Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century: English Theater 1660–1700


Restoration and Theater

  • Public theater was restored when Charles II (1630–1685) reestablished the Monarchy in 1660 after 18 years of Parliamentary rule.
  • Restoration Theater (1660–1700) catered to the aristocracy and was therefore more limited than the theater of Elizabeth I or of James I.
  • William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew received royal patents to form theatrical companies and purchase/build theaters.
  • Killigrew’s troupe—the King’s Company—first performed at an indoor tennis court, then moved to the Theatre Royal until 1672 when it burned down and was renamed the Drury Lane Theatre.
  • Davenant’s troupe—the Duke’s Company—used a converted tennis court known as Lincoln Inn’s Fields Theatre until moving to the Dorset Garden Theatre in 1671.

Playhouses, Audience, and Actors

  • Restoration playhouses were smaller than London open-air theaters of the late sixteenth century, holding no more than 600 spectators, all seated within 35 feet of the stage.
  • Boxes above sides of stage displayed the audience, and frequently spectators were seated onstage where they interrupted actors.
  • Auditorium and stage were lit by candelabra.
  • The theater was a social arena for social classes—women wore masks (vizards) to disguise themselves, often to set up rendezvous similar to the love affairs performed on stage.
  • Charles II allowed for women actors in order to replace boys playing female roles; this led to sexually charged scenarios as actresses often wore tight fitting breeches.

Restoration Drama

  • Pre–Civil War plays (Shakespeare, Jonson) were revived and the heroic tragedy flourished with its profound characters, exoticism, and elegant verse.
  • Other tragedies observed French neoclassicism and its dramatic unities.
  • John Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668) defended English tragedy over French models.
  • Comedy of manners is a genre in which plays were set in contemporary London, featured wordplay and innuendo among rakes, jealous husbands, clever servants, abandoned lovers, etc., and often contained a secondary plot with conventional lovers.
  • Some comedies of manners (e.g., The Country Wife) are about witty rather than conventional couples, and investigate fashion, marriage as a social contract, and masculinity.
  • The growing middle class rejected Restoration comedy as immoral, and Jeremy Collier published A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) to attack and end it.