Charles has surely had much to answer for at the bar of public opinion (a bar for which he evidently felt a profound contempt), and the evil influence which he and his Court exerted on the drama supplies one of the greatest blots on his moral ’scutcheon. Augustus William Schlegel, that foreigner who studied the literature of the English stage as few Britons have ever done, well pointed out that while the Puritans had brought Republican principles and religious zeal into public odium, this light-hearted monarch seemed expressly born to dispel all respect for the kingly dignity. “England was inundated with the foreign follies and vices in his train. The Court set the fashion of the most undisguised immorality, and this example was the more extensively contagious, as people imagined that they showed their zeal for the new order of things by an extravagant way of thinking and living. The fanaticism of the Republicans had been accompanied with true strictness of manners, and hence nothing appeared more convenient than to obtain the character of Royalists by the extravagant inclination for all lawful and unlawful pleasures.
“The age of Louis XIV. was nowhere imitated with greater depravity. The prevailing gallantry at the Court of France was not without reserve and tenderness of feeling; they sinned, if I may so speak, with some degree of dignity, and no man ventured to attack what was honourable, though his own actions might not exactly coincide with it. The English played a part which was altogether unnatural to them; they gave themselves heavily up to levity; they everywhere confounded the coarsest licentiousness with free mental vivacity, and did not perceive that the sort of grace which is still compatible with depravity, disappears with the last veil which it throws off.”
As Schlegel goes on to say, we can easily imagine into what direction the tastes of the English people drifted under such auspices. “They possessed no real knowledge of the fine arts, and these were merely favoured like other foreign fashions and inventions of luxury. They neither felt a true want of poetry, nor had any relish for it; they merely wished to be entertained in a brilliant and light manner. The theatre, which in its former simplicity had attracted the spectators solely by the excellence of the dramatic works and the actors, was now furnished out with all the appendages with which we are at this day familiar; but what is gained in external decoration is lost in internal worth.”
In other words, the theatrical life and literature of the Restoration was morally rotten to the core. How that rottenness has been giving way, during the childhood of Nance Oldfield, to what may be styled a comparative decency, need not be described here. Suffice it to explain that such a change is taking place, and let us accordingly sing, rejoice and give thanks for small mercies. Thalia has ceased to be a wanton; she is fast becoming quite a respectable young woman, and as to Melpomene—well, that severe Muse is actually waxing religious.