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The English Stage: 1642 to 1705

ISSUE:  Spring 1929

The Commonwealth and Restoration Stage. By Leslie Hotson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $5.00.

The Commonwealth and Restoration stage is a field of interest essentially to modern scholars; for although Malone and Collier did some suggestive groundwork, the main body of facts as we accept them have been unearthed by such eminently capable scholars as C. H. Firth, J. Q. Adams, Hyder E. Rollins, H. W. Lowe, W. J. Lawrence, and Allardyce Nicoll. And now Mr. Leslie Hotson, again adding scholarship to a well-directed fortune, has produced largely from new records the most comprehensive and satisfying treatise upon the English stage from 1642 to 1705. He has uncovered a surprising amount of theatrical material from a minute examination of all the newsbooks and many of the pamphlets in the Thomason Collection of Tracts in the British Museum and from the Chancery Proceedings, Bills and Answers, and Six Clerks’ Divisions, 1649-1714. “Of new Chancery suits alone,” he writes, “I found some one hundred and twenty of the greatest importance to stage history.”

In the light of this new material, Mr. Hotson has cleared up perhaps the darkest gap in the continuity of the English stage. The Interregnum theaters, instead of being hollow things filled only with echoes of the past, are more clearly the homes of surreptitious productions, and as such were subject to lively, raids by the Puritan soldiers.

A Party of Foot Souldiers beset the House, surprized ‘em about the middle of the Play, and carried ‘em away in their habits, not admitting them to Shift, to Hatton-House then a Prison, where having detained them sometime, they Plunder’d them of their Cloths, and let ‘em loose againe.

Such sallies, usually caused by a tip from a half-starved and disgruntled actor, were costly also to the audience, who upon one typical occasion “were forced to pay the Souldiers 5s. a piece for their comming out, as well as for their going in.” New attention, too, is given the “opera” of Davenant. He was not quite the bold gentleman he has appeared, playing a daring game under the very noses of the Puritans. Perhaps Cromwell personally tolerated the performances; for no objection was raised until after the Protector’s death, and then petitions were filed in less than a month. The “opera” was a natural consequence of the hitherto unnoticed academy of Sir Balthazar Gerbier. In a burst of patriotism this academy was founded to supplant the Italian, French, and Spanish schools young Englishmen had been attending. Among the courses offered were “Musick, Playing on Instrtment, Dancing, Fencing, Riding the Great Horse, . . . Drawing, Painting, Limning, . . . and in particular the Secret Motions of Sceanes” The influence of such an academy coupled with the demand created by the large number of Royalists left in England made the “opera” practically inevitable. And then come the contributions to the colorful wanderings of George Jolly, actor of fortune and director of ability, with too hot a head. Originally an English actor, Jolly probably went to France with the Prince of Wales’s Company, which was disbanded for lack of pay in 1646. In April, 1648, he was at the head of fourteen actors who arrived in Cologne from the Netherlands. Until 1660 he quarreled and acted through Germany, especially at Nurnberg, Dresden, and Frankfort. In September, 1655, his company—for the nonce “The King’s Servants”—played before the exiled Charles II who had come incognito to the Frankfort Fair. In 1660 Jolly, was again in England getting permission from His Majesty to form the third acting company in London, in direct competition with Davenant and Killigrew. Through a series of abortive transactions Killigrew reduced him to director of the “nursery,” strolling player in the country, and competitive nonentity. “Such an end, that of a wretched underling at the mercy of tyrannical Tom Killigrew, is a sad one for Jolly—for Master George Jolly, the last of the famous English strollers in Germany; the first man to introduce actresses to the stage of Frankfurt-am-Main; the first English manager to develop the operatic form (preceding Davenant by several years); and, finally, the actor who had played ‘before the crowned heads of Europe.’ “

The “Commonwealth and Restoration Stage” contains many, hitherto unpublished facts about public and private bear-baiting during the Commonwealth; about Orange Moll, first employer of “poor Nellie”; about the financial exploits of Davenant and Killigrew. But perhaps the greatest contribution of the entire volume is the light thrown upon the conjectural points of the Interregnum theaters proper. Four theaters, including the Red Bull, receive attention. Three of these, important Restoration theaters—the Cockpit in Drury Lane; Gibbons’ Tennis Court, the first Theatre Royal; and Lisle’s Tennis Court, the first Duke’s Playhouse—are for the first time clearly traced to their beginnings. Surely such a wealth of new material so capably handled makes Mr. Hotson’s book indispensable to whoever would understand the English stage during one of its periods of most rapid advancement in the “theatrical.”


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