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When Puritans Closed Theatres

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Cheerless Puritanism

Puritanism emerged in the 16th century as a reaction to what its followers believed was Roman Catholic ideas infiltrating the Anglican Church. The straight-laced Puritans wanted the country to follow their rather dour version of Christianity. Those aiming to get to Heaven were instructed to lead holy lives devoid of frivolous behaviour.

The Puritans considered actors to be agents of the Devil.

The Puritans considered actors to be agents of the Devil.

Puritan Beliefs

The Puritans favored an austere approach to salvation; they wanted none of what they saw as Roman Catholic gaudiness and ostentation. In their places of worship there was to be no ornamentation nor any colorful clerical robes. There must be nothing that distracted the congregation from veneration of God.

Of course, the Ten Commandments formed the bedrock of their beliefs about how humans must behave. But, as a radical Protestant sect, Puritans were against a lot of other things, particularly anything that might be construed as fun.

They viewed personal enjoyment as being in some sort of competition with leading a Godly life. What they termed “sinful behaviour” they also defined as criminal:

  • Anything that might be considered work on Sunday was banned;
  • Women were not allowed to wear make-up;
  • Festivals such as Christmas and Easter were banned because they were derived from pagan celebrations and, therefore, were blasphemous;
  • Swearing was punishable by a fine;
  • Adultery was punishable by death; and,
  • Horse racing was not allowed.

The Bible was seen as the sole authority for guiding the lives of Puritans, although it's unclear where the injunction against wearing lace can be found in the Scriptures.

The Puritans brought their uncompromising version of Protestantism with them to America as exemplified by the Salem witch trials of 1692. Here, the examination of a "witch" is depicted.

The Puritans brought their uncompromising version of Protestantism with them to America as exemplified by the Salem witch trials of 1692. Here, the examination of a "witch" is depicted.

Elizabethan and Jacobean Theatre

Added to the list things that Puritans considered horrible and ungodly were stage plays.

Elizabeth I had been a great lover of theatre and during her reign some of England's greatest playwrights thrived. Her patronage of theatrical performances had been carried on enthusiastically by her successors, James I and Charles I.

We think of William Shakespeare as the preeminent playwright of the period, but there were many other talented dramatists.

  • Christopher Marlowe who wrote Tamburlaine;
  • Ben Johnson (Valpone);
  • John Webster (The Duchess of Malfi) and others.

Thomas Kyd wrote a play called The Spanish Tragedy in about 1587. It was a particularly gory piece and established a new genre—the tragedy of blood. It was immensely popular and the theme was copied by many playwrights.

Comedies were also much loved because of their bawdy scenes filled with sexual innuendo.

Audiences were often raucous and talked back to the actors. Pickpockets and prostitutes plied their trades as performances took place. Poor folk could get in to the standing-room-only pit for a penny and they loved the spectacle; Puritans not so much.

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Closing the Theatres

Under Queen Elizabeth I, Puritans did not make a lot of headway. As they became better organized, their influence in Parliament grew until by the 1630s they dominated the country's political discourse.

Under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritans challenged the power of the monarchy. This led to the Civil War and the beheading of King Charles I who had the misfortune to be on the losing side.

While fighting the monarchists, the Puritans also moved to impose their rigid moral code on society. According to lookandlearn.com, “For all their hard-working, God-fearing qualities, the Puritans had a peculiar dread of people enjoying themselves. The theatre excited people, so it must be evil. Excitement must only stem from religion. One preacher complained that people could listen to a play for several hours, but could only stand an hour of his sermons.”

So, on September 6, 1642, under Cromwell's direction, Parliament ordered the theatres in London closed. Or, as they put it, “public stage-plays shall cease and be forborne,” adding that actors were to be “taken as rogues.”

In the opinion of the joyless men in the House of Commons the public performance of plays was “lascivious mirth and levity.” Well, we can't have that, can we?

In 1643, actors, no doubt hurting mightily from unemployment, petitioned Parliament to reopen their theatres. They promised that they had “purged our stages of all obscene and scurrilous jests.” The Puritans obstinately refused to reintroduce pleasure to the crowds. They went further and, in 1644, pulled down the iconic Globe theatre.

The Show Must Go on

An underground performance circuit developed. Actors appeared in public houses and private homes; the Puritans' morality police could not catch them all.

Masques, which had become popular under the Jacobean rulers, were still performed. These were entertainments held in great houses that involved singing, dancing, and acting. The performers, usually the lords and ladies of the district, were amateurs. They still had to be careful not to be caught by Cromwell's puritanical enforcers.

This is where we meet a remarkable person, Sir William D’Avenant. He was a godson of William Shakespeare and the author of several masques.

A new art form, opera, had morphed out of the masques. The Puritans had not banned music, perhaps because Cromwell enjoyed it, and Sir William persuaded the authorities to allow operatic performances. Singers were not actors, he might have argued, and therefore not depraved rascals beyond the hope of redemption.

In 1656, a performance of the opera The Siege of Rhodes was mounted and nobody was struck down by lightning bolts unleashed by a deeply offended and vengeful god.

Four years later, Cromwell died and the monarchy was restored in the person of Charles II. Known as the “Merry Monarch,” Charles lifted the bans of the Puritans and the English theatre enjoyed a renaissance.

The Merry Monarch displaying a flamboyant style that would have shocked the Puritans.

The Merry Monarch displaying a flamboyant style that would have shocked the Puritans.

Bonus Factoids

Dr. Dennis M. Clausen is a professor of American literature at the University of San Diego. In an article in Psychology Today he argues that puritanism is being revived in the United States. He cites the following examples:

  • Book banning is on the increase;
  • “Librarians and teachers are subjected to threats against their lives if they teach unacceptable subjects;”
  • “The roles of women in marriage and society are once again under attack. Some state governments are even debating what tests might be used to determine whether or not a woman is pregnant;”
  • Right-wing Christian nationalists are challenging the concept of the separation of church and state;
  • The Puritans of the 17th century viewed the poor and homeless as being damned—that idea has returned and has led to violent attacks on the indigent; and,
  • “As was the case with their seventeenth-century predecessors, today’s Puritans are determined, or so it seems, to take control of our private lives.”

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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