Notes on The Droll

Drollery, short comic scene or farce adapted from an existing play or created by actors, performed in England during the period of the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth (1642–60) while the London theatres were closed down by the Puritans.

The term is a loose one, applied to short theatrical entertainments, often abridgements of longer plays or adaptions of scenes or episodes from them.

Drolls are usually comic,but not always, and often involving singing and dancing.

Thought to have been developed by Robert Cox during the interregnum of the 17th century, at the restoration two collections where compiled, first by Henry Marsh in 1662 (The Wits, or Sport upon Sport) with a new expanded edition in 1672 by Francis Kirkman, who went on to produce a second volume after the first.

They were performed during the commonwealth period. With the Red Bull Theatre being one closely associated with them.

‘A comic or farcical composition or representation; a farce; an enacted piece of buffoonery; a puppet-show.’- The New English Dictionary’s definition

“Drollery”- ‘A comic play or entertainment; a puppet-show; a puppet.’

The name is generally applied to short farces performed by human actors and to puppet-plays, during the seventeenth century this meaning was interchangeable. It cannot be certain whether some of the Drolls were not originally puppet plays.
Originally the term may have been used for puppet-play, before being used for short skits by actors. Puppet shows continued through the commonwealth.

Many of the pieces lack comedy.

The 38 Drolls categorised:

1. Abridgements, consisting almost entirely of comic scenes, from known five-act pre-Commonwealth plays (24 Drolls).
2. Non-Comic playlets in verse, on pastoral, mythological or Biblical themes (5) of unknown origin
3. Masque-like “pastorals” in verse and prose (2)
4. Abridgements from (the above) masque-like pastorals (2)
5. Abridgement from a known court masque (1)
6. Jigs-farcical playlets almost wholly in verse, intended to be sung (2)
7. Prose farces, possibly abridged from lost plays (2)

Cannot seek an exact origin, they are a motley assortment:

Immediate evolution from jigs of the Elizabethan theatre, with influences from moralities, interludes, folk-pastorals and from contemporary puppet plays. The Drolls were designed to entertain not propaganderize, unlike the royalist “pamphlet-plays” of the same era.

Robert Cox (died December 1655) was a seventeenth-century English actor, best known for creating and performing the “drolls” that were a permitted form of dramatic entertainment during the English Civil War and the Interregnum, when theatres were officially closed and standard plays were not allowed.

The Red Bull is the only theatre incontestably associated with the droll. In 1653, Robert Cox was arrested at the Red Bull for a performance which crossed the line and was deemed a play

Adapted from existing material
Loose term
Often involve music and dancing
No true origin
Created by actors
Designed to entertain not propaganderize
The abridgement can be true to the original work in terms of mood and tone, capturing the parts the abridging author perceives to be most important; it could be a complete parody of the original; or it could fall anywhere in-between, either generally capturing the tone and message of the original author but falling short in some manner, or subtly twisting his words and message to favor a different interpretation or agenda

(The British Theatre1100-1900 it’s repertory and practice, E. J. Burton, London Herbert Jenkins)
“During the Commonwealth drama had persisted; some kind of tradition had been maintained. An apparent difference is accentuated because the Restoration period maintained only one kind of existing theatre, one aspect of theatre practice–the ‘private house’. True, the Red Bull survived for a few years– unfrequented. The Smaller indoor playhouse became the norm. The vast theatre-going public of the period before the civil war had dwindled to the court party, the fashionable and loyal.”

Drolls had to be degraded versions of the original

The Later Elizabethans-

It was an interregnum that ended a long period of perceived decline from the height of Renaissance theatre in Britian. For eleven years this cultural upheaval fractured identity, and created the droll- a reorganising of existing material, those things that worked well rather haphazardly. British Theatre was created throughout this period from the established material of the day.

The interregnum made theatre illegal, and productions went underground- less based on scenery and set, all theatre became private- “private groups of the middle classes” enjoying new material with a cheap, more adaptable aesthetic.

(A History of English Drama 1660-1900, by Allardyce Nicolle,Cambridge university press, pg284)

“In September 1642 playing had been stopped by the new Puritan government, “While these sad Causes and set times of Humiliation doe continue,” and later ordinances in 1647 and 1648 were issued for the purpose of maintaining the prohibition. Impoverished actors petitioned in vain, and officially those whose hearts had not been made sour by the prevailing austerity had to content themselves with imaginary performances as they read their dramas in printed text.”

“But the regulations were not strictly enforced, and recent studies of the drama during the Commonwealth have easily demonstrated that surreptitious performances were given at various theatres whenever the old actors were able to gather a company and an audience- and this was frequently”

Louis B. Wright: The Reading of Plays during the Puritan Revolution, Huntingdon Library Bulletin, No.6, 1934- pg73-108
Hyder E. Rollins: A Contribution to the History of the English Commonwealth Drama, Studies in Philology, 1921, xviii. Pg 267-333
The Commonwealth Drama: Miscellaneous Notes, Studies in Philology, 1923, xx. Pg52-69
Leslie Hotson: The Commonwealth and Restoration Stage, Harvard Library bulletin ,1947, I. Pg 382-5
Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatic Poets, London, 1691; p. 89.
Dale B. J. Randall, Winter Fruit: English Drama 1642–1660, Lexington, KY, University Press of Kentucky, 1995; pp. 150-1.

Robert Cox (?1604-?1655), actor and writer of Drolls. No direct records exist of Cox acting before the closing of the theatres, but later commentaries assert that he achieved some fame before the Commonwealth period. In 1653 Cox was arrested apparently for a performance at the Red Bull which crossed the line between the permitted entertainments of show-dancing and the prohibited entertainment of acting.

A book called Actaeon and Diana, containing two plays, a jig, and a prose farce, was printed ‘for the use of the Author Robert Cox’ some time before 1 September 1656, the day George Thomason purchased a copy.

(B. S. Capp, England’s Culture Wars: Puritan Reformation and it’s Enemies in the…)-
“The crude sketches still performed surreptitiously at the Red Bull also played their part in the culture wars, though only a few found their way into print. The actor Robert Cox dedicated his Acteon and Diana ‘to all the mirth-minded gentry’, and explained that it was intended merely to amuse. It featured tales of seduction, bawdy jokes, and rustics dancing round a maypole, all politically harmless but anathema to puritans.

Sportive Wit
Choyce Drollery

The Red Bull Theatre

Stood at the upper end of St. John Street, Clerkenwell. Allowed to perform Drolls during interregnum by ordinance.
A principal actor and creator of these pieces, Robert Cox; ” how I have heard him cryed up for his John Swabbler, and Simpleton the Smith: in which latter, he being to appear with a large piece of bread and butter on the stage, I have frequently known some of the female spectators to long for it”

“Robert Cox invented a peculiar sort of dramatic exhibition, suited to the necessities of the time, short pieces which he mixed with other amusements, that these might disguise the acting. It was under the pretence of rope-dancing that he filled the Red-bull playhouse, which was a large one. The dramatic contrivance consisted of a combination of the richest comic scenes into one piece, from Shakespeare, Marston, Shirley etc, concealed under some taking title; and these pieces of plays were called “Humours” or “Drolleries”. These were collected by Marsh, and reprinted by Kirkman, as put together by Cox for the use at theatrical booths at fairs.
The argument prefixed to each piece serves as it’s plot; and drawn as most are from some of our dramas, these “Drolleries” may still be read with great amusement, and offer, seen altogether, am extraordinary specimen of our national humour.”
“These remind us of the ex temporal comedy and the pantomimical characters of Italy, invented by actors of genius. This Cox was the delight of the city, the country, and the universities: assisted by the greatest actors of the time, expelled from the theatre, it was he who still preserved alive, as it were by stealth, the suppressed spirit of drama.”
“To this low state the gloomy and exasperated fanatics, who had so often smarted under the satirical whips of the dramatists, had reduced the drama itself; without, however, extinguishing the talents of the players, or the finer ones of those who once derived their fame from that noble arena of genius, The English stage.


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