On 6 September 1642, as civil war broke out across Britain, parliament voted to close the theatres. At this stage the decision was supposedly temporary. But in 1647 even stricter rules were issued by the godly Puritan authorities, and, in February 1648, the government released an ordinance declaring that plays, which provoke ‘Gods wrath and displeasure’, would not be ‘tolerated amongst Professors of the Christian Religion’. Puritan opposition to the theatre lasted for the duration of the interregnum, and the theatres remained closed. However, in 1660, upon the Restoration, Charles II (1630-1685) reopened the theatres in one of his first official acts. He went on to become a keen patron of drama, which flourished during his reign.
This prologue, by the royalist poet John Denham, was delivered to the king as part of the first play performed since the reopening of the theatres, an entertainment put on by the Duke of Albemarle at Whitehall. Denham describes the plight of drama under the Puritan regime, and celebrates the restoration of monarchy as a restoration of arts. But there is also a seriousness to Denham’s prologue. He describes how he and his fellow royalists were forced to act ‘on the field’ instead of on the stage, a reference to the bloody skirmishes and battles of the civil war. Likewise, he accuses parliament of ‘out-acting’ the actors, and deceiving the polity. Thus this seemingly jovial prologue had real political bite.
Greatest of monarchs, welcome to this place
Which majesty so oft was wont to grace
Before our exile, to divert the court,
And balance weighty cares with harmless sport;
This truth we can to our advantage say,
They that would have no king, would have no play:
The laurel and the crown together went,
Had the same foes, and the same banishment:
The ghosts of their great ancestors they feared,
Who by the art of conjuring poets reared,
Our Harrys and our Edwards long since dead
Still on the stage a march of glory tread:
Those monuments of fame (they thought) would stain
And teach the people to despise their reign:
Nor durst they look into the Muses’ well,
Least the clear spring their ugliness should tell;
Affrighted with the shadow of their rage,
They broke the mirror of the times, the stage;
The stage against them still maintained the war,
When they debauched the pulpit and the bar.
Though to be hypocrites, be our praise alone,
Tis our peculiar boast that we were none.
Whatever they taught, we practised what was true,
And something we had learned of honour too,
When by your danger, and our duty pressed,
We acted in the field, and not in test;
Then for the cause our tyring-house they sacked,
And silenced us that they alone might act;
And (to our shame) most dexterously they do it,
Out-act the players, and out-lie the poet;
But all the other arts appeared so scarce,
Ours were the moral lectures, theirs the farce:
This spacious land their theatre became,
And they grave counsellors, and lords in name;
Which these mechanics personate so ill
That even the oppressed with contempt they fill,
But when the lion’s dreadful skin they took,
They roared so loud that the whole forest shook;
The noise kept all the neighbourhood in awe,
Who thought it was the true lion by his paw.
If feigned virtue could such wonders do,
What may we not expect from this that’s true!
But this great theme must serve another age,
To fill our story, and adorn our stage.