Exploring the History of Theater - in One Amazing City

Happy New Year's Day - Hey, Did William Penn Ever See a Play?

Happy New Year's Day - Hey, Did William Penn Ever See a Play?

Well, yes he did! Faithful followers of the podcast will remember that we speculated on this topic in Episode #2, but there is proof!

In the famous diary of the London resident and Royal Navy administrator Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), we find the following entry for Wednesday, January 1, 1662:

Up and went forth with Sir W. Pen [sic] by coach towards Westminster, and in my way seeing that the Spanish Curate was acted today, I light and let him go alone, and I home again and sent to young Mr. Pen and his sister to go anon with my wife and I to the Theatre.

That done, Mr. W. Pen came to me and he and I walked out, and to the Stacioner’s [sic], and looked over some pictures and maps for my house, and so home again to dinner, and by and by came the two young Pens, and after we had eat a barrel of oysters we went by coach to the play, and there saw it well acted, and a good play it is, only Diego the Sexton did overdo his part too much.

From thence home, and they sat with us till late at night at cards very merry, but the jest was Mr. W. Pen had left his sword in the coach, and so my boy and he run out after the coach, and by very great chance did at the Exchange meet with the coach and got his sword again.

Samuel Pepys

The Spanish Curate was a comedy by the Jacobean writing duo of John Fletcher and Philip Massinger. It was first acted by the King's Men company in 1622, and was much revived on the Restoration Era stage by the King's Company. A very complicated plot and subplots would have involved much attention on the part of the audience, but all turns out well in the end. "Diego the Sexton" was a clown's role, and evidently the performance was not to Pepys' taste. Young William Penn was not used to the customs of play-going, perhaps accounting for his carelessness in leaving his sword (which all upper-class Englishmen would have carried at the time) in the coach.

We also know from Pepys that four days before, the Penn family had also gone to see Bussy D'ambois, a Jacobean Era tragedy by George Chapman, set in France. But unfortunately, these visits to the theatre did not leave a pleasant memory behind in William Penn's mind. As we detailed in Episode 2 of the podcast, when he established the colony of Pennsylvania, Penn expressly forbid the performance of plays in its founding document, Frame of the Government of Pennsylvania, equating them with "cards, dice, May-games, gamesters, masques, revels, bull-battings, cock-fightings, bear-battings, and the like, which excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness, and irreligion."

We can tell from other of his writings that it was the clothing that the Restoration Era audience and actors wore that particularly offended William Penn. The men he had seen on stage tended towards effeminacy, and the women dressed to provoke lust, he felt strongly. And the undoubted open presence of prostitutes in the playhouse would have also disturbed him extremely. As we have learned in later episodes, these are issues that would continue to challenge the 'respectability' of theater in Philadelphia well into the 19th Century.

Nell Gwynn William Penn as a young man

William Penn in later years  Title page of No Cross No Crown

(Image in the header: an imaginative depiction of Restoration Era theatre performance. At top: a portrait of Samuel Pepys. Below: 1) A portrait of Nell Gwynn, the famous London actress and mistress of King Charles II, who was a star of the Restoration stage in the 1660's. 2) A portrait of William Penn as a young man, wearing armor, painted near to the time of his fateful visits to see plays. 3) A print of a portrait of William Penn as the Founder of Pennsylvania, accompanied by figures of a white frontiersman and a Delaware (Leni Lenape). 4)  And finally, the title page of William Penn's 1668 book No Cross No Crown - in which he dealt at length with his disdain for the theater, condemning it as un-Christian and the occasion for wasted time, empty social display, and earthly vanity.