The Seventeenth Century

The 17th century was a time of considerable upheaval for the English theatre. After reaching its heyday during the 1600s, it saw its great Elizabethan and early Jacobean exponents dying with no obvious followers. Worse, plays were overtaken by masques as the court entertainment of choice and banned for a time causing the closure of theatres. These were a combination of poetry, music and spectacle. Beaumont and Fletcher, together and separately, greatly influenced the theatre of the time with Four Plays in One (c.1608), Philaster (1609), The Maid’s Tragedy (1610-11) and others. These plays showed ever more sophistication in dialogue, inflated sentiment and a general steering away from the reality-chic of the Elizabethan age. Where in the 16th century there had been a truly varied audience for theatrical performances, in the mid-17th century this had been replaced by an aristocratic set. Plays were made more self-consciously refined and structurally complicated to suit their new audience by the playwrights of the day, while type-casting created actors who suited certain parts only. This was the time of heroic drama as catalysed by the works of Roger Boyle and Robert Howard, followed up by Elkanah Settle and Thomas Otway, and made in quantity and with some finesse by poet laureate and populist John Dryden (see Tyrannic Love (1669) etc.). However, with the exception of his blank verse tragedy, All for Love (1678) that he derived from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (c.1606-7), heroic drama was a strange and ephemeral beast. Evans suggests that only psychologists are likely to find these plays interesting "for they suggest that an audience whose life was governed by cynicism found some relief in this dream-world picture of a fantastic conception of honour"3. Certainly, the plays are little performed now, and seem likely to linger in footnotes of literary textbooks.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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