Thomas Killigrew Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.”