The Siege of Rhodes was first performed in London in 1656, probably in early September, during the regime of Oliver Cromwell, the great Parliamentarian general who defeated the forces of King Charles I in the English civil war. Cromwell was said to have enjoyed stage plays, but his Puritan supporters most certainly did not. In fact, some years before Cromwell came to power, pressure from conservative religious factions led Parliament to pass an act closing London theaters and prohibiting the public performance of all “Spectacles of Pleasure.” William Davenant was thus forced to present The Siege of Rhodes on a cramped, makeshift stage in the rear of Rutland House, the private home where he was living at the time. As a further means of avoiding government sanction, Davenant published his play a month before it was performed, with a title page announcing it as “A Representation by the Art of Prospective in Scenes, and the Story Sung in Recitative Music.” Thus a drama was passed off as a type of dull recital, a spectacle, perhaps, but without pleasure. Davenant’s strategy seems to have worked, for The Siege of Rhodes proved a popular success and performances continued without official interference.
Over the next seven years, which saw Cromwell’s death and the restoration of monarchy in the person of Charles II, Davenant was an incredibly busy figure in the London theater world. During this period of intense activity, his best-known play underwent a series of complex, confusing, and seldom-discussed transformations, making it difficult even for scholars of the period to know exactly to which play the title The Siege of Rhodes refers in any given context.
These transformations began in 1659, when the original was reprinted (with several changes and additions) and was staged at the Cock-Pit Theatre together with a second play, a continuation of the first, titled The Siege of Rhodes, Part II. Following the Restoration in 1660, the ban on theatrical entertainments was completely lifted and Davenant became manager of the duke of York’s acting company and owner-manager of the new playhouse in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. On opening night in June of 1661, The Siege of Rhodes, Part I was revived and was presented in alternate performances for some eleven days with part 2. To add to the confusion, part 1 and part 2 were printed together in 1663, with yet more changes. Existing records...
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