“A Judgment upon the whole nation”: Why was The Great Fire of London in 1666 ignored by Restoration drama?

Denis Lagae-Devoldère (Sorbonne Université)

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Within four days in September 1666, what was to be known as “the Great Fire of London” destroyed four fifths of the ancient commercial and topographic heart of London, quickly presented by King Charles II as “a judgment upon the whole nation” (my emphasis). As Cynthia Wall brilliantly showed, such physical and historical disaster entailed a wealth of “fire narratives” of all kinds and genres (royal proclamations, newspapers, sermons, poems), promoting a “rhetoric of loss” (Wall, 3) together with a view to resemiotize a now “signless” London (John Evelyn). However, one particular genre and space, drama, one of the dominant genres of the time, remained conspicuously aloof from such narratives of loss. Most of what the Restoration theatre produced in the immediate aftermath of and several years after the Fire hardly ever made so much as a passing reference to the event. One of the possible explanations for such emphatic silence might be that the theatrical world was located outside the ruined City, topographically and conceptually (Wall, 149). The aim of this paper is to interrogate further why Restoration drama, especially comedies –despite their usual countless topical references– gave the Great Fire of London the silent treatment, effectively placing the theatrical world out of the ashes and the rebuilding process that followed, but also, to a certain extent, beside the rest of the nation.

Bibliography

Primary sources

  •  Aubrey, John. Brief Lives, ed. Richard Barber (Woodbridge, Suffolk, The Boydell Press, 1982)
  • Evelyn, John. The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. S. De Beer (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1938)
  • Ford, Simon. The Conflagration of London Poetically delineated (1667)
  • Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1972)
  • Shadwell, Thomas. A Short and Serious Narrative of Londons Fatal Fire (1667)
  • A Proclamation for a General Fast through England and Wales (October 10, 1666)

Secondary sources

  • Bell, Walter George. The Great Fire of London in 1666 (London, The Bodley Head, 1920)
  • Barton, Anne. “London Comedy and the Ethos of the City.” The London Journal 4:2 (1978)
  • Barton, Anne. “Parks and Ardens.” Proceedings of the British Academy 80 (1993)
  • Wall, Cynthia. The Literary and Cultural Spaces of Restoration London (CUP, 1998)
  • Wells, Susan. “Jacobean City Comedy and the Ideology of the City.” ELH 48:1 (1981)

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