Last week, we began rehearsals for Quintessence Theatre Group's Spring Repertory, Shakespeare's LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST and John Ford's THE BROKEN HEART.  Both products of the English Renaissance, their careers spanned the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I.  Our director, Alex Burns, politely suggested that someone in the company do a little research and explore a bit about what it might have been like to work in the theatre under each of those Monarchs, what the social climate was like and how that influenced the fortunes of the playhouses and playwrights of the time.  As it turned out, I got a day off from rehearsal while blocking began on the first act of LOVE'S LABOUR'S, so I spent a few hours assembling this little geek-fest overview of historical things.  Enjoy!

(Oh, yes, and the rep will open on March 15th and run through April 23rd.)

HENRY VIII – 1509-1547

In the 1400s, the Renaissance begins in Italy.  Its progressive cultural ideals help to lead, not indirectly, to the Protestant reformation in 1517.  A decade later in England, King Henry VIII also declares England’s independence from the Catholic Church and establishes the protestant Church of England.  England embraces a progressive cultural mind-set, and the English renaissance truly begins.  Art and Science and Ideas are embraced in new ways, and Henry VIII embraces them as well, because of how it ultimately validates his greatness and his decision to split from the old ways of doing things.

This graph is lifted from the " English Renaissance Theatre " wikipedia page.

This graph is lifted from the "English Renaissance Theatre" wikipedia page.

ELIZABETH I – 1558-1603

During the second half of the 16th century, under the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth I, the English renaissance is in full swing.  Whereas the Italian renaissance was focused primarily on visual arts, in England, the focus has been on literature and music.  As the theatre is a natural marriage of these two disciplines, its prominence, too, begins to grow swiftly.

BUT, as the theatre becomes more popular, the members of the Church hierarchy begin to work more fervently to suppress its influence.  Actors are considered a nefarious sort of people.  Gypsies, Homosexuals, all of the reasons the Church has always disliked theatre-types.  Although there are also legitimate concerns:  The plague is still a problem, and large public gatherings facilitate its spread.  Rioting was always a concern for the local municipalities where performances would take place.  And so there were common concerns, both legitimate, and simply superstitious about the perpetuation of the art form.

Nevertheless, by 1576, in London, the popularity of acting troupes – and the plays that are being written for them to perform - had grown so great that James Burbage is able to build the first permanent venue for theatrical performances.  It is named simply, “The Theatre”.  The city of London has decreed that no playhouse may be built within the boundaries of London-proper, but this stipulation does not stymie the ambitions of the theatre companies just outside the city limits. The Curtain Theatre opens a year later in 1577.  The Rose Theatre is built in 1587.  The “Theatre” will be taken down in 1597 (when the landlord owning the property it is built on decides not to renew the lease on the land), and is rebuilt alongside the Thames, opening a year later, and renamed The Globe Theatre.

Elizabeth I – and perhaps more specifically, the noble hierarchy beneath her – fully indulge the fashionable art form.  The rising skills and talents on display are evidence of England’s successful cultural Renaissance, and that in turn exalts the successful reign of the Queen.   It is common for the learned nobles to financially endorse their favorite actors or acting troupes, even licensing their names to the troupes, and protecting their business interests.  “Queen Elizabeth’s Men” were established in 1583.  “The Admiral’s Men” and “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” would soon follow.  Occasionally, certain nobles will even become playwrights themselves. 

The church and the city governments remained resentful, but the protections of the Queen and the nobles were rather difficult to overcome.  The playhouses had a very healthy place to grow and thrive during the latter years of Elizabeth I’s reign.  (Apparently the ideological struggle could result in some interesting back and forths.  At one point the playing of public performances was banned around London.  The Queen decreed that the giving of a play would be regarded as a "rehearsal" for a royal production at the palace. Of course these "rehearsals" could be as numerous as the manager wished, and the public could be, and was, admitted.)

JAMES I – 1603-1625

When James I took the throne upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603, there was a subtle shift.  James I was Elizabeth I’s cousin.  As she had no children, he was next in line to the throne upon her death.  James was also King of Scotland and had been so since his 1st birthday in 1567.  When he became King of England as well in 1603, it unified the two kingdoms.  James I was incredibly well educated.  He also had a very deep belief in the God-appointed and God-like status of the king.  He was very much a child of the renaissance and reveled in how England’s cultural dominance exalted both the country and his position as King.  (His greatest legacy was his commission of a new English language translation of the Bible, which remains in frequent use and is the most published book in the history of the world.) He was a great supporter of the playhouses, and The King’s Men quickly became the dominant entity in the London theatre scene.

His passion, though, did tip a certain balance, and during his 22-year reign, his indulgences set the stage for much darker times in England.  He became known for spending lavishly on the things that amused him.  And he saw little need for any balances of power across the English government.  He was appointed and ordained by God, therefore he often treated parliament as an obstacle and a nuisance -- and parliament responded in kind.  In 1610, after continued squabbles over how much money parliament would approve for the royal budget, James I briefly dismissed them.  In 1614, after a similar aggressive dispute, he disbanded them altogether and ruled without a parliament at all until 1621.  All the while, his indulgent spending on pursuits of pleasure, and on bribes and paying off his “favorites” increased and spiraled.

In addition, the early years of his reign were marked by a series of plots against him, culminating in the famous Gunpowder plot of 1605, in which a small band of Jesuit priests intended to blow up parliament during a session in which James I was scheduled to be present.  Though he survived each of the political and murderous plots against him, they fueled a great tendency he had toward paranoia, and he was always suspicious of schemes against him, both corporal and supernatural.

As the political climate began to shift, the playhouses and the theatre community found themselves in a curious position.  They were operating in a time of unprecedented success for the art of the theatre.  They were aware, even in their time, that they were performing the greatest works of literature in the history of the English language, if not the world.  It was possible to achieve a real measure of fame and wealth within their profession – to legitimately rub elbows with Kings and Queens – when their spiritual ancestors a generation or two before were little more than bawds and gypsies. 

King James I (and later his son Charles I) often commissioned spectacular private performances called 'masques' which involved music, dance, opulent costumes and extraordinary scenery and special effects. They were performed once or twice at one of the royal palaces and were only seen by members of the court. Such lavish court entertainments were fashionable throughout Europe as an expression of princely power.

Masques were often used to celebrate royal occasions such as a wedding or birth. Design and visual symbols played an important role in masques which called for lavish costumes and sets. Nobles and royalty would take part, often playing gods or heroes while the other roles were played by professional actors.

Court entertainments were far more opulent than those of the public playhouses, but professional actors and writers crossed over between both. Masque-like elements began to be included in popular plays. (There are masque scenes in Thomas Kyd's 'The Spanish Tragedy' and Shakespeare's 'Cymbeline' and 'The Tempest'. Ben Jonson wrote masques for the court as well as drama for the public playhouses.)

And so, the playhouses (and the actors and playwrights who worked in them) owed much of their success to the patronage of the nobles and -- especially under James I -- the crown itself.  So by default, the vast majority of actors, playwrights, and theatre owners were Royalists and devoted to the king.  This during a time when the more puritanical elements in the country - the conservative, religious, populist elements – were very much on the rise.

CHARLES I – 1625-1649

Were James I died, and his son Charles I assumed the throne, the societal rifts in England grew deeper.  He tried hard to embrace his father’s ideals of an absolute monarchy, but lacked his father’s charisma.  Charles had a bad habit of levying taxes on the population without the prior consent of parliament.  At the same time, he also continued to live the lavish lifestyle his father had displayed.  He and his parliament were constantly, vehemently at odds with each other.  His standing grew even worse when he chose to marry Henrietta Maria of France, a Catholic.  This angered and riled the suspicion of the Puritans in England, a group that had gained a great deal of support in the country.  In addition, it was perceived that he had failed to lend proper support to the protestant armies fighting in the Thirty Years War, and when he tried to force the Church of Scotland to adopt their practices, it sparked what was known as the Bishop’s wars.  All of this lent greater and greater influence to both the Scottish and English parliaments and led directly to the English civil war when each parliament raised an army against the King.

Most of the major English playwrights of the first half of the 17th century (at least those whose works have survived the pass of time) had long completed their careers by the time of James I’s death.  Ben Johnson was still at work during Charles I’s reign, but the bulk of his output was behind him by then as well.  John Ford wrote primarily under Charles I, but even most of his work (at least that which survives) was during only the first 7 or 8 years of Charles I’s rule.  It is perhaps also not a coincidence that Ford’s work is said to show a strong influence from Robert Burton’s pseudo-medical text, “The Anatomy of Melancholy”. 

Beyond the early/mid 1630s, the playhouses seemed to be in a state of decline, as England become more and more embroiled in what would become an all-out civil war, in which the nation’s parliaments, with the support of the many of the people and led primarily by the Puritans, would successfully overthrow and oust Charles I, in spite of support from a strong royalist faction in England. 


In 1642, the civil war broke out and all of the playhouses were closed to prevent public disorder.  The Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, opposed theatrical performances and were at loggerheads with King Charles I who promoted theatre at his court. (In 1632 William Prynne had lost his ear for denouncing dancing as a 'Devil's Mass' and women actors as 'notorious whores' in his book Histriomastix. This was seen as a personal attack on Queen Henrietta Maria who loved the theatre and often performed in masques.)

The theatres remained closed throughout the war.  Charles I was captured by the Scottish army in 1646, and turned over to the English parliament in 1647.  There was a brief resurgence by the royalist army in 1648, but it was put down and Charles remained in captivity.  He was tried for treason against England in January of 1649, found guilty, and beheaded several weeks later.

In total, the playhouses remained permanently closed for 18 years, throughout the control of Cromwell’s Puritanical government rule.  Many theatres were not only closed, but torn down, including The Globe in 1644 (It now exists, near the original site, in a replica built and opened in the late 1990s), and were not reopened until the Monarchy was reestablished with the crowning of Charles I’s son, Charles II, in 1660.  At that time, a man named William Davenant, who was rumored to be an illegitimate son of William Shakespeare, was, along with Thomas Killigrew, granted a theatrical patent from Charles II, giving them a virtual monopoly over the London theatre scene.  Davenant immediately opened the Duke Theatre and began to reestablish the playhouse by presenting adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays set with music, like operettas.

Primary Internet Sources: