The Licensing Act

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Date: 1737

Region: Europe

Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion

Medium: Theatre


Artist: Parliament

Confronting Bodies: writers

Date of Action: 1737

Location: England

Description of Artwork: By the Licensing Act of 1737 the Lord Chamberlain was empowered to license plays, giving rise to the popular phrase "legitimate theater."

The Incident: The history of theater censorship is itself long and complicated, and extends at least from medieval Europe down to the present. But the particular function of the Lord Chamberlain starting in 1737 led to many clashes over works that have since become classics. Specifically, however, the Licensing Act arose out of the political control of the House of Commons held by Robert Walpole. The period 1736–37 was the height of Walpole's power as First Lord of the Treasury and Walpole was under incessant attack by the Tory satirists and the radical Whig theorists alike. John Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728) had linked Walpole with the notorious mobster Jonathan Wild. Henry Fielding's Tom Thumb (1730), Covent Garden Tragedy (1732), and Pasquin (1736) took more specific aim at Walpole. Further, political plays with the theme of "liberty" were often coded attacks on domination by great men. The great man in question was as often Walpole as the king.

Results of Incident: The effects of the Licensing Act were profound. The public mistrusted plays that passed the censors. One effect was that the plays that were passed were more domestically oriented, more sentimental, and, aside from Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith, who both wrote old-style plays, authors of melodrama enjoyed greatest success. Arguably, the Licensing Act created an immediate vacuum of new plays to perform, and this left theaters with little option but to stage revivals. The number of productions of Shakespeare plays staged in the 1740s was far higher than previously (one fourth of all plays performed in the decade). The power of the Lord Chamberlain to license plays was revoked by parliament in 1968.

Source: Banned Books 387 B.C. to 1978 A.D., by Anne Lyon Haight, and Chandler B. Grannis, R.R. Bowker Co, 1978; Wikipedia.