- Theatre Censorship: From Walpole to Wilson
There is apparently an ever growing and insatiable appetite for books about British theater censorship. This volume, by three English (as in country) professors, all of whom formerly taught at the University of Warwick, is approximately [End Page 120] the twentieth published volume on the subject (over two-thirds of which have appeared since 1980). By comparison, according to the “World Cat” electronic database of library holdings, although all other European countries also endured drama censorship (at least until well into or beyond the nineteenth century), none has generated anything even approaching this number of studies. French theater censorship, which was abolished only one hundred years ago and was the subject of controversy that unquestionably equaled, and probably exceeded that in Britain, for example, has been the subject of only about five scholarly studies published since 1900; in fact, the number of volumes on theater censorship for all other European countries combined barely exceeds that on Britain alone.
Why this is the case is by no means clear. One answer may be that British stage censorship lasted until 1968, far longer than that in any other democratic European country, a fact that is especially remarkable since press censorship was abolished in Britain in 1695, far earlier than elsewhere in Europe. Another may be that British theater censorship was administered after 1737 by one central office, that of the Lord Chamberlain, and that the censorship records have survived entirely intact (this is also true for France, but not for at least some other European countries—in some countries, as in Italy and Germany, drama censorship was decentralized, making comprehensive studies difficult, while the Austrian records were destroyed, no doubt helping to explain why the land of Metternich has not generated even one book-length study on theater censorship). This volume has some genuine strengths, as discussed below, but answering questions such as these is not one of them: quite remarkably, if displaying rather typical British insularity (a term which, of course, means both parochial and referring to islands), the book contains not a single reference to stage censorship elsewhere.
There is also no sustained attempt to explain the persistence of drama censorship in Britain for so long: the main, rather fleeting suggestions along these lines are that stage managers preferred the “certainty” of prior censorship to risking having their productions closed down by post-presentation prosecutions (i.e., for blasphemy or obscenity) and that attempts to abolish the censorship often arose during periods of general political crisis (i.e., 1832 and 1909) when insufficient excess energy was available to tackle the subject. Only once is a hint even given as to why the stage was so clearly feared more than the printed word: in 1949, Lord Clarendon, the Lord Chamberlain, declaimed that there was a “considerable difference between reading, in private, certain types of books, and of sitting amongst strangers of both sexes and of all ages and watching a play,” as the “emotional and psychological effect of a stage play is recognized as being much greater than any other form of art” (148). (Similar arguments were made everywhere in Europe, where, as in Britain, theater censorship persisted, if not [End Page 121] nearly so long, after print censorship was abolished.) Often the point hinted at by Clarendon was made more explicit elsewhere: that a collective audience was far more prone to disorder than those reading even the most seditious book in the privacy of their homes. This was particularly so because not only was the stage viewed as more powerful in impact than the printed word, but because the especially feared “unwashed masses” were often illiterate and thus entirely impervious to print. The strengths of this book include that it is clearly organized and well researched and written, and that, unlike most studies of British stage censorship, which usually focus on a specific time period (for example, John Russell Stephen’s 1980 The Censorship of English Drama, 1824–1901 and the projected threevolume account by Steve...