During Shakespeare’s time the theatres were closed in response to the bubonic plague. Yet there are good things that came out of that time as I will tell you below. What will come of this time? The theatres in New York’s Broadway, London’s West End, and all round the world are dark now. And for how long? And what will they be like when they reopen? One thing for sure is that they will reopen, and the theatre, like life, will go on.
The light of the theatre, like the indomitable spirit of humankind, will never go out for long. Caught now in the midst of a crisis unprecedented in the last 100 years, each of us must know and believe that this also will pass and humankind will rise again, hopefully better for the experience, nobler, kinder, and wiser. And I hope and believe the same for the living theatre, which cannot be killed or destroyed. The theatre in the last 2,000 years has undergone several “deaths” followed by resurrections in which it has risen again like the Phoenix from the ashes of its defeat.
Western theatre was born in the Golden Age of Greece, 500 years BCE, and though we only have a small fraction of the hundreds of tragedies and comedies produced during that glorious time, they are some of the most marvelous plays ever written, plays like Oedipus Rex, Medea, Trojan Women and the Oresteia trilogy.
Rome, as it became the leading power on earth, adopted the forms of Greek theatre and added little to it. However, during the decline of the Roman Empire, the plays became shockingly bawdy and vulgar, including real fights to the death and sex acts on stage to the point that even the emperors were ashamed of them but felt they had to allow them due to their policy of giving the people bread and circuses to keep them happy.
Most of the intelligentsia were sick of the theatre, but it was the Catholic Church that finally put a stop to theatre altogether somewhere around 700 ACE, and it took the theatre 300 years to raise its head again.
When it did, it was within the confines of the church itself, Bible stories told by priests, monks, and even some nuns. As you can imagine in a church where everything was in Latin, a language that the common people did not understand, these plays in their own vernacular became immensely popular; the plays grew more and more elaborate until they burst out of the confines of the church, resulting in guilds of bakers, butchers, carpenters, and every profession mounting plays. During festivals and feast days, the guilds performed plays on wagons that went from village to village in cycles of one play after another from dawn to dusk during festivals.
In time this led to professional theatres being born in England, Italy, Spain, France and other nations. It led to the rise of the greatest English-language playwright in all of history, none other than William Shakespeare.
In the summer of 1606, the theatre of Shakespeare’s day was in the middle of arguably one of the greatest seasons in theatre history – (Macbeth, King Lear, Ben Jonson’s Volpone, and Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy were playing – and when the bubonic plague closed the theatres for the rest of the year. Two notable benefits from this time come immediately to mind: first of all, during this time Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and several long poems, such as Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; also, after the plague, indoor playhouses became the norm.
The theatres were closed yet again in 1642 by Oliver Cromwell’s religiously sober Long Parliament, labelling the plays immoral and lascivious and the players rogues. With the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660, the theatres opened in force with unforgettable plays that are still performed today, most notably Restoration comedy that celebrated the return of freedom of expression in bawdy, risque comedy classics, such as The Way of the World and The Country Wife. And, for the first time, women took to the stage as actors.
Today, once again, the theatres have closed, but just as humankind will come through this, the theatre will survive. It is exciting to imagine what changes the closure and subsequent reopening will bring this time.
When theatre resumed after the closure of Roman theatre, it led to mobile theatre, theatre festivals, traveling troupes, the earliest community theatres, and finally professional theatre with some of the greatest plays ever written.
The closure in Shakespeare’s day gave us Shakespeare’s great, non-theatrical poetry, and the reopening brought us indoor theatre with more sophisticated audiences and some great, enigmatic Shakespearean plays such as The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale.
The restoration of the monarchy and the theater in 1660 gave us women on the stage for the first time in English language theatre and a great new period of comedies full of clever satirical and sexual innuendo, taking a good, healthy comic poke at both the religious stuffed shirts and the extravagant aristocracy. It was a true open season.
So what will our present crisis bring us? Well, let’s wait and see. But, rest assured, the theatre will survive and thrive!
One positive thing has already happened for me. Since stopping all my public classes and rehearsals, I have just begun teaching a variety of classes online and am discovering it’s a great way to redeem the time with something valuable, to break the monotony of staying at home, and invest in the future at the same time. If you or your children are interested in theatrical classes, you can contact me at the phone numbers and addresses below. Stay safe and healthy. Stay positive and hopeful.