A product of religious fervour and political upheaval, the banning of plays in London on the 6th September 1642 was a moment than has come to symbolize the grey years of Puritanical rule in England. After decades of the likes of Shakespeare, Webster and Marlowe creating a thriving theatrical scene in the capital, the playhouses then fell silent until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
Such a move would have been impossible if London had still resided under the rule of a monarch. Theatre and the court had long been intertwined, and from the reign of Elizabeth I onwards performing to the monarch as well as the ordinary people of the city was frequent – and in this sense theatre had provided a wonderful and unprecedented form of entertainment that all classes had in common. Though this was changing somewhat by Charles I’s reign, when plays were now less bawdy and aimed at a more high-brow audience, the playhouses of London were still packed with people enjoying works written during the previous decades. For Elizabeth, and her successors James I and Charles I, the theatre was a good way of keeping the people of London happy, and something that they enjoyed being associated with. Charles’ enemies, on the other hand, were fervent Puritans, united by their disapproval of the monarchy, which was seen as too Catholic, and of the theatre, which was despised for its frivolity, and – like most other forms of entertainment – regarded as sinful.
These views were central to the Puritan movement, which regarded the reformation of the Protestant English church to be only half complete, and had the aim of stamping out remaining traces of Catholicism, such as excessive levity, and – if necessary – a royal family that was seen as far too sympathetic to the Catholics. King Charles I’s grandmother Mary Queen of Scots had been implicated in a number of Catholic-inspired plots against the Protestant Elizabeth I, and he was well-known for doting on his French Catholic wife. By 1642 there was also the growing friction between the King, who maintained belief in his divine right to absolute rule, and the mainly Puritan-dominated Parliament, who were chafing under what they saw to be Charles’ heavy-handed and incompetent rule.
In January things came to a head, when Charles broke all the laws of England’s unwritten constitution by marching into the House of Commons and demanding the arrest of five influential Puritanical members who had been in strong opposition to him. By the time he arrived, they had fled, and – realising the scale of his actions – he left the capital shortly afterwards, preparing for a civil war with his own Parliament that he would eventually lose, costing him his life in 1649. This left London solely in parliamentary control, and power in the hands of the unpopular but politically gifted Puritan faction.
The banning of plays in September was ordered by the “Long Parliament,” which would remain in power until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. It declared that “public stage plays” which were of “lascivious merth and levity” were incompatible with “these times of humiliation” and civil war. The playhouses themselves were not closed but used for other events, and only very short unofficial performances were permitted in London. In 1648 the ban was enshrined in law, though a predictable underground scene never went away. The wait for their restoration was long, but the death of the arch-Puritan Oliver Cromwell and the accession of Charles II – “the merry monarch” lead to a renaissance in the English theatrical scene, aided by the emergence of sexy, scandalous female actresses, who would become Britain’s first modern-style celebrities.