The first victory of the Puritans was in their war against the theater. Everything that distinguished them—their theology of “elect” and “reprobate,” their strict morality, their solemn mood and Biblical speech—had been ridiculed on the stage with gross and unforgivable caricature. And in 1629 came the culminating crime: a French actress dared to replace a boy in taking a female part in a play at the Blackfriars. She was pelted with apples and rotten eggs.
The new dramatists might have appeased the Puritan party, for, though now and then they stooped to conquer the groundlings with ribaldry, by and large they were gentlemen. Philip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1625) satirized not prim virtue but monopolistic greed; there was no soaring poetry in it, no crackling wit, no winging imagery; but the unscrupulous extortioner was brought to justice in the end, and five acts transpired without a trull. John Ford angled for an audience by eiv titling a play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, but this and The Broken Heart (both 1633) kept a decent pitch, and might still hold the boards if modern audiences could stomach the holocausts of their denouements.
The Puritans fired their hottest shot against the theater when their most fearless protagonist, William Prynne, sent to the press (1632) his Histriomastix, the Players Scourge. Prynne was a lawyer and made no claim to impartiality; he presented a thousand-page brief for the plaintiff. By quotations from the Bible, from the Fathers of the Church, and even from the pagan philosophers, he proved that the drama had been invented by Satan and had begun as a form of devil worship. Most plays are blasphemous and obscene, full of amorous embraces, wanton gestures, and lust-arousing music, song, and dance; all dancing is devilish, and its every pace is a step to hell; most actors are profane and godless criminals. “The Church of God, not the playhouse, is the only ‘proper’ school; the Scriptures, sermons, and devout and pious books … are the only lectures” (reading) fit for Christians. And if they need diversion,
they have the several prospects of the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars, with all the infinite variety of creatures, to delight their eyes. They have music of all birds … to please their ears; the incomparably delicate odoriferous scents and perfumes of all herbs, all flowers, fruits to refresh their noses; the savoury tastes of all edible creatures … the pleasures that orchards, rivers, gardens, ponds, woods … can afford them; the comfort of friends, kindred, husbands, wives, children, possessions, wealth, and all other external blessings that God hath bestowed upon them.31
The argument was learned and eloquent, but it called all actresses whores, and the Queen had just imported some actresses from France and was herself rehearsing a part in a court masque. Henrietta Maria took offense, and Laud indicted Prynne for seditious libel. The author protested that he had had no intention of libeling the Queen; he apologized for the intemperance of his book; nevertheless, with a severity which the Puritans long remembered, he was debarred from the practice of law, was fined the impossible sum of £5,000 ($250,000?), and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was placed in the pillory, and both his ears were cut off.32 From his prison he issued News from Ipswich (1636), in which he denounced Anglican prelates as devilish traitors and ravenous wolves, and recommended that these bishops be hanged. He was pilloried again, and the stumps of his ears were shorn away. He remained in jail until the Long Parliament freed him in 1640.
In 1642 the Parliament ordered all the theaters of England closed. This was at first a war measure, apparently limited to “these calamitous times,” but it remained in force till 1656. The long career of the Elizabethan drama came to an end amid a drama greater than any that the English stage had ever played.