Today in Theatre History: PRYNNE & PENN HATE THEATRE; OR, THE EARS HAVE IT–May 31

The end of May seems to be unusually popular with anti-theatrical types as well as the cutting off of ears.  Two significant anti-theatrical events occurred on this day–MAY 31–both directly related to cutting off people’s ears.


Queen Henrietta Maria--apparently a whore for theatre.

Queen Henrietta Maria–apparently a whore for theatre.

Very often, as the saying goes, timing is everything.  But in William Prynne’s case, he was quite simply a master of stupendously bad timing, it seems.  On this day in theatre history–May 31, 1630–William Prynne, an ersatz Puritan attorney but prolific pamphleteer, obtains permission to print his 1000-page “pamphlet,” Histriomastix, in which he exposes the theatre–using entirely unbiased and completely sound reasoning–as pure devil worship.  The document, subtly subtitled “The Player’s Scourge,” would be printed in November of 1632 and create quite a ruckus in Caroline England.  The reason?  Well, for one, Prynne decries the suggestion of women acting on the stage as scandalous and declares any woman who would dare stoop so low to be nothing more than a common “whore.”  This would turn out to be a rather poor choice of words.  Unbeknownst to Prynne—and here’s where that poor timing thing comes into play—the wife of Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria, had just performed on stage at the palace.  Calling the Queen of England a whore in print was not the wisest thing to do in this age.  And so, poor ol’ Mr. Prynne was hauled up before the Court of Star Chamber, charged, convicted and immediately jailed, fined £5000 and had both his ears lopped off.  Yup, Prynne was now earless—making him an instant standout in any crowd.

Prynne in his post-ear years, looking a bit like a Cavalier King Charles spaniel--which would be entirely appropriate, given his dogged-eared determination.

Prynne in his post-ear years, looking a bit like a Cavalier King Charles spaniel–which would be entirely appropriate, given his dog-eared nature.

Now, there are those who maintain that Prynne was the first to encourage the sporting of long hair on Puritan men as a result of this unfortunate sentence.  Curiously, Prynne had earlier in his career penned a pamphlet condemning the wearing of long hair by men as ungodly.  One wonders, was his new long coiffure a deliberate act of vanity on his part?  A rather un-Puritanical attempt to cover up his unsightly ears?  A sudden change of heart in the absence of ears?  Or was it just the natural and gradual lengthening of hair as a result of Prynne’s barber who no longer knew quite what to do when told to “trim it just above the ears”?  Whatever the case, Prynne became known for his long, flowing locks.  And though earless, he continued to be a bug in everyone else’s ear.  There’s little doubt, for instance, that his Histriomastix had a significant influence on the banning of theatre by Parliament in 1642.  Somehow he survived the Interregnum relatively unscathed (just a couple of quick turns in jail and the remaining bits of ear punitively removed, as per usual), and even became a conservative MP during the early years of the Restoration—a political act he supported wholeheartedly.  In fact, being earless seemed to have changed Mr. Prynne only slightly.  While still a raging Presbyterian, he nonetheless became a staunch supporter of Charles II.  But as always, he was a man with a keen ear for debate; a politician with his ear to the ground; a Parliamentarian who was always up to his ears in trouble to the very end.


Also on this day–May 31, 1759–Pennsylvania banned theatre in an effort to boot the Douglass Company out of town.  Pennsylvania had tried to outlaw theatre off and on since 1701 without much success.  Every time the colonial assembly passed such a bill, it would be overturned by Whitehall as interfering with commerce.  But by 1759, London was getting touchy about its ongoing conflict with France and so, using a cleverly worded argument that theatre interfered with the war, London approved the ban.  But the Douglass Company had its friends in local government and they were given until January 1, 1760 to clear out.  Meanwhile, they were quite free to ply their trade in the Southward Playhouse in Philadelphia—which they did with considerable success.  The ban wouldn’t last long (perhaps Pennsylvanians heard what opposing theatre can do to one’s ears or maybe the neighbors finally appreciated the earsplitting noise that came from the nightly applause.).  The Douglass Company would return to perform in Philadelphia throughout the 1760s and 1770s, until theatre was suspended in 1774 by the Continental Congress in the events leading up to the Revolutionary War.

So what does this have to do with cutting off people’s ears?  Well, the War of Jenkins’ Ear–1739 to 1749–was a major precipitating factor leading to the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France.  It was called “The War of Jenkins’ Ear” because a British merchant captain, named Robert Jenkins, was captured in 1731 by the Spanish and had one of his ears cut off to show the English how serious they were about British incursions into Spanish trading routes.  The English, of course, took umbrage at this crude gesture and so began a lengthy conflict that would soon become the War of Austrian Succession that would then lead to the Seven Year’s War that would then become the motivation for banning theatre in Pennsylvania.   How’s that for some very odd theatre history connections and the cutting off of ears?

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