The reopening of the theatres in 1660 did not mark a return to the flourishing days of English Drama in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. Charles II loved the theatre dearly (just as he dearly loved some of its performers), but he wanted it regulated and loyal, not encouraging of opposition or dissent. Though he did not revert to the enclosed, illusory theatrical realm of the palace masque, which had flourished in his father’s court, neither did he choose to return to the situation a century before with many companies, large open-air theatres and audiences that included ‘Water-men, Shoomakers, Butchers and Apprentices’. As in so many matters, Charles went for compromise. The elaborate court masques were replaced by plays performed on stages in London, but theatre in the town was restricted to companies under royal control, whose performances catered to the tastes of courtiers rather than citizens. The theatre was regulated in two ways: the right to perform was restricted to those to

whom the crown granted patents or licences, and the content of performance was subject to the approval of a royal servant, the Master of the Revels. This system remained in place for more than a century, though its forms changed and its levels of enforcement fluctuated. The patent system survived in law until the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843, which ended such restrictions but retained censorship, though it had largely died in practice some years earlier. The official approval of plays endured until the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s authority in the liberal 1960s. The regulations that governed the Restoration stage were part of the king’s prerogative

powers, so their enforcement depended upon neither parliament nor the common law but upon the interest that the monarch took in the stage. From the first, Charles II was active in shaping the theatre. Not content with going to plays and playing with the players, he became the most active royal theatrical patron since Elizabeth I, recommending works for translation and adaptation, and commissioning a whole series of plays, including many comedies and the first rhymed heroic play in English. In 1662 and 1663 Charles II conferred patents on two courtiers, Sir William Davenant

(the Duke’s Company, named after his brother, the Duke of York) and Thomas Killigrew (the King’s Company), granting them a monopoly of theatrical production. Both were being rewarded for their loyalty to the royalist cause during the years of Charles’s exile, and they stood to make a tidy profit from their sovereign’s grant. Davenant, a poet and dramatist, claimed Shakespeare as his godfather, was rumoured to be his illegitimate son, succeeded Ben Jonson as poet laureate in 1638, and had been granted a theatrical patent by Charles I in the following year. Killigrew was a courtier playwright, a rake and a close friend of the king’s. Though less experienced in the theatre, he received

performance rights to most of England’s older plays, including the works of Beaumont and Fletcher, and employed a company of players some of whom had acted before the Civil War. Davenant’s company was younger and had a smaller repertoire, which included his own work and a number of Shakespeare plays – Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, King Henry VIII, Macbeth and The Tempest in its Dryden-Davenant adaptation as an opera. Charles’s shrewd act of benevolence ensured that the theatre remained within the

purview of his court, but he was not always faithful to his two companies (though was he ever faithful to anyone?). Between 1660 and 1663 he conferred a royal licence to perform plays in London on the actor George Jolly, and this temporarily infringed the Killigrew and Davenant monopoly. Still, the king on the whole guarded their privilege and even defended them in their disputes with his own servant, the Master of the Revels. Indeed, in Charles’s reign the power of the Master of the Revels was severely curtailed. When the patentees agreed with the Master in 1662 after more than two years of squabbling and litigation, they promised to pay him performance fees; in return he relinquished his licensing powers. This meant that the two theatres avoided prior censorship but, since only two royal companies were permitted, Charles ensured that the content of the repertory was broadly in line with court taste. The Master of the Revels intervened occasionally to alter or ban plays, but only at the urging or with the approval of the king. Thus did the court dominate the theatre throughout Charles’s reign. At no time in

British history have so many playwrights been drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy and gentry. Two dukes – Newcastle and Buckingham – several earls, including Orrery and Bristol, and a smattering of knights like Robert Howard, Samuel Tuke, George Etherege and Charles Sedley wrote or co-authored popular plays, some of enduring quality. Spanish ‘intrigue’ dramas, whose lively heroines offered good roles for women who were for the first time permitted on the stage; French comedy, most notably adaptations or translations of Molière’s works; heroic plays in rhyming couplets with elaborate sets that drew on French staging as well as the tradition of early seventeenth-century court masques – all these Restoration fashions, though some had English antecedents, had been shaped during the royalist exile in Europe and were vigorously supported by the king and his followers on their return to power. The values of the Restoration stage were those of the court. Its heroic dramas

celebrated an idealized kingship to which Charles II aspired; the early comedies, like John Tatham’s The Rump which was later refurbished by Aphra Behn as The Roundheads (1681), put the Puritans in their place; its semi-operas, notably the Dryden-Davenant version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, offered spectacles reminiscent of Inigo Jones’s masques; and many Restoration plots, avoiding simple resolution and happy endings, expressed a cleareyed scepticism about fallible human nature, moral complexity and the persistence of conflict between the classes and the sexes. The stage mirrored the court in acts of concealment, deception and intrigue, in admiration of grand effects as well as of wit and lively conversation, in a willingness to admit strong female characters, whether amorous widows, adulterous wives or young women of spirit, like Harriet in Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676), and in sexual licence – best exemplified by one of Charles’s favourites, Tom Duffey’s A Fond Husband (1677). The theatrical audience was no more homogeneous than the plays it watched. More

and more patrons came from outside the charmed circles of Whitehall, especially towards the end of Charles’s reign, but this was of little consequence. What mattered was the

courtly ethos, which remained largely unaltered until it was shattered by the political crises of the 1680s. From the beginnings of the Exclusion Crisis in 1679 until the accession of George I in

1714, the theatre was in an almost constant state of upheaval. Politics made the stage more dangerous and less fashionable, and events in the 1680s – the emergence of party divisions, plots and rebellions, and the overthrow of James II in 1688 – rendered tragedy, whose plots lent themselves to contemporary allusions, prone to censorship and suppression. Charles and his courtiers paid less attention to the theatre and more to politics as they struggled with their Whig foes; the threat of assassination kept Charles out of public places. After Charles’s death in 1685 no succeeding monarch offered comparable support

to the stage. His successor, James, had more pressing matters on his mind; William and Mary and then Queen Anne had no particular appetite for the theatre. They were publicly reclusive by the standards of Charles and of other European monarchs, and they sympathized with critics who thought the stage immoral and licentious. The theatre became less popular: as its court supporters drifted away it ceased to be the most conspicuous playground for fashionable society but also failed to find a new clientele. Without a royal patron or the court’s protective environment, the theatre was exposed to hostile critics and the exceptionally chilly economic climate of the 1690s. The system of courtier patentees began to fall apart. Killigrew’s less well managed

company folded, and merged with Davenant’s to form the United Company in 1682, which for the next thirteen years was the only operative London theatre company. In 1693 a shrewd lawyer, Christopher Rich, acquired control of the surviving patent from Sir William Davenant’s disreputable and insolvent son. A courtier patentee was replaced by a businessman with no direct knowledge of the stage but a great deal of interest in its profits. From the beginning Rich was deeply distrusted by actors, who viewed him as an ignorant upstart: ‘an old snarling Lawyer Master and Sovereign; a waspish, ignorant, pettifogger in Law and Poetry; one who understands Poetry no more than Algebra’, as one critic put it. He may not have been the ogre painted in the actor-manager Colley Cibber’s autobiographical Apology – ‘as sly a Tyrant as ever was at the Head of a Theatre; for he gave the Actors more Liberty, and fewer Days Pay, than any of his Predecessors’ – but his ignorance of the stage made it easy for actors to brand him as venal and self-serving. Rich had secured his power by accumulating shares in the royal patent, which were sold

as a way of raising money for the theatre and to ease the financial needs of the patentees, but this practice converted a part of the royal prerogative into a commodity, bought and sold like a share in any other company. Rich thought he had acquired a monopoly along with the patent, but he was wrong. His sharp practices and tough dealings with his employees produced a walk-out led by the most famous actor of the day, Thomas Betterton. The rebels of Drury Lane had friends at court, and they secured a temporary licence to set up a rival company. In 1695 Betterton’s cooperative of players opened at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and a ferocious theatrical war ensued. The rivalry between Rich and the renegade actors was compounded by other develop-

ments. In 1704 the architect and playwright Sir John Vanbrugh opened a new theatre, the Queen’s, in the Haymarket, with the help of his friends in the Kit-Cat Club, and offered it to Betterton and his allies. In effect Vanbrugh and his partner, the playwright William Congreve, acquired the licence of the actors’ company in return for giving them a new

theatre, on which they could stage larger, more lavish productions before bigger audiences. This new alliance renewed the theatrical war against Rich, and both sides spent more and more on productions. Over the next decade (1705 to 1715) no fewer than eight managerial changes occurred

in the London theatre. The quarrel divided actors and singers, foreign stars and domestic performers, different shareholders in the patents and licences as well as the two companies. Eventually Congreve and Vanbrugh abandoned the struggle – too much money was being lost on all sides – and the Lord Chamberlain closed Rich’s theatre. This was a war with no victors. Meanwhile support for the theatre was declining. In the six seasons between 1697 and

1703 seventy new plays failed, including Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent (1703) and Cibber’s version of Shakespeare’s Richard III (1700), which subsequently enjoyed great success. The old went the way of the new, and the Restoration repertory of modern tragedy and witty bawdry was dropped. Yet the picture was not totally bleak, for many of the great staples of eighteenth-century performance first appeared during these years of theatrical hardship. Major works by Congreve, Centlivre, Cibber, Vanbrugh and George Farquhar, all produced in this period, were repeatedly performed for the rest of the century. It is tempting to say that the theatre and its repertory had not yet adapted to changes in public taste, but it also seems that public taste had not yet caught up with changes on the stage. In the lean years plays were produced that were to run and run in the commercial theatre.