Today in Theatre History–May 23, 1656–William D’Avenant took a serious risk (both to life and fortune) by producing an evening of theatrical display in his London residence, Rutland House, seemingly in defiance of the Puritan’s ban against theatre during the Interregnum. Little is known of the performance, though most scholars believe it contained recited lines and dialogue supported by musical enhancements. It was presented in a makeshift theatre that D’Avenant adapted from a large room in the estate. But again, little is known of the actual facility. Given the typical size and dimensions of a Restoration townhouse, it must have been quite small compared to most public playhouses prior to the Civil War.
The important thing is that this performance, which he temptingly called “A First Day’s Entertainment at Rutland House,” represented the first major attempt to present anything resembling a theatrical amusement during the Puritan regime since the banning of theatre in 1642. While there were perhaps drolls and other minor illegal attempts at theatre found at the annual fairs, this was the first significant endeavor in which an audience was allowed to watch a cast of performing actors for a fee (a whopping 5 shillings per head) while the Puritans controlled the country. That fee, by the way, indicated that this was not a show intended for the masses, but for D’Avenant’s wealthy friends and associates. And some have speculated that this meant that the production might have contained elements not commonly found on the English stage–like Italianate scenery.
How did he do it? How did he manage to circumvent the laws against theatre? He simply called it a musical entertainment and trouble was avoided. Puritans had no objection to music–seeing it as a possible tool for religious good. Thus, music was never outlawed. D’Avenant took advantage of this loophole to manufacture an entertainment that clearly resembled a typical evening in the theatre. The event was successful enough that by September, most scholars believe, he offered another evening of theatre–this time called The Siege of Rhodes–often described as England’s first opera (as well as the first documented instance in which a woman performed on an English stage). Within two years, the Puritan government was on the downhill slide and England was looking to the son of the beheaded Charles I to return and resume the monarchy–which he did in 1660 as Charles II. And by then, of course, theatre was once again a mainstay of English culture and that brief eighteen-year theatrical hiatus known as the Interregnum was viewed as just a historical anomaly. D’Avenant continued to produce theatre during the early years of the Restoration, running the famed Duke’s Company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, until his death in 1668–most likely from syphilis.