Issue of the day: Closing theatres – HeraldScotland

Posted: March 20, 2020 at 3:46 am


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With the closure of pubs, clubs, cinemas and theatres, the coronavirus is changing how we entertain ourselves. Its just the latest episode in a history that is centuries old.

This is not the first time a pandemic has closed theatres.

No, there is a long history of theatre being forced to close because of pandemics. The Black Death, which raged across Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries killing up to 200 million people, repeatedly forced the closure of theatres in London. In 1593 Shakespeare turned from plays to poetry because the theatres were closed. A decade later they were closed again, forcing theatre companies to tour the provinces in search of a living.

In 1606 the plague returned to London forcing Shakespeares Globe theatre to shut its doors again. Still, the closures, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro has suggested, allowed the playwright time to write King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. But he didnt have ITV3 repeats of Coronation Street to distract him.

Was the plague the only problem for theatres?

By no means, but it was a good excuse. In 1577 one Elizabethan preacher argued that the cause of plagues is sin and the cause of sin are plays, so therefore the cause of plagues are plays.

In terms of epidemiology his science was rather suspect, but it was an attitude that was popular in the church for centuries. Oliver Cromwells military regime banned theatre in 1642 and they didnt reopen until the restoration in 1660 (although an operawas performed in London for the first time).

What about Scotland?

Scotlands first public theatre didnt open until 1736 following a long history of bans on public revelries, dating back to 1555. Scottish theatre was largely non-existent in the 17th century, partly down to church disapproval, but also due to lack of patrons after James VI decamped to London to become James I.

As late as 1727 the Reverend Robert Wodow, a minister in Renfrewshire, was complaining that plays were seminaries of idleness, looseness and sin. In 1752, it is said, Glasgows first theatre was burnt down by religious fanatics after itinerant preacher George Whitefield called in the Devils home.

The first permanent theatre, built outside the citys boundary in Grahamston, also went up in flames but the churchs grip on public life was beginning to loosen and in 1782 the Theatre Royal in Dunlop Street was built after Glasgow magistrates gave permission.

What happened to theatres during wartime?

Both World War One and World War Two saw theatres being forced to close initially, a decision described by George Bernard Shaw in 1939 as a masterstroke of unimaginative stupidity. But in both cases, they reopened and were helpful for morale for both soldiers and civilians.

The love of fun is eternal, the Bystander magazine proclaimed during the First World War, and it will take a bigger beast than the Prussian to bully us out of it.

What next?

Like everyone else, the countrys theatres must wait and see. But they will reopen. They always have.

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Issue of the day: Closing theatres - HeraldScotland

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March 20th, 2020 at 3:46 am

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