Materiam superabat opus: Prynne’s Practical Anti-theatricalism

In the preface “To the Christian Reader” of William Prynne’s Histrio-mastix (1633), the author excuses the size of his work, “too large for so slight a subiect.”  Prynne defends its “tedious prolixitie” by reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

But as it were no disparagement to Phaebus his palace; that (a) the workmanship of it did exceede the matter; so I hope it will be no prejudice to this Treatise… (**6r).

The large size of Histrio-mastix, Prynne asserts, is really a moral necessity.  He lists the proliferation of printed plays in the book market, increasing in both format and form, with “Shackspeers Plaies…printed in the best Crowne paper, far better than most Bibles” (**6v).  Against the enormousness and correspondent enormity of these “Giantlike Enemies,” Prynne’s volume is necessarily “overgrowne”: “…had not this my HISTRIO-MASTIX overgrowne its first intended pigmies stature” it would be unable to

have borne any geometricall proportion with those festering ulcers, those many practicall applauded Errors, whose cure and refutation it indeavours (**6v).

The preface transfers the moral force of Prynne’s argument into physical, practical terms.  In an excellent essay on the presence of play-books in early modern libraries and collections, Heidi Brayman Hackel acknowledges the material emphasis of Prynne’s preface, noting how “the materiality that Prynne seizes upon – format and paper stock – signifies for him the lure of playbooks in the marketplace where they find such successful ‘vent'” (115).

Further to the actual physical facts of the book, though, the material form of Histrio-mastix is presented as a moral counterbalance to the scurrilous plays and play-books.  Prynne draws the book into the realm of “practicall” action, likening it to an army or a “plaister to the maladie” (**6r).

The irony of Prynne’s “practical” moralising is tacitly acknowledged in the “To the Christian Reader.”  The objective of the text is to counter the power of the lewd stage-plays – later called “effeminate,” “lascivious,” and “wanton” – which are “meere sinfull, wicked, un-christian pasttimes, vanities, cultures and disguises…” (***1r).  Indeed, they are attacked as a “practise” (**8v) in strongly visual terms.

Prynne is forced to acknowledge at the outset, then, that the materialising of his arguments as a practical weapon or plaster turns antitheatrical moralising into a form of playing.  He is about “to combate” player and stage-plays “in a publike Theatre in the view of sundry partial Spectators…” (**6r).  The metaphor of the theatre is not unusual in Puritan or in antitheatrical writing, but alongside Prynne’s material preoccupations, it is telling.  The readers are made into theatre-goers, witnessing Prynne’s physical battery on the pastime – exactly the sort of “combate” that spectators flocked to the theatres to see performed, with battle scenes amongst the most familiar forms of stage action.  Collapsing the distinction between stage and page seems to be the only way to administer moral admonition to “the seduced prepossessed hearts and judgements of volumptuous carnall persons,” persons who “swarme so thicke in every Play-house, that they leave no empty place, and almost crowd one another to death for multitude” (**6v).

Realising “Christian” morality in physical terms – “curing” and “grappling” with Errors – makes Prynne one of that multitude.  The early modern theatrical world and its drama often turn morality into spectacle, making practical use of abstract ideas, as I hope to explore in my research.  Prynne’s “To the Christian Reader,” prefaced to Histrio-mastix, does little play-smashing, but rather seeks to compete on the same terms – practical, material, and “in view of sundry partial Spectators”; the text becomes a part of the “publike Theatre” that Prynne wants – metaphorically? – to throw the book at.


Works Cited

Brayman Hackel, Heidi.  “‘Rowme’ of its Own: Printed Drama in Early Libraries.” A New History of Early English Drama.  Eds John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. 113-130. Print.

Prynne, William.  Histrio-mastix: The players scourge…London, 1633.  Early English Books Online.  Web.  15 May 2013.


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