Posted in Fashion History, History, Literature, Theatre History, TV Programme

Restoration Drama with Gwyn, Pepys & Collier

Actress Nell Gwyn standing outside her lodgings’ door.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the ubiquitous Dr Lucy Worsley’s recent BBC Four series, ‘Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls’, I decided to revisit my collection of playtexts and theatre source books for some restoration inspiration.  The BBC series is in three parts, ‘Act One: At Court’ (Ep.1); ‘Act Two: At Home’ (Ep. 2); ‘Act Three: At Work’ (Ep. 3) and focusses upon that flamboyant period in English history, The Restoration.  The Restoration began when Charles II (1630-1685) was invited to take-up the throne of England following the death of Oliver Cromwell, “Lord Protector“, in 1658.  Charles accepted the role and eventually returned to London on the 29th May 1660, his 30th birthday, receiving a warm welcome in the Capital. The young Charles was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 23rd April, 1661.

With the restoration of the monarchy, the English aristocracy could start living life to the full once again, after ten years of puritanical oppression under Cromwell. The wealthy wasted no time in embracing their new-found social, sexual and political freedom and the arts flourished. Dr Worsely’s series features some of the females that enjoyed extraordinary success in the Restoration, including: playwright Aphra Behn (1640-1689) and actress Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn (1650-1687).  Also featured is the celebrated writer and social commentator Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), who left an enduring chronicle of the period with his infamous Diary.

Nell Gwyn was born on 2nd February 1650 in Hereford, Herefordshire.  Her father, Captain Thomas Gwyn, had been a soldier in the English Civil War. Her mother drowned in a pond (supposedly as the result of drunkenness) in Chelsea, July 1679.  As a teenage Nell had been an orange seller outside The Theatre in Bridge Street, this theatre was later rebuilt and renamed as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which still survives today.  She was a member of the Drury Lane Company of actors from 1665 until 1669. In 1670 Nell became Charles II’s mistress and remained so until his death in 1685.  She had two illegitimate children with the King, Charles and James Beauclerk, sadly James died in Paris, aged 9.  At her Pall Mall house on the 14th November 1687, Nell died of syphilis related apoplexy.

Nell worked as an actress for seven years and her last professional appearance was as Almahide in the two-part heroic drama by John Dryden, The Conquest of Granada. performed in 1670 and part two in 1671.  It was unusual for a professional actress to return to work following the birth of a child. Her son Charles was born on 8th May 1670 and by December Nell was in full flow in the demanding lead role of Dryden’s opus.

This tragedy is based upon the Spanish conquest of Granada in 1492. It is written in closed couplets of iambic pentameter.  Nell opens the first play by speaking the Prologue.  She must have been a picture, in the copy of the playtext from my own collection it states: ‘Spoken by Mrs Ellen Gwyn, in a broad-rimmed hat, and waist-belt.’  The footnotes elaborate on her costume: ‘Nell Gwyn’s costume borrowed its idea from the comedian Nokes at the rival Patent Theatre.  Nokes is said to have taken the visit of the Duchess of Orleans to England, in May 1670, as occasion for caricaturing, on the English stage, French fashions.’  Below are the opening lines from the Prologue:

This jest was first of t’other house’s making,

And, five times tried, has never failed of taking.

For ‘twere a shame a poet should be killed

Under the shelter of so broad a shield.

This is that hat whose very sight did win ye

To laugh and clap as though the devil were in ye.

As then, for Nokes, so now, I hope, you’ll be

So dull, to laugh, once more, for love of me.

‘I’ll write a play,’ says one, ‘for I have got

A broad-brimmed hat, and waist-belt, towards a plot.’

Says t’other, ‘I have one more large than that.’

Thus they out-write each other with a hat.

The brims still grew with every play they write;

And grew so large, they covered all the wit.

Nell’s character Almahide is the Queen of Granada.  Almahide enters, for the first time, just over a third of way into Act III scene 1.  The action accompanying the entrance of the King, Almahide, Abenamar and Esperanza is quite spectacular. A lengthy song followed by an exotic Zambra dance and ‘tumultuous noise of drums and trumpets’. Almahide’s first speech is very short:

What dismal planet did my triumphs light!

Discord the day, and death does rule the night:

The noise my soul does through my senses wound.

(Act III scene 1, lines 249-251)

Her final speech of the play is in Act V, Scene 3, lines 299-310:

Adieu, then, O my soul’s far better part!

Your image sticks so close,

That the blood follows from my rending heart.

A last farewell!

For, since a last must come, the rest are vain,

Like gasps in death, which but prolong our pain.

But, since the king is now a part of me,

Cease from henceforth to be his enemy.

Go now, for pity go! for, if you stay,

I fear I shall have something still to say.

Thus – I for ever shut you from my sight. [veils].

Pepys began writing his Diary in 1660, stopping in 1669.  Pepys was certainly a fruity old devil with an eye for the ladies, particularly if they had a pretty, well-turned ankle. Some of his entries are eye-wateringly naughty, which explains why he wrote it using a shorthand form called Tachygraphy.  Pepys wrote predominantly for his own private pleasure.  It wasn’t until 1825 that the diaries were finally transcribed and subsequently published in two volumes.  This important primary source has enabled generations of scholars to develop a greater understanding of life in the first decade of the English Restoration. Pepys was captivated by Nell Gwyn and his diary entries from this period support his fascination with her:

3rd April – 1665: ‘With Creed, my wife, and Mercer to a play at the Duke’s of my Lord Orrery’s, called Mustapha, which being not good made Betterton’s part and Ianthe’s but ordinary too, so that we were not contented with it at all…..All the pleasure of the play was, the King and my Lady Castlemayne were there; and pretty witty Nell, at the King’s House, sat next us, which pleased me mightily.’

23rd January – 1667: ‘After dinner to the New Exchange, there to take up my wife and Mercer, and thence to the King’ house, and there saw The Humerous Lieutenant: a silly play, I think.  Here in a box above we spied Mrs Pierce; and going out they called us, and so we staid for them; and Knipp took us all in and brought to us Nelly, a most pretty woman, who acted the great part of Coelia today very fine, and did it pretty well: I kissed her, and so did my wife, and a mighty pretty soul she is.  Knipp made us stay in a box and see the dancing preparatory to tomorrow for The Goblins, a play of Suckling’s not acted these twenty-five years, which was pretty; and so away thence, pleased with this sight also, and specially kissing of Nell.’

2nd March – 1667: ‘After dinner with my wife to the King’s house to see The Mayden Queene, a new play of Dryden’s, mightily commended for the regularity of it, and the strain and wit; and the truth is there is a comical part done by Nell, which is Florimell, that I never can hope ever to see the like done again, by man or women.  The King and Duke of York were at the play.  But so great performance of a comical part was never I believe in the world before as Nell do this, both as a mad girle, then most and best of all when she comes in like a young gallant; and hath the motions and carriage of a spark the most that ever I saw any man have.  It makes me, I confess, admire her.’

5th October – 1667: ‘At noon home, and by coach to Temple Bar to a India shop, and there brought a gown and sash, which cost me 26s.; and so to my Lord Crew and there dined, and after dinner I to my tailor’s, and there took up my wife and Willet, and so to the King’s house: and there going in met with Knipp, and she took us up into the tireing-rooms, and to the women’s shift, where Nell was dressing herself and was all unready, and is very pretty, prettier than I thought.  And so walked all up and down the house above, and then below into the scene-room and there sat down, and she gave us fruit: and here I read the questions to Knipp, while she answered me, through all her part of Flora’s Figary’s which was acted today. But, Lord! to see how they were both painted would make a man mad, and did make me loath them; and what base company of men comes among them, and how lewdly they talk! and how poor the men are in clothes, and yet what a shew they make on the stage by candle-light, is very observable.’

11th November – 1667: ‘After dinner my wife and I and Willett to the King’s play-house, and there say The Indian Emperour, [by Dryden], a good play, but not so good as people cry it up, I think, though above all things Nell’s ill speaking of a great part made me mad.’

28th December – 1667: ‘..I rose soon from dinner, and with my wife and girle to the King’s house, and there saw The Mad Couple [by James Howard], which is but an ordinary play; but only Nell’s and Harts mad parts are most excellently done, but especially her’s; which makes it a miracle to me to think how ill she do any serious part, as the other day, just like a fool or changeling, and in a mad part do beyond all imitation almost.’

7th May – 1668: ‘At noon home to dinner, and thither I sent for Mercer to dine with me; and after dinner she and I called Mrs Turner, and I carried them to the Duke of York’s house, and there saw The Man’s The Master, which proves a very good play.  Thence called Knipp from the King’s house, where going in for her, the play being done, I did see Beck Marshall come dressed off of the stage, and looks mighty fine and pretty and noble: and also Nell in her boy’s clothes, mighty pretty.’

7th January – 1669: ‘Up, and to the office, where busy all the morning, and then at noon home to dinner, and thence my wife and I to the King’s playhouse, and there saw The Island Princesse, the first time I ever saw it; and it is a pretty good play, many good things being in it, and a good scene of a town on fire. We sate in an upper box, and the jade Nell come and sat in the next box; a bold merry slut, who lay laughing there upon people; and with a comrade of hers of the Duke’s house, that come in to see the play.’

In 1642 Elizabethan and Jacobean drama came to an abrupt end with the formal closing of the theatres by Parliament who decreed that: ‘public stage-plays shall cease, and be forbane.’ When the theatres re-opened in 1660 a new creative era began and the genre of Restoration drama born. Important playwrights synonymous with this period include: Aphra Behn; John Dryden; George Villiers; Thomas Otway; Sir George Etherege; William Wycherley; William Congreve; Sir John Vanbrugh; George Farquhar; Sir Charles Sedley; Thomas Shadwell; Thomas Southerne; Nicholas Rowe and Joseph Addison. Restoration drama begins in 1660 and ends at the turn of the eighteenth century.  There were three main types of play written during this period: heroic drama; blank-verse tragedy and comedy of manners.

As the seventeenth century drew to a close, Restoration drama was not without its criticism, the most famous being Non-conformist parson and critic Jeremy Collier (1650-1726).  He was frustrated at the lack of morality shown in comedies being written in the 1690s, particularly in the plays of William Congreve and Sir John Vanbrugh. Collier wrote A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, published in March, 1698.  Here are few extracts:

Chapter 1 – The Immodesty of the Stage

‘Now among the curiosities of this kind we may reckon Mrs Pinchwife, Horner, and Lady Fidget in the Country Wife; Widow Blackacre and Olivia in the Plain Dealer.  These, though not all the exceptionable characters, are the most remarkable.  I’m sorry the author should stoop his wit thus low; and use his understanding so unkindly.  Some people appear coarse and slovenly out of poverty: they can’t well go to the charge of sense.  They are offensive, like beggars, for want of necessaries….In other instances vice is often too fashionable; but here a man can’t be a sinner, without being a clown.

In this respect the stage is faulty to a scandalous degree of nauseousness and aggravation. The poets make women speak smuttily….Women are sometimes represented silly, and sometimes mad, to enlarge their liberty, and screen their impudence from censure: this politic contrivance we have in Marcella, Hoyden, and Miss Prue….Jacinta and Belinda are farther proof.  And the Double Dealer is particularly remarkable.  There are but four ladies in this play, and three of the biggest of them are whores….And which is still more extraordinary: the Prologues, and Epilogues are sometimes scandalous to the last degree.  I shall discover them for once, and let them stand like rocks in the margin.’

For more information on the BBC 4 series, Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls, including clips and episode information –              CLICK HERE.

Actress Mrs Knipp.


Social historian, based in the UK.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s