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Whip The Actors
by Phillip Ayliffe
Puritanism in England in the 16th and 17th centuries refers to a time when a group of English Protestants sought to purify the Christian faith and return Christianity back to what they believed was its proper place. Offering a simple creed and strict discipline, the Puritans elected to remove the doctrines, practices and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, which they disparagingly referred to as "popery."
The Puritans believed, among other things, that human nature was basically evil and regarded luxury and pleasure as inherently sinful. During the Commonwealth in England, a number of laws or ordinances were enacted, outlawing many of the traditional entertainments that had been enjoyed in England for centuries. Among these were minstrelsy, balladry, theatres and stage-players.
This was accomplished by associating certain professions or activities with preexisting law dealing with the rogue element in society. The legal definition for "rogue," according to Black's Law Dictionary is: "An idle and disorderly person; a trickster; a wandering beggar; a vagrant or vagabond; a scoundrel." (Black's 1194).
The statute dealing with the crime of roguery was first enacted under the Reign of Henry VIII and was later modified in an Act signed by Elizabeth I addressing the problem of "Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars." (Statutes 899) A "sturdy beggar" is defined as "an able-bodied man begging without cause, and often with violence." (OED 67) "Vagabondage" is defined as "idle or unconventional wandering or travelling; vagabondism." (OED 393) The punishment for said crime was a public whipping.
The whipping laws in England were first enacted under Henry VIII. Those who were adjudged guilty were taken to a market town, stripped naked, tied to a whipping cart and flogged. This was modified under Elizabeth I, where the accused was tied to a whipping post "stripped naked from the middle upward and openly whipped untill his or her body be bloudye . . ." (Statutes 899 ). This was the punishment meted out to Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars. As stated, the law applied to both men and women, until almost a century and a half later, when "A statute in 1791, expressly forbade the whipping of female vagrants." (Andrews 159)
The Ordinance passed in 1647 was the first to name actors or stage-players as criminals who were to be treated as rogues, and who were to be given painful and humiliating punishment. As part of the earnest attempt by the Puritans to expunge society of its sinful elements, it went further by also fining spectators and law enforcement officials who did not follow the Ordinance. In addition, it called for the offending theatre building to be pulled down. As an example, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre had already been pulled down in 1644 to make room for tenement dwellings. The Ordinance read as follows:
"An Ordinance for the utter suppression and abolishing of all Stage-Plays and Interludes, within the Penalties to be inflicted on the Actors and Spectators therein expressed. [11 February, 1647/8]
Whereas the Acts of Stage-Playes, Interludes, and common Playes, condemned by ancient Heathens, and much less to be tolerated amongst Professors of the Christian Religion is the occasion of many and sundry great vices and disorders, tending to the high provocation of Gods wrath and displeasure which lies heavy upon this Kingdom and to the disturbance of the peace thereof; in regard whereof the same hath been prohibited by Ordinance of this present Parliament, and yet is presumed to be practised by divers in contempt thereof. Therefore for the better suppression of the said Stage-playes, Interludes and common Players, It is ordered and ordained by the Lords and Commons in this present Parliament Assembled, and by Authority of the same, That all Stage-players and Players of Interludes and common Playes, are hereby declared to be, and are, and shall be taken to be Rogues, and punishable, within the Statutes of the thirty ninth year of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, and the seventh year of the Reign of King James, and liable unto the pains and penalties therein contained, and proceeded against according to the said Statutes whether they be wanderers or no, and notwithstanding any License whatsoever from the King or any person or persons to that purpose. And it is further ordered and ordained by the Authority aforesaid, That the Lord Mayor, Justices of the Peace, and Sheriffs of the City of London and Westminster, and of the Counties of Middlesex and Surrey, or any two, or more of them, shall, and may, and are hereby authorized and required, to pull down and demolish, or cause or procure to be pulled down and demolished all Stage-Galleries, Seats, and Boxes, erected or used or which shall be erected and used for the acting, or playing , or seeing acted or plaid, such Stage-Playes, Interludes, and Plays aforesaid, within the said City of London and Liberties thereof, and other places within their respective jurisdictions; and all such common Players, and Actors of such Playes and Interludes as upon view of them or any one of them, or by Oath of two Witnesses (which they are hereby authorized to administer) shall be proved before them, or any two of them, to have Acted, or played such Playes and Interludes as aforesaid at any time hereafter, or within the space of two Moneths before the time of the said Conviction, by their Warrant or Warrants under their hands and seals, to cause to be apprehended, and openly and publiquely whipt in some Market Town within their several Jurisdictions during the time of the said Market, and, also to cause such Offender and Offenders to enter into Recognizance or Recognizances, with two sufficient Sureties never to Act or play any Playes or Interludes any more, and shall return in the said Recognizance, or Recognizances into the Assizes or Sessions to be then next holden for the said Counties and Cities respectively; and to commit to the common Gaol any such person and persons as aforesaid, as shall refuse to be bound, and finde such Sureties as aforesaid, until he or they shall so become bound. And in case any such person or persons so convicted of the said offence, shall after again offend in the same kinde, that then the said person or persons so offending, shall be, and is hereby Declared to be, and be taken as an incorrigible Rogue, and shall be punisht and dealt with as an incorrigible Rogue ought to be by the said Statutes. And it is hereby further ordered and ordained, That all and every sum and sums of Money gathered, Collected, and taken by any person or persons, of such persons as shall come to see, and be Spectators of the said Stage-Playes, and Interludes, shall be forfeited and paid unto the Church-wardens of the Church or Parish where the said sums shall be so Collected and taken, to be disposed of to the use of the poor of the said Parish and shall from time to time be levied by the said Church-wardens, and Constables of the said Parish, by Warrant under the hands and seals of any two of the Justices of the Peace of the County, City, or Town Corporate where the said sums are so taken and Collected, upon complaint thereof to them made, on the Goods and Chattels of the person or persons collecting the same, or of the person and persons to whom the same shall be paid by them that Collect the same, by Distress, and sale of their Goods and Chattels, rendring to them the overplus, upon Examination of the said persons, or proof made upon Oath before the said Justices of the sum or sums so Collected and received, which the said Justices are hereby authorized to take and examine. And it is hereby further ordered and ordained, That every person or persons which shall be present and a Spectator at any such Stage-play, or Interlude, hereby prohibited, shall for every time he shall be so present, forfeit and pay the sum of five shillings to the use of the poor of the Parish, where the said person or persons shall at that time dwell or sojourn, being convicted thereof by his own confession, or proof of any one Witness upon Oath, before any one Justice of Peace of the County, City, or Town Corporate where the said offence is committed (who is hereby authorized to take the same Oath) to be levied by the Church-wardens or Constables of the said Parish, by warrant of the said Justice of Peace, by distress and sale of the Goods of the said person offending, rendring to him the overplus. And it is hereby further ordered and ordained, That all Mayors, Bayliffs, Constables, and Officers, Souldiers, and other persons being thereunto required, shall be from time to time, and all times hereafter, aiding and assisting unto the said Lord Mayor, Justices of the Peace, and Sheriffs, in the due execution of this Ordinance, upon pain to be fined for their contempt in their neglect or refusal thereof." (Firth 1070)
No doubt, the Puritans also found disfavor with the theatre because it was a primary teaching tool of the Jesuit Order. The Jesuits built many theatres and staged morality plays as a didactic activity to help fledgling priests learn their vocation. Since Jesuit theatre was a part of the hated "popery," that association, in all probability, also helped bring harsh consequences to any person connected to the theatrical profession.
The term "pejoration" in Linguistics is the process by which the semantic status of a word changes for the worse over a period of time. For example, "egregious" formerly meant "distinguished or remarkable," but now it means "conspicuously bad or flagrant." The Puritans were able to pejorate the word "actor" by forcing it into an association with miscreant behavior and subsequent punishment for such under the already existing "Rogue Act" of 1597.
Although the Ordinance against stage-plays remained in effect for 14 years, the Puritans inculcated in the public, a negative attitude toward the profession that continues to this day. The rogue laws remained on the books until 1843 with the last public whipping recorded in Glasgow in 1822, given to a man caught stealing bread.
In understanding why actors were singled out to receive such punishment, rather than looking at the Dionysian aspect of acting with its freedom of expression, or noting that the theatre was associated with pagan practices reaching all the way back to staged rituals in ancient Greece, we need only to look to the origin of the word itself.
This writer believes there is another very good reason why the stage-play culture was singled out for such vituperation. The key to understanding lies in the very definition of the words "actor" and "drama."
The word "actor" originates from the Latin verb "to do" and simply means a "do-er." That is the definition of actor, pure and simple. It should also be noted that the word "drama" originates from the Greek verb "to do." So we have two different words from two different languages, a noun and a verb, involving both profession and practitioner that have the same, exact meaning.
Though not all actors are great doers, the theatre provides a place for the doer. But more importantly, it provides a sense of place for those with the ability to make something happen and to express with a creative freedom.
So it is in this light that one may more readily understand why theatre and the acting profession could be a focal point for persecution by a repressive regime that wants followers, not doers. Certainly, in this regard, theatre as an activity is be condemned. When an actor is capable of free choice and independent action and has the ability to do, as opposed to merely follow,such an actor is an individual to be targeted for suppression.
In an attempt to bring all elements under control, in this case, under the domination of a spiritual fascism, it is imperative that those members of society who are capable of deciding for themselves what's best for themselves, those members must be characterized as criminals and their activities penalized.
Although the Puritan Reformation promised a return to the true faith, it ended with Cromwell becoming a virtual dictator. After he died, the Monarchy was restored under Charles II, ushering in the Restoration period in English Theatre.
Andrews, William. Old-Time Punishments. London: The Tabard Press, 1890.
"Beggar" Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition. Clarendon Press, 1989.
"Vagabondage" Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition. Clarendon Press, 1989.
Firth, C.H., and R.S. Rait. Acts & Ordinances of the Interregnum 1642-1660, Vol I. London: Wyman and Sons, Ltd, 1911.
"Rogue" Black's Law Dictionary, 5th edition. West Publishing Co., 1979.
Statutes of the Realm, Vol. IV, part II, Chapter IV, part III. 1811.