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Dulwich Players’ interview: our very own James Brown gives riveting insights on the Restoration age

Charles II Presented with a Pineapple, circa 1677, Hendrick Danckerts

A longstanding member of the Dulwich Players, James Brown has been involved in a number of productions, including The Importance of Being Earnest, As You Like It, Talking Heads and The Tempest. Having researched Restoration theatre as a postgraduate and currently teaching theatre, among other things, James is an expert on the subject. Ahead of the upcoming production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover, he has kindly agreed to answer our questions about the Restoration period and its theatre.

The Dulwich Players: Can you tell us a little bit about the political and social landscape of the Restoration?

James Brown: The monarchy was restored in 1660 when Charles II came back from exile.

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper

This was after the period of the civil wars in the 1640s and Cromwell’s rule as Lord Protector, the period of the Republic. The return of the monarchy was a great Royalist victory, but not necessarily a convincing one: it was virtually the result of no one having any better idea of what to do after Cromwell’s death. Cromwell had died in 1658 – of natural causes, to the Royalists’ chagrin. It didn’t stop them digging up his body to try to punish him. Indeed, his mouldering head was stuck on a spike above Westminster Hall for years.

But the Restoration didn’t solve many of the underlying issues that had contributed to the civil wars in the first place. A lot of these boiled down to a problem we’re wrestling with today: where does ultimate authority lie? As it happens, prorogation of Parliament was deployed after the Restoration as a key tactic in the continuing fractious debate about the rights of the Crown and the rights of Parliament. In some ways it continued to be a very unsettled period, but also hugely creative and intellectually adventurous. The nation seemed to lurch from crisis to crisis, but at the same time to be doing, or laying the foundations for doing, extraordinary things.

One indication of that is what happened in the middle of the 1660s. First, in 1665–6, there was an outbreak of the Plague that, at its height, killed some 7,000 people a week. Then, in early September 1666, in less than a week, the heart of London was incinerated in the Great Fire. It left most of the city, from the Tower to Temple Bar, a heap of smoking ruins. Later in Charles’s reign political crises would loom large – especially as he fought off an attempt to have his brother, James, excluded from the line of succession (that’s when Charles used Prorogation to silence Parliament), and there were waves of anti-Catholic paranoia, especially at the time of the Popish Plot.

The Great Fire of London 1666, Unknown Artist, from the Museum of London collection

Yet this is also the period in which the St Paul’s we know today was designed and started to be built, and in which the Royal Society began to give form to something like the idea of modern science. It’s the era of Isaac Newton and, in political thought, of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. There’s a real sense of seeing the world anew – or of seeing into the foundational principles on which the material and social worlds operate properly and for the first time. One way to register this extraordinary sense of people making a new world is to go down to Greenwich and wander around the buildings of the Greenwich Hospital. The roots of the design of the complex go back to the late seventeenth century. The sense of space and of a kind of frozen drama that those buildings communicate speaks to late-seventeenth-century preoccupations with dignity, status and grandeur. In many ways, the things they were most anxious about were the things which inspired their most striking works.

The Dulwich Players: How did the reopening of the theatres fit into that climate?

James Brown: The opening of the theatres was partly a question of reversing a policy of the Republic. Puritans had a longstanding wariness of drama. The whole idea of dressing up and pretending to be someone else looked as if it might entail a blasphemous refusal to accept one’s divinely appointed place in the world. But it wasn’t the theatres that had been shut down in the 1640s that reopened. The two courtiers, William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew, who cornered the market in drama in London in the 1660s sought to make a new start in this respect. Open-air theatres like the Globe didn’t reappear. Some had been disused even before Parliament had shut the theatres in 1642. Others, including the Globe had been demolished or partly demolished during the 1640s. More surprisingly, the indoor theatres of Shakespeare’s day didn’t make a comeback either – except in the very early 1660s when it was a question of getting plays on any old how. Restoration theatres weren’t restored theatres, but new ones.

South façade of the Dorset Garden Theatre, a picture from the libretto of The Empress of Morocco (1673).

Of the two companies that Charles II authorized to perform plays in London, the Duke’s Company, under the impresario William Davenant, was the most innovative. Davenant fairly quickly moved his troupe from Salisbury Court, which had been an indoor theatre before 1642, to an adapted tennis court in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He seems always to have wanted something different from what any of the pre-1642 theatres could provide. Scenery is the obvious thing to mention here. In 1671, the Duke’s Company finally built their own theatre from scratch, the Theatre Royal Dorset Garden, which was designed to accommodate lavish spectacles. Restoration theatres, in keeping with their times, were determined to offer novelty. Admittedly, the King’s Company, under Thomas Killigrew, wasn’t quite as committed to innovation. However, they had to keep up, and they too ended up in a new, purpose-built theatre at Drury Lane.

Another thing to mention here is that the theatres were now run by courtiers. Davenant and (especially) Killigrew had to enjoy some favour at court in order to secure the Letters Patent that would authorize them to put on plays, and stop anyone else competing with them. Professional theatre had always had a connection with the court – indeed, Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, had in theory been servants of the king, and were allowed to put on public plays, officially so that they would be ready when called upon to stage plays at court. After the Restoration, though, the king would sometimes simply turn up at the playhouse, rather than have the company perform at court. Notwithstanding the plot of Shakespeare in Love, this hadn’t happened before.

Trying to understand what was happening in social terms to theatre audiences over the seventeenth century is very tricky. The total audience capacity of London theatres after 1660 was a lot lower than in Shakespeare’s day, partly because there were no more big, open-air theatres, and partly because there were only two companies (and from 1682 to 1695, only one). In some respects, theatre had become more exclusive. But quite a wide range of people might still have made occasional visits. Nevertheless, especially in the 1660s, there is a sense of theatre having been a forum which somehow blurred the distinction between court entertainment and public performance.

The Dulwich Players: How was Charles II's proclamation to allow women on stage viewed by the court and by the general public?

James Brown: The court was fine with it – after all, women had appeared in court entertainments for some time. To judge from the box office appeal of a lot of the first generations of actresses, much of the public liked them too. Indeed, it’s been argued that Nell Gwynn’s personal popularity was so great that, even though she aimed to keep out of politics, she played a key role in ensuring popular support for her lover, the king. However, there was a section of public opinion that hated the mere idea of women performing onstage. This, admittedly, was a group that hated the theatre anyway, for its seeming blasphemy. Puritans also had a problem with women appearing onstage, since that sort of public role seemed to them, in their sexist way, to violate the supposedly natural modesty of womanhood.

The Dulwich Players: In your opinion, why did the king make his proclamation?

Portrait of Charles II by Godfrey Kneller, 1685 Walker Art Gallery collection

James Brown: The original royal grant of 1660, which gave the right to stage plays in London exclusively to Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant, said nothing about actresses. That licence was interpreted as permission, and actresses did start to appear, even though the last of the boy actors (as we saw in Compleat Female Stage Beauty) were also still performing. In some ways, this was just a question of catching up with continental practice – Royalists in exile during the Interregnum had been able to see women onstage during their enforced travels. But in 1662 Charles II issued the Letters Patent under the Great Seal to Killigrew and Davenant, confirming and consolidating the theatrical duopoly in more legally impressive documents – impressive enough that they are still in force. It is by virtue of these Patents that the Theatres Royal Drury Lane and Covent Garden are authorized to stage performances to this day by virtue of them (the surviving Patent can be seen here).

In the Patents, the question of female performers was addressed explicitly. The Patent noted that ‘some have taken offence’ at men acting ‘the women’s parts’, and that therefore women’s parts may now be performed by women. Given the nature of the Puritan opposition to acting, that’s a bit like saying that, since concerns have been expressed about the dangers of eating too many sweets, from now on school tuck shops will sell whiskey. However, the official point of permitting plays as stated in the Patents was a moral one: to give to the people ‘useful and instructive representations of human life’. In other words, they were going to help drama in its primary function of effecting moral reform. It’s hard not to suspect the king’s tongue was in his cheek when he signed his name to that claim.

The Dulwich Players: How were female actors considered during the Restoration? What were some of the challenges they faced?

Portrait of Nell Gwyn by Simon Verelst, circa 1680, National Gallery collection

James Brown: In a highly sexualized society, women appearing onstage were often regarded as little better than prostitutes. In many cases, they were viewed as fair game. Indeed, one of the commonest reasons why the careers of actresses were cut short was because, in the quaint phrase of John Downes, the prompter for the Duke’s Company, they were ‘by force of love erept the stage’. In other words, they became the mistress of some rich, often titled, man. Nell Gwynn is the most famous example of this, but not the only one. She started as the mistress of the actor Charles Hart, was then taken up by Charles, Lord Buckhurst, and then by the king. She used to joke that the king was her Charles III. Though she was illiterate, stories about Nell make her sound tremendously self-possessed and savvy.

Portrait of Anne Bracegirdle, circa 1840, Unknown Artist

For an actress who wasn’t prepared to play this kind of sexual game, the situation must have been nightmarish. Anne Bracegirdle, one of the great stars of the later Restoration theatre, was famous for keeping her admirers at a distance. In 1692, one Captain Richard Hill, along with Lord Mohun, tried to kidnap her, killing her colleague, the actor William Mountfort, in the process. Lord Mohun was acquitted by his peers. Though it wasn’t everyone who would resort to murder and kidnap to get what they wanted out of female performers, audiences were not accustomed to exercising self-restraint in the theatre. They could be voluble, so, besides developing their skills as actors, the first generations of women on the stage also had to develop incredible resilience.

The Dulwich Players: Did the king's proclamation lead to more and better parts being written for women?

James Brown: Yes, in some ways – especially once it was clear that there were some actresses who were committed to the stage, not just passing through as part of the career of a courtesan. But there had also been good female roles written for boy actors – think of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra for instance. What clearly did change is the way some female roles were conceived. To some extent, this works retrospectively. A character such as Rosalind in As You Like It spends much of the play disguised as a boy. When a boy actor plays her, her womanhood becomes very largely something conjured in the spectator’s imagination: we’re actually seeing a boy in boy’s clothes, but the story has got us to imagine him to be her.

But when roles like this were taken over by actresses, they came to be known as ‘breeches’ parts, because they required the actress to don comparatively revealing male leg-wear. This was a world in which the display of a woman’s leg was generally considered more sexually provocative than the display of a naked breast (hence those portraits in which the sitter is voluminously clothed, but with one breast on display). In other words, the breeches parts played by actresses involved a sense of their being sexual objects. It’s easy for theatre aficionados to assume that the Puritans were simply miserable and wrong in their opposition to the theatre. But actually they had a point, even if they sometimes expressed it intemperately. Other features of women’s roles would sometimes emphasise stereotypically feminine traits, especially (in tragedy) for the sake of pathos. And wit was much prized in performers both on and offstage (it was one of the things for which Nell Gwynn was famous), and a lot of the best actresses in comedy seem to have been able to project a kind of quick-witted sexuality.

The Dulwich Players: Was Aphra Behn, and the female playwrights who followed her, instrumental in giving women a voice, both on and off the stage?

James Brown: In some ways, yes – the example Behn set was groundbreaking. But female playwrights were working within a theatre culture that was wedded to what we would call gender stereotypes of a decidedly limiting kind. In any case, any playwright who wanted their works to be performed had to write for the acting companies as they actually composed, so they had to write decent roles for the male stars as well as the female actors. And male writers, too, could write very assured, assertive comic heroines. Think of Millamant (a role created by Anne Bracegirdle) in The Way of the World, a very late Restoration play: funny, independent, and defiant of many conventional gender norms. She’s a bit like the heroines of screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. In any case, since Behn was a Royalist, there were limits to how radical she was likely to be, unlike her younger contemporary Susanna Centlivre.

Portrait of Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely, circa 1670 The British Library collection

Where Behn’s own voice, or a version of it, does often come through is in her prologues and epilogues. As a form, these amount to a special kind of performance poetry. And she also got into trouble over some of the views she expressed in the prefaces to her plays. Her preface to The Dutch Lover, for example, was unusual in flatly denying that drama is morally improving. That was a provocative position at the time, though possibly true of much of the drama of her day. Yet in some ways Behn herself, large though she loomed in the professional theatre in her own lifetime, is elusive – even after the efforts of scholars over the last half century or so to engage with her work.

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