From the Reading Room

Every now and again we like to find out why a reader has decided to consult the material they have selected and how this will relate to their wider research interests.  This week I was particularly struck by the title of a book from the Durning – Lawrence Library chosen by a drama PhD student  –  Histrio – Mastix, The Players Scourge… by William Prynne

The title is worth quoting in full:

‘Histrio-mastix : the players scourge, or, actors tragaedie, divided into two parts, wherein it is largely evidenced, by divers arguments, by the concurring authorities and resolutions of sundry texts of Scripture … That popular stage-playes … are sinfull, heathenish, lewde, ungodly spectacles, and most pernicious corruptions; condemned in all ages, as intolerable mischiefes to churches, to republickes, to the manners, mindes, and soules of men. And that the profession of play-poets, of stage-players; together with the penning, acting, and frequenting of stage-playes, are unlawfull, infamous and misbeseeming Christians. All pretences to the contrary are here likewise fully answered; and the unlawfulnes of acting, of beholding academicall enterludes, briefly discussed; besides sundry other particulars concerning dancing, dicing, health-drinking, &c. of which the table will informe you / By William Prynne, an vtter-barrester of Lincolnes Inne.’

Our researcher writes;

‘William Prynne’s Histrio-mastix, published in 1632,is a thousand-page, prolix, repetitive, and impassioned tract denouncing theatre, theatre people, theatre spectators, and many other forms of pretending or enjoying, as ungodly. The tract is a fascinating document of what Jonas Barish has called ‘the Anti-theatrical prejudice’ in Western thought. It also has an intriguing history. Prynne was writing at a moment when Charles I’s court was producing lavish court masques in which both the King and Queen Henrietta Maria would perform. Prynne’s Puritanism was unwelcome to the ecclesiastical authorities and furthermore his denunciation of theatre in Histrio-mastix was taken as a species of attack on the royals. Consequently, Prynne’s ears were trimmed by the hangman, he was pilloried, branded and imprisoned at Caernarvon Castle. He became a martyr figure for some English Puritans, so that this book, in its small way, is symptomatic of the tensions that would subsequently erupt in the English Civil War.’

I then asked how this book was being used in the wider context of our reader’s research;

‘I am working with Histrio mastix as part of research towards a new performance that will explore anti-theatricality and iconoclasm in the English Civil War. Prynne may feature as a character.’


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