William Prynne (1600-1669) was an English lawyer and writer, famous for his provocative and controversial essays. One of the most Puritan of the Puritans, Prynne was not afraid to take aim at popular conventions, culture or leaders. One of his earliest and best-known works was Histriomastix, a 1633 attack on just about anything considered fun.
Historiomastix strongly criticised parties, masquerade balls, country fairs, mixed dancing, feast days, wakes, sports, even hairstyles and colourful stained-glass windows. But much of this particular text is a condemnation of theatrical performances and those responsible for them. Plays, Prynne claims, are “the chief delight of the Devil”, wanton and immoral displays of debauchery filled with:
“…amorous smiles and wanton gestures, those lascivious complements, those lewd adulterous kisses and embracements, those lustful dalliances, those impudent, immodest painterly passages… they are the very schools of bawdery, real whoredoms, incests, adulteries, etc.”
As to those who regularly attend the theatre, they are:
“…adulterers, adulteresses, whoremasters, whores, bawds, panders, ruffians, roarers, drunkards, prodigals, cheaters, idle, infamous, base, profane, and godless persons.”
Histriomastix was especially severe on actors and actresses. The ranks of male actors, Prynne claimed, were filled with “Sodomites” who spent their time writing love letters and “chasing the tails” of “players boys”. As for actors of the opposite gender, Prynne offered a simple but biting four-word assessment:
“Women actors, notorious whores.”
This anti-thespian tirade soon got William Prynne into trouble. One woman who quite enjoyed masked balls, mixed dancing and the occasional acting role was Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. The queen, who appeared in a speaking role in a prominent play not long after the publication of Histriomastix, took his slurs personally.
In 1634, Prynne was hauled before the star chamber, charged with seditious libel against the queen and others and found guilty. He was fined £5000, stripped of his academic degrees, given two days in the pillory and sentenced to have the tops of his ears clipped off with shears. And if that wasn’t enough, hundreds of copies of Histriomastix were rounded up and burned before Prynne’s eyes while he languished in the pillory.