By Paula E. Thomson
The Restoration in England took place from 1660 to 1700 (Avery & Scouten ). This time was a 40 year gap where there was a huge cross between politics and what happened in the theater. In the 1660s, the shift from the outdoor theater to the indoor theater occurred. During this time theatrical monopolies developed and improvements to the stage and culture flourished (Avery & Scouten 536).
This kind of theater allowed for more lighting and special effects that could enhance the performances. The theater had a great influx of “scenes, especially changeable scenery, and machines, with an accompanying emphasis…in both dramatic and operatic productions” (Avery & Scouten 536). The theater was a place of entertainment and propaganda (Walkling 1500). This fueled the beginning of a strict “regime of government censorship” over the theaters, especially in London (Walkling 1500). More of the official laws were put into place in the eighteenth century. The clash of politics and the theater brought about issues concerning the government. On the other hand, the playwrights of this time took this conflict as a platform to send powerful messages to their audiences through their work (Walkling 1500).
There are three main changes that classify the Restoration theater. These changes include the structure of the theater (both socially and architecturally), the integration of actresses, and the “politicized nature of” the theater (Walkling 1502).
The first change is the structure of the theater. Architecturally, the theater was different from its past outdoor atmosphere. It was framed in arches to have higher ceilings with a closed roof (Walkling 1501). These theaters were longer than usual and the arch shape of the roof was a factor in the “oblong” shape (Walkling 1501). This shape and length of the theater characterized the major shift from outdoor to indoor. Additionally, since the building was closed in with more amenities, there was fewer seating for the visitors (Walkling 1501). Main seating was located in the “pit” and “boxes” were more expensive (Avery & Scouten 536). There was “stage-boxes, front-boxes, and side-boxes as the more expensive and, theoretically, more desirable locations” (Avery & Scouten 536). One would think that fewer seating would cause an uproar in the theater crowd. In reality, this issue was not one of the main concerns of the frequent theater visitors. With all the new features of the theater, the limited seating could not have been a complaint.
There were so many fascinating updates in an indoor building that seating was not a prioritized issue. Some of the updates that theater visitors enjoyed include artificial lighting, props for scene changes, and the effects associated with both (Walkling 1501). The lighting and props for scene changes brought a liveliness to the stage that had not been seen before. The lighting was a perk when it came to show times as well. During the era of the outdoor stage, the production had to rely on natural light and time of day. With the artificial lighting, flexibility was given to the productions. This kind of flexibility was something that the stage never had. With the indoor theater, plays could be performed at any time with artificial lighting. Lighting and scene change had only been seen at the royal court performance level before the Restoration (Walking, 1501). With the indoor theater, one can say that the common folk was getting the royal experience as well.
The second change of the Restoration theater was its political nature that carried through to the eighteenth century. The plays performed in the restoration theater were very political in nature. Common themes in the various productions included religion, status in society, and sexuality (Walkling 1502). Walkling believes that there is not a definite case for plays including all these themes because intent of the playwright and interpretation of the audience can vary (1504). Though Walkling states this, he does believe that there is enough evidence to make this claim of themes and he notes he does believe that plays were used as “potential vehicles for political commentary” (Walkling 1504). Basically, Walking is saying that there was a large platform for political commentary to occur in the theater, but much of it is up for contemporary interpretation of experts. Aside from politics, status in society and sexuality themes in the theater which can be pulled directly from the involvement of women in the theater.
The third change is the introduction of actresses, or simply women being allowed on stage. Women brought new curiosity to the stage that had not been established previously in the outdoor theater. Women acting on the stage changed “the old custom of the boy actor in female roles” (Avery & Scouten 536). Actresses enthralled the theater with a sensual vibe that a diverse crowd was attracted to. People were curious if women could act and command the stage similar to a man (Walkling 1501).
Since the introduction of women was so new and exciting, women were receiving much attention from individuals of higher ranking (Walkling 1501). Walkling notes that women were quickly developing “celebrity status” as actresses of the theater (Walkling 1501).
This “celebrity status” led to much attention from the king himself, Charles II (Walkling 1501). He had such an interest in the female actresses and their presence on the stage was intriguing. Not only did King Charles II affect the actresses in the performance, but the presence of the king in the theater brought the “prominence of politics” (Walkling 1502). Playwrights used the evolution of women in the theater to their advantage. They also used the presence of the King and different social classes among the theater audience to arouse political undertones for discussion. One popular playwright that used this to her advantage was Aphra Behn. Aphra Behn’s choice of female actors made her an extremely savvy and influential playwright of the Restoration.
Aphra Behn and Theatre Culture
Aphra Behn uses the introduction of women in the theater to her advantage. The female character is used by Behn to make a statement about sexuality and the conflict in its nature. She also used popular female leads to draw in more attention to her drama and its issues presented. Lowe states that, “Behn drew on theatrical models that were successful” (Lowe 92). Her use of the mystery of femininity is highlighted in her characters and plot lines. Behn shows this conflict in one of her most popular dramas, The Feigned Courtesans. This drama is about female characters, their opposition to male characters, and their desire for others. The base of the play focuses on two sisters. The sisters are Marcella and Cornelia. Both of which are at battle with their guardian, Count Morosini as to how their future will play out. Throughout their rebellion “identities are often disguised, social statuses reversed, rules broken, and social standards challenged” (Lowe 93). These aspects are depicted through the women in the play. Specifically, Marcella and Cornelia are the focal point of these acts.
In the drama, Marcella is the “designated good girl and never really risks her honor” (Lowe 98). Marcella explores her sexuality in a way that she had not previously. In fact, the way her and her sister explore their sexuality is forbidden. Pretending to be courtesans is crossing the moral line in society for these women and this is the basis for the play’s conflict. This issue does bring about a bigger topic though, which Behn evidently pursues on purpose. As the play is transferred from paper to the stage, these actions of the two main female characters are depicted. Aphra Behn uses the female actor as a crutch to make a bigger statement about females and their secretive sexuality. In the case of Marcella on the stage, the only way she was able to make her own choices was by changing her identity to a courtesan. This shows the identity crisis that many women faced as they felt powerless in a male dominant society. The question then arises: Are women sexual beings, and should they be on the same pedestal as men? These predicaments are represented through Behn’s writing that is shown on stage.
The character of Marcella was used as a tool by Behn to convey a message about women. Marcella has only one way to “exercise her power” and to take her life into her own hands (Lowe 98). This way was to “manipulate her social status as a sexual commodity” of mystery and desire (Lowe 98). Though Marcella felt guilty as a courtesan, she felt the freedom that it gave her and was intrigued by the new experiences she was opened up to. It seems as if Aphra Behn was using the stage as her medium to show the hidden sexuality and power that women have under a different identity. Before the restoration time, women were not seen on stage and there was plenty of mystery as to what the female character would portray. Behn’s is brilliant in using this opportunity of women on the stage to influence theater culture. The Restoration time was in the middle of Behn’s 49-year life. This crucial time brought her much attention in a “competitive market place” as a female playwright (Lowe 92). Behn saw the opportunity to create a bigger statement outside of the written drama itself. She set the stage for future dramas, playwrights, and she crafted a theater culture that had never been seen before. Her statement about women and having to hide their sexuality grew through Marcella’s character in The Feigned Courtesans.
Behn was well aware of the theater culture that she was involved in. The Restoration actresses were typically categorized as sensual beings who brought in a specific crowd. Lowe points out that these actresses even “retired from the stage to become the mistresses of powerful men” who were “already associated with prostitution by their audiences” (Lowe 98). These actresses not only played the part on the stage, but continued their escapades off stage as well. To Behn’s advantage, these actresses were set for the part simply because of the business they worked in. So, for Behn to make explicit statements about sexuality was not too far of a reach for her.
This kind of theater culture continued into the post-Restoration era as well. Women were already second-class citizens and their representation in the theater was even less than that. Even the men of the theater, or at least depicted in the dramas were always more powerful beings. In The Feigned Courtesans Galliard wants “passion, sex, and love without the restrictions of matrimony” (Lowe 99). Though Behn focuses on the role of women and uses them as her main boost, her characterization of the men does support her underlying statements about femininity. Galliard is used as a contrast to the women when it comes to moral law. In the play, the women are bounded to marriage as it is a “social necessity” (Lowe 99). Galliard as a male representation of society serves as quite the opposite. He regards having a wife as an unnecessary and binding item and “sees marriage as an unpleasant restriction to his personal freedom” (Lowe 99). Therefore, not only does Behn used the newly introduced role of women in the theater to make a greater statement about sexuality, but she uses the male character to support her thoughts about gender formalities and differences. Behn made a name for herself from her craft and intelligent manipulation of the theater culture. This era that she helped to kick start bled into the post-Restoration time as well.
The theater attracted a large group of people. The indoor theater served as a retreat from daily tasks where people could enjoy a show. Because of the wide variety of people that attended the shows, a hierarchy was created for each class level, from aristocrats to merchants to servants (McPherson 236). With such a diverse group of social classes, interpretations of the productions varied greatly regarding the venue, play, or actors (McPherson 236). These disagreements led to “violent outbreaks” that involved people from each of social class in attendance (McPherson 236). Many of the plays performed in the 18th century had a very political under tone that would cause conflict in the diverse crowd.
The English would define the content woven into all the play as major “cultural politics and nationalism” (McPherson 236). As a result of these issues, the Licensing Act of 1737 was put into place, which “recognizes the political significance of theater” and the cultural influence in London (McPherson 236). The Licensing Act made theaters subject to certain rules, particularly enforced in the two largest theaters in Post-Restoration London, which stated that the theaters could have “spoken drama performed under the legal regulation and censorship of the state” (McPherson 236). These strict regulations allowed the states to control the productions and the political messages they sent out to audiences. The transformation of the indoor theater was such an intriguing place for all individuals that the rules were set in place to limit conflict. The theater at this time was a place of mystery and change that the London crowd had never seen before. Human nature is curious at heart and this curiosity of all different social classes is what drew so many into the theater scene. Some of the reasons so many people were drawn in is because of the stigmas of the stage (McPherson 237).
McPherson explains the stigmas of the stage also contributed to the enforcement of the Licensing Act (237). Some of the stigmas that fueled the outbreaks among people included prostitution (McPherson 237). The theater was a common place to find women selling their bodies, an idea that spread rapidly. Thus, the theater gained a reputation of sexual exploitation and innuendos in addition to its violent repute. Despite its efforts, the Licensing Act did not help to limit the contemporary politics interwoven in plays. Therefore, sexual connotation and acts of prostitution in the theater culture continued (McPherson, 237).
- Avery, Emmet L., and Scouten, Arthur H. “Stages Actors, and Audiences: The Theatrical World,1660-1700”. Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Comedy. edited by Scott McMillin, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1997, pp. 535-564.
- Lowe, Leah. “Gender and (Im)morality in Restoration Comedy: Aphra Behn’s The Feigned Courtesans”. Theatre Symposium, Volume 15, 2007, pp. 92-106 (Article). University of Alabama Press, 2007.
- McPherson, Heather. “Theatrical Riots and Cultural Politics in Eighteenth-Century London.” Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, no. 3, 2002, p. 236. EBSCOhost.
- Walkling, Andrew. “Politics and Theatrical Culture in Restoration England”. History Compass. The Author Journal Compilation. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007.