- Theatre Censorship: From Walpole to Wilson
There has been no shortage of books on theatrical censorship. Some notable works have been published in recent years, based on the records of the Lord Chamberlain's office and the reports and correspondence that determined the fate of plays on the English stage between 1737 and 1968, when theatrical censorship was finally abolished. Among the most valuable of these books have been John Russell Stephens, The Censorship of English Drama, 1824–1901 (Cambridge University Press, 1980), Anthony Aldgate, Censorship and the Permissive Society: British Cinema and Theatre, 1957–1965 (Clarendon Press, 1995), and Steve Nicholson, The Censorship of British Drama, 1900–1968 (Exeter University Press, 2003–8).
The present volume differs from these in two respects. Firstly, it concentrates on the unsuccessful attempts to reform censorship legislation in 1832, 1909, and 1949, as well as on the ultimately successful campaign to terminate theatrical censorship in 1968. Secondly, it is an interdisciplinary, collaborative effort between theater historians David Thomas and Anne Etienne and political historian David Carlton that sets out to provide both theatrical and political contexts for the abolition bids.
The book begins with an account of censorship as it existed before the 1737 Licensing Act. It was in the hands of the Lord Chamberlain and the Master of the Revels, an official dating back to the reign of Henry VIII. The scope of the Master steadily increased, as in 1581 he was given the power to license acting [End Page 523] companies and their theaters, to censor and license plays, and to charge a fee. In 1606, an act of Parliament forbade the profane use of the names of God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost in plays, and henceforth that ban was strictly enforced. From time to time, plays were banned for giving political or religious offense.
But it was Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole who introduced statutory stage censorship in his 1737 Licensing Act, which meant there was now systematic oversight of all plays by the Lord Chamberlain. The authors conclude that this was the result of Walpole's feeling that the stage was getting out of hand, as his increasing harassment by his political opponents, backed by the Prince of Wales, was accompanied by an increase in scurrilous stage satires against himself and the Royal Family. So the act was "a measure to restore a perceived loss of control over the stage rather than a central challenge to ancient English liberties" (27).
However, what caused greater concern than censorship was the act's confirmation of the monopoly of "legitimate drama" in the capital by the two patent theaters, Covent Garden and Drury Lane. The result of the constant attempts thereafter by the so-called "minor theaters" to breach this monopoly was the setting up in 1832 of a parliamentary select committee to examine the state of the drama. Its principal recommendation was the abolition of the monopoly rather than any alteration to the censorship system. But the bill proposing this was defeated in the House of Lords. The authors attribute this to the fallout from the 1832 Reform Act, which had extended the franchise in the teeth of opposition from the Lords, leaving them inclined to block any further moves to change the status quo.
It is a significant fact that two later select committees on the theater, in 1866 and 1892, made various recommendations, all of them ignored by the government, which confirmed the Lord Chamberlain's censorship powers. The authors conclude that the absence of support for abolition in the nineteenth century stemmed from a fear that an uncontrolled stage would give rise to indecency and political subversion, which would disturb the hard-won domestic equilibrium. They also point out the intriguing fact that the mistaken assumption had grown up that the Lord Chamberlain exercised his power as part of the royal prerogative and could therefore not be challenged. This false assumption persisted well into the twentieth century.
The next bid to abolish censorship, by private member's bill...