Posted by Bruce Miller
The following comments were phoned in to Theatre IV’s general voice mail yesterday (Sunday) by a very distressed older woman. I’m quoting the message in its entirety, word for word. “We’re just wanting to know why in the world Barksdale chose such a play as Doubt. That is obnoxious in every way. And we are grossly disappointed in the selection of that play. And we just wanted to express our sincere regrets.”
Had the distraught woman left her name and/or phone number, we would have called her back today, respectfully, and offered her tickets to Greater Tuna or some other play to replace the tickets she is apparently holding to our upcoming production of Doubt. But as is so often the case, the message was left anonymously.
As a further wrinkle, we suspect she may not have named the play she intended to condemn. In some ways, it makes more sense if she had just seen Moonlight and Magnolias and was among those who objected so strenuously to the language in that comedy. Doubt doesn’t begin performances for four weeks, and the immediacy in her delivery made it seem like she had just witnessed something horrible. Furthermore, it’s hard for me to understand what would make anyone who had read Doubt or seen it previously say that it was “obnoxious in every way.”
I guess we’ll never know … which is frustrating.
Perhaps we should take some comfort in knowing that theatre artists have been shocking audiences with “offensive language” ever since the first curtain rose on the first performance. In fact, long before theatres even had curtains, conservative playgoers were taking umbrage at some of what they heard on stage. Back in those pre-curtain days, the consequences of offending the powers-that-be were a lot worse than they are today—setting aside for the moment that little matter of “eternal damnation” mentioned in a comment to Language – Part I.
Consider the Puritans. The Puritan movement began to gain strength in England in the 1570s, about the time that Shakespeare was entering grammar school. The Puritans didn’t call themselves Puritans; if they called themselves anything, they called themselves “the Godly.” The name “Puritans” was devised and employed by their opponents, who resented their attempts to “purify” the Church of England in keeping with other Protestant reformation efforts in John Knox’s Scotland, John Calvin’s Geneva, and Martin Luther’s Germany.
Today in the U. S. of A. we tend to think of the Puritans as the guys who landed at Plymouth Rock. We should also remember that it was the Puritan Roundheads under the political and military leadership of a “born again” Oliver Cromwell (pictured to the left), who closed England’s theatres in 1642. (Shakespeare, had he lived, would have been in his 70s.) The Puritans also defeated the royalist Cavaliers during the English Civil War, and beheaded King Charles I in 1649.
Needless to say, throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Puritans were a force to be reckoned with. And they hated the theatre. They found the worldly delights of London to be so abhorrent that, during the Great Migration of 1620-43, approximately 21,000 of them crossed the ocean to establish wilderness homes in the Massachusetts Bay Colony—and in communities surrounding the Chesapeake Bay.
In his new biography, Shakespeare – The World as Stage (my daughter gave it to me for Christmas and it’s a great read), Bill Bryson (pictured to the right) says, “Puritans detested the theatre and tended to blame every natural calamity, including a rare but startling earthquake in 1580, on the playhouses. They considered theatres, with their lascivious puns and unnatural cross-dressing, a natural haunt for prostitutes and shady characters, a breeding ground of infectious diseases, a distraction from worship, and a source of unhealthy sexual excitement. All the female roles were of course played by boys—a convention that would last until the Restoration in the 1660s. In consequence the Puritans believed that the theatres were hotbeds of sodomy—still a capital offense in Shakespeare’s lifetime—and wanton liaisons of all sorts.”
The good news for theatre artists during the English Renaissance was that Queen Elizabeth (pictured to the left) was relatively neutral in the religious culture wars. She returned her country to Protestantism after succeeding her half-sister, Mary, to the throne in 1558. (Queen Mary had earned from the Puritans the moniker “Bloody Mary” because of her Catholic persecution of Protestant reformers.) But despite her Protestant leanings, Elizabeth had a healthy distrust of the Puritan movement because of its anti-monarchist sentiments. Throughout the Shakespeare Era, she resisted the Puritan’s efforts to shut the theatres down while enacting rules and regulations that encouraged the Puritans to feel like their concerns were being addressed.
From all accounts, Queen Elizabeth enjoyed the theatre herself, and her government certainly benefited from the substantial licensing fees that the theatres were charged. The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tylney (Tilney), licensed all play scripts at 7 shillings each. To mollify religious conservatives, he also served as the royal censor, expunging language that could be perceived as anti-God or anti-Queen. In 1592, when the Puritans convinced the Lord Mayor of London to close the theatres, it was Tylney who lobbied on behalf of the crown to keep the theatres open, protecting royal revenues and keeping Puritan power in check.
Despite his liberal use of odds bodkins, ‘zounds and ‘sbloods (blasphemies all), Shakespeare remained relatively free of official condemnation and/or punishment throughout his career. Several of his colleagues fared far less well.
Henley Street Theatre is now presenting The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, frequently referred to in theatre history texts as the “most popular play” to grace London’s stages during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Kyd heads the list of playwrights who are believed to be the author of Hamlet and King Leir, late 16th century plays that preceded Shakespeare’s revered rewrites by a decade or more. Thomas Kyd was also horrifically wrapped up in British censorship.
In the 1580s and 90s, both Thomas Kyd and fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe (Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus) were working under the patronage of a particular nobleman, most likely a fellow named Lord Strange. Kyd and Marlowe became roommates for a time, and both men wrote a quantity of plays that were hugely successful.
In 1593, the Master of the Revels and the Privy Council ordered the arrest of both Kyd and Marlowe on suspicion of creating “divers lewd and mutinous libels.” Tracts, it seems, had been posted all around London disparaging the Protestant refugees who had come to England to escape the Catholic societies in France and the Netherlands. One of these posters was written in blank verse, mentioned themes, characters and scenes from several plays by Christopher Marlowe (pictured above and to the left), and was signed “Tamburlaine.”
Thomas Kyd was the first of the pair of playwrights to be apprehended and sent to Bridewell Prison. Built by Henry VIII, Bridewell was London's first correction facility. The former gatehouse (pictured to the right) is all that remains today.
Under the threat or the actuality of torture—we’ll never know for sure which one—Kyd proclaimed his innocence and implicated Marlowe in the “crime.” When incriminating evidence was found among Kyd’s papers, Kyd asserted that the offending document had found its way into his portfolio by accident during that period when he and Marlowe had been roommates. He accused Marlowe of blasphemy, atheism and homosexuality.
Bill Bryson continues the story: “Marlowe was brought before the Privy Council, questioned, and released on a bond that required him to stay within twelve miles of the royal court wherever it happened to be so that his case could be dealt with quickly when it pleased his accusers to turn to it. He faced, at the very least, having his ears cut off—that was if things went well—so it must have been a deeply uneasy time for him.”
Marlowe’s biographer, David Riggs, reminds us, “There were no acquittals in Tudor state courts.”
Now back to Bryson. “It was against this background that Marlowe went drinking with three men of doubtful character at the house of a widow, Eleanor Bull, in Deptford in East London. There, according to a subsequent coroner’s report, a dispute arose over the bill, and Marlowe—who truly was never far from violence—seized a dagger and tried to stab one Ingram Frizer with it. Frizer, in self-defense, turned the weapon back on Marlowe and stabbed him in the forehead above the right eye—a difficult place to strike a killing blow, one would have thought, but killing him outright. This is the official version, anyway. Some historians believe Marlowe was assassinated at the behest of the crown or its senior agents. Whatever the motivation, he was dead at 29.
Kyd died the next year, aged just 36, never having recovered from his ordeal at Bridewell. Shakespeare would have no serious rivals until the emergence of Ben Jonson in 1598.”
And all I get is letters, voice mails and blog comments—mostly anonymous. I guess I should count myself lucky.