Friday, 11 November 2011

The Restoration Playgoer - Samuel Pepys's theatre

Samuel Pepys portrait from 1666 by J. Hayls

When the London theatres reopened in 1660 after being closed for eighteen years by the Puritans during England's brief dalliance with republicanism, one of the first playgoers was the famous diarist, woman groper and Admiralty official Samuel Pepys. He was such an avid spectator of plays that he limited the number of times he would permit himself to go, in order to devote more time to his important Navy work, and to his constant battles with his arch enemy Admiral Sir William Penn, and incompetent colleagues Sir J. Minnes and Sir W. Batten, a knave and a fool respectively. He also enjoyed the theatres for the attractive women he saw there. On one occasion a lady accidentally spat on him, '...But after seeing her to be a very pretty lady, I was not troubled at it at all...'. [Diary entry 28 January 1661]

Despite his regular oaths to avoid plays, Pepys managed to visit the theatres on no fewer than 351 occasions during the nine years and five months of the Diary. He was a big admirer of Ben Jonson. On 7 January 1661 he saw The Silent Woman and thought it 'an excellent play'. He saw the play several times more, and also Bartholomew Fair, for the first time on 8 June 1661, when he described it as 'a most admirable play and well acted, but too much prophane and abusive'. Three years later he described the play as 'the best comedy in the world'. [Diary entry 2 August 1664]. Jonson's The Alchemist he liked, too, but was less enthusiastic about Shakespeare's plays. He thought Romeo and Juliet 'a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life...' [Diary entry 1 March 1662]. A Midsummer Night's Dream he described as a play 'which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. [Diary entry 29 September 1662]. And as for Twelfth Night, the very peak of the dramatist's romantic comedies and his most popular play in performance, he thought it 'a silly play, and not related at all to the name or day'. [Diary entry 6 January 1663]. But Shakespeare was redeemed with Macbeth, which Pepys thought 'one of the best plays for a stage'. [Diary entry 19 April 1667].

Scene from Twelfth Night (Malvolio and the Countess)
by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870)
'A silly play' - Samuel Pepys

Women acted regularly on stage for the first time during the Restoration, among them Nell Gwyn, one of the king's many mistresses. She was a very attractive woman and so naturally Pepys's liked her very much, as he did two of the king's other mistresses - Lady Castlemaine and Mrs Stewart. On one occasion Pepys went to bed 'fancying myself to sport with Mrs Stewart with great pleasure'. [Diary entry 14 July 1663]. He called Nell Gwyn 'pretty, witty Nell'. [Diary entry 3 April 1665]. On the same day he saw a performance of a play called Mustapha, written by William Boyle, the 1st Earl of Orrery, with the Restoration's greatest actor Thomas Betterton. But the play, Pepys thought, was so poor, that not even Betterton could rescue it. He was more impressed with Lord Orrery's Henry V, which he called 'a most noble play...wherein Betterton, Harris, and Ianthe's parts are most incomparably wrote...'. [Diary entry 13 August 1664]. And he was impressed, too, with Betterton's Hamlet, 'done with scenes very well, but above all, Betterton did the prince's part beyond imagination'. [Diary entry 24 August 1661]

Pepys would often read plays on his way down the river to muster a naval vessel for an unannounced inspection. One play he read was Ben Jonson's The Devil is an Ass, but he certainly never saw the play since there is no record of a performance for 350 years since it was first presented in November or December 1616. On 7 July 1664 he bought a book of Shakespeare's plays.

Samuel Pepys led a very busy life. He was an Admirality officer, sitting on several committees, inspecting dockyards and vessels, serving as Justice of the Peace, running his own household, seeing to his extramarital affairs as well as flirting with any pretty women that came his way, maintaining his Diary and his Book of Tales, yet still finding time to see an average of around 1 play a week for the whole of the Swinging 1660s. And if his oath ever got in the way of his indulging his passion, he was well skilled at justifying it to himself, often in the most elaborate and convoluted terms, as in this Diary entry of 28 September 1664, apropos of a visit to the theatre as a guest of Lord Rutherford and another lord:

'And here I must confess breach of a vowe in appearance, but I not desiring it, and against my will, and my oathe being to go neither at my own charge nor at another's, as I had done by becoming liable to give them another, as I am to Sir W. Pen and Mr Creed; but here I neither know which of them paid for me, nor, if I did, am obliged ever to return the like, or did it by desire or with any willingness. So that with a safe conscience I do think my oathe is not broke and judge God Almighty will not think it otherwise.'

Thomas Betterton in the role of Hamlet (circa 1661)

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