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Do you hear, let them be well used, for they are the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time; after your death you would better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live." That might be said of the journalists in our day, though, like the players, they are in danger of squandering their influence. It shows how close the actors of old came to the people and all the interests of daily life. The
very construction of a theatre brought familiarity between actors and audience. It was built, to take the case of the Globe, in a circular or octagonal form, with a central space, the yard, open to the sky; and there the common people, the groundlings, stood on the rush-covered earth to witness the performance. There was a gallery round a part of the building, and under it rooms or boxes, where the nobility and gentry sat. The stage was cut off by a curtain, but it was open to gay young fellows, who sat on stools or reclined among the rushes, and smoked or made free and easy comments as the play went on. Sometimes there was a balcony over the stage for convenience in representation ; and the dressing-room of the actors was in the rear. A change of scene was effected by closing the curtains in front, clearing the stage, and putting up a sign-board with the name of the place where the new action was supposed to occur. The performance was given in the afternoon, and a red flag flying from the roof of the theatre was the signal that it was in progress. The Globe Theatre would hold about two thousand people; and the prices of admission varied from a penny to a shilling, with a shilling or so extra for a choice seat, which amounts may be multiplied by eight, perhaps, to give their purchasing value in our money.
A player, under an act passed in 1571, was required to have a license from a peer of the realm, or “some person of higher degree,” or he was liable to be considered a vagabond; and about 1587 there were, besides three companies of choir-boys, six licensed companies of players, one named after the queen and the others after the noblemen who granted the licenses — the earls of Leicester, Oxford, Sussex, and Worcester, and Lord Howard of Effingham. There were no women in these companies, and the female characters were played by boys, as is shown by various allusions in the early dramatists. The first woman to appear on the professional stage was Margaret Hughes, the mistress of Prince Rupert, who took part in a performance December 8, 1660. Curiously enough, however, ladies of rank appeared in amateur theatricals from the time of Elizabeth,
and when Milton's “ Comus was performed at Ludlow Castle in 1634, Lady Alice Egerton acted the part of the heroine.
The sudden freedom out of which the glory of the English drama grew, led to its most serious blemish, licentiousness. The actors were not disreputable, but it is fair to assume that few of them were so respectable and prosperous as Shakespeare ; many of the dramatists were young scholars, who made a precarious living, and, if their gibes at one another are to be taken seriously, led dissolute lives and frequently fell into want; the audiences, however various in rank and culture, were alike in a certain coarseness of moral fibre and delight in broad jests. As a consequence, few plays of the age of Elizabeth and James are free from vile words, immoral suggestions, or indecent incidents. In the comedies the coarseness of some of the fun is to be pardoned because it is fun; and the filth seems no more out of place than in Aristophanes; but in the tragedies, unlike the pure and majestic dramas of Æschylus and Sophocles, senselessly foul scenes and passages are sometimes brought in to raise a laugh among the groundlings. Shakespeare sins in this way somewhat, and there is a sly, impudent audacity in many of his allusions that carries off a naughty jest, so that the innocent reader is unaware of the double meaning; but his immorality always comes in as humour and for the sake of the humour. He is too fond of fun to hesitate at indelicacy or even indecency, but he shows no love of indecency for its own sake. It was otherwise with some of his contemporaries, who, when other resources failed, were ready to be coarse as a last resort. The tendency to impurity remained after the great qualities of the early drama failed, and at times it became so much of an evil as to lay the stage open to the charge of becoming a source of public corruption. The Puritans, whom the actors had often ridiculed, lost no time, in the era of their ascendency, in pressing home this charge.
September 2, 1642, at the outbreak of the civil war, the Lords and Commons decreed that “while these sad causes and set times of humiliation do continue, stage plays shall cease and be forborne." October 22, 1647, another decree gave summary powers to magistrates to proceed against players; and February 9, 1648, an ordiance was passed declaring all actors rogues and subject to punishment as rogues, and authorizing the proper authorities to pull down all theatrical fittings, confiscate the money taken at theatrical performances, and fine each person present in the sum of five shillings.
And so for a time the public drama was suppressed. But there were private dramatic representations occasionally; and Will D'Avenant, in 1656, secured the privilege of giving entertainments in music and declamation, which were soon turned into the representation of plays; and when Charles II entered London in triumph, May 29, 1660, the theatres were at once re-opened, and a new dramatic era began..
The closing of the theatres in 1642 marks sharply the end of the first period in English dramatic literature, though, without the temporary suppression of the drama, a change might have come. The first rush of enthusiasm was over; the great dramatic poets had flourished and gone; the old plots had grown familiar by repetition; the fresh characters, hot from the creative imagination, had been often copied, and new characters were hard to find; favourite tricks of expression were growing wearisome; the primitive passions of love, jealousy, ambition, hatred, put to such fierce service in the theatre, were capable of no further variation; classic themes were stage-worn; Italian inspiration, so long potent in English literature, had spent its force; and the resources of Spanish invention had been pilfered and squandered. The actors were better, the stage equipment and scenery were improved, but the glory was gone from the plays.
It might be said that the old drama died in 1642, and that the drama of the Restoration was a new birth. There was something of passion and poetry in it, for Dryden, Otway, and Lee were capable of “brave translunary things”; and there was abundance of wit and humour, for the age was one of polish, sparkle, and repartee; and Congreve, Wycherley, and Farquhar might have held their own in those wit contests at the Mermaid Tavern of which Beaumont said in an epistle to Ben Jonson that it seemed as if each one of the company meant to put his whole soul into a jest. But the civil war had shattered many ideals and left few illusions, little faith and less enthusiasm. Gallantry had superseded love, –and manners had got the better of natural impulses, to some extent. The pastime of intrigue took the place of the hurrying struggle of the passions ; bigotry, politics, and sensual pleasure seemed to be the only things men were in earnest about. As a consequence, there were two essential differences between the old dramatists and the new-one in the stuff wherein they wrought, and the other in the audience that they addressed. The former dealt with human nature; the latter dealt with society and its conventions. The former appealed to the people; the latter
appealed to a small class of men and women of fashion. Speaking broadly, it may be said that whatever theme the early dramatists touched, whether in ancient Greece or Rome, mediæval Italy or contemporary England, or even in fairyland or on an enchanted island, they nearly always wrought naturally and sincerely, and conveyed an impression of intense reality through man, woman, ghost, fay, or misformed monster. There was creative art. Broadly speaking, the later dramatists seldom succeeded in producing more than an impression of the conventional and artificial, even in representing the life about them. They peopled the theatre with the creatures of imitative art. This statement is made to admit exceptions ; for even Shakespeare, in his youth, appealed to courtiers and scholars in “ Love's Labour's Lost," and forgot the real in the artificial.
No doubt the later dramatists went astray sometimes merely in their eagerness to seek new fields. Dryden makes the point with his usual terseness and clearness, in the defence of the return to the use of rhyme in the drama, which one of the speakers in the “ Essay of Dramatic Poetry” puts forward. Discussing Shakespeare and his comrades he says : “They are honoured and almost adored by us, as they deserve; neither do I know any so presumptuous of themselves as to contend with them. Yet give me leave to say thus much, without injury to their ashes, that not only we shall never equal them, but they could never equal themselves were they to rise and write again. We acknowledge them our fathers in wit, but they have ruined their estates themselves before they came to their children's hands. There is scarce a humour, a character, or any kind of plot which they have not used. All comes sullied or wasted to us; and were they to entertain this age, they could not now make so plenteous treatments out of such decayed fortunes. This, therefore, will be a good argument for us either not to write at all, or to attempt some other way. There is no bays to be expected in their walks." The relapse into rhyme was merely temporary; and though successful on the French stage, it passed out of English dramatic literature forever.
It was a new way unshadowed by laurel. It is a pity that in the search for novelty the dramatists of the Restoration did not think of striving after a better morality in their work. They reached a certain decency and decorum in language and put aside something of the coarseness of their predecessors; but they outdid them in licentiousness. The early dramatists despised
the Puritan and laughed at him ; but the later dramatists had reason to hate him, and for the sake of that hatred they put a sharp antagonism between the stage and good morals, common sense, and sobriety of life. Too often in ridiculing hypocrisy they fell to glorying in vice that happened to be shameless. In another age the faults of the dramatists of this era were modified, if not amended; but though there was sentimental comedy at one time, realistic drama at another, or a classic revival at a third, it may be said that they shaped the tendencies of the stage for more than a hundred years. Even to our day it has rarely escaped from old theatrical effects, dramatic traditions, artificial influences. It remained long the world of transparent villains, testy fathers, talkative heroes, and careless gallants; and it has seldom got back to real life or learned to put its trust in the people. It is more apt to give them what they are supposed to want than what they do want.
In “As You Like It,” where Phoebe falls suddenly in love with Rosalind disguised as a boy, she exclaims :
The dead shepherd was Christopher Marlowe, who is commonly called the forerunner of Shakespeare ; and the line quoted is from the poem of “Hero and Leander," a loose paraphrase from Musæus, left unfinished by Marlowe, which Swinburne describes as preëminent“ in clear mastery of narrative and presentation, in melodious ease and simplicity of strength," as well as in “the adorable beauty and impeccable perfection of separate lines and passages.” Marlowe is not much read except by poets and critics. The former love him as one of the sons of genius who lived unhappily and died early, with only fragments of his message to men put into articulate music; the latter study him as the comrade of Shakespeare, his elder brother in the art of song, the genius who gave the English drama its romantic cast, and the first writer to popularize the use of blank verse, the noblest instrument for the expression of exalted passion in dramatic composition. Marlowe began to write for the stage early, and his first play was produced in London before 1687, the year when he took his master's degree at Cambridge. He won popularity and leadership at once. He was of humble origin, but of a daring spirit, reckless in conduct and bold in thought, a scholar