds of secular fare in the Hôtel’s theater, a large room outfitted with a simple two-story stage and bleachers. Over the following decades, though, the group gradually abandoned acting altogether and began to lease out their theater to professional troupes that performed their repertory there. Until 1600, no troupe, however, was able to achieve any modicum of financial success performing in the theater; at that time the company of Valleran le Conte set up shop in the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and its successful exploitation of the space as well as its populist-tinged dramas began to develop a professional theater in early seventeenth-century Paris. Le Conte had a highly successful relationship with the playwright Alexandre Hardy (c. 1575-1632), who in his relatively short life wrote hundreds of comedies, tragedies, tragicomedies, and pastorals. Unlike the cultivated dramas that Renaissance humanists were writing at the time, Hardy’s works relied on a realistic mixture of coarse language, sexuality, and outright violence. His dramas were fast-paced and designed to please a broad spectrum of Paris’ populace, filled as they were with a progression of short scenes and sudden plot turns. While highly cultivated French writers of the time labored to revive classical drama, Hardy gave his audiences a steady stream of crowd-pleasing sensations. Limbs were severed in duels, eyes were plucked out, and characters were beheaded in the many plays that he wrote for the Hôtel de Bourgogne. Eventually, Valleran’s troupe took up permanent residence in the facility and hired Hardy from 1611 as their official playwright. The productions of the Conte de Valleran’s troupe and Hardy were to have an undeniably important impact on French theater. While the quality of the dramas they produced may not have been particularly memorable, the sustained professionalism and high production values of their efforts helped to popularize theater in Paris.

Other Groups

Although the Hôtel de Bourgogne’s monopoly over theatrical productions in Paris was not formally revoked until 1676, the growth of urban sprawl in Paris affected the theater there, just as it did in London at about the same time. In the English capital, Puritan ministers and city officials in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century London feared the disorder that accompanied the theaters. While many objected to drama, they also detested the theaters as the haunts of criminals and prostitutes. To skate the regulations of the city of London’s officialdom, theater owners in London had thus located their large public theaters in the areas known as the Liberties, places on the outskirts of the city where municipal regulations held no force. While the professional stage was not nearly so highly developed in Paris in 1600 as it was in London at the same time, Paris’ growing urban sprawl provided a similar opportunity for professional troupes that were anxious to perform in the capital’s vicinity. Around this date plays began to be performed at the fairs that were held in the suburban districts of Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent in the spring and summer months. Thus these new temporary theaters developed alongside the monopolistic Hôtel de Bourgogne and flourished as venues for short dramas, dances, and song at the fairs on Paris’ outskirts. In this way the dominance of the Confraternity of the Passion’s control over the Parisian theater was gradually challenged. And as the royal government, too, acquired a taste for the theater in the 1630s and 1640s, new troupes were allowed to perform within the city’s walls.

Neoclassicism in Seventeenth-Century Paris

A Century of Greatness

In 1600, no great playwrights comparable to the English Shakespeare or Jonson or the Spanish Lope de Vega or Calderón were active in France. Thirty years later, though, a great age of dramatic writing was just beginning to unfold in the country. As a result of the efforts of Pierre Corneille (1606-1684), Jean-Baptiste Molière (1622-1673), and Jean Racine (1639-1699), the theater played a major role in the country’s aristocratic society, and its tastes and fashions influenced drama in many parts of Europe. As this new style of theater rose to popularity in mid-seventeenth-century Paris, it did so primarily in opposition to the salacious, crowd-pleasing spectacles that Alexandre Hardy and others had long provided the Parisian audience. In contrast to the great popularity of the theater in Tudor and early Stuart England, or in Golden-Age Spain, the masterpieces that France’s great seventeenth-century dramatists produced were aimed at a considerably narrower audience of courtiers and wealthy, educated Parisians. Elite tastes thus defined the new tragedies and comedies that flourished in the period, and the royal government was, in large part, responsible for the great flowering of the stage in Paris in the half-century that followed 1630. Louis XIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), carefully tended to the development of the theater, allowing new troupes of actors to take up residence in Paris, besides those that had traditionally resided at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. His efforts to develop a national stage that catered to aristocratic tastes coincided with the early career of Pierre Corneille, a writer of genius whose works may have had a limited appeal but nevertheless achieved a devoted following in Parisian high society. In painting, sculpture, and architecture, France’s seventeenth-century theorists and artists became concerned to develop styles notable for their classicism, and they frequently turned to the works of High Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Raphael for inspiration. So, too, in the theater the classical heritage in France produced plays that were very different from the histories, tragedies, and comedies of England or Spain. In both these countries, the commercial and popular nature of the theater had produced a flurry of works that frequently violated the canons that Renaissance writers of comedy and tragedy had advocated for the governing of drama. In his many vivid historical plays, for instance, William Shakespeare had ranged across decades, presenting incidents that frequently occurred years apart. To satisfy audiences in early seventeenth-century Spain, Lope de Vega and other writers of comedias tailored their works to appeal to a broad spectrum of urban society, and like those produced in England, their fast-paced dramas showed little indebtedness to the culture of Renaissance humanism. By contrast, the great outpouring of theatrical writing that occurred in seventeenth-century France proceeded from theoretical assumptions and certain intellectual premises that were traceable to the fascination with Antiquity, a fascination that played a large role in shaping all the arts in the country during the course of the seventeenth century.

The Classical Unities

In contrast to the many theaters that were flourishing at the time in London or Madrid, Paris never acquired more than three principal playhouses during the seventeenth century. These houses were considerably smaller than many of the theaters of London or Madrid. And while plays were performed in the English and Spanish capitals on weekdays, a theatrical troupe was only allowed to perform three times a week in Paris, thus limiting the commercial possibilities of the French stage. No Parisian theater was thus able to survive without the patronage of the king, and as a result court tastes defined French drama far more extensively than in other places. During the reign of Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643), it was Cardinal Richelieu, the king’s chief minister, who helped to define the conventions of the French stage. During the 1630s he became an avid supporter of the theater, establishing a group of five playwrights who became known as “The Society of Five Authors.” He regularly commissioned works from these dramatists, and one of the members of this group was Pierre Corneille, the figure who subsequently revolutionized French drama. At the time Richelieu was just beginning to patronize the theater, French drama critics and scholars were advocating the adoption of the notion of classical unities in theatrical writing. The notion of the unities traced its origins to sixteenth-century Italian commentators on Aristotle and ancient drama. From the mid-sixteenth century onward, the ideas of Aristotle had played an increasingly important role in defining taste in the arts in Italy, as scholars turned to the Greek philosopher’s Poetics for inspiration in their attempt to reform the arts. Although their reading of Aristotle has long been shown to be problematic, Italian theorists derived a theory from the Poetics that stressed that all action in a drama should share unity of time, place, and action. In practice, these rules of the classical unities meant that all the action of a play should occur in the same place on the same day between sunrise and sunset, and that authors should not stray into subplots but should carefully outline all the implications of a single story. As French dramatists developed their craft in the mid-seventeenth century, the classical unities played a major defining role in shaping their writing. Fascination with these rules produced a number of stunning works that were undeniably great literary achievements. At the same time, the restrained classicism of the French theater and the strict subjection of drama to an of tunbending set of rules held relatively less popular appeal than the great commercial successes typical of the English or Spanish stages. Where several thousand spectators had often crowded into London and Madrid’s theaters to see a particularly popular play, at the high watermark of the theater’s success in seventeenth-century Paris average attendance at the theater was around 400, and the most popular productions never drew more than 1,000 spectators. Most plays were only performed about a dozen times, while the greatest had no more than 30 to 40 performances.

The Theaters

Specialization was the rule among the five troupes that performed in the theaters of seventeenth-century Paris, with certain troupes performing tragedies and others specializing in lighter comedies. While the Confraternity of the Passion’s monopoly over dramatic performances in the city was not abolished officially until 1676, new venues for theater had begun to flourish in the city long before that date. Besides the theater at the Hôtel de Bourgogne—home to the Comedians of the King—two new theaters developed in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1629, Cardinal Richelieu encouraged a company directed by the great actor Guillaume du Gilberts, who was also known as Montdory, to perform in the city, and Montdory’s troupe soon scored a success with a production of Corneille’s first comedy Mélite (1630). A few years later, Montdory’s troupe renovated an indoor tennis court in the Marais, then a fashionable residential district in the city, for the performance of plays. By 1641, the last of Paris’s seventeenth-century theaters began to take shape. It was built in the private residence of Cardinal Richelieu. The new theater made use of Italian innovations like the proscenium arch as well as other elements of stage machinery that to this time had been little known in France. When Richelieu died in 1642, his new state-of-the-art theater came into royal hands and became known as the Palais Royal, a venue that saw many great successes not only in drama, but also in opera and ballet. It remained a center for the performance of all three arts during the reign of Louis XIV and Louis XV. In the 1640s, Richelieu’s successor as chief royal minister, Cardinal Mazarin, whose affections for the theater were considerably less developed than Richelieu’s, did bring the great Italian stage designer Giacomo Torelli to Paris. Torelli remodeled the original theater to allow for easier changes of scenery, and he staged several productions in the theater that made use of these Italian innovations. Most often, though, scene changes were kept to a minimum in French theater. Given the prevailing rules about unities, most comedies had a set that suggested a single chamber usually outfitted with multiple doors. Tragedies were often performed in front of backdrops that suggested a royal palace or public setting. While the dramas staged in Paris’s public theaters were notable for their spare production values, royal spectacles undertaken in Paris and Versailles at the same time were often quite elaborate and made use of complicated stage machinery. In 1660, for example, Louis XIV imported the Italian stage designer Gaspare Vigarani to supervise the building of the Salles des Machines within the palace of the Louvre. This room was to this time the largest theater ever built in Europe and was more than 225 feet long. Its enormous stage, however, consumed more than half this space. The purpose of a grand theater like this was to stage royal spectacles—in this case, the festivities that were to celebrate Louis’s impending marriage. Because of the highly literary nature of the art of theater in seventeenth-century France, the use of such spectacle and elaborate stage machinery was generally avoided in dramatic productions. The French theater of the seventeenth century was anything but naturalistic. Acting troupes and their playwrights did not strive for realism. Poetic lines were declaimed, that is, they were recited with an elaborate elocutionary style intended to heighten their effect. As each player recited his lines, he stepped forward to the front of the stage to deliver them, then moved back to allow another actor to speak his response. Such conventions were intended to heighten the dramatic effects of the words being spoken, but generally the style of performance suggests the great importance the theater attained in France as a vehicle for communicating an art that was perceived primarily as a literary form.

The Legacy of Corneille, Racine, and Molière


It was in tragedy that two of the three great dramatists of seventeenth-century France—Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) and Jean Racine (1639-1699)—excelled. Corneille was the son of a prominent Norman lawyer who was eventually ennobled by the king. Like the comic genius Molière, he was educated by the Jesuits, the great counter-reforming religious order that established an impressive network of schools throughout Catholic Europe during the later sixteenth century. Drama played a key role in Jesuit education, and instruction in the theater was seen as a way of inculcating classical values. Although the Jesuit theater produced no lasting monuments of drama, the order experimented with all the latest production techniques, eventually adding dance and music to their productions so that many of the Jesuit school plays resembled operas more than drama. Corneille’s art did not follow these paths; instead he became a great writer of tragedy and tragi-comedy, a hybrid form that merged both comic and tragic elements. Finishing his education, he received a license to practice law and soon won a position as an administrator of royal forests and waterways, a position that he held well into his forties, while he continued to develop his career as a playwright. When he was just twenty he completed his first play, the comedy Mélite, which was performed at Rouen in 1629 and then staged in Paris. It caused great excitement and Corneille quickly became established in the 1630s as one of the chief authors for the Paris stage, receiving a number of commissions for plays from the king’s minister Richelieu. His art continued to break new ground, but in 1636, the performance of his tragicomedy, Le Cid, caused controversy. While his previous plays had experimented with the laws of classical unities and with classical ways of expressing the emotions in a restrained fashion, Corneille broke from this path in Le Cid. Audiences were stunned by his representation of strong emotions and by the tale’s plot, which involved a pair of star-crossed lovers kept apart by a feud between their families that eventually resulted in the hero killing his lover’s father. Corneille’s tragedy thus highlighted the moral dilemma that arose from the questions of the relative importance of family honor or love, but Corneille did not neatly resolve this dilemma. Instead, his work insisted that either path—love or duty—might have been the correct one for the heroine to take. Several pamphlets soon appeared in Paris attacking his work as morally defective, and Richelieu himself found his young playwright’s ending troubling. He submitted the play to the Académie Française, the Parisian academy Richelieu had recently founded and charged with establishing standards in French literature. The critics of the Academy found the play filled with much glorious poetry, but ultimately morally questionable, and so Richelieu suppressed its performance. Corneille eventually reworked his masterpiece, transforming it into a more thoroughly tragic piece, and in the plays that followed his Cid he became more conservative in his choice of subject material. Although it was feared when it first appeared, Le Cid has survived as one of the great literary landmarks of seventeenth-century French. Its encapsulation of the dilemmas of love and family duty and its glorious use of Alexandrine verse—a stately and extremely formal twelve-syllabic line—remains one of the great statements about the effect of the passions in the Western tradition.


In the years that followed, Corneille continued to write plays, although none of his tragedies was to be as ground breaking and controversial as Le Cid. He chose safer historical themes, usually setting his plays in ancient Rome and developing plots that set up dilemmas about patriotism, Christianity, and family honor. Avoiding controversy, Corneille’s works often celebrated the deeds of kindly despotic kings in suppressing chaos or they celebrated the triumph of Christian morality over the human passions of romantic love, jealousy, and hate. Working in this vein, the quality of his plays gradually declined. By the 1660s, his place as France’s greatest tragedian was ever more being subsumed by Jean Racine (1639-1699). Racine had been orphaned at a young age, and received his education in a convent school that was at the time heavily influenced by the pious Jansenist movement. The Jansenists, in contrast to the piety advocated by the Jesuit Order, fostered a deep sense of sinfulness and of humankind’s inability to participate in their own salvation. Although Louis XIV eventually suppressed the movement because he feared it was a form of crypto-Protestantism, the fervent piety the Jansenists advocated left its stamp on the young Racine, as did the Jansenists’ affection for classical literature. Racine eventually studied the law, but as he matured he sought royal patronage for his writing. He sent Louis XIV’s chief minister Cardinal Mazarin a sonnet that praised his efforts in concluding a treaty with the Spanish, but received no royal appointment. Next, he tried to obtain a position in the church, but was again unsuccessful, and so he returned to Paris to try his hand at writing dramas. This course angered his Jansenist teachers, who found the theater to be a poor choice for someone of his pious nature who was possessed with gifts as a scholar. But in 1665, the young Racine’s fortunes were assured with his production of Alexandre le grand, a play that meditated on the tragic shortcomings of the ancient conqueror Alexander the Great. His subsequent plays developed the Alexandrine verse that Corneille had immortalized in his tragedies, developing its possibilities to a high point of perfection. These works included Andromaque (1667), Britannicus (1669), Bérenice (1670), and his masterpiece Phèdre (1677). In these and other works Racine often set up his tragic dilemmas as conflicts between love, duty, and honor. When at the height of his powers as a dramatist, it is interesting to note that Racine’s own sense of duty, and perhaps his piety, won out. At the age of only 37 he retired from the stage, and in the last quarter century of his life he wrote only two biblical dramas that were performed in girls’ schools. Even though his retirement robbed the French stage of the possibility of a number of great works of tragedy, his considerable output in his early years provided a storehouse of plays that stand as some of the greatest poetry in the French language.


At the same time as the great tragedies of Corneille and Racine were fascinating audiences in Paris, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known to history as Molière (1623-1673), was developing standards in comedy that were not to be equaled in the country for generations. Of the three great dramatic geniuses seventeenth-century France produced, Molière is today the most universally recognized. His works continue to be performed in France and throughout the world, and their mixture of slapstick humor, wit, and sophisticated urbanity is still widely admired. If Corneille and Racine rank as important figures in the development of literary French, Molière was at once a man who was at home in the theater from an early age. When he was just 21 he formed a troupe of actors at Paris, but Molière quickly went bankrupt. To support themselves, the band of actors left the city and spent twelve years traveling through the French provinces. In this long apprenticeship as a playwright, Molière discovered firsthand just what kept audiences entertained, and when he returned to Paris, he was poised to make a major mark on the theater of the city. In 1658, King Louis XIV was in attendance at a performance of his comedy The Affected Young Ladies. From that date his importance as a writer of comedies for the Paris stage as well as entertainments for the king steadily rose. Louis XIV gave the playwright and his troupe use of the theater in the Palais Royal three days each week, and eventually conferred a small office in the royal household on the writer. Molière’s royal favor irritated the clergy, powerful officials in Paris, and the other troupes that performed in the capital, and he claimed that he had to publish his plays so that these other companies did not pirate his works. Like Corneille, he had the benefit of a Jesuit education, with its exposure to the classics, but his family origins were considerably humbler, and without a family fortune or another profession to fall back upon like Corneille and Racine, he frequently had to scramble to produce his theatrical ventures. His plays satisfied the court’s desire for light entertainments, and often had little in the way of literary pretensions. In most of these works he aimed to please rather than to educate or elevate his audience. At the same time his sense of comic timing, his undeniably keen observations of human nature, and the gentle mockery he directed at all categories of seventeenth-century people still manages to captivate modern audiences. Yet in Molière’s own time his art was not always assessed as positively as it is today. His Tartuffe (1664) caused an immediate scandal among the clergy, who objected to the biting sarcasm the author directed against their hypocrisy. They succeeded in banning its performance for five years, and continued to harass the author for much of the rest of his life.

Molière’S Later Troubles and the Decline of the Theater

The playwright refused to be worn down by these scandals. Instead he immediately responded by producing a new version of Don Juan in which the notorious Spanish lover meets his hellish fate, but only after entertaining the audience with his wit and amorous antics over the course of an evening. In the years that followed, Molière was frequently unable to find suitable plays for his company to perform, so he responded by taking on the task of writing a number of works for them. In the years between their return to Paris in 1658 and his death in 1673, he wrote about a third of the 95 plays his company produced. Although the king favored him, he still faced great trials in making a success of his company. In 1666, Louis’ mother, Anne of Austria died, and Paris’s theaters were closed for more than two months as a time of national mourning. To make up for this great loss in revenue, Molière wrote five new works for his company to be performed after the playhouses reopened, even though he himself was in failing health. This tremendous output continued even though the author was also called upon to write a number of other entertainments for the royal course. The quality of these later works remained high, despite his health, but on 14 February 1673, Molière finally collapsed on stage while acting in one of his own plays. He died soon afterward. Because his death came so suddenly, the playwright and actor had not been able to take the Last Rites of the church. Thus he was unable to repent of the sinfulness that was believed to be inherent in the profession of acting. As a result he was buried without fanfare, and in the months that followed his troupe struggled to survive. Eventually, it merged with the company that performed in the Théâtre Marais to become the Théâtre Guénégaud; in 1680, this group merged again with the troupe that continued to perform at the Hôtel de Bourgogne to form the Comédie-Française, which was the only surviving theatrical troupe in Paris performing French-language productions at the end of the seventeenth century. While the Comédie-Française survived and still exists as the oldest national theater in Europe, the merger of the various troupes that had performed in the city in the years between 1630 and 1680 points to a decline in the popularity of drama as an entertainment at this time. In the years after 1680

Louis XIV fell increasingly under the influence of his second wife, Madame de Maintenon, who nourished his piety, and he gave up his former taste for dramatic entertainments. In these years, the king became involved in a series of costly international wars as well, and was unable to maintain the lavish standards of royal patronage in the theater. The court in these years began to favor the opera rather than the drama. With the deaths of Molière in 1673 and Corneille in 1684 as well as Racine’s premature retirement, no figure of similar genius appeared in Paris to continue the great experiments in drama these writers had nourished in earlier years.

Theater and Stagecraft in Italy

Innovations of the Late Renaissance

The theatrical traditions of Italy had long played a role in shaping developments in theater far beyond the borders of the country. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Italian humanists had studied the dramatic literature and theater of Antiquity. In time, their efforts produced a great flowering of contemporary play writing in Italy, as writers as diverse as Niccolò Machiavelli and Torquato Tasso relied on ancient dramatic canons to shape their sixteenth-century dramas. A taste for comedies written in the style of the ancient Roman writers Plautus and Terence developed in the sophisticated courts of the peninsula, giving rise to new attempts to understand ancient theater in all its complexity. As the sixteenth century progressed, scholars and playwrights turned to tragedy and to the study of the pronouncement of Aristotle and other philosophers on aesthetics. There were few production values in many of these first attempts to revive ancient theater, and actors often performed before the barest of backdrops that merely suggested a place. Over time, painted scenery—often designed by accomplished artists—replaced these rudimentary elements, and as the sixteenth century progressed, architects and scholars became more concerned with recreating the look and feel of ancient theaters. The most famous of these efforts was Andrea Palladio’s design for the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza in northern Italy, a theater that still stands today. Palladio and his disciple, Vincenzo Scamozzi who eventually completed the project, created a structure that in many ways seems familiar to modern viewers, although the scenery with which the stage is outfitted was permanent and not moveable. It consisted of a two-story gallery, punctuated with doorways and archways. To the rear of this structure, street scenes were recreated in perspective so that the entire structure seems to recede to a vanishing point at the horizon. The ingenuity of this concept continued throughout the designs for the auditorium, where Palladio arranged curved, stepped-up bleachers in an ellipse around the stage, thus making it possible for all those in the audience to have at least a partial view of the action that was occurring before them. Palladio and Scamozzi’s theater was completed in 1585, and it soon touched off a number of other experiments to find the perfect venue in which to perform the spectacles, dramas, operas, and ballets that were common entertainments in Italy’s court. Of the many theaters constructed at this time, the one that had the broadest influence throughout Europe was the Teatro Farnese, a private theater constructed for the influential Farnese family in a palace outside the city of Parma in northern Italy during 1618-1619. Like the Teatro Olimpico, the Farnese had a proscenium arch stage, but one that now allowed for scene changes. The auditorium was also amazingly versatile, in part because a large arena separated the stage from the bleachers where the audience sat. This arena, which was similar to the orchestra level of many modern theaters, could be flooded to a level of two feet or, when dry, it served as a large stage for ballets, equestrian shows, balls, and diplomatic receptions. Because of its ability to be used in a variety of ways, many elements of the Farnese’s design were duplicated in the court theaters that kings and princes constructed throughout Europe in the seventeenth century. The multiple uses of the orchestra-level floor was one particularly appealing feature of the Farnese’s design, since throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries court theaters continued to be used for ballets, balls, and other artistic productions in addition to their roles as venues for drama and opera.

A Taste for Spectacle

The urbane and sophisticated court culture of the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods included a penchant for elaborate spectacles that glorified local princes and their dynasties. Throughout the sixteenth century the splendor of these events steadily grew, as Italy’s noble houses competed against each other to mount ever more imposing testimonies to their wealth and prestige. Around 1500, major architects and artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael Sanzio, Donato Bramante, and Michelangelo Buonarroti were already being commissioned to design scenery, costumes, and stage machinery for use in these festivities. Italy continued to provide Europe with a wealth of innovations in stagecraft throughout the Baroque period, and designers who had learned their craft in the peninsula’s court theaters became a prized commodity in theaters throughout Europe until the end of the eighteenth century. Giacomo Torelli and the members of the Bibiena family were among the most prominent of the many accomplished production designers Italy produced, and the designs of these figures shaped tastes from Paris to Moscow. Giacomo Torelli (1608-1678) was a Venetian who began his career as a designer of theaters in that city before he devoted himself to solving problems of scenery changes. The designer pioneered a mechanism by which the scenery might be changed in a single operation. He attached the backdrops of his productions to rails that ran under the stage with a set of ropes and hung these drops from poles running above the stage. With the turn of a mechanism backstage, the entire set was quickly taken away and replaced by another. Until this innovation, the backdrops that had been used in the theater had merely suggested a time and place in which the action was to have taken place. With the new method, scenes could be changed quickly and relatively effortlessly, and in the productions that Torelli designed after his innovation, he defined more precisely the places in which the play’s action occurred. His productions thus fed a new taste for realism that was growing in the Italian theater and throughout Europe generally at the end of the seventeenth century.

The Bibiena Family

This group of amazingly fertile artists became a dynasty of stage designers that influenced tastes in theatrical productions everywhere in eighteenth-century Europe. The family’s rise to prominence began with Fernando Bibiena (1657-1743), who was the son of a painter from the city of Bologna. Fernando trained as an architect and painter before being appointed as a court artist in the ducal court at Parma. There he developed into a theatrical designer, relying on his knowledge of illusionistic painting to create sets that appeared more real than those that had previously been popular. Until this time, the backdrops used in most stage productions had sight lines that converged to a single vanishing point to simulate the recession of the horizon. Those who designed these scenic backdrops for court theaters were expected to take into account the precise place in which the reigning prince sat in the auditorium, so that from his vantage point, the scenery appeared pleasing and correct to his eyes. Such techniques were commonly used in designs not only for the theater, but in Baroque garden and palace architecture as well. Fernando Bibiena, however, did away with such conventions, and instead relied upon his skills as an illusionistic painter to create spaces that appeared real to spectators on both sides of the theater, rather than just from the center. This innovation known as “scenes from angles” (scena per angola) made use of two horizontal vanishing points on both sides of the stage backdrop rather than in the center as designers had previously done. Fernando received aid in his efforts from several of his brothers, and a number of his sons carried on this tradition well into the eighteenth century in court theaters throughout the continent. Bibiena’s sons, in particular, developed sumptuous production values, very often staging scores of operas. As their fame spread and they received commissions and distinguished appointments throughout Europe, their designs were avidly imitated even in places where they never worked.

Commedia Dell’arte

During the seventeenth century the sudden and meteoric rise of the opera in many Italian courts and cities threatened to eclipse the popularity of all other forms of theater. While spoken plays continued to be written and performed, it was the new musical dramas, with their complex and acrobatic ballets and other interludes, that attracted the greatest noble patronage throughout Italy. In some centers, notably Rome, plays continued to be performed alongside the new operas. But in the great developing centers of opera—cities like Venice, Milan, and Naples—opera dominated the theater. One older form of comedy inherited from the late Renaissance, the commedia dell’arte, still managed to sustain its popularity against the sudden rise of the opera. The commedia’s forms had largely been fixed by the end of the sixteenth century. These productions made use of a stock cast of characters that included a Venetian merchant, a Bolognese lawyer, two elderly men, one or several pairs of lovers, a retinue of servants, and four masked characters. Other conventions governed the commedia’s performance. The lovers, for instance, always spoke in the distinguished Tuscan dialect—the language spoken in and around the city of Florence—while the servants spoke rougher colloquial Italian dialects drawn from less distinguished regions. The commedia had originally developed from the street and traveling troupes that were common in late Renaissance Italy, but even by the late sixteenth century the art form had already acquired a broad audience. Commedia troupes, for instance, performed at noble weddings, and they frequently provided entertainment at court. During the seventeenth century more than 35 of the troupes performed throughout the peninsula, and these numbers steadily mounted in the early eighteenth century. The commedia also spread far beyond Italy, and its influence was particularly vigorous in seventeenth-century France, where its conventions affected the comic writing of Molière and gave birth to the Comèdie-Italienne, a troupe of comic performers that staged works in its traditions. The commedia was by and large an improvised art form that nevertheless had specific characters that needed to be recreated anew in each performance. By the mid-eighteenth century commentators on the art criticized the commedia’s decline into mere slapstick humor and its overt physicality and violence as a departure from the medium’s early intentions. In 1750, the Italian dramatist and librettist Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) announced his intention to reform the commedia dell’arte when he published a collection of sixteenth-century comedies at Venice. Goldoni relied on many of the conventions of the by-now well-established art, but at the same time he attempted to mold its comedy into a new form that was more credible and realistic. In place of the formerly improved art form, though, the new genre that he fashioned was a literary art form, with its plays being written down and performed from a text. His example of a comic theater that was based in real-life situations was immediately popular and produced a spate of similar comedies in Venice and eventually throughout Italy in the mid- and later eighteenth century.

Restoration Drama in England

Drama During the Puritan Commonwealth

Despite a decree of the Parliament in 1642 that outlawed dramatic performances, the stage did not completely disappear from English life during the English Civil Wars and the subsequent Commonwealth. In the years between 1640 and 1660, English Puritans tried to refashion many elements of English life, government, and politics. Since the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the Puritans had battled against the theater, and the movement’s most outspoken critics of the stage had long judged London’s playhouses to be haunts of Satan. Puritan opposition to the theater arose, in part, from an astute understanding of the role that the medieval church had played in the development of drama, and the many figures that attacked the theater in the period realized that the custom of staging plays had arisen from the mystery and morality plays that had been common in the country before the rise of the Reformation. At the same time, Puritans shared an abiding distrust for all ritualized and theatrical displays, and they believed that evil lay at the heart of the pomp and magnificence of the stage as well as in the elaborate rituals of kingship and the Church of England. But while the parliamentary ordinances enacted in 1642 against the theater were clear, several loopholes in the law still allowed some minor forms of drama to flourish. During the period of the Puritan Commonwealth (1649-1660), it became a common custom for England’s great noble families—many of whom had sided with the royalist cause—to stage plays and operas in their homes. Some of these productions were actually staged by professionals and performed for paying audiences. Short dramas, too, were sometimes performed furtively at fairs or in small towns on holidays; and the rise of drolls or traveling wits that toured the country entertaining crowds with short skits was yet another way in which theater survived in England during the 1650s. In the country’s great public schools, institutions that had served to educate sons of nobles and gentlemen since the later Middle Ages, dramas continued to be used, as they were in Catholic Europe, to teach Latin and Greek as well as to expose students to ancient rhetoric and style. At the same time, while regulations against the theater were sometimes ignored, circumvented, or relaxed by the government during the Puritan period, the age was nevertheless a definitive break from the vigorous tradition of public drama that had flourished in England since the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I had each thrown their support squarely behind the theater and had opposed Puritan efforts to rid the country of drama. As a result, most of London’s actors, playwrights, and theater owners had been royalist supporters during the Civil War, and when their side was defeated, many were consequently forced into exile. Many of those who stayed in England took up other occupations. Very few who were active on the London stage in the years before 1642 lived to see the Restoration of the monarchy and the revival of the theater after 1660. Thus when Charles II returned to assume the throne in that year and permitted theatrical performances, the London theater by and large had to be created anew.

The New Theatres

During his exile from England, Charles I had been a guest of the royal court of France, and thus he had witnessed firsthand the cultivated courtly entertainments that were common in Paris at the time. One of his first measures upon returning to England was to license two acting troupes. The first became known as the King’s Men and was directed by Sir Thomas Killigrew (1612-1683). Killigrew was a member of a royalist family from Cornwall, and had grown up in the court of Charles I. In the king’s service he had played something of the role of a court wit and had published two tragicomedies before the closure of London’s theaters. When the English Civil Wars had driven the Stuarts from England, Killigrew had remained loyal to the Stuart prince Charles and had followed him into exile. Charles granted the second license for a dramatic company to Sir William Davenant (1606-1668), a supporter who had received permission to found a theater shortly before the 1642 parliamentary measures that abolished the stage in London. Davenant had a colorful life. He may have been the godson of William Shakespeare, although court gossip in the seventeenth century sometimes alleged that he was the great playwright’s illegitimate child. During the Civil Wars Davenant had served King Charles I by running supply ships from the continent to England, and in 1649, the king’s widow had sent him on a mission to Maryland, expecting him to serve as governor. His ship was intercepted by Puritan forces, and he was imprisoned for five years. Shortly after his release he secured permission from Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan government to stage a production of an early opera in the private home of an English noble. The performances were mounted before a paying audience, and thus circumvented Parliament’s prohibitions against theatrical performances. When Charles II granted Davenant a license to start a theater, controversy soon erupted among other contenders for the honor. Sir William Herbert, another contender, sued in London’s courts, charging that Davenant had been a Puritan sympathizer, and that he had used his influence with Oliver Cromwell’s government to circumvent Puritan regulations against the stage. Despite these challenges, Charles’ decision was upheld, and Davenant’s company became known as the “Duke of York’s Men.” Killigrew and Davenant were both aware of the advantages that a smaller, French-styled theater offered, and so they established their theaters, not in the large outdoor arenas that had been popular in London at the turn of the seventeenth century, but in smaller more intimate settings. Like the Parisian theaters of the period, both Killigrew and Davenant initially converted indoor tennis courts into playhouses, before building new structures in which to perform. In 1663, Killigrew’s company moved to a new theater specially constructed in Drury Lane near Covent Garden. Although this structure was eventually destroyed and replaced by several later structures, a theater still stands on the same spot in London today. Davenant’s company, the Duke’s Men, moved from facility to facility throughout the 1660s, but by 1673 they had taken up residence in a theater designed for them in Dorset Gardens by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren. Both houses seem to have combined some of the latest French innovations in the theater with older English traditions. Although the stages were framed with a proscenium arch in the manner of Continental theaters, the stages curved and jutted outward so that players might act in close proximity to the audiences, as they had done in Elizabethan times. Changeable scenery was used, although each company had a relatively small supply of sets that suggested interiors and exteriors. Productions, in other words, were not designed anew, but relied on sets taken from the company’s repertory of stock sets.

Changing Tastes

Despite the Restoration of the monarchy Puritan sentiments continued to flourish in late seventeenth-century London, and the theater consequently retained an “air of the forbidden” for many in the capital. The period’s audience, while large, was drawn from more elite and cultivated circles than in Elizabethan or early Stuart times. In the first few years many of London’s productions were adapted from earlier Tudor and Stuart plays, but soon the Restoration stage acquired its own stock of playwrights. While every genre of dramatic writing—from tragedy and history plays to glittering comedies—had flourished in the era of Shakespeare and Jonson, Restoration playwrights most often satisfied their cultivated and witty patrons with a long succession of satirical comedies of manners. This new genre made use of gossip, witty conversation, double entendre, and sardonic wit to mock the foibles and shortcomings of all classes of English men and women, but it especially focused on the problems of high society. Molière was one very great influence on the comedy of manners, although the English genre outdid the French comedy of the time with its overt sexual humor. And like the moral ambiguity that lay at the heart of many of the works of Molière, many English playwrights of the time were unconcerned with drawing moralistic lessons from the events around which they based their comedies. George Etherege (c. 1635-c. 1692) helped to establish the conventions of comedy of manners with his 1664 production of The Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub, which treated the exploits of the man of society Sir Frederick Frollick. At this point Etherege’s dramas drew their style from older traditions, relying on verse rather than prose in their dialogue. In his She Would, if She Could (1668), Etherege jettisoned the traditional verse and instead adopted a more naturalistic prose style, something that he perfected in his last work, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter (1676). For these efforts the king knighted him in 1680. Like many of the Restoration dramatists, Etherege was a brilliant amateur. The writing of plays, in other words, was only one of many pastimes and avocations for this man of letters, who also served as an ambassador for the king. William Wycherley (1640-1716) was another figure who, like many of England’s late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century dramatists, combined a life of pleasure and educated pastimes with writing for the stage. Wycherley vacillated throughout his life between Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Puritanism. While he was being educated in France as a young man, he converted to Roman Catholicism, but fell under Puritan influence when he returned to England. He came to the attention of Charles II’s court, and he took up a life as a wit in its circles, writing a succession of plays that mocked the hypocrisy and foibles of aristocratic society. These works reveal the internal tensions that Wycherley’s accommodation to court produced. In 1680, he renounced his life of pleasure when he fell under the spell of the Puritan Countess of Drogheda, and the couple married. The countess soon died, however, and a dispute over her will left Wycherley penniless. King James II eventually rescued him from debtor’s prison, awarding him a lifelong pension. By the time he died in 1716, he had reverted to Roman Catholicism once again.

John Dryden

While he wrote brilliant comedies of manners, the greatest playwright of the period, John Dryden (1631-1700), is today best remembered for his tragedies, a type of play that was relatively undeveloped by Restoration dramatists. Dryden’s family had sided with Parliament in the struggles against King Charles I, and in his early life, the future playwright attended the prominent Westminster School before obtaining a Bachelor of Arts from Trinity College in Cambridge. His first play, The Wild Gallant, was produced in 1663, and although it was notable for its bawdy language, it was not a great success. The following year he participated with Sir Robert Howard in writing the tragedy The Indian Queen, but it was not until he wrote a sequel to this play, The Indian Emperour (1665), that he scored his first definitive hit. Other successes followed, and by 1668 Thomas Killigrew retained the author to write plays to be performed solely by his company, the King’s Men. The works he produced in these first years working with the King’s Men were mostly comic farces and burlesques that featured a central hero’s trials and tribulations set in exotic locales and filled with much blustering, on-stage fighting, and larger-than-life antics. In 1672, he began to move away from this genre of heroic plays with his lively and witty comedy Marriage a la Mode, an urbane work in the comedy of manners vein. Perhaps his greatest achievement of these first years in the theater, though, was his tragedy, All For Love (1677), a play based on William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which Dryden wrote in unrhymed or blank verse. In the following year the author severed his long-standing association with the “King’s Men,” which had fallen on hard times as a result of poor management, and he offered his services to their competitors, the “Duke of York’s Men.” During the 1680s the author concentrated more and more on his poetry, even as he also became embroiled in political controversy. A key issue of these years revolved around the question of the royal succession. Charles II’s brother James was a Catholic, who supported greater religious toleration, not only for Roman Catholics, but for all dissenters generally. Although he stood in line to inherit the throne, an increasingly vocal faction in Parliament known as the Whigs favored the king’s bastard son, the Duke of Monmouth. For his part in defending the opposing Tory party’s views, Charles II named Dryden poet laureate, but when James did succeed to the throne and was soon forced into exile, Dryden lost the position to his Whig opponent, the playwright and poet Thomas Shadwell. Deprived of the income his royal pension provided, the poet returned to the theater in the final years of his life. His plays alternately succeeded and failed, and he began to write the dramatic librettos for some of Henry Purcell’s operas in these years, too. At this time in his life, Dryden continued to write literary criticism and to translate classical works into English. When he died in 1700, he was considered the grand old man of English letters and he was buried in Westminster Abbey. Unlike many of the literary figures of the late seventeenth century, Dryden’s reputation has consistently remained high over the centuries, and his works—although not of the high literary caliber of Shakespeare or Jonson—have continued to be studied, while the efforts of other Restoration dramatists have fallen in and out of favor or largely been ignored by subsequent generations.

Women and the Restoration Theatre

While the quality of many Restoration dramatists continues to be debated, the theater of this era was innovative in allowing women roles as actresses, stage managers, and playwrights. Charles II’s reestablishment of the theater in the years after 1660 lifted the traditional bans against female performers, and in the years after 1660 the first female actresses began to attract considerable attention on the London scene. The great Nell Gwyn (1650-1687) was among the first to leave her mark on the English stage. Born the daughter of a bankrupt father and a mother who was a madam, Gwyn grew up tending bar in her mother’s establishment. Later she sold oranges in the theater and became the lover of a prominent actor, which paved the way for her debut in 1665. During the years that followed, Gwyn reigned as the supreme actress of the Drury Lane Theater, notable for her abilities in comic roles. By 1669 she had come to the attention of Charles II and she soon became his mistress. The king provided well for Nell. She retired from the stage and lived in an elegant house Charles provided. Known for her extravagance, she played a key role at court by virtue of the elaborate parties she held. When the king died in 1685, Gwyn was heavily indebted, but Charles’s brother James II settled her obligations and awarded her the enormous pension of £1,500 a year. She did not have long to enjoy her newfound stability. Apparently the victim of a stroke, she died in 1687. Her career was extraordinary among the women who made their way into the theater in the later seventeenth century, and did much to earn the reputation that actresses were little more than prostitutes and courtesans. Gwyn’s chief allure on the stage had consisted in her physical attributes as well as her sense of comic timing, but her actual dramatic career had been quite brief. Elizabeth Barry, who was the ward of the troupe director William Davenant, made her debut on the London stage in the late 1670s and continued to perform there until 1707. She was said to be a highly dramatic actress, widely admired for her tragic roles. Through her association with Davenant, she met John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, and the two were lovers for many years. The notoriety these famous women attracted helped to fix the dubious reputation that actresses had in the minds of many at the time, but not every woman connected with the theater moved in such illustrious and rarefied circles. In her youth Anne Bracegirdle (1671-1748) had been the ward of the actor and theatrical manager Thomas Betterton, who taught her acting and put her in his productions when she was only six years old. William Congreve and Nicholas Rowe wrote parts especially for her, and she probably secretly married Congreve. Widely admired for her piety and virtuous character, Bracegirdle, like Barry, retired in 1707, although she lived for an additional forty years. After her death in 1748 she was buried in Westminster Abbey, a testimony to the high regard in which she continued to be held. Barry and Bracegirdle’s retirement from the stage prepared the way for Anne Oldfield (1683-1730) to reign supreme as the queen of London’s theaters.

Female Playwrights and Stage Managers

Women participated in the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theater in London as playwrights and stage managers as well. During the 1670s and 1680s Aphra Behn (1640-1689) entertained audiences in the capital with a string of witty comedies of manners, thus becoming the first English-speaking woman to earn her livelihood by writing. Behn’s life had all the components of high drama. Born in the countryside in Kent in southeast England, she traveled as a teenager to the Caribbean where she lived for a time in Dutch Guiana. This environment may have fostered her distaste for the commercial Dutch that peppers her later writing. She was apparently forced into an arranged and unhappy marriage from which her husband’s death soon freed her. Coming to the attention of the royal court because of her intelligence and humor, Charles II entrusted her with the task of spying in the Netherlands. She was imprisoned for debts for a time when she returned to England, and thus turned to writing to support herself. Her first play, The Forced Marriage, was a drama that attacked the conventions of arranged marriage. She followed this play with other serious works, but then turned to comedy. She scored a great success with The Rover, a two-part play staged in 1677 and 1681. The play still ranks as one of her most important contributions, although her fiction, including the colonial novelOroonoko, tends to be more widely admired than her plays. She nevertheless established herself on the London stage as a powerful force. At the same time, her unconventional career subjected her to a great deal of criticism, and scandal circulated around her private life. Her career prepared the way for at least two other female dramatists—Susanna Centlivre (1667-1723) and Charlotte Charke (1713-c. 1760)—to follow her example in the eighteenth century. Both women were actresses who eventually turned to play writing, while Behn herself never performed on the stage. Nineteen works survive from Susanna Centlivre, mostly from the first two decades of the eighteenth century, but the author may have written a number of works far earlier under the pen name S. Carroll. Although her career has largely been forgotten today and her works did not rank as great art, they do nevertheless display a broad reading in French and Spanish theatrical traditions as well as those of the English masters. Charlotte Charke, by contrast, only wrote three plays during her tumultuous and scandal-ridden life, but she left behind a memoir of her time in the English theater, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke (1755), that still makes for fascinating reading. The daughter of the accomplished actor and stage manager Colley Cibber, Charke’s strong personality and unconventional behavior alienated her from her family. When her theatrical career soured, she took to dressing in male clothing and to working in men’s professions. Eventually, she took up with another woman and the two traveled together as husband and wife, with Charke imitating the man. The careers of those women who served as stage managers in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England were more conventional than Charke’s. Most gained a role in the theater through their husbands. Lady Henrietta Maria Davenant, the wife of the troupe manager and actor William Davenant, assumed control of her husband’s troupe, the Duke’s Men, following his death in 1668, eventually leading to successes and merging it with the failing King’s Men, the other major London troupe of the day. This newly formed company worked under the direction of the actor Thomas Betterton (1635-1710), who had married the successful actress Mary Saunderson (d. 1712). Together the Bettertons shaped tastes in the London theater, and they also trained many prominent actors and actresses, including the important actress Anne Bracegirdle.

Scope of the Restoration Theater

Although the re-establishment of the English monarchy resulted in a great revival of the theater in later seventeenth-century London, the scale of the Restoration theater was by any standard far more modest than the great age of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson that had preceded it. Audiences, although present in the Restoration playhouses, had shrunk, due in large part to the influence of Puritanism and other radical religious teachings that attacked the theater. These groups continued to have plenty of fodder for their criticisms in the amoral and often bawdy productions that were mounted in London under the reign of the later Stuart monarchs Charles II and James II. Nevertheless, royal favor was strongly behind the theater, although the receipts of the two London troupes, the Duke’s Men and the King’s Men, seem to have dwindled during the 1680s. Eventually, the King’s Men was threatened with bankruptcy, and the two troupes concluded a merger and set up residence in the Drury Lane Theater in Covent Garden. Thus for a time, only one theater entertained London’s audiences, a sign of the relatively limited appeal that many of the theatrical productions had in late seventeenth-century London. Where a vibrant popular theatrical tradition had flourished in Elizabethan and early Stuart England, the theater now served to entertain the sons of aristocrats and their stylish circles. The theater continued to cause controversy, and in the minds of many English men and women the Stuarts’ support of the institution was consonant with their Catholic sympathies. When James II was forced into exile in 1688, tastes in the capital began to change rather quickly. The following year Parliament called the Dutch king William of Orange and his wife Queen Mary, who was James II’s daughter, to assume the English throne, thus cementing the Whig party’s control over the monarchy, an event that has long been referred to as England’s Glorious Revolution. While William and Mary did not close London’s theaters, they were less tolerant and permissive of the kind of bawdy humor and license that had prevailed under the later Stuarts. Thus as the eighteenth century approached, new standards that were more overtly moralistic governed taste on the London stage, and these mores left their imprint on the drama of the time.

The Hanoverian Theater

Death of Dryden

From the perspective of hindsight the death of John Dryden in London in 1700 has often been seen as marking a pivotal change in the course of the English theater. While the passing of this influential playwright certainly affected English theater, moods were changing in England even before the great Dryden’s death. In 1698, for instance, the fiery preacher Jeremy Collier published a bitter critique of the English stage entitled A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, a work in which he indicted the convention of Restoration drama. Collier attacked the rough language, indecent situations, and sense of license that had flourished under the later Stuart kings, and in particular, he singled out the works of George Etherege, Thomas Wycherly, and John Dryden for some of his bitterest attacks. Certainly Restoration tastes did not disappear overnight, and plays of the kind that had been performed in England over the previous four decades were staged in London during the first decades of the eighteenth century. Yet, at the same time, the resurgence of old puritanical attitudes, evident in the attacks of Collier, influenced dramatic writers of the time. A new sense of restraint sometimes referred to by historians of drama as “neoclassicism” began to flourish alongside the works of Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) and others who remained faithful to Restoration traditions. None of the writers of the early eighteenth century rose to the level of Dryden’s mastery over the English language and over verse. The tendency for amateurs to write for the stage continued alongside a generation of playwrights that were also actors and troupe managers in the by-now established tradition of figures like Shakespeare and Jonson. John Vanbrugh, who survived until the end of the first quarter of the century, was a figure who continued in the mold of amateur playwrights that had developed in the Restoration period. A member of Stuart court circles, he was a wit who entertained aristocrats with his charming mastery of the English language. He was also a cultivated amateur who not only wrote sparkling bawdy comedies for the London stage, but also served as an architect to the country’s nobles. His most famous buildings established a taste in England for elaborate and imposing Baroque structures, and among his most famous works were the imposing domed Castle Howard built in Yorkshire and Blenheim Palace, just outside Oxford. At the other end of the spectrum, the early eighteenth century produced the figure of Colley Cibber, the son of an accomplished sculptor, who made his way into the theater as an actor at the Drury Lane Theater around 1690. When his income from this profession proved inadequate to support his family, Cibber began to write and produce plays. Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift marked an important shift in comedy away from the light and seemingly amoral fare that had flourished in the previous years. It helped to found the new genre of “sentimental comedies” that dominated the English stage over the next century. The tone of the work was moralistic in contrast to those of the Restoration period and, in the years that followed, Cibber exerted a powerful influence over the London theater.


The father of the incendiary transvestite Charlotte Charke, Cibber became one of three managers of the Drury Lane Theatre around 1710 and, following the death of Queen Anne in 1714, he began to write political plays that supported the Whig party. For these efforts he was named England’s Poet Laureate in 1730. Arrogant and difficult, he became a lightning rod for criticism, but his life illustrates the rise of a type that was to be an increasingly common figure in the eighteenth-century theater: the impresario, that is the showman who exerted powerful influence on tastes by controlling what, when, and where plays, operas, and ballets were produced. These larger-than-life figures that dominated the eighteenth-century stage were common, not only in England, but everywhere in Europe. Many controlled all aspects of production, presiding over the theaters they managed with what now seems like an indomitable will and dictatorial spirit. Of the many actors and troupe managers who filled this role, David Garrick (1717-1779) was the most famous English example. The son of an army captain, he first rose to prominence on the London stage as an actor, performing first in unlicensed theaters in the city and then rising to debut at the esteemed Drury Lane Theater. Garrick’s new style of acting favored realistic portrayal rather than the artificial and rhetorical style then in use by most actors. After touring Ireland and directing a theater there, he assumed control over the Drury Lane when the institution fell on hard times. His astute sense of what audiences wanted revived the theater, so much so that when Garrick sold his share in the venture he earned the princely sum of £35,000 for his stake. Garrick’s choice of plays to be performed at the Drury Lane relied on by-then classical works drawn from the English tradition as well as new sentimental comedies popular at the time. In addition, the actor’s own portrayal of Shakespearean roles and his staging of the first “Shakespeare Festival” in the bard’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon helped to raise the reputation of the great dramatist to the level of admiration he has enjoyed since the eighteenth century. Never again were Shakespeare’s works to fall in and out of favor, for Garrick’s astute productions of the poet’s works—although not completely historically or textually correct by modern standards—helped to establish an abiding affection for the dramatist’s achievement. At the time, England was quickly emerging as the dominant commercial and trading power of the Western world, and Garrick’s influence even spread to the country’s colonies. Although he never visited India, the great manager prepared the prompt books of Richard Sheridan’s popular play School for Scandal, which were carried to India and used in the first Western production in Calcutta. While widely admired, particularly in aristocratic circles, his career as a theatrical producer was not without its setbacks. Not every production he staged in his tenure at the Drury Lane—which lasted for almost three decades following his assumption of its management in 1747—was a success. But in the cumulative effects of his productions, he shaped the experience of a generation of London theatergoers.

Restrictions on the Theater

In the mid-eighteenth century one controversy dampened the development of the theater in London. In 1736, Henry Fielding’s play, Historical Register, For the Year 1736, was staged at the Haymarket Theatre in the city; like Thomas Middleton’s A Game At Chess of the previous century, it caused a sensation because of Fielding’s open mockery of the prime minister Robert Walpole. Walpole responded by pushing a new measure through Parliament known as Walpole’s Licensing Act in 1737. Under this law, all new dramatic productions were required to be submitted to the government for approval before being performed. In addition, the act stipulated that no productions could be performed outside the two then-existing theaters. The act produced unexpected consequences. At first it drove competent, even brilliant authors like Henry Fielding from writing for the theater for a number of years, and many of these figures turned to writing novels and other fiction, rather than drama. Thus began the great age of the English novel to which Fielding himself and other luminaries like Samuel Richardson were to contribute. They followed in the paths that figures like Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift had already trod in the decades immediately preceding the passage of the Licensing Act. The publishing of novels, in fact, became a more profitable and a less risky venture than play writing since there was now no assurance that the government might license one’s works to be performed. The government’s restrictions aimed to limit the performances of drama to the two royally chartered theaters that existed in London at the time, but all sorts of ingenuous schemes developed to steer managers and actors around these requirements. Short dramas, skits, and other kinds of burlesques already popular in the capital at the time began to be performed in taverns and other ad hoc theaters. This music hall theater soon grew to be wildly popular, prompting the government to pass another measure directed at these institutions in 1751. The measures were ineffective since tavern owners merely formed private clubs with minimal admission requirements in order to entertain their clientele. Thus government measures actually helped speed the development of the English music hall, and by the nineteenth century there were hundreds of these institutions in the capital. For a time in the mid-eighteenth century, though, government regulations did make it harder for serious actors to find work. As the two licensed theaters in London became the only outlet for drama, securing roles in dramatic plays became a far more difficult proposition for actors. At the same time, the crown was in these years actively chartering a number of theaters in the towns and cities in the British provinces, a development that provided work for London’s actors, many of whom came to spend time, particularly in their early years, touring these cities. By the second half of the eighteenth century, working in a provincial company or touring with a traveling troupe had become a recognizable way for an actor to acquire the skills that were necessary to find role on the now more highly competitive London stage. Thus in an oblique way, the Licensing Act helped to raise the skills of those who performed in the city.

The Actor as Star

If the quality of dramatic writing declined in the years immediately following the Licensing Act, the damage that government regulation inflicted on the theater was neither permanent or long-lasting.

Still, in contrast to the rich tradition of the Tudor and early Stuart stage or the Restoration Theatre, eighteenth-century England produced relatively fewer plays that have remained in the repertory until modern times. A few, such as Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773) or Richard Sheridan’s School for Scandal (1777) are still performed, but far more were ephemeral productions that were staged for a while and then quickly forgotten. Even as the quality of drama declined, though, the figure of the actor or actress became far more important on the London theater scene. David Garrick, the actor turned theatrical manager who guided the Drury Theatre to great financial success, was only one of many figures who acquired a star-like status at the time. Even as he fulfilled numerous roles in the theater, he continued to act in productions, often producing great excitement when he returned to the stage. Even before Garrick’s fortunes had risen, Charles Macklin (1690/1699-1797) had already cultivated a similar career, although his personal life was far more turbulent than the gregarious Garrick. After an early career in the provinces, Macklin began to perform in London around 1725, and his career attracted great excitement over the coming decades. He played Shakespeare’s famous character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice with an altogether new twist. Instead of relying on the broad humor of the part, he transformed it into a tragic role. At the same time, Macklin’s larger-than-life temper was always a problem. In 1735 he killed another actor when the two fought over a wig in the theater’s Green Room. Although he was tried for manslaughter, he was never sentenced. For the rest of his life he was almost constantly involved in battles with other actors and legal cases, but his popularity as an actor was little diminished by these problems. By virtue of his incredibly long career, Macklin left an indelible imprint on the acting styles of the eighteenth century, but his success on the stage combined with his larger-than-life antics also garnered him celebrity status. Sarah Kemble Siddons (1755-1831), the greatest tragic actor of her generation, shared a similarly exalted position among the many competent, even accomplished performers of her time. The daughter of a theatrical family, she grew up touring the English provincial theaters and stepped onto the stage when she was just a child. When she threatened to marry another actor, her parents sent her off to become a servant in a noble household. They planned on her marrying a gentleman farmer, but Sarah eventually prevailed upon her parents and wed William Siddons while continuing to pursue a theatrical career. She came to the attention of David Garrick and was engaged for a performance at the Drury Lane Theatre, but when she failed to captivate audiences she returned for five years to provincial theaters. Several years later she returned to London, this time in a revival at the Drury Lane of Thomas Southerne’s Fatal Marriage. The production was a huge success, and for the next thirty years she reigned as the unquestioned tragic actress of her generation. She also led a cultivated life as queen of the London stage until her retirement in 1812. Well educated by her parents, she was able to rise in London society. She is best remembered today from the portrait that Sir Joshua Reynolds painted of her entitled Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, although the artist painted the actress on other occasions, as did Thomas Gainsborough.

Role of the Stage in Hanoverian Society

Despite government attempts to restrict its performance and a decline in the quality of play writing, the theater in eighteenth-century England continued to play an important role in society. In fact, the evidence suggests that the London stage in these years gradually acquired the popular audience that it had lacked during much of the Restoration period. An expanding economy in and around the city of London as well as increasing time for leisure meant that the audience that packed the city’s few eighteenth-century theaters came from a broader range of society. The royal patronage that had been so key to the revival of the theater in the Restoration period was largely absent in London during the eighteenth century. The Hanoverian kings who ruled in the country during the period were not great supporters of the arts; instead they lived quietly, spending much of their time outside the capital in rural palaces and castles. The scope of royal patronage was altogether humbler in the England of the day than it was in France at the same time. Under these circumstances the English stage was a “paying proposition,” but one that seems to have been enormously popular at the time. The emergence of provincial theaters in cities in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland also provided a training ground for actors and actresses to hone their craft. If the quality of many of the dramas performed in the period has not withstood the test of time, the celebrity status that performers achieved in this era has remained a fixture of the modern drama to the present day.

Central Europe Comes of Age

Seventeenth-Century Theater

In Central Europe the great and prolonged crisis of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) left this region desolate and economically depressed for much of the seventeenth century. This prolonged conflict eventually involved almost every European power, although the small states of the Holy Roman Empire were the primary battlefield for a conflict that grew to internecine proportions and which brought famine, disease, and depopulation in its wake. As a result of this devastation, the development of a secular, professionalized theater similar to that which had appeared in England, Spain, and France in the seventeenth century was delayed for several generations. At the same time, the performance of religious drama remained very much alive in seventeenth-century Central Europe. The Jesuit dramas performed in the order’s schools followed much the same path of development that these productions took elsewhere in Catholic Europe. Reformation and Counter-Reformation polemical dramas, which satirized the positions of religious opponents or glorified the triumphs of Protestants or Catholics, was another dramatic tradition inherited from the sixteenth century that was very much alive in Central Europe generally, and in Catholic Germany and Austria in particular. Passion plays, the rural counterpart to the imposing Jesuit school dramas, also began to flourish in these years. The most famous of these productions is now the Oberammergau Passion Play, which was first staged in 1634 and has been staged at decade intervals since that time, but quite a few of the imposing, many-days long productions began to be performed in the seventeenth century. The Passion Play inherited much from the tradition of late-medieval mystery cycles, the imposing, often weeks-long productions that accompanied fairs or major religious holidays in the fifteenth century. At the same time, both the Jesuit drama and the Passion Play relied on newer staging techniques and a more compact and less rambling plot that often defended Catholic truth in line with the demands of the Counter-Reformation. Musical interludes, choral singing, and even choreographed dances were just a few of the other features that found their way into these plays. There was certainly a huge divide that separated the cultivated Jesuit school dramas from the rural Passion Play. Over time, the works of the Jesuit theater came, in fact, to more closely resemble operas than dramas. At the same time, both forms of theater—one popular, the other urbane—largely arose from the religious controversies of the period, and as these disputes grew less vicious toward the end of the seventeenth century, the works were performed less frequently.

Andreas Gryphius

Despite the bleak condition of much of Germany’s cultural life in the seventeenth century, every now and then there were notable bright spots on the horizon. Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664), the greatest German poet of the seventeenth century, was one of these. He had been a refugee as a child, having been forced to flee his native town in Silesia during the Thirty Years’ War. As he moved from place to place he acquired a remarkably good education. Eventually, he received the patronage of a noble, who recognized his literary talents and financed his travels through Europe for several years. Returning to Silesia in 1647, he became a government official, and from this relative security he began to write a series of tragic masterpieces infused with a pessimistic, yet grand tone. Affected by ancient Stoicism, Gryphius’ works treated Christian and heroic themes, intoning the necessity of martyrdom to defend religious principles and truths. The sense of resolute destiny is less pronounced in three comedies the poet wrote in the later years of his life, but a somber mood pervades most of the great author’s verse and drama.

The Small State

The rural character of much of Central Europe had a profound effect on theatrical traditions in the region. No city in Central Europe at the time was of a comparable size to the great urban centers of Western or Mediterranean Europe; to this day, most of the German-speaking peoples of Central Europe continue to live in towns that are much smaller than the great metropolises of France, the Netherlands, and England. While Germany may have had relatively few cities of any great size, it did have princely courts in great profusion. During the seventeenth century, the political disintegration of Central Europe accelerated, in large part as a consequence of the Thirty Years’ War. The power of the Holy Roman Empire, the loose confederation of states in the region, became ever more fictional. At the same time in the individual states and territories of the empire, princes became ever more concerned with increasing their power and authority over their subjects in ways that were similar to the absolutist political innovations common to France and other great European states at the time. The support of the arts, music, drama, and literature became a hallmark of many of these princes’ policies, since great achievements in the arts and humanities added luster to their reputations and international prestige. As the problems of the seventeenth century began to fade, scores of German princes began to support the development of court theaters on a previously unknown scale, importing Italian and French architects to build new elegant structures to serve as venues for the opera, the ballet and, to a lesser extent, drama. Thus if Germany failed to develop a single metropolitan capital similar to London or Paris, the circumstances of its court life brought about the flourishing of “high culture” in every corner of the country. This phenomenon was a direct result of the political situation that was bred in the German Kleinstaat or “small state,” and the tendency to support the arts generously at the local level has persisted in the country until modern times. Even today, there is scarcely any town of middling size in Central Europe that is without its own opera and dramatic theater. Many of these institutions trace their origins back to the early-modern princes that founded them.

Court Theaters and Traveling Troupes

The economic realities of these small principalities meant that very few rulers could support performing groups on the same scale as Louis XIV and other great kings at the time. While a few of the German states like Austria and Brandenburg Prussia were of considerable size and wealth, most had far more limited economic resources. Despite their more modest resources, many German princes specialized in supporting the arts. One of the first positions that the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) took after completing his education was as music master at the court of Cöthen, where a music-loving prince generally provided the resources Bach needed for his composition to flourish. Within a few years, though, his patron’s tastes had changed, and his prince cut back on the music master’s budgets. Bach soon moved on, finding work in other more congenial pastures. Similar patterns of patronage also affected the theater for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While some princes favored the drama, most devoted their attentions to the opera and the ballet, the two most popular performing arts at the time. And while many courts had their own theater, it was most often given over to the performance of these arts, rather than to the production of plays. By contrast, in Germany’s towns and cities dramas appear to have been popular, and from the early seventeenth century troupes of traveling performers are well recorded throughout the country. Audiences in German cities avidly supported the performances of Italian Commedia dell’arte troupes as well as the dramas staged by a number of English groups that toured the country. By the mid-seventeenth century many German-speaking actors had joined these English groups, and over time, they took over these companies altogether. But a traveling theater was ill suited to high standards of production, given the realities of German cultural life. The country was badly divided by religious divisions, and troupes that traveled in both Protestant and Catholic areas needed to have different plays at hand to entertain audiences that were living under quite different social, political, and religious circumstances. At the same time, the great linguistic divisions in the country meant that dialogue needed to be carefully tailored to take account of the vast differences that separated north from south and east from west. Under these circumstances it was not uncommon for a troupe of traveling players to have as many as 100 plays in their repertoire, a situation that was not well suited to developing a great dramatic art.

Eighteenth-Century Changes

Toward the middle of the eighteenth century the drama began to develop in Germany in new ways as a talented group of writers produced works that spoke, not to the tastes of the court, but to the country’s developing cities. The fashion of these new plays was shaped by bourgeois sensibilities, rather than by aristocratic pretensions. In this regard the theater of the time has long been termed “middle-class drama,” since it was aimed not at court circles, but at well-to-do city dwellers who now had greater leisure time and disposable income to attend the theater. The rise of this new “middle-class” theater was not just a German phenomenon, but occurred in almost every country in Europe around the same time. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), the first German author to follow this path, was the son of a prominent Lutheran theologian, and although he never renounced his faith, he used his works to satirize religious hypocrisy and to mock those who blindly repeated received wisdom. Affected by the ideas of the Enlightenment, he had also read the works of many philosophers, and like the French playwright and encyclopedist Denis Diderot he aimed to capture “real-life” situations. In opposition to those who argued that the German theater should imitate the great but artificial tragedies of French figures like Racine and Corneille, Lessing supported a drama that was naturalistic. He began his career by producing several successful works for the Leipzig stage before his parents called him home and encouraged him to enroll in medical school. Although he eventually took his degree, he returned to play writing soon afterwards, moving first to Berlin where he came into contact with an impressive circle of intellectuals. Over time, he served as an advisor to a group of private theatregoers in the city of Hamburg, who had decided in 1765 to found a theater in their town, the first such public venture in Central Europe. When this scheme soured in 1770, Lessing moved on to become court librarian in the relatively small state of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. Despite its small size the state possessed in the small town of Wolfenbüttel one of the most impressive libraries in all Europe, and although Lessing was quite unhappy there, he used the time to write for the theater and to publish theoretical works on the drama. One of his most important plays, Nathan the Wise (1779), dates from these years, and argued in a daring fashion that the ethical impact of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was largely similar. While Nathan the Wise was a profoundly serious work, many of Lessing’s most notable plays were comedies, including the popular Minna von Barnhelm, a work that treats the concept of honor. The author’s tragedy Miss Sara Sampson, too, is today considered among his most appealing works. It was Lessing’s self-expressed intention throughout his life to establish a “national theater” in the German language. It was an ambitious goal, given the long tradition of regional particularity, political division, and linguistic differences that separated the German states from each other. At the same time, the playwright’s ambitions were to be largely realized in the coming generation. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, an enormously talented group of dramatists, which included figures like Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), took up the challenge that Lessing had identified.

The French Enlightenment and Drama

Decline of the Theater

During most of the seventeenth century the theater in Paris had a relatively limited appeal, drawing its audience primarily from aristocratic and upper-class circles that were centered around the court. Often provincial theaters located in such cities as Lyons and Rouen had proven more innovative than the troupes of Paris, producing the plays that made their way to the capital after they had been successful in these smaller cities. While the years from 1630 to about 1680 had seen a great theater thrive in Paris, the size of the city’s audience had always been relatively small when compared to the huge audiences for commercial productions that existed in early seventeenth-century London or Golden-Age Spain. The tragedies of Corneille and Racine or the comedies of Molière had been great critical successes, and had been widely read and imitated throughout Europe, but keeping Paris’s theaters afloat was always a risky financial venture. No theatrical troupe survived without the king’s patronage, and even a gifted dramatist like Molière who received substantial support frequently had to struggle to make his productions clear a profit. While a number of sparkling successes had been staged in the years before 1680, royal patronage for the theater in the final two decades of the century actually shrank as Louis XIV became involved in a series of costly European wars and as the king fell under the influence of his pious second wife, Madame de Maintenon. One sign of the increasing disfavor in which the king held the theater was his expulsion in 1697 of the Comédie-Italienne, a troupe of Commedia dell’arte performers that had performed for a generation in the capital. Louis found the group’s broad, sexual humor distasteful, and the troupe was not allowed to return to Paris until 1716, the year following the king’s death. As the audience for the theater shrank, Paris for a time had only one public performing troupe, the Comédie-Française, which had been forged by the merger of Molière’s troupe and two others.

Revival and Growth

This bleak state of affairs soon began to change in the years after 1715, as the theater entered upon a century of unprecedented expansion in Paris. By the end of the eighteenth century, the city had almost thirty theaters, making it the undisputed dramatic capital of Europe. A complex combination of factors produced the rise of this professional and commercial stage in Paris, but the expansionary trend became evident in the years immediately following Louis XIV’s death. The king’s successor, Louis XV, was only five years old when he assumed the throne, and thus his uncle Philip of Orléans served as his regent. Philip disliked the imposing spaces and lofty grandeur of Versailles, and between the years 1715 and 1723 he set up government in Paris rather than Versailles. As aristocrats streamed back to the city from the now abandoned royal retreat, they demanded entertainment that fit the changing tastes of the age. Drama, the opera, ballet, and the visual arts were all enriched by this brief period of Louis XV’s regency, and when the king returned to set up government at Versailles several years later, many French nobles did not return to the country palace. Instead they stayed in Paris and prolonged the city’s artistic revitalization. At the same time, the dramatic growth that the French theater witnessed in the course of the eighteenth century cannot be credited to aristocratic patronage alone. For the first time in France’s history, a significant class of bourgeois patrons began to enter the ranks of theatergoers; they found in the drama, not only a source of leisure entertainment, but an elevated art form that appealed to their desire to be educated in the issues of the day. The ideas of the Enlightenment were to affect this new class of aristocratic and bourgeois patrons. Although the Enlightenment was an international movement, it attracted some of its largest numbers of adherents in France, particularly in Paris and the country’s other major cities. In small circles known as salons the devotees of the movement discussed the necessity of change in France’s social structure, even as they hoped to foster greater tolerance, liberty, and reason in everyday affairs. The theater was soon to be affected by these trends. The apex of the growing theatrical world in Paris was the Comédie-Française, the national theater that Louis XIV had chartered at the end of the seventeenth century and whose acting troupes were formed out of the merger of previously disparate groups in the city. This institution, a descendant of which still survives today, continued to produce elevated dramas in the tradition of Corneille and Racine. As a national institution supported by the crown, the Comédie-Française often proved to be resistant to the winds of change that were beginning to sweep through France in the eighteenth century. But even in this aristocratic bastion of privilege, forces were at work that were questioning France’s religious, social, and political order, and the works of Voltaire and other playwrights inspired by the Enlightenment came to be performed in the venerable institution. Beyond the Comédie-Française, an increasingly variegated theatrical scene began to take shape in the capital, and many far less prestigious venues for drama developed, particularly in the second half of the eighteenth century as a broader audience for entertainment emerged in Paris.


The greatest, and frequently most controversial, French dramatist of the time was François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) who has always been known by his pen name Voltaire. Despite being educated by the Jesuits like Molière and Corneille before him, Voltaire came to criticize organized religion; and although he mistrusted the French king Louis XV because he himself had been persecuted by him, he was fundamentally a royalist who believed in enlightened despotism as a way to progress. When he had completed his education and served for a time as a diplomat, he made his way into Parisian society, establishing himself with his cultivated sense of satire. Exiled from Paris and then briefly imprisoned by the regent, the Duke of Orléans, on the suspicion of libel, he was released after a year, and produced his first great workOedipe in 1717. In the wake of the success of Oedipe he was hailed as the successor to Racine and Corneille. Although he came to the attention of the royal court and for a time was admitted into high circles, he soon found himself in opposition to the regent again when he fell for a second time under the suspicion of libel and was taken into custody, placed in the Bastille, and then exiled from Paris. In the 1720s he rehabilitated himself with the Duke of Orléans and received a government pension. He became a spy for the crown, but once Orléans was dead, he soon fell from grace again by insulting a high-ranking noble in 1725. Again, he was imprisoned in the Bastille, beaten up, and promptly escorted to the port of Calais in northwestern France. From there, he made his way to England, where he spent more than two years in exile. English society and English theater captivated Voltaire, and he admired the greater freedom of life in the country and became in these years an admirer of Shakespeare, whom he credited with having a kind of barbarous energy. Upon his return to France, he began to try subtly to imitate the style of Shakespeare in his tragedies. These first few plays were not successful, but by 1732 Voltaire had scored a hit in the production of his Zaïre. In the years that followed, the playwright continued to write tragedies for the Comédie-Française, but he also turned to history and philosophy. Voltaire also rehabilitated himself at court, particularly with Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour, although the king and many of his courtiers continued to distrust him. After making an indiscreet remark one evening at a party in which members of the court were in attendance, Voltaire was forced into hiding in 1747. The disfavor in which he was now held, the recent failures of some of his plays, and most importantly, the death of his long-term mistress Madame du Châtelet in 1749 left the artist exhausted and disoriented. According to his accounts, he seemed to suffer the equivalent of a nervous breakdown. To recover his composure, Voltaire accepted the invitation of his friend Frederick the Great to visit Prussia and he left for Berlin in 1750. Here initial enchantment between Frederick and Voltaire soon gave way to increasing disaffection. He quarreled with members of the Prussian nobility, was sued by a banker, and touched off controversy by publishing a poem attacking the president of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. The French dramatist tried to flee the country in 1753, but he was captured by Frederick’s forces and imprisoned for a time before being allowed to continue. In the meantime he had received word from Louis XV that he was not to return to Paris and so after a year spent in the city of Colmar, he took refuge in Switzerland at Geneva.

Voltaire’s Later Years

Voltaire was at first hailed in Switzerland for his wit and sophistication as well as for the salon that he set up in his country retreat. Members of Swiss society streamed there to hear his views on religion and politics. Gradually, he excited controversy, particularly when he expressed doubts on key elements of Christian religious orthodoxy. By 1758, the situation had grown so uncomfortable in Switzerland that Voltaire was forced to flee, this time back to France, where he bought a country villa at Ferney directly on the French-Swiss border. Long experience had taught Voltaire that his ideas were inevitably going to be controversial, and in purchasing the house at Ferney he desired to be close to Switzerland for a quick escape across the border if he learned that the king’s men were approaching. In these final twenty years of his life, Voltaire continued to write, and his correspondents grew to include an ever-larger number of European intellectuals. His house at Ferney also played a key role in furthering the ideas of the Enlightenment. There Voltaire set up a kind of intellectual court, and he was visited by many of the greatest thinkers and political figures of the age. Rich and secure from his writing as well as questionable business deals he had conducted earlier in his life, Voltaire finally achieved the peace and tranquility at Ferney that he had long desired. Although even then the irascible author continued to quarrel with the local peasants and religious leaders of the province. The themes of his work in these years persisted along the lines that he had long outlined: religious tolerance, the rule of human reason, and the establishment of a more humane and just society. Finally in the year in which he died, he was allowed to return to Paris, where a performance of his play Irènecaused a sensation. Exhausted from the warm reception he received in the French capital, he soon grew ill and died on 30 May 1778.

Diderot and Middle-Class Drama

Despite the dubious notoriety that Voltaire achieved in many circles throughout his life, the author was recognized at the time as one of the great prose stylists and verse dramatists of the French language. Born at the time when the style of Racine tragedy held sway over the theater in Paris, he never abandoned this form of drama in the works he completed for the theater. Although Voltaire exercised a powerful hold over the development of the Enlightenment in France, his dramatic ideas increasingly seemed old-fashioned to later generations of French dramatists. Admired and respected for the depth of his commitment to rational thought, Voltaire’s plays, with their faithfulness to older forms of verse tragedy, seemed by the 1750s to be increasingly dated. The greatest exponent of a new kind of theater at this time was Denis Diderot (1713-1784). While Voltaire had often fashioned his dramas from ancient myths, classical history, and exotic tales, Diderot argued that the theater should represent bourgeois values and seek to present a realistic mirror of everyday life. Only two of his plays, The Illegitimate Son (1757) and The Father of the Family (1758), achieved anything above a level of moderate success, and they are rarely even read today. Diderot believed that the theater should not only hold up a mirror to bourgeois society, but that it might play a powerful role in teaching people the views of the Enlightenment. Thus some heavy-handed philosophizing often found its way into his works. While the quality of his dramas may not have been high, the playwright made a powerful impact on eighteenth-century taste by virtue of his role as the editor of the Encyclopédie, the massive multi-volume project of Enlightenment thinkers in France that was published between the 1750s and 1770s. As one of the editors of this project, Diderot chose writers to write entries about the theater whose views approximated his own. Besides his role in shaping the Encylopédie’s views on theater, he also continued in his later years to publish works on the theory of drama and acting. His opinions about acting, in particular, were influential, and tended to favor the naturalistic portrayal that was beginning to become the fashion at the time. This style of acting sought to represent the passions and emotions faithfully, in contrast to the artificial style of elaborately declaiming the text in the fashion that had held sway in seventeenth-century France. While his own works of drama may not have been so inspiring, he played a key role in establishing the “middle-class” drama of the later eighteenth century throughout Europe. In particular, his influence on the great German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was profound. In the years that followed his pronouncements on the subject, a more bourgeois set of sensibilities flourished in the French theater. The studied artificiality, grand gestures, and elevated verse that had once dominated the great works of Racine and his followers seemed increasingly outdated as a new theater that treated everyday life emerged.


The rise of bourgeois sentiments, and the problems that they might engender in an absolutist state like France, can be brilliantly witnessed in the works and career of Pierre Beaumarchais (1732-1799), who was the author of two brilliant comedies that long provided other artists with inspiration. The first of these, The Barber of Seville, was first staged in 1775, after having been prohibited for two years because of its anti-aristocratic tone. It was not an immediate success, since although a comedy, it was laden with heavy allusions to the author’s own recent legal troubles. Beaumarchais revised the play—shortening it—and staged it once again. This time the comedy was a definitive success since it treated more neatly the comic exploits of a Spanish nobleman’s servant. Through his wit, the servant is continually able to outsmart his lord, and thus Beaumarchais began to score success by criticizing the privileges of aristocrats. Despite his political stance, the author was very much a part of the “in-circle” of court and cultivated society in Paris. For a time he served on diplomatic missions in England, and was in part responsible for France’s support of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War. Within a few years of The Barber of Seville Beaumarchais had written its even more famous sequel, The Marriage of Figaro, a work that immediately touched off a firestorm of controversy and which languished for many years without being performed. Although the light gaffs and jabs that the work makes against aristocratic privilege scarcely seem to raise an eyebrow today, the mood in France had changed dramatically from the time of the author’s Barber of Seville. Reform programs aimed at curbing the powers and privileges of the nobility were now an imminent threat to France’s large class of nobles. In order to secure the performance of his play, Beaumarchais was forced to intrigue at court so that he might secure a license for its staging, which was only granted after years of deliberation and a private performance before the royal court. When the play was finally performed before audiences in Paris, it caused a sensation and ran for a total of 75 performances, a huge number at the time. It attracted criticism from some as “godless” and “immoral,” while at the same time acquiring many admirers. Beaumarchais long kept his silence against the attacks of his critics, but when he did finally respond to the accusation that his play was immoral, he was hastily imprisoned for a time in the Bastille. Such measures, though, did little to halt the play’s rising popularity, not only in France, but throughout Europe as well. It is a testimony to how well Beaumarchais captured the brittle spirit of the times that in Austria the brilliant composer Mozart set to transforming the work into an opera only a little more than a year after it had been performed and published in Paris. Admiration for Beaumarchais’ wit and earthy wisdom persisted, so much so that the Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini used the dramatist’s earlier Barber of Seville as late as 1816 to serve as the basis for the libretto of his famous opera of the same name. Despite Beaumarchais’ attacks on aristocratic privilege, he himself was part of the court circle that was swept away by the tide of the French Revolution. The artist was imprisoned for a time during the 1790s because of his own aristocratic connections, but eventually released through the ministrations of a former lover. His dramatic efforts, although light-hearted and written in a spirit of satirical good fun, helped to realize the theater of bourgeois values in France that had been envisioned by such Enlightenment thinkers as Diderot.

The Rise of Revolutionary Sentiment in France and its Impact on the Theater

Theater and Public Opinion

The sensation that Beaumarchais caused with his Marriage of Figaro was hardly the first or the last time the Parisian theater was to be the center of controversy. Yet his work was ultimately tolerated and performed in the Comédie-Française, the very heart of the theatrical establishment in France, which had been licensed and lavishly supported by the crown for more than a century at the time of Figaro’s performance. During the high tide of the Enlightenment the Comédie-Française had frequently fulfilled a dual role. The theater was a medium for shaping public opinion and at the same time it was a barometer of those sentiments that allowed the crown to measure the popular mood. During the 1770s and 1780s criticism of France’s entrenched social order, of the privileges of its clerics and nobles, and of the ineptitude of its royal government steadily rose. Although the country was one of the most prosperous and productive in Europe, the system of royal government that Louis XIV had developed in the later seventeenth century had been notable for its corruption and inefficient centralization. Louis’ successor, his great-grandson Louis XV, had done little to lessen the sclerosis that lay at the heart of French government, and his involvement in numerous international wars had left the royal administration perilously drained of funds. When his grandson Louis XVI succeeded him in 1774, he was at first forced to embark on an ambitious program of reform, having no other choice but to increase the financial efficiency of his government. By the early 1780s, however, the plans of his reforming chief minister Jacques Necker were increasingly blocked by special interests. Rather than opposing those bastions of privilege that were preventing improvement in government, Louis capitulated to the enemies of Necker, and in the years following his dismissal, royal policy drifted, ever subject to increasing criticism. At first these great political trials played little role in the theatrical life of Paris’ three official theaters: the Comédie-Française, Comédie-Italienne, and the Opera. Each institution had been founded with the express purpose of nourishing the theatrical arts of drama, ballet, and opera in France—a powerful mission at a time when French kings desired to use these media as tools for promoting national glory. In all three theaters ties to the court meant that the material performed in them was expected to uphold the values of the crown and the Catholic Church. Since the early eighteenth century onward, though, Voltaire and other playwrights had begun to produce dramas at the Comédie-Française that challenged these values either subtly or overtly. When a play excited too much controversy or seemed to challenge accepted mores or state policies too vigorously, it was often suppressed. As the tide of criticism of France’s government and entrenched social order rose, however, patrons demanded new dramas that captured the political pulse of the age. The wild success of Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro thus demonstrates the appetite that existed just below the surface of French society for an art that addressed the major social topics of the day.

The Parterre and Public Opinion

At the same time, the theater began to be an important way to measure public opinion. As the audience for dramas expanded in Paris in the course of the eighteenth century, new classes of people began to fill the Comédie-Française’sparterre, or ground floor. Admission to this section was far cheaper than in the balconies above where wealthy members of the Parisian aristocracy or bourgeoisie sat; while the cost of admission was still beyond the means of most of the laboring classes in the city, the parterre became the preserve of shopkeepers and skilled artisans—the middling and lower ranks of the bourgeoisie, that is the French middle classes. In the second half of the eighteenth century playwrights like Beaumarchais increasingly took up the challenge set by Enlightenment thinkers like Diderot, who had argued that the theater should favor contemporary themes and that its subjects should be portrayed realistically in ways that educated audiences about social issues. Beaumarchais’s Marriage of Figaro was one such production, but there were others; in the 1770s and 1780s, audience response to these dramas was frequently the talk of Paris since the theatergoers of the parterre used the relative anonymity of the crowd to express vigorous reactions to the dramas they saw. The evidence suggests that in these years the parterre became increasingly opinionated, pronouncing its tastes on the acting styles of performers, booing or catcalling when something displeased them, and expressing support when the sentiments of the dramatist mirrored their own. Of course, this system was open to manipulation. Actors, stage managers, and dramatists often tried to pack the parterre with claques—that is, groups that were favorable to them—in order to ensure positive reviews from the crowd. Mounds of free tickets were often given away in attempts to manipulate audience’s responses, so that the Comédie-Française became a venue in which two dramas were paradoxically being presented side by side: one on the stage, the other in the auditorium itself. At the same time, the sensation that a work like Beaumarchais’Marriage of Figaro produced in the mid-1780s points to the importance that the theater had attained in French society for presenting viewpoints on contemporary social issues and for testing the waters of public opinion. In that drama, the wealthy bourgeois Beaumarchais used his position of relative security at court to rail against aristocratic privilege, to mock the church and clergy, and to celebrate the homespun virtues of the working classes. Both the court and the Comédie-Française had debated about whether the play should be performed for years before finally giving in to widespread pressure to stage it. The favorable reactions the drama received from the parterre and the drama’s unprecedented run were but another proof positive of the widespread desire for reform, while the joyous reaction the parterre’s crowds expressed at Figaro’ s performances ultimately protected the play from censure. The genie, in other words, had escaped from the bottle, and the French theater had emerged as a powerful vehicle both for shaping and expressing the public’s sentiments.

Rise of New Theaters

In these same years new theaters were also emerging on the scene in Paris, institutions that were even more potentially volatile than the relatively conservative, state-supported Comédie-Française. Since Louis XIV’s day, laws had forbidden dramas from being staged in Paris in any other venue except the officially recognized and licensed state theaters. As in England, though, attempts to regulate and confine the stage had always left some loopholes. In Paris, short dramas, for example, had long been tolerated in connection with the great suburban fairs that were celebrated on the city’s fringes during the summer months. Actors and playwrights had used these events to supplement their incomes by participating in the carnival shows. A definite shift in the course of Paris’s theatrical history occurred in 1759 when Jean-Baptiste Nicolet, a promoter of fair acts and short dramas, obtained permission to rent a building in the city’s Temple district and to use it as a theater for variety acts. At the time, the Boulevard Temple was a hotbed of Parisian public life, a haunt visited by Enlightenment thinkers, prostitutes, and a broad swath of the city’s society. Nicolet was a showman, not a politician, but to please his crowds he soon set about testing the boundaries of royal regulations forbidding the performance of dramas outside the state’s theaters. Into his succession of vaudeville acts he built short dialogues that gradually grew longer until the management of the Comédie-Française began to complain to the authorities. Nicolet was questioned, imprisoned for a time, and fined, but then allowed to go about his business. After his release he grew more careful, but he continued to test the regulations. His example emboldened others, and by the end of the 1760s the Boulevard Temple and its surrounding area was populated with a number of variety theaters. Royal and municipal authorities at this time seemed to have thought of these institutions as little more than a nuisance, since the production values of most of these “boulevard theaters,” as they became known, were crude and the theaters tended to cater to rowdy audiences. The typical Parisian boulevard theater at this time was thus similar to the emerging English music hall. Both, in other words, rose as a result of the practices of censorship, but each identified its audiences in the poorer segments of society who, because of their income levels, were not able to attend the more expensive theaters in London and Paris. The Comédie-Française, with its older, more experienced, and well-trained troupe of actors, remained the venue par excellence for drama in the capital around 1770. The management of the three state theaters in Paris (that is, the Opera, the Comédie-Française, and the Comédie-Italienne) may have frequently complained to the authorities, but few educated Parisians thought that the boulevard theaters were going to replace or seriously threaten the dominance of these more venerable institutions.

The Triumph of the Variétés

By the late 1770s, though, this situation had changed dramatically. At least two of the boulevard theaters, the Variétés and the Associés, had begun performing pirated versions of works that belonged to the Comédie-Française’s repertory—a definite violation of the law. While the Associés’ productions were thought to be crude and lacking in finesse, those of theVariétés were considerably more polished and were now attracting audiences from the Parisian upper classes. In 1781, a controversy over the building of new theaters for the state institutions brought to a head the long-standing enmity between the boulevard theaters and the Comédie-Française. In that year the theater used by the Paris Opera at the Palais-Royal burned, and Philip II, the Duke of Orléans, who owned the complex, began to build a new grand replacement for the company that might attract even more patrons to his burgeoning commercial development that adjoined the theater. The Palais-Royal was then the hub of street and café life in the city, buoyed by its ideal location in the very heart of ancient Paris, not far from the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Palace of the Louvre. Philip spent an enormous sum constructing the new theater, but intrigues at court soon turned against him, and the duke’s cousin, Louis XVI, decided to house the Opera, not in Philip’s grand new theater, but in a far cheaper building that was hastily constructed at the far northern fringes of town along the Boulevard Saint-Martin. While Louis’ decision may have pleased his courtiers, it rankled his cousin Philip as well as many of Paris’ elite who were now forced to travel a far greater distance into an unfashionable quarter of town to attend the Opera. As a result, attendance at the new musical theater quickly declined, while Philip eventually scored a huge success with his grand new theater. The king’s decision to relocate the Opera had left the duke holding a valuable piece of real estate, and to fill his expensive venture, he invited the Variétés, the most artistically successful of the boulevard theaters, to rent his space. With their new state-of-the-art theater in one of the most fashionable locations in the city, the Variétés soon prospered and competed vigorously with the Comédie-Française, an institution that throughout the 1780s seemed to many of Paris’s intellectuals to appear increasingly worn and tired. Even the installation of new stage lighting in 1784 and the controversial production of The Marriage of Figaro soon afterward did little to stem the relative decline of the venerable institution against the vanguard of the Variétés. As the decade progressed and the monarchy grew more unpopular, the Comédie-Française’s status as a royal institution made it appear to many in Paris as a bastion of aristocratic reaction in a sea of change. The theater’s relatively conservative choice of repertory as well as its managers’ constant complaints to the king for redress against the boulevard theaters’ violations of its monopoly did little to dispel such an opinion. For his part, Louis XVI’s attentions were clearly diverted elsewhere in these years by the host of problems his government faced, and so he refused to uphold the Comédie-Française’s rights. Thus the Variétés continued to challenge royal authority over drama.

The Boulevard Theaters Grow More Radical

The relocation of the Variétés, while an important event in helping to challenge royal control of the theater, was not, in and of itself, a factor in the growth of revolutionary sentiments in 1780s France. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French actors and dramatists who achieved success on the Parisian stage had often been the most enthusiastic supporters of royal power. The example of figures like Voltaire, who had frequently been censored and imprisoned for his unpopular opinions, had inspired great caution in the theatrical community, and even Voltaire—though he questioned aspects of the exercise of royal authority in France—had been an enthusiastic supporter of despotic government. As the Variétés moved to its newfound highly respectable home around 1785, it tended to voice the same conservative political sentiments that had long flourished in the state theaters. At the same time, other forces were at work in the boulevard theaters, those institutions that remained along the streets and avenues of the capital that catered to a less elevated clientele. During the 1780s a radical press began to explode on the Parisian scene that was filled with satires and attacks on the monarchy. Queen Marie-Antoinette figured prominently in many of these works, some of which were boldly printed with their place of publication as “Peking,” a joke intended to mock the inability of the French government to censor them. In these years the Austrian-born queen was singled out for the most violent abuse and accused of all kinds of sexual outrages, from voracious lesbianism to orgiastic sex rituals, even as the popular press also heaped abuse on the king, his ministers, and the clergy. France’s radical press was always more vicious in its criticisms than were the boulevard theaters that lined the cities’ streets. After all, pamphlets could be published anonymously and it was difficult for the authorities to unearth just where, when, and by whom an offending work had been printed. The theater, by contrast, occurred in a public space, where police could seize an actor or easily trace the identity of the author of an offensive dramatic skit or the composer of a song. But as criticism of the crown mounted generally in the 1780s, Paris’s neighborhood authorities seem to have grown increasingly lax about supervising the boulevard theaters, in part because they often approved of the anti-monarchical and anti-governmental sentiments that were being uttered in them.

The Revolution Proceeds

As the state of the government drifted perilously close to bankruptcy at the end of the 1780s, Louis XVI responded by calling a meeting of the Estates General, France’s parliament, a body that had not been summoned since 1615. In the course of 1789 hopes for reform without drastic alterations to the government’s constitution faded, and members of the third estate, or the commons, formed a new National Assembly. They formulated a new constitution for France that eliminated many noble and clerical privileges. The king swore allegiance to these documents, but as a result of the impending bankruptcy of his regime, he now faced greatly straitened circumstances. One result of these financial crises was that Louis XVI was forced to abandon patronage of Paris’s royal theaters, and the city’s government assumed control of the administration and supervision of these institutions. In 1791, the National Assembly deprived the Comédie-Française, Opera, and Comédie-Italienne of their monopolies, abandoning all pretenses that these were the only theaters legally sanctioned to perform in Paris. A key consequence of these measures was to make available to all the great repertory of French plays that had long been licensed as the sole preserve of the Comédie-Française. Since the 1770s the boulevard theaters had been encroaching upon this material by performing these plays in edited forms or by staging them under different titles, but now the new revolutionary government erased the long-standing privileges of the Comédie-Française, allowing the vast storehouse of works by Voltaire, Racine, Corneille, Molière, and all playwrights who were deceased to be performed by anyone who wished to stage a production. For a time the abolition of the old monopolies wreaked havoc on the Comédie-Française, which searched for both new and old material to perform that might be suitable given the greatly altered political realities of the times. Disagreements within the troupe eventually caused an irreconcilable breach, and the company split in two. In their separate houses the two remnants of the Comédie had varied success, and even from their greatly reduced position, both houses continued to dominate the elite theater of the day. Most critics of the period agreed that the great French classics were best performed in the astute hands of the troupes that had grown out of the Comédie-Française. At the same time, scores of new theaters arose to compete with the older houses. Where they had been nine boulevard theaters in 1789, an additional twenty were founded by 1795. Not all of these new theaters succeeded, but everywhere in Paris the stage came to be increasingly subjected to heightened competition.

The Revolution Grows More Radical

The National Assembly’s decision in 1791 to eliminate the long-standing monopolies on the performance of opera, drama, and ballet in France soon were followed by new measures to control and censor the theater. As the Revolution progressed, the threats that it posed to royal authority grew more grave, and in June of 1791, Louis XVI and his family tried to flee the country to rally support from outside France to overthrow these threats. Caught at Varennes, Louis and Marie-Antoinette were brought back to Paris, where they now became virtual prisoners of the Revolution. In the months that followed calls for the abolition of the monarchy steadily rose, and the campaign of Republicans to rid the country of counter-revolutionary forces gave birth to the Reign of Terror. As a result, the National Assembly and Parisian city government began to sanction spectacles and dramas that glorified the cause of republicanism. Propagandistic plays that supported the Revolution became more common, but throughout most of the Revolution it was the classic French repertory as well as light contemporary comedies that continued to provide the most common fare in most of Paris’ theaters. Theatrical managers, in fact, preferred these works because they were not controversial, and in the overheated political climate of the day they sensed that avoiding controversy was a good thing. By 1793, at the height of the Terror, the government took decisive measures to censor and control the theaters. The Directorate, the controlling committee within the National Assembly, stipulated that the theater must serve patriotic ends—that is, that it must defend and promote the Revolution and the cause of republican government. Thus for a time these directives altered the course of theater in Paris by prompting the writing and staging of works that were overtly republican in nature. Yet even during the height of the Terror, when as many as 17,000 people were executed for counter-revolutionary deeds and sentiments, some of the most frequently performed works were those of Corneille, Molière, Voltaire, and Racine—works that by this time had achieved a “classic” status in French similar to Shakespeare’s opus in English. These, it could be argued, met the Revolution’s demands since they were masterpieces of the French language. During this dark period, many actors and playwrights who had served the monarchy fell under suspicion. Some fled to England or more congenial spots on the Continent. Others met their fate on the guillotine. But despite the suspicion that surrounded some actors and playwrights, there seems never to have been any shortage of performers willing to take their place. As greater stability and tranquility returned to the city at the end of the 1790s under the rule of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, Paris now had more theaters than ever before in its history, and the city entered the nineteenth century as the undisputed European capital of both literary drama and popular vaudeville. Napoleon was to try, like the Bourbon kings before him, to restrain and censor the theater, introducing licensing and other censoring requirements in 1799 similar to those common under the Bourbon kings. But the sheer scale of the Parisian theatrical establishment made the institution increasingly difficult for state authorities to control. Thus the disputes and dilemmas that had become common in France in the last decades of the eighteenth century paved the way for the mass culture of theatrical entertainment that was to satisfy both popular and elite tastes in nineteenth-century Europe.