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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 291-293
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Drama And Politics in the English Civil War
At Zero Point: Discourse, Culture, and Satire in Restoration England
Drama And Politics in the English Civil War. By Susan Wiseman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; xviii + 297 pp. $64.95 cloth.
At Zero Point: Discourse, Culture, and Satire in Restoration England. By Rose Zimbardo. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1998; 203 pp. $34.95 cloth.
These two new books offer diametrically opposed arguments about the Restoration. For Rose Zimbardo, the Restoration was nothing less than the moment when "medieval/Renaissance epistemology collapsed," making room for the new edifice of modernism to be constructed on its rubble. For Susan Wiseman, however, there was no decisive break; to assume that there was such a sharp [End Page 291] fissure, she argues, can only be maintained by ignoring all the evidence for persistent theatrical activity during the years of the English Revolution, 1640-60. In Wiseman's view, the theatre neither slumbered nor slept during the revolutionary era, and she offers convincing support for her contention that the common view of the civil war and Interregnum years as a dramatic black hole is simply inaccurate.
Wiseman argues that the closure of the theatres served as an immediate catalyst for the emergence of the pamphlet dialogue, in which political arguments took the form of dialogues with multiple voices. Developing Elizabeth Skerpan's thesis about radical prose writings of this era--that genres such as petitions, playlets and declarations were all regenericized as "news"--Wiseman shows how the dramatic pamphlets helped to circulate radical views. For example, The Arraignment of Mr. Persecution (1645), by the Leveller Richard Overton, with its Bunyan-like title, shows how radical tolerationist ideas could easily be adapted to dramatic form. Mid-century plays with Shakespearean titles like The Famous Tragedie of Charles I and The Tragedy of Marcus Tullius Cicero were able to develop royalist and republican ideas, respectively, with some aesthetic sophistication.
The second half of Wiseman's book looks closely at the careers of the playwrights. Some, like James Shirley, began in the Caroline theatre and remained active. Others, like John Tatham, began writing during the civil war years and were well prepared for the official re-opening of the theatre; Tatham wrote a succession of the annual Lord Mayor's pageants early in the Restoration. The plays of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, reflect the challenges raised by the civil wars to social hierarchy; they continue to attract attention for their emphasis on the power and sexuality of the noble female but also reveal a distinct fear of the sexuality of women from the lower orders. Like the prophet Lady Eleanor Davies, Cavendish showed reluctance to abandon some aristocratic notions despite her basically radical inclinations.
The career of William Davenant actually spanned both sides of the revolutionary years. Davenant (who liked to boast that Shakespeare was his natural father) was unique as the only professional dramatist who was permitted to stage his plays commercially during the revolutionary years. One of his masques was apparently sanctioned by Cromwell's Protectorate government; it would be nice to know if Cromwell sat on Charles throne to watch it. The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru shows sympathy for the defeated Incas even as it fantasizes about a possible future English conquest of the Spanish; the two-part Siege of Rhodes is remarkable for its ambivalent representation of the Turks and the Ottoman Empire. Tatham's The Distracted State (1651) takes a satiric royalist view of republican government shortly after the execution of Charles I. Tatham wrote a welcoming "triumph" for the return of Charles II called London's Glory, in which the playwright had to face the problem of devising a post-republican way of mythologizing the newly-restored king.
A short chapter on masque and opera notes that James Shirley's Cupid and Death (1653) was not just tolerated but possibly even sponsored by the Protectorate. This helps to support one...