October 14, 2011

Dramaturgical Reflections: The English Restoration

What was the English Restoration?

The year 1660 marked the end of the English Commonwealth and the restoration of the English monarchy. Following the close of the English Civil War (1642-1648), Parliament tried and executed Charles I for treason (1649). His son and heir to the English throne, the eighteen-year-old Charles Stuart, was forced to flee England and spent more than a decade wandering among the courts of Europe. His attempts to reclaim the English throne were unsuccessful until the death of Oliver Cromwell (1658), then Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England. Disillusioned by the failed democratic experiment and desirous of greater social and political stability, royalist supporters of Charles II maneuvered his return to England in 1660 and his coronation in 1661. The Restoration was viewed by many as a time of hope, renewal, and reconciliation. It remained as yet unknown whether or not it would live up to its expectations.

Why is the Restoration an important point in English theatre history?

The English theatres had been closed in 1642 due to the turbulence of the burgeoning civil war. The performance of plays was banned during the Interregnum (the time between the execution of Charles I and the ascension of Charles II): a stark contrast to the active theatrical scene of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with their thriving public theatres and elaborate court masques. When Charles II returned to England in 1660, he issued theatrical patents to two men, Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant, who founded the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company (respectively). The existing corpus of plays was divided between them, and so began a theatrical patent system that would shape English theatre for more than a century.

The Restoration also marked several important changes to English theatrical practice, many of which continue to attract the research of historians and the creative imaginings of playwrights. The introduction of the professional English actress to the London stage occurred in the early years of the Restoration, followed shortly by the emergence of the first professional female playwright. Aphra Behn, though not the first woman to have a play published or produced in England, was the first woman to earn her living as a writer of plays, poems, and other prose.

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