- Theatre Censorship: From Walpole to Wilson
Theatre Censorship: From Walpole to Wilson is the first comprehensive history of British theatre censorship legislation. Authors Thomas, Carlton, and Etienne draw on previously unpublished archival material, including papers relating to the 1968 abolition of censorship, which were only made public in 1999. This work complements Steve Nicholson’s exhaustive research into the Lord Chamberlain’s readers’ reports, further illuminating the work of the court official who shaped the history of British theatre. Theatre Censorship is a rich scholarly resource, although the authors’ analysis of events is not always as rigorous as their research.
The book begins with Henry VIII’s appointment of the first Master of the Revels, and ends with contemporary protests over plays such as Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti. This broad scope allows themes to resonate across centuries; for example, Queen Elizabeth’s decree that plays addressing religion or government are only to be performed for “graue and discreete persons” (8) anticipates the Lord Chamberlain’s twentieth-century tolerance of theatre clubs as “a sort of safety valve,” where a small, elite audience could see plays that had been refused a license (119). However, the book focuses primarily on five parliamentary fights over censorship: Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s establishment of the Lord Chamberlain as theatre censor in 1737; unsuccessful attempts to repeal or reform Walpole’s act in 1843, 1909, and 1949; and the end of official state censorship in 1968. Each of these was a year of great legislative upheaval. The authors do not fully explain why the waves of social change propelled legislation in 1737 and 1968, but drowned it in the other three years. But now that the authors have provided a lucid and thorough account of the events, the field is open to further research.
At the outset, the authors explain that they intend to “disentangle issues of censorship exercised under the Royal Prerogative from censorship exercised under statute law” (2). Royal Prerogative cannot be questioned in Parliament without triggering a constitutional crisis, while statute law is passed by Parliament and therefore subject to legal challenge. Walpole’s act gave statutory powers to the Lord Chamberlain, who derives his power from the Royal Prerogative. Throughout the ensuing centuries, cabinet ministers would claim (either mistakenly or duplicitously) that theatre censorship operated under the Prerogative rather than statute law and was therefore outside the jurisdiction of Parliament. Whatever their understanding of the law, most MPs did not want to end censorship, and were even less eager for censorship to come under parliamentary jurisdiction. Thus a law that Walpole passed (by means of bribery and deception) in order to prevent playwrights such as Henry Fielding from writing satires accusing him and George II of corruption became, according to the authors, his most durable legislative legacy.
The government’s position on theatre censorship is epitomized by a note sent by the secretary of state in 1909: “Personally I don’t think the present arrangement is at all satisfactory in principle, though it has worked tolerably well in practice. . . . But it is one of those questions which should be allowed to sleep as long as possible” (86). The government therefore maintained a policy of inertia, taken to its furthest extreme after the prime minister established a joint select committee to review theatre censorship in 1909 (probably in order to take censorship off the main parliamentary agenda). Unexpectedly, despite covert attempts by both the Home Office and the Lord Chamberlain to select sympathetic and malleable witnesses, the committee concluded unanimously that submission of plays for licensing should be optional, and that there should be no penalty for performing unlicensed plays. The government ignored the findings completely. “This,” the authors write, “was a superb demonstration of the hidden levers in English politics moving quietly and unobtrusively to thwart the clearly expressed recommendations of a Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament” (106). They also point out that this was not simply the “establishment” closing ranks: the Liberal government was at that time mounting...