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licensing acts

The Companion to Theatre and Performance

licensing acts 

The Stage Licensing Act (1737) transformed the regulation of theatre in Britain and established a system for dramatic *censorship which lasted until 1968. Before this Act, Masters of the Revels had exercised some authority over the licensing and correcting of plays. This authority, however, was compromised by granting theatrical royal *patents for London to *Killigrew and *Davenant at the Restoration of 1660, because the patents holders themselves censored plays performed by their companies. During the early 1730s, moral, religious, and economic opposition to theatres intensified: commentators and pamphleteers denounced *playhouses as nurseries of vice and debauchery which encouraged indiscipline and distracted the lower classes from their work (see anti-theatrical polemic). But the most immediate catalyst for the Licensing Bill was the determination of Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, to quash the political *satires at the Little Theatre in the *Haymarket by *Fielding. At a time of great anxiety over public disorder and fears of impending revolution, playhouses became an easy target.

The Licensing Act sought to control theatre in Westminster by limiting performances to those theatres acting under the authority of letters patent or licence from the Lord Chamberlain. In practice, this meant that performances became restricted to the London patent theatres and to the provincial theatres royal in cities such as Bristol, Norwich, and York. Performers at unlicensed playhouses were now treated in accordance with the Vagrancy Act, that is, as rogues and vagabonds. The new legislation effectively outlawed theatres such as Goodman's Fields and Fielding's Little Haymarket: Fielding soon gave up theatrical management to write novels.

The most striking feature of the Licensing Act was the comprehensive system it introduced for the censorship of playscripts. The Act stipulated that all new plays had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain's office at least fourteen days before first performance. (In practice, the reading of scripts was undertaken by the Examiner of Plays and his deputy.) *Managers who failed to submit a play were fined £50. The Licensing Act allowed the Lord Chamberlain to forbid any dramatic piece acted ‘for hire, gain or reward’ anywhere in Great Britain. Successive Lords Chamberlain did indeed ban some plays outright; in many cases, the Examiner insisted on the deletion of particular speeches or entire scenes.

Some managers became adept at circumventing the rules and new places of entertainment opened on the south bank of the Thames and around the East End near the end of the eighteenth century, regulated not by the Lord Chamberlain but rather by annual licence from local magistrates, according to the provisions of the Disorderly Houses Act of 1752. This system unwittingly created a legal loophole which enabled the ‘minor theatres’ beyond Westminster to stage plays without submitting their play texts for censorship. By the late 1820s the division between the patent theatres and the minor playhouses had all but collapsed, and several controversial productions had drawn attention to the freedom enjoyed by the uncensored theatres beyond Westminster. In 1843, the Theatre Regulation Act, which superseded the Act of 1737, abolished the patent theatres' monopoly over spoken drama. It gave legal recognition to all the London minor theatres, which were henceforth required to submit playscripts for censorship to the Lord Chamberlain's Office, a condition that continued until 1968.

Jane Moody