Late-17th and 18th Century British Theatre

Once again I’m utilising a discussion paper for a blog post (hey, there’s no law that says I can’t!). So below you find, for your reading pleasure, a diatribe on 18th century British theatre.

The ideas and politics of the Enlightenment played a massive role in British theatre.  Between the age of Elizabethan theatre and the restoration of the monarchy (roughly 1649-1660), most English theatres were kept closed by the Puritans for political reasons. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and under the patronage of Charles II, English theatre flourished.

During the rein of Charles II, England saw playwrights such as John Dryden, William Wycherley, John Vanbrugh and Thomas Otway; and saw the development of restoration comedies, along with heroic dramas and pathetic dramas. Restoration comedy was a huge change for Britain, and became notorious for its sexual explicitness…which was a direct correlation to the personality of Charles II. The rush of Enlightenment ideas was directed related to the ability of British theatre and the advent of restoration comedy.

By the beginning of the 18thcentury, and the rein of William III, restoration comedy had lost favour with the English audience, and was replaced by sentimental comedies and domestic tragedies. In 1707, the Acts of Union joined the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain (which was mostly a parliamentary procedure, considering that England and Scotland shared a monarchy, but had separate parliaments). The Act of Union was both an act of the Enlightenment, and impact on British theatre.

The Enlightenment allowed for the first professional English woman playwright, the advent of the restoration comedy, and Acts of Union. All of these combined created a specific theatre environment in Britain, including the desire to regulate it. In 1737 the Licensing Act was passed, which was a political ploy to allow the regulation of political theatre.

Robert Walpole, the First Lord of the Treasury, was less than popular, particularly in art circles, and particularly among dramatists. John Gay, Henry Fielding and Henry Carey were particularly unkind to Walpole in their plays. Gay alleged that in Beggar’s Opera that Walpole had links to the mobster Jonathan Wild, Fielding took specific aim at Walpole in Tom Thumb, Covent Garden Tragedy and Pasquin, while Carey’s Chrononhotonthologos made ambiguous attacks on Walpole by relating him to a king. Other playwrights made specific political references to liberty, which were attacks against dominant men in politics, a reference Walpole took personally. In retaliation, and as a political move for control of the House of Commons, Walpole had the Licensing Act passed, which allowed theatre in Britain to be censored by requiring any play to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain prior to being staged. Walpole used this to have the sequel to the Beggar’s Opera, Polly, banned.

The Licensing Act had a huge impact on British theatre. Plays that did pass the censors were often mistrusted by the public, and left a huge deficit in new plays to perform, which led to the Shakespearean revivals of the 18th century. A significant portion of political playwrights turned their creativity to the writing of novels and closet plays after the passage of the Licensing Act, which tempered the discussions that came out of the theatre. The Licensing Act, completely antithesis to Enlightenment ideas, was entirely responsible for stilting the theatre movement in Britain, and the rise of the Augustan drama.

The impact of the Enlightenment on theatre in Britain created a twofold situation: on one hand it allows for the growth of political and social satire theatre, which had been stifled in the early 17th century by religious extremism, but it also allowed for the development of government to create more barriers for creative ideas, like the Licensing Act, which stifled. Theatre throughout Europe developed a more obvious political slant during the Enlightenment, and this was obvious in Britain. Regardless of any political machinations to stifle the growth of theatre in Britain, the Enlightenment’s impact is easy to see… particularly in the way the ideals of the Enlightenment were presented on stage.

(The Licensing Act was law in Britain until 1968… it was revised in 1843 with the Theatre Acts, which limited the Lord Chamberlain’s censoring abilities, and abolished by the Theatre Acts of 1968…and if there’s any question how strict and ridiculous the Lord Chamberlain could be, ask Oscar Wilde).

——–

References:

Brown, John Russell. The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 200-219 and 255-298.

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