On May 20th, 1607, The Woman-Hater, the first play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, was entered for printing in the Stationers' Register. It is a play very few people have heard of or read, even in the academic community; fewer still have seen a production of The Woman Hater, for at least a century or two. Either alone or together or with a handful of other collaborators, Beaumont and Fletcher wrote over fifty plays, but only a few are ever produced.
Throughout the 1600s, these plays dominated English theater. They were produced and praised at four or five times the rate of Shakespeare's plays. Contemporaries placed John Fletcher in a "triumvirate of wit" with Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and often talked of him as in a class by himself. When Shakespeare retired, Fletcher took over from him as resident playwright for The King's Men.
If this popularity does not catch our attention, the plays do. The titles alone can cause a start: The Woman-Hater; Rule a Wife, Have a Wife; A Wife for a Month; Cupid's Revenge; The Mad Lover; Women Pleased; The Maid's Tragedy; The Scornful Lady.... The reliable themes of sex and power are given every possible comic and tragic twist, often at the same time. Misogyny meets chastity meets rape meets necrophilia, incest, nymphomania and cannibalism. There are eunuchs and dwarfs, lecherous tyrants and lamb-white shepherdesses and vice-versa. There are houses of male prostitution, their inmates pining for marriage. There are more genital puns than anyone could ever get, or want to. There are spider-webbed plots in which Valerio can have Evanthe for a month, if the King of Naples can kill him and have her afterwards This play Gilbert and Sullivan were able to turn into The Mikado, once they sanitized it of scenes like the one in which the pandering Sorano happily tells the licentious King that he can have his sister...:
And if I had a dozen more, they were all yours;
Some Aunts I have, they have been handsome Women,
My Mother's dead indeed, and some few Cousins
That are now shooting up, we shall see shortly....
Hamlet and Macbeth have their share of mayhem and lust, but they also have Hamlet and Macbeth. The plays of Beaumont and Fletcher and Company were described and admired not as character studies but, as contemporaries put it, "stews": get the stock types and perversions going; spice with unlikely hypotheses, choices and coincidences; boil for 5 Acts.
There are various theories to explain how such plays could have been written, let alone enjoyed and praised by the best minds of the day. Competition for the entertainment six-pence in Stuart England was certainly stiff. There must have been considerable pressure on playwrights to top each other. If, as happened, a political or moral line was sometimes crossed, causing a play to be banned, or a playwright imprisoned, or the cast hauled off the stage to jail in costume, so much the better. Some historians take the 'trickle-down' view: the dubious politics and sexual tastes in the court of James I led to a general decadence, which the dramatists were not just exploiting but satirizing and condemning.
The plays certainly claimed to come with their own moral censure. When the title character in The Insatiate Countess is led to the scaffold, the Duke attempts to offset five acts of romping promiscuity with a lofty, and thoroughly male, moral:
None here, I hope, can tax us of injustice.
She died deservedly, and may like fate
Attend all women so insatiate.
To the Puritans of the time, and later, this was little more than have-your-approbation-and-eat-it-too. Moral outrage reached its height with the Victorian critics, who pronounced with suspicious enthusiasm, "that more beastly, elaborate, and incessant filth and obscenity are not to be found in all literature." We could normally expect this sort of talk to lead to a modern revival, and in a way this has happened: it is hard to escape the feeling that the dramatic 'stews' of the 17th century are as close to us today as our remote control.
Or so the parallel might go, were it not for one other remarkable aspect of this theater: many plays, including The Woman-Hater, were written for and presented by young boys. Why and how choirboys originally chosen to sing hymns came to be part-time actors in Christmas pageants and morality plays, and then recruited or forced to be full-time actors in immorality plays, is itself an interesting story, but when Beaumont and Fletcher were starting out, boys companies like The Children of St. Paul's were all the rage in London. For the English gentry to gather in their darkened 'private' theatres to hear and see a rosy-cheeked, soprano-voiced choirboy in a dress tell another rosy-cheeked alto-voiced choirboy in a beard, "It is impossible to Ravish mee, I am soe willing," ... well, maybe what is true for all theatre -- and not for television -- is especially true for the 17th century: you had to be there.