Thomas Killigrew Essay - Critical Essays

Killigrew, Thomas


Thomas Killigrew 1612-1683

English dramatist.

Killigrew was a playwright and theatrical manager whose career spanned the Caroline and Restoration periods. Together with William Davenant, he held one of only two patents, or licenses, for theatrical productions in London that Charles II granted upon the return of the monarchy after the civil war. As manager of the King's Company, Killigrew has been credited with introducing women actors, music, and scenery to the stage and with mounting some of the most significant productions of the period, including revivals of plays by Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and others. He also staged works by such contemporaries as John Dryden and William Wycherley. Although his own dramas are less esteemed than those of these other playwrights, they are studied by critics and scholars as the work of one of the most astute stage craftsmen of the Restoration and, as such, illustrative of what was theatrically possible in that time of technical innovation and experimentation.

Biographical Information

Killigrew was born in London, one of twelve children of Robert Killigrew, a courtier to James I. He seems to have had little formal education, but even as a child he appears to have had an interest in the theater. As reported by Samuel Pepys, Killigrew would see plays for free at the Red Bull theater by volunteering to “be a devil upon the stage,” that is, to be an “extra” in performances. When he was about thirteen or fourteen years old, Killigrew was appointed Page of Honour to Charles I; later he became part of the literary circle that was attached to Queen Henrietta Maria. His first play, The Prisoners, was composed sometime around 1632-35 and probably staged at the Phoenix theater in Drury Lane. His next two plays, The Princess, or Love at First Sight and Claricilla, were likely written in 1636, while he was traveling in Italy. Shortly after his return from this trip, Killigrew married Cecilia Crofts, a maid of honor to the queen. Cecilia bore Killigrew a son, Henry, but she died in 1638. A man of extravagant tastes, Killigrew was chronically in debt, and around 1640 or 1641 he composed The Parson's Wedding in hopes that a successful comedy would earn him enough money to pay his creditors. However, the theaters were closed by Parliament soon thereafter, and it is unlikely that the play was staged until the Restoration.

During the civil war, Killigrew went into exile with the other royalists, serving the court in various capacities in France, Italy, and the Low Countries. He wrote seven plays in this period—The Pilgrim and the three two-part dramas, Cicilia & Clorinda, or Love in Arms; Bellamira her Dream, or The Love of Shadows; and Thomaso, or The Wanderer. It is doubtful whether any of these works were ever staged. While in exile Killigrew married Charlotte de Hesse, with whom he had three sons. Upon the Restoration, Charles II granted Killigrew a patent to form the King's Company, which he directed until surrendering control to his son Charles in 1677. At the same time he relinquished to his son the office of Master of the Revels, a position he had held since 1673. Killigrew died in 1683 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Major Works

Killigrew's first three plays—The Prisoners, The Princess, and Claricilla, are all tragicomedies and are all derived from the French heroic romance Ariane by Jean Desmaretz de Saint-Sorlin. Only Claricilla appears to have been successful; first performed around 1636, it later held a place in the repertory of the King's Company for over a decade. The Parson's Wedding is a farcical comedy, replete with stock characters and situations. Killigrew's handling of these figures, however, significantly anticipates their treatment in plays of the Restoration. Written in the early 1640s, it was probably not performed until 1664 in a revised version prepared by Killigrew himself. His next play, The Pilgrim, is a tragedy of love and intrigue with a plot adapted from James Shirley's The Politician (c. 1639-40) and containing numerous echoes of the works of Shakespeare. There is no record of a performance of The Pilgrim, nor are there any of Killigrew's last six plays. Characterized as “closet dramas,” works never intended for the stage, Cicilia & Clorinda, Bellamira her Dream, and Thomaso are all two-part plays—in effect, ten-act dramas. The first two are heroic romances, noted for their contrived plots, inflated rhetoric, and Italian settings. A work of a very different sort, Thomaso is a broad comedy based on Killigrew's own experiences during his exile. It later formed the basis of Aphra Behn's highly successful comedy, The Rover (1677).

Critical Reception

Critics generally place Killigrew in the second rank of playwrights of the Caroline and Restoration periods. His works have been primarily of historical interest for scholars and commentators, reflecting the changing tastes and developing stagecraft of those tumultuous times. This aspect of his work has received increased attention since the discovery of a copy of the 1664 folio edition of Killigrew's Comedies, and Tragedies containing cuts, revisions, and directions inscribed by the author himself. William Van Lennep viewed the notes as alterations that Killigrew effected in anticipation of actual performances, and Albert Wertheim heralded them as “important evidence toward the reconstruction of Restoration productions.” For his part, Colin Visser found them significant for the information they provide regarding the evolution of playhouses between the Caroline and Restoration eras. Echoing Visser's comments, William T. Reich asserted Killigrew's “great importance as a contributor to the body of dramatic writing which formed the bridge between the Caroline and Restoration Theater” and urged recognition of Killigrew's “importance as a serious dramatist, representative of his age.”

Principal Works

The Prisoners (play) c. 1632-35

Claricilla (play) c. 1636

The Princess, or Love at First Sight (play) c. 1636-37

The Parson's Wedding (play) c. 1639-40

The Pilgrim (play) c. 1646

Cicilia & Clorinda, or Love in Arms. 2 parts. (play) c. 1649-50

Bellamira her Dream, or The Love of Shadows. 2 parts. (play) c. 1650-52

Thomaso, or The Wanderer. 2 parts. (play) 1654

Comedies, and Tragedies (collected works) 1664


Alfred Harbage (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: “Closet Drama,” in Thomas Killigrew: Cavalier Dramatist, 1612-83, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1930, pp. 203-31.

[In the following chapter from his full-length study of Killigrew, Harbage considers several of the playwright's late works as “closet dramas,” pieces that were meant to be read rather than performed. Indeed, the critic judges them impossible to stage.]

It has been implied from time to time in preceding chapters that Thomas Killigrew was a dramatist with ulterior motives, that he began to write plays as a means of attracting attention to his polite accomplishments and later became interested in the stage for its financial or professional...

(The entire section is 9587 words.)

Montague Summers (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: “Thomas Killigrew and the History of the Theatres until the Union, 1682,” in The Playhouse of Pepys, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1935, pp. 65-145.

[In the excerpt below, Summers surveys Killigrew's life, his work as a dramatist, and his activities as a theatrical manager.]

Thomas Killegrevv Maître du Theatre Royal & qui a pour sa conduitte des qualitez excellentes.

—Le Sieur Chappuzeau: L’Europe Vivante, 1667.

Our Author writ nine Plays in his Travells, and two at London; amongst which his Don Thomaso, in two parts, and his...

(The entire section is 15756 words.)

Alfred Harbage (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: “The Courtier Playwrights,” in Cavalier Drama: An Historical and Critical Supplement to the Study of the Elizabethan and Restoration Stage, Russell & Russell, 1964, pp. 93-126.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1936, Harbage surveys Killigrew's plays, judging them “entertaining for their sheer bravura and unabashed excess.”]

Despite his traffic with drama, [Lodowick] Carlell was an old-fashioned courtier governing his life with a decorum befitting his elegant calling. Other courtly dramatists were younger men, modelled upon a newer ideal of gallantry, matching more nearly the popular conception of the Cavalier. In this...

(The entire section is 2564 words.)

William Van Lennep (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: “Thomas Killigrew Prepares His Plays for Production,” in Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, edited by James G. McManaway, Giles E. Dawson, and Edwin E. Willoughby, The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1948, pp. 803-08.

[In the essay below, Van Lennep examines a copy of the 1664 folio edition of Killigrew's plays that contains revisions and annotations made by the author himself.]

Twenty-six years ago Mr. C. H. Wilkinson, writing about the library of Worcester College, Oxford, listed among the recent acquisitions to that library's fine collection of seventeenth-century drama Thomas Killigrew's own copy of the 1664 folio of his plays, containing numerous...

(The entire section is 2461 words.)

Albert Wertheim (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “Production Notes for Three Plays by Thomas Killigrew,” in Theatre Survey, Vol. X, No. 2, November 1969, pp. 105-13.

[In the following essay, Wertheim asserts that the alterations and observations written in the 1664 folio edition of Killigrew's works “almost certainly” represent the author's notes for productions of the plays.]

Little is known about the productions of Thomas Killigrew's plays before the closing of the theaters, and there is even considerable doubt whether some of them were produced at all.1 During the Interregnum Killigrew lived in exile on the Continent and lacking playhouse, playgoers and actors, nevertheless continued to...

(The entire section is 3659 words.)

Colin Visser (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “The Killigrew Folio: Private Playhouses and the Restoration Stage,” in Theatre Survey, Vol. XIX, No. 2, November 1978, pp. 119-38.

[In the following essay, Visser argues that the revisions that Killigrew inscribed in the 1664 folio edition of his plays were made to accommodate the newly emerging type of venues, and asserts that the “great interest” of the folio “lies in the relationship it demonstrates between the private playhouses of the early Caroline period, and the public theatres of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century.”]

More than fifty years have elapsed since Worcester College Library, Oxford, acquired Thomas Killigrew's copy of the 1664...

(The entire section is 8100 words.)

William T. Reich (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Introduction to Claricilla, by Thomas Killigrew: A Critical Edition, Garland Publishing, 1980, pp. 1-92.

[In the excerpt below, Reich provides a broad introduction to Claricilla, surveying such subjects as its date of composition, its performance history, and its genre. He also offers a critical appraisal of the work's literary merit.]


Traditional misconceptions of the character and ability of Thomas Killigrew long prevented realization of his significant contributions to English dramatic history. However, studies by Nicoll, Hotson, and Harbage in the 1920's and 1930's1 established his importance...

(The entire section is 7672 words.)

Martin W. Walsh (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Killigrew's Cap and Bells,” in Theatre Notebook, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, 1984, pp. 99-105.

[In the following essay, Walsh assesses the validity of the persistent assertions that Killigrew was literally Charles II's court jester.]

The wit and playwright Thomas Killigrew enjoyed many honours under Charles II. He was a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, a Chamberlain to the Queen, and Master of the Revels. As patentee of the Theatre Royal, he was one of the founders of the Restoration stage. His long friendship with the King both during the Exile and after the Restoration does not, however, account for the rumour that Killigrew held yet another office close to the...

(The entire section is 3289 words.)

Further Reading


Bentley, Gerald Eades. “Thomas Killigrew.” In The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, Volume IV: Plays and Playwrights, pp. 694-710. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.

Includes a brief biography of Killigrew, a listing of his plays, their dates of composition and performance, and their textual provenance.

Wertheim, Albert. “A New Light on the Dramatic Works of Thomas Killigrew.” Studies in Bibliography 24 (1971): 149-52.

Finds clues as to the dating of Killigrew's works in differences between the engraved portrait of the author included in the 1664 folio edition of his plays and the earlier painting on...

(The entire section is 237 words.)