My Sky Arts commissioned play on the English Civil War, The Battle of Heptonstall opens on February 28th. Research for the piece led me in a number of directions and recently out of interest rather than necessity, to looking at what happened to English drama in the period and why, considering the magnitude of the historical events, the English Civil War continues to be so seldom dramatised on stage and screen.
‘Publike sports do not well agree with Publike Calamities, nor Publike stage-playes with the Seasons of Humiliation…it is therefore thought fit and Ordained that stage-playes shall cease.’
In 1642 playhouses were closed. They were to stay closed for the next eighteen years though no one foresaw that at the time. There was not one order issued by parliament but rather a series based on reports and complaints and the reasons for the closures changed with the progress of the Civil War. In 1642 it was about the need to pray rather than play. The wording of the order invited the public into common cause with parliament, to set sport and leisure to one side at a moment of unprecedented crisis shortly before the war began. The major concern at the time was invasion by an Irish army. After the rising of 1641 coastal areas were rife with rumours of invasion. London was in political turmoil inside and outside parliament, Christmas of 1641 was punctuated by rioting in Whitehall and the breakdown of links between London and the King. The order of 1642 is passed on 2nd September, the very cusp of war; on the 9th the Earl of Essex takes command of a parliamentary army to confront Charles I.
An order of 1647 contrastingly emphasised suppression and punishment of offenders, it gave sheriffs jurisdiction to arrest actors and ‘imprison rogues’. Eventually in 1648, with the puritan revolution in full vigour an order was issued to pull playhouses down. Just as the Civil War had its roots in the years prior so did the suppression of theatre. In 1639 a play was produced in London, The Cardinal’s Conspiracy which satirised the clergy and resulted in the arrest of the actors. If theatre had a side in the period, it was by and large royalist. Imaginative spectacle never sat well in the puritan psyche that in the end banned Christmas and maypoles and had boys whipped for playing football on Sundays. Theatre responded to the suppression by working at the edges and by going underground. Short plays known as ‘drolls’ popped up in taverns on the outskirts of towns. There is evidence from pamphlets that street theatre takes on a new significance whilst mainstream plays that would otherwise be at the Cockpit or the Salisbury Court are performed in private houses. What emerges in 1660 is Restoration drama, defining itself as a rebellion against the interregnum.
The best-known fact about the Restoration drama is that it is immoral. The dramatists did not criticize the accepted morality about gambling, drink, love, and pleasure generally, or try, like the dramatists of our own time, to work out their own view of character and conduct. What they did was, according to their respective inclinations, to mock at all restraints. Some were gross, others delicately improper….The dramatists did not merely say anything they liked: they also intended to glory in it and to shock those who did not like it.
From George Clark’s The Later Stuarts 1660 – 1714.
The new drama is more commercial, playhouses that are built are smaller than those of renaissance theatres and women are not only on stage, they are writing plays. Charles II not only brought an entourage over France he brought cultural influences as well and one of the most successful women playwrights of the Restoration dramatist Susannah Centlivre made a career of adapting French theatre for the English stage.
What is there in the way of contemporary drama about the Civil War? By way of the theatre, there is Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill (1976). More recently Howard Brenton’s 55 Days. In film, there is a biopic of Cromwell, of Winstanley, and more recently To Kill a King. On television, By the Sword Divided from the early eighties, more recently Peter Flannery’s excellent The Devil’s Whore. There are one or two others perhaps: A Field in England and Witchfinder General which use the war as a back drop but the specific dramas are not that hard to bring to mind. In comparison with the ubiquitous Tudor’s there is relatively little. And yet, more people died per head of the population than in any other war in our history, including the First World War. Ireland suffered a loss of up to 41% of its population. Putting these numbers into the context of other catastrophes helps to understand the devastation to Ireland in particular. The Great Hunger of 1845–1852 resulted in a loss of 16% of the population, while during the Second World War the population of the Soviet Union fell by 16%. Those two events are burned into the psyche of the national narratives, the Civil War is largely absent from England’s.
It is admittedly a difficult narrative to dramatise. It’s a complex if not complicated subject. It was not a class war and though the completion of the reformation, it was not protestants versus Catholics either but rather many persuasions of Protestantism against Catholic affectations. Furthermore, it is not a pretty sight, particularly if you’re English. English writers find it easier to write about the Spanish Civil War, a subject best avoided in Spain. Perhaps we want to be reassured by history; that it’s composed of an inevitable continuum that leads to here, the right path. The Civil War was a detour that no one had a map for.
The fact that artistic expression during the period was so meagre hasn’t helped subsequent representation. There is Milton of course and there is Andrew Marvell but I know of no outstanding drama and the novel has not yet emerged. The theatre director Max Stafford Clark said that the closure of theatres during the interregnum created the space for the development of the novel, but Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is not published until 1678 and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is 1719. The novel begins when you can read them. There are few literary and no particular dramatic style from our period that writers can draw from.
When dramatists do tackle the subject they often go in through the door of the revolution, the latter stages of the conflict and the Levellers. Playwrights mostly shoot from the left and one of the consequences of this is that the Levellers are framed as proto socialists which in reality they were not. They were of their time and if one has to, and I don’t think we should interpret them in terms of today they are classical liberals committed to the rights of the individual. There is no doubt though, that the demand that they raise at the Putney debates of 1647, universal male suffrage more or less, is revolutionary. It’s an extraordinary moment as Cromwell describes it in The Devil’s Whore, “a form of government unknown on this earth.”
‘I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.’
Colonel Sir Thomas Rainsborough, Leveller and MP for Droitwich, The Putney Debates.
In Heptonstall in 1643 there are no Levellers, victory is up for grabs, the King could have easily won the day and I have gone in through the door of a man who wants to avoid the conflict. John Cockcroft is as was said at the time like most men in England, ‘neither hot nor cold’. But he knows it will destroy his livelihood, already at risk because of his failing eyesight and his feckless son. He does what he can to prevent the war entering his family’s life but fails, which he has to because otherwise there wouldn’t be a play. I have entered the national conflict through the personal lives of characters, it lays its eggs in a love affair between the weaver’s son who does not want to follow his father and an orphan girl Rose, who lives with two other women upon the moor, independently of men. And it had to be a community play. One could with the budget from Sky make a play with half a dozen professional actors but I felt a community play is much more apposite to the context and the timing and indeed what happened here in 1643. For the battle, the skirmish here, involved people of the village, and the war, as wars do impacted on those who wanted no part of it
The Battle of Heptonstall St Thomas the Apostle Church, Heptonstall 28th Feb – March 2nd, & Saturday March 9th Halifax Minster. Tickets £10 at eventbrite.co.uk
3 thoughts on “English Drama and the English Civil War”
Your ‘beauty will save the world’ tagline reminds me of my current writing series on beauty.
I do not know much about the English civil war but this inspires to eboth learn more and do it thru the theatre if possible. Best of luck to you and the kids.
Than you. Good luck with your work. Beauty needs its advocates.
I hope that you follow along! I