Heather's Monthly Articles

Theatre Shut Down

April 2020

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The Globe Theatre, London

It’s been over a month since theatres lowered their curtains and ghost lights became a permanent stage fixture. Now with both Broadway and London’s West End announcing they’ll stay shuttered at least through June - if not longer - members of the theatre-going public have resorted to having to attend shows from the comfort of their couches, courtesy of social media. An option that wasn’t possible – let alone plausible – back in the 16th and 17th centuries, when theatres were frequently plagued – so to speak – with closures.

Between 1603 and 1613, a period in history when Shakespeare supposedly wrote 13 of his 37 works, it is reported that theatres were closed for a total of 78 months. If it wasn’t outbreaks of plague shuttering the theatres, it was the Puritans. In 1642, for instance, the Puritan-led parliament ordered all London theatres be closed indefinitely. Their crime? For presenting “stage-plays representative of lascivious mirth and levity.”

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The Merry King – Charles II

The forced closures were met with resistance from the actors who petitioned parliament to reopen their places of work and from the theatres themselves who held clandestine performances. The Puritan parliament promptly upped the ante and introduced fines for spectators and ordered playhouses to be pulled down. This period in time coincided with the start of the English Civil War and it’s probably no coincidence that a record number of actors fought on behalf of the Royalists against the puritanical Parliamentarians.

The ban on theatres wasn’t lifted until 1660, when the monarchy was restored and King Charles II returned to the throne after years of exile. Known as the Merry Monarch, Charles II encouraged the licensing of new theatres, new plays to be written and allowed women to act on stage. Previously the female roles had been taken by males – hence the reason why so many of Shakespeare’s plays have female characters who spend most of the play dressed up as men.

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The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London

Under Charles II, it became fashionable to go to the theatre and their design moved away from the amphitheatre style, to the ornately decorated, proscenium arch-like theatres we know today. Two theatres that were granted royal patents under the reign of Charles II – The Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Covent Garden - are both are still operating today. Or they were until they, along with theatres the world over, became victims of coronavirus.

Although it remains unknown exactly when theatres in London’s West End will reopen, if they can survive plagues, puritans and the Blitz of World War II, it goes without saying that their shows will go on.

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