Closing of the Theaters

The closing of England’s commercial theaters by Parliament in 1642 marked the end of Caroline drama and effected a twenty-year hiatus for virtually all licensed theatrical performance in England. Although the parliamentary act was an immediate response to specific political events surrounding the outbreak of the English Civil Wars, it followed closely upon several decades of intense Puritan hostility toward the theater.

Summary of Event

On September 2, 1642, the English parliament issued a proclamation banning the performance of stage plays, citing as its primary reason the imminent threat of civil war. Although the actual reasons for the closing of the theaters in England have been the subject of much scholarly debate, the actions taken by Parliament in 1642 followed upon several decades of increasing opposition to the commercial theater in London, much of which had been fueled by Puritan Puritanism;opposition to the theater polemicists. By the time the theaters were officially reopened in 1660, after the English Civil Wars had ended and as the Restoration of the monarchy was under way, the political landscape in England had changed dramatically. As a result, the dramas that appeared at the start of the Restoration were markedly different from their forebears, both in style and in their relation to politics. [kw]Closing of the Theaters (Sept. 2, 1642)
[kw]Theaters, Closing of the (Sept. 2, 1642)
Theater;Sept. 2, 1642: Closing of the Theaters[1480]
Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 2, 1642: Closing of the Theaters[1480]
Government and politics;Sept. 2, 1642: Closing of the Theaters[1480]
England;Sept. 2, 1642: Closing of the Theaters[1480]
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Beginning with the publication of Stephen Gosson’s Gosson, Stephen
The Schoole of Abuse
Schoole of Abuse, The (Gosson) (1579), Puritan reformers in England regularly attacked the theater as an immoral institution that needed to be abolished. This antitheatrical movement produced a steady stream of treatises and pamphlets throughout the next several decades, including a second treatise by Gosson, Playes Confuted in Five Actions
Playes Confuted in Five Actions (Gosson) (1582), as well as Phillip Stubbes’s Stubbes, Phillip
The Anatomie of Abuses
Anatomie of Abuses, The (Stubbes) (1583) and John Rainolds’s Rainolds, John
The Overthrow of Stage-Plays
Overthrow of Stage-Plays, The (Rainolds) (1599). The most notorious example of this polemical genre was William Prynne’s Prynne, William
Histrio-Mastix: The Players Scourge or Actors Tragedie
Histrio-Mastix (Prynne) (1633), a veritable compendium of previous antitheatrical works that ran more than eight hundred pages. The hysteria of Prynne’s writing was arguably matched by the punishment he received for it: He was charged with invective against the queen (who had herself acted in some theatrical productions at court) and subsequently had his ears chopped off.

Like most cultural biases, the Puritan antipathy toward the theater in seventeenth century England cannot be attributed to a single concern. Most of the antitheatrical treatises cited classical sources (such as Plato and Saint Augustine) in order to justify their attacks on the stage, but it is more likely that the theater became a nexus for contemporary social, cultural, and political anxieties. Women were not permitted to perform in the commercial theaters, so many antitheatricalists cited the stage’s habit of cross-dressing as yet another example of its moral depravity. In truth, opponents of the theater frequently lumped it in with a laundry list of other purported vices, such as mixed dancing, gambling, polyphonic music, classical poetry, makeup, and extravagant clothing, so the reason for the prejudice is likely to be overdetermined.

During the early decades of the seventeenth century, the theater came to be increasingly associated with Royalist politics, and this fact inevitably further polarized Reformist attitudes. William Laud, Laud, William the royal chaplain and later the archbishop of Canterbury, had become an intensely polarizing figure during the reigns of James I and Charles I Charles I (king of England);Puritans and , and he was effectively seen as the epitome of Catholic-leaning Royalist politics by most Puritan reformers. Laud’s advocacy of extravagant ceremony in church ritual (a practice particularly despised by Reformists) and his tacit approval of courtly theatrical productions, such as the court masque, made it easy for Puritans to associate the theater with a “Laudian” brand of politics that seemed to be dominating royal policy. The idea that the theater was a Royalist institution was further bolstered by the fact that many of the leading dramatists in the 1630’s and 1640’, such as William Davenant, Davenant, William themselves had strong ties to the court.

By 1642, tensions between the king and Parliament had escalated. When fighting finally broke out, Parliament issued an order closing the theaters as an emergency response to the growing sense of crisis. The theater was recognized as providing an opportunity for large gatherings of people to foment political causes, and this was precisely what the government wished to control. The closing of the theaters was likely not intended as a permanent state, at least initially, and over the next several years the ban on commercial acting had to be periodically reinstated.

The ban on theaters did not mean the cessation of dramatic writing, or even of dramatic performance, during the years between 1642 and 1660. The government conducted periodic raids on playhouses throughout the 1640’, and actors were periodically charged with violating the 1642 law. Moreover, after the theaters were closed, dramatic writing became subsumed in the proliferation of pamphlets, which arguably became the principal medium for disseminating political news and debate in England during this period. These pamphlets, which regularly voiced disparate views on contemporary political events, were often composed as dialogues—in a sense, as plays intended to be read rather than performed.

Rather than closing off drama as a venue for political expression, the 1642 edict had the effect of solidifying the theater’s reputation as a politically charged medium. Dramatic writing during this period, whether published or performed, was received as political or social commentary, and many of the plays produced immediately after the Restoration in 1660 (particularly those written by John Dryden, Dryden, John Thomas Killigrew, Killigrew, Thomas and Roger Boyle, Boyle, Roger first earl of Orrery) were more explicitly Royalist than anything that had been staged before 1642. This self-conscious politicization of the theaters may also account for the subsequent development of Restoration drama, represented by writers such as Aphra Behn Behn, Aphra and William Congreve, Congreve, William which has often been described by critics as excessively light and lascivious in comparison to the more weighty drama of the English Renaissance. Restoration dramatists, who placed a high value on brilliant wit and incisive social commentary, had undoubtedly been affected by the often violent intersection of theatrical and political expression during the Civil War.


Recent scholarship has shown that the closing of the theaters in 1642 cannot be interpreted simply as the culmination of decades of Puritan attacks on the London stage. More likely, Parliament’s decision to close the theaters was as much an effort at social control as it was a response to the theater’s perceived immorality. For one thing, the closing of the theaters was most immediately intended to curb opportunities for political assembly in the first waves of civil war, and it was almost surely intended to be only a temporary ban. However, the coincidence of Puritan antitheatricalism and increasing Reformist dissatisfaction with the monarchy had invested the theater with political significance over the first few decades of the seventeenth century, and the 1642 proclamation further encouraged the idea that theatrical performance was an inherently political event.

The relationship between theater and politics was thus significantly transformed by the English Civil Wars, and plays were subsequently seen as viable outlets for overt political and social commentary. After the theaters were officially reinstated in 1660, plays produced during the Restoration period tended to be more focused on domestic affairs, rather than on mythological or historical themes, as they had been during the age of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.

Further Reading

  • Barish, Jonas. The Antitheatrical Prejudice. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. The preeminent study of the historical bias toward the theater, beginning with a careful study of classical Platonic antitheatricalism and ending with a consideration of twentieth century works. The chapters on Renaissance England are extremely useful for their ample references to a large number of primary sources.
  • Butler, Martin. Theatre and Crisis, 1632-1642. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. A concise, lucid study of English drama immediately preceding the closing of the theaters, which problematizes the common assumption that the drama of the 1630’s and 1640’s was Royalist.
  • Smith, Nigel. Literature and Revolution in England, 1640-1660. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994. An impressively comprehensive and well-argued study of the various literary forms that produced political expression during the English Civil Wars. Includes a chapter on the status of drama during the Interregnum. Illustrations.
  • Wikander, Matthew H. Fangs of Malice: Hypocrisy, Sincerity, and Acting. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002. A study of the rise of Puritan antitheatricalism and responses to it during the early modern period, although it erroneously asserts that the theater of Shakespeare simply dissolved in 1642.
  • Wiseman, Susan. Drama and Politics in the English Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. An extremely cogent and well-written account of the status of drama during the English Civil Wars; persuasively undercuts the long-standing idea that the Civil War represented a “gap” in English drama. Illustrations, bibliography.

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Aphra Behn; Charles I; Charles II (of England); John Dryden; Henrietta Maria; James I; William Laud. Theater;English closing of