Nell Gwynn

September 20

November 4, 2018

CST’s Courtyard Theater

by Jessica Swale
directed by Christopher Luscombe

Theater in Restoration England

The English Restoration earned its name from the reinstatement of the English monarchy after nearly two decades of Commonwealth rule. In 1660 Charles II returned to England and assumed his role as king. Inspired by the art, fashion, and theater on the Continent, he re-opened London’s playhouses, ushering in a new era for English theater history.

Charles II’s father, Charles I, ruled England from 1625 until 1642; his reign, marred by economic turmoil and religious strife, spurred unrest amongst Protestants in Parliament who rebelled against the king’s financial mismanagement and marriage to the French Catholic, Queen Henrietta Maria. Parliamentary Protestants deposed Charles I in 1642. Along with removing the king from his seat of power, Protestants closed (and in many cases destroyed) the city’s theaters—and with their closure came an eighteen-year interruption to the well-established theatrical practices and traditions of Shakespeare’s London.

When Charles II emerged from his French exile to reclaim the throne, he granted performance licenses to two loyal courtiers. Thomas Killigrew led the King’s Company and Sir William Davenant helmed the Duke’s Company. Each troupe was distinct: the King’s Company held exclusive performance rights to most pre-Civil War plays, including Shakespeare’s, which then forced Davenant’s company to create new plays for a new era. 

Though Killigrew held most of the rights to Shakespeare’s plays, both companies adapted the playwright’s work to appeal to contemporary tastes. Nahum Tate re-wrote King Lear with a happy ending; together John Dryden and William Davenant gave Miranda a sister when they wrote The Tempest: or, The Enchanted Island. Many of the Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays dominated English stages through the eighteenth century.

The Restoration stage also brought with it innovations in theatrical practice. Unlike the open-air theaters of Shakespeare’s era, new playhouses like Drury Lane, the Restoration’s first purpose-built stage and home to the King’s Company, were indoors. Drury Lane (initially known as Theatre Royal in Bridges Street) had a deep forestage where most of the play’s action took place. A large proscenium arch framed the stage and the play’s scenery changed behind it. During Shakespeare’s era, scenic design was limited due to limited backstage space, an open-air stage, and a thrust platform with audience members seated on all three sides. In contrast, the King’s and Duke’s Companies made use of moving stage pieces, mesmerizing audiences with seemingly instantaneous scenic changes.  Writers quickly adapted to the new technology and theater spaces by crafting plays to shift rapidly between multiple locations.

Audience seating was divided into three areas of seating: the pit, box, and gallery. The most affluent patrons sat in the private boxes with less expensive seating in the pit (wooden benches on the floor) and in the gallery, high above the stage. These architectural changes in audience seating, and the transition from the thrust stage of Shakespeare’s time to a proscenium theater with advanced scenic technology, drastically altered the audience-actor relationship. Audiences no longer thronged the stage as they had at the Globe, but instead sat in their seats at a greater distance from the performers.

The Restoration also ushered in novel performance customs. During his time abroad, the king saw French, Italian, and Spanish women performing in public theaters. In an effort to modernize his own country’s performance practices, in 1660 Charles II lifted the ban on English women acting on public stages. Nell Gwynn, among the first English women to on the Restoration stage, paved the way for later actresses. While Restoration drama has faded from public memory in the shadow of the early modern literary greats like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, it rose anew alongside the English monarchy in 1660.

Though Charles II fathered several children by his mistresses, the king’s wife, Queen Catherine of Braganza, was unable to carry a pregnancy to term. Charles II died on February 6, 1685, with no legitimate heir. His brother James succeeded him as King James II, and established a new, though short-lived, Catholic monarchy. The Restoration period officially ended following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the British overthrew James II to prevent a Catholic monarchy. The subsequent reign of William and Mary of Orange produced a conservative era, which quickly eclipsed the permissive nature of Restoration Theater. Although short-lived, the Restoration stage was remarkable in the way it radically changed English theater practice.

Further Reading

  • Elizabeth Howe, The First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700 (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • Deborah Payne Fisk, The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Tim Keenan, Restoration Staging, 1660-1674 (Routledge, 2017).



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