Theatre in England, throughout much of its history, has been more persecuted and subjugated by restrictive legislation than in almost any other country in the world. For many years theatre was outlawed by the church which looked upon it as a pagan ritual. When the church itself later turned to dramatic representation as a means of conveying the bible stories to a largely illiterate population (in the form of the miracle plays), it unwittingly opened the doors for a breif flirtation between theatre and the English public.
As theatre spread into the public domain there soon arose the thorny issue of controlling it, and one of the earliest attempts at acheiving this through the medium of the law was a short enactment by James I. which imposed a fine in the sum of ten pounds (a princely sum in those days) against anyone who in a stage play, interlude, show, Maygame, or pageant, "shall jestingly or profanely speak or use the holy name of God, or of Christ Jesus, or of the Holy Ghost, or of the Trinity". This fine was to be equally divided between the King's treasury and the informer. This fertile period in theatre evolution was soon brought to an abrupt end however, by the rise of the Puritan movement and the Civil War which, in 1649, replaced Charles I in power with a Parliament led by Oliver Cromwell. Throughout the twelve year of term of Parliamentary rule, theatre was totally banned throughout the realm. Only with the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II was theatre permitted to once again exist openly in England.
Even then theatre was strictly regulated. The King granted 'Patents' to two men, Sir Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant, permitting them to put on 'straight' drama with their theatre companies at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and Theatre Royal Covent Garden respectively. These two theatres, and the Theatre Royal Haymarket during the summer, were the only ones at which straight dramatic plays (eg. relying upon spoken dialogue) could be legally performed. All other theatres had to resort to mime or music (the legal requirement being at least five songs in each act) to tell the story of their productions.
Whilst not enshrined in legislation, the power of enforcing these patents, and that of censorship over the theatre in general, lay in the hands of the Lord Chamberlain in his role of arbiter of the King's will. In response to the incidence of a number of near riots in the theatre, an Act was passed in 1713 to provide for the proper punishment of such 'rogues and vagabonds' who might be involved in these disturbances.
... be it declared and enacted by the King's most excellent majesty, by and with the consent of the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons in this present parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, That from and after the twenty-fourth day of June one thousand seven hundred and thirty-seven, every person who shall, for hire, gain, or reward, act, represent, or perform, or cause to be acted, represented, or performed any interlude, tragedy, comedy, opera, play, farce, or other entertainment of the stage, or any part or parts therein, in case such person shall not have any legal settlement in the place where the same shall be acted, represented, or performed, without authority by virtue of letters patent from his Majesty, his heirs, successors, or predecessors, or without licence from the lord chamberlain of his Majesty's household for the time being, shall be deemed to be a rogue and a vagabond within the intent and meaning of the said recited act, and shall be liable and deemed subject to all such penalties and punishments, and by such methods of conviction, as are inflicted on or appointed by the said act for the punishment of rogues and vagabonds who shall be found wandering, begging, and misordering themselves, within the intent and meaning of the said recited act.
To enable the Lord Chamberlain's office to exercise these newly enshrined powers of censorship it was required that:
.... no person shall for hire, gain, or reward, act, perform, represent, or cause to be acted, performed, or represented, any new interlude, tragedy, comedy, opera, play, farce, or other entertainment of the stage, or any part or parts therein, or any new prologue, or epilogue, unless a true copy thereof be sent to the lord chamberlain of the King's household for the time being fourteen days at least before the acting, representing, or performing thereof, together with an account of the playhouse or other place where the same shall be, and the time when the same is intended to be first acted, represented, or performed, signed by the master or manager, or one of the masters or managers of such playhouse, or place, or company of actors therein.
To help him to perform this function of censoring plays, the Lord Chamberlain appointed a new deputy, the Licenser of Plays - the first holder of that post being William Chetwynd on a princely salary of £400.00 per year. The Licenser of plays was in turn allowed an aide in the form of an assistant examiner on a salary of £200.00 a year - the first holder of that post being Thomas Odell. The Licenser's power of prohibition was exercised very shortly after his appointment, in the case of two tragedies: "Gustavus Vasa," by Henry Brooke, and "Edward and Eleonora," by James Thomson, both on the grounds that they contained political allusions of an offensive kind, in short that they impuned the dignity of royalty (the latter because of allusions to the squabbles between King Edward and the Prince of Wales). These decisions very much set a pattern, wherein the Licenser of plays would act far more fastidiously as the protector of official dignity than of public morals. The penalties for producing a play without first gaining the approval of the Lord Chamberlain were ruinous...
... if any person having or not having a legal settlement as aforesaid shall, without such authority or licence as aforesaid, act, represent, or perform, or cause to be acted, represented, or performed, for hire, gain, or reward, any interlude, tragedy, comedy, opera, play, farce, or other entertainment of the stage, or any part or parts therein, every such person shall for every such offence forfeit the sum of fifty pounds, ...
It is interesting to note, however, that the censor had no power over the written word and a thousand copies of the script for "Gustavus Vasa" were produced and sold to a curious public.
The law that governed the theatre of the Edwardian era (and onwards until its revision in 1968) was laid down in the Theatres Act of 1843. This repealed all previous enactments relating to the control of the theatre and consolidated the law under one single piece of legistlation. This reinforced the Lord Chamberlains powers of censorship under the following provision in Section 12:
One copy of every new stage play, and of every new act, scene, or other part added to an old stage play, and of every new prologue or epilogue, and of every new part added to an old prologue or epilogue, intended to be produced and acted for hire at any theatre in Great Britain, shall be sent to the Lord Chamberlain of Her Majesty's household for the time being, seven days at least before the first acting or presenting thereof, with an account of the theatre where and the time when the same is intended to be first acted or presented, signed by the master or manager, or one of the masters or managers of such theatre; and during the said seven days no person shall for hire act or present the same, or cause the same to be acted or presented; and in case the Lord Chamberlain, either before or after the expiration of the said period of seven days, shall disallow any play, or any act, scene, or part thereof, or any prologue or epilogue, or any part thereof, it shall not be lawful for any person to act or present the same, or cause the same to be acted or presented, contrary to such disallowance.
The Lord Chamberlain's power of censorship were entirely discretionary and his power of prohibition could be applied wherever 'he shall be of opinion that it is fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace so to do to forbid the acting of any play'. Further guidelines suggested that these powers be used to prevent any profanity or lewd or improper language, any indecency of dress or action, offensive representations of living persons, and anything else which in the Chamberlains opinion might tend to induce riot or a breach of the peace. Anything mocking of royalty or the government of the day was particularly frowned upon.
To help in the task, the Lord Chamberlain relied upon his 'Examiners of Plays' to read the submitted scripts, produce a synopsis of their plots, and draw his attention to any scenes or language which might be offensive under the act. The Examiners would make recommendations as to whether or not the play should be permitted but the final decision lay with the Lord Chamberlain. His power was absolute, with no legal requirement to justify his decisions and no right of appeal.
Moreover, the Penalties for performing a play without a licence could be severe, in the form of heavy fines levied upon the responsible manager. The manager also risked being let down by his artists since any contracts they had signed would be rendered legally unenforceable (since the law cannot be prevailed upon to force a person to fulfill an agreement which it is unlawful for him/her to execute, or to seek remedy for his/her failure to do so).
But, whilst the Lord Chamberlains powers may have appeared stifling, the skilled playwright could oftentimes circumvent them with clever use of inflective and innuendo which would not become apparent until the play was performed live. For example, consider Marie Lloyds 1896 appearance before the closely related Vigilance Committee, the censorship authority for the music halls. Marie sang for them a number of her most popular and lascivious songs but without any of her usual accompanying looks and gestures and the committee was forced to admit that the songs in themselves were perfectly innocent, but then outraged the committee by going on to sing "Come into the garden, Maud," a popular and totally innocuous song of the times, in such a way as to render it totally obscene.
The rapid growth of the theatrical scene in the latter part of the nineteenth century led to increased grumblings about the censorship of the drama. The heavy-handedness of the censor's authority and even whether a censor was required at all became leading issue that were hotly debated. In response to this rising tide of emotion, in March of 1892, a Select Committee was appointed to inquire into the issues of regulation relating to theatres and other places of public entertaining, including the censorship. But even while the committee conducted it's research into the matter the crisis still raged. Mr. G.A. Reynolds, who became the Examiner Plays in 1895, incensed the theatre managers by banning a number of plays in a manner which they saw as duplicitous. Most notable of these bans was that of Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession", a story which centered on the relationship between a 'madame' (Mrs. Warren) and her prudish daughter. The play was banned because of its frank and, in some ways sympathetic, portrayal of prostitution. The problem was that Mr. Reynolds banned serious plays that examined such matters in a frank and earnest way, whilst at the same time allowing frivolous farces and the like, that had little or no literary worth, almost regardless of their immorality. Thus the managers and playwrights were led, with some justification, to complain that serious works of art were being made the scapegoats of public morality whilst puerile nonsense remained exempt. They argued that the drama was being unfairly restricted in its treatment of life issues and that many worthy serious plays might be kept out of existence because of the fear that they may be destroyed by the veto of the censor.
In October 1907, these feelings were expressed in an open letter 'The Times', which was signed by seventy-one persons of literary repute. The letter protested against the powers of censorship which it said were exercised more for political ends rather than the protection of public morals for which they were intended. Moreover, that for such power to be vested in a single individual, unaccountable, and against whose dictates there could be no appeal, was a terrible injustice when it might be used to impair the good name and impeach upon the livelihood of a person of an honorable calling. In summary, the letter argued that the licencing of plays, which it noted was not felt necessary in the USA, should be abolished forthwith.
In 1909, a Joint Committee of the House of Lords and House of Commmons was set up to rule on the issue. Many prominent literary figures were called upon to give evidence before the committee, including George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Barrie, John Galsworthy, W.S. Gilbert, G.K. Chesterton, and Beerbohm Tree among others. The Committee concluded that the licensing authority should not have the power to impose a veto on the production of plays, but that safeguards should be put in place to protect the community by creating procedures for the summary suspension of unlicenced plays of improper character and the imposition of substantial fines for the producers responsible. The office of Examiner of Plays should continue and it should remain the Lord Chamberlain's duty to license plays, although it was recommended that he should set up a Consultative Committee to further assist in this process.
The main outcome of this ruling was, in effect, to make the licencing of plays voluntary. But whilst a theatre manager could now legally produce a play without it's being licenced by the censor, it would still involve taking a considerable risk as the penalties that might be imposed against him if it were later found to be immoral could be harsh. Thus, in reality, the situation changed little. A licence from the censor freed them of the threat of prosecution and so most managers still felt obliged to follow this route wherein the censor's power remained omnipotent. This state of affairs then remained unchanged until the revised Theatres Act of 1968 finally abolished the Lord Chamberlain's powers of censorship altogether.
Below is a sample of the licence issued by the Lord Chamberlain to permit the performance of a stage play.
Following are reproductions of articles from two period publications in which the authors discuss the delicate issues being considered by the Joint Committee.
(The Theatre, A Magazine for Playgoers - Vol. 1, No. 6, 1909)
So the Lords' and Commons' Committee appointed to enquire into the uses, abuses and utility of the Censorship have been compelled to terminate their investigations until next season. Judging by the contradictory evidence given by the various expert witnesses, and the attitude of some of the members of the Committee, the final report to be presented is not at all likely to be unanimous. I understand that probably an attempt will be made to induce dramatic authors, managers, critics and authorities to evolve some kind of scheme on which they can all agree. What about a sort of round table Conference? I am not going to discuss the pro's and con's of the case - all this has been done before the Committee and fully reported in the daily papers - but I am going to point out a few very pertinent facts. It will have to be observed that the managers' to a man and a woman (Miss Lena Ashwell) are all in deliberate favour of the retention of the Censor. There is a very potent reason for this. If the Censorship be done away with, and plays are to be produced at the managers' own risk, their positions and their licenses are not worth a day's purchase, because that awful individual the Common Informer can step in and cause a prosecution against any manager for staging, say an immoral play, a seditious play, a personal play (in which public characters disguised and otherwise may be introduced), a libellous play, or a sacrilegious play. Indeed, there would be no end to the possibilities of prosecution under various Acts of Parliament, and, consequently, the manager would be for ever on the boil in a sea of prosecution. Whatever the defects of the present system are, the Censorship is an absolute protection to the manager and to the actor.
In all departments of the world's management there must be an autocratic head - and the autocratic head of the stage and the drama for its safe-guarding and wellbeing is the Lord Chamberlain. If play and player are to be at the mercy of the local authorities in each town, as would be the case were there no censor, a reign of terror would set in and chaos would be the doom of the drama. So called Puritanism, it should be recollected, is more or less rampant in the Provinces, and the local boards and the local magnates are mostly of the order vulgarly known as "long-eared-uns " - in other words, they belong to one or other of the twenty-three sects that have divorced themselves from the Church of England, to whom the theatrical profession and the stage are anathema. To come to the pOint, they are Chapelites - narrow minded, bigoted and quite dead to all sense of art. What might get licensed in one town would be beaten down in the next, and so on, and the actor and the manager would be in the happy position of being one week in and one week out. What with this present destructive government, and the puritanical wave that seems likely to swamp us, things are coming to a pretty pass, and we appear to be drifting back to the terrible days of Cromwell and Praise-God-Bare-Bones.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this extravagant and irresponsible bother about the Censorship is that the chief protests come from those who have very little indeed to do with the two hours traffic of the stage. They do not come from the established and recognised dramatists, but from those who have failed, or who would like to write for the stage. They claim that in their art, or love of it, or desire of it, they are handicapped. The fact is that the chief cry comes from those who earn their daily bread as general writers and novelists. It has been proved by production over and over again that the very best writer of fiction is generally the very worst writer of plays. Let me except Mr. J. M. Barrie, who seems to have entirely deserted the book for the boards. But Mr. J. M. Barrie had many a trial with small pieces which were failures before he achieved his first success with "The Little Minister" - skilfully dramatised from his own charming story - and "The Professor's Love Story" for Mr. E. S. Willard. Mr. Barrie is, however, not altogether against the Censor, though he does not feel quite sure of himself. Mr. Henry James, however, is, and he is also very indignant about the matter. Mr. James has, I take it, a good following as a novelist - I cannot read him myself - and he has had several plays done, most of which died almost before they were born. I can only remember one that had anything like a profitable reception, and that was "Guy Domville," at the St. James's Theatre. His last attempt, "The High Bid," was about the most tedious piece it has ever been my misfortune to listen to. Mr. James, who is, I believe, an American, thinks that the Censorship is productive only of things that are "trivial and puerile." Mr. Thomas Hardy says: "All I can say is that something or other - which probably is consciousness of the Censor - appears to deter men of letters, who have other channels for communicating with the public, from writing for the stage." I do not hold this view at all. If a man have a good idea for a play, he will write it willy nilly. The fact is as I said, novelists as a general rule earn good incomes from their books, and, consequently, make novels the object and aim of their art and their existence. Playwriting they look upon as a mere pastime, and therefore they will not take the trouble to study the art and craft that are so essential to the writing and construction of a drama or a comedy. And it is much easier to write the former than the latter. Mr. H. G. Wells says:- "The Censorship, with its quite wanton power of suppression, has always been one of the reasons why I haven't ventured into playwriting." This is very quaint - so I make no comment. Mr. Israel Zangwill is somewhat cryptic: "Yes, I agree with you generally about the Censorship, though it is far from being the gravest deterrent." Mr. Joseph Conrad thinks that the Censorship is "a disgrace to the tone, to the character of this country's civilisation." I do not see why Mr. Arnold Bennett should be against the Censor, nor any other author for that matter. Let them write clever, truthful plays and they will be welcomed. It is quite easy to approach delicate subjects without overstepping the bounds of decency and good taste; but this apparently is what the new school of thought is unable to do so. Mr. Bennett is a conscientious writer, and though the touch of the dramatist was missing in "What the Public Wants," it was a fairly smart play and that is all.
I fancy Mr. A. B. Walkley's decided views must have come as a thunderclap to the "advanced" coterie of clamant complainers. Mr. Walkley rightly said, "The present form of Censorship represents the rough commonplace of the man in the street. The Censor is looked upon as a plain man looking at matters in a plain way. This means that he has no literary bias. The Censor represents the world at large." Mr. Walkley agreed that the authors were taking themselves too seriously, and also that they would not be satisfied with any control whatever. All this is perfectly true. The few plays that have been banned and which afterwards were produced, more or less surreptitiously, by various societies and clubs, certainly proved that they were no loss to the regular stage. Quite the contrary. Honestly, the so-called grievances of authors may not be so serious for themselves or so important for the rest of the world as they suppose. The importance, too, of the drama is greatly overrated now-a-days. If any writer has a great message to send forth, the publisher is most decidedly the best medium. People do not go to the theatre to think so much as to be interested, stirred and amused. Mr. Charles Hawtrey in a chat the other day ventilated his opinion thus:
"In the old days people of a vegetating mind loved to witness plays of a grief-productive order, finding in them a stimulating contrast to the dullness and the evenness of their humdrum lives. But, now that the halfpenny morning paper provides them every day with at least forty thrilling tragedies, they don't want to go to a theatre in the evening in search of the one and fortieth."
It is unnecessary for me to add that Mr. Charles Hawtrey is entirely in favour of the Censor's office being retained.
And so, of course, is Sir William S. Gilbert, who years ago invented "The Young Lady of Fifteen." This young person was introduced to the public by Sir William as a protest against, not the Censorship, but the public of a class who declared that the drama of those days - quite twenty-five years ago - was in such an advanced state of "the altogether" so to speak, that parents were afraid to take their children to the play. Perhaps that is why Arthur Mathison's "A False Step," and Sydney Grundy's "May and December" were censored. Anyhow, the age was good, very, very good. Before leaving Sir William Gilbert, whose evidence before the Committee was tremendously in favour of the Censorship with an alternative Court of Appeal, mention must be made of "The Happy Land," that wonderful burlesque of the early seventies which caricatured, as Henry S. Leigh used to sing, "in form and feature, face and limb," W. E. Gladstone, Robert Lowe and other members of the cabinet, and brought down the wrath of the Lord Chamberlain. Hitherto, the piece has always been credited to Sir William's account. It appears now that he did not write the work. For future reference I quote Sir William's own words:
"That piece ('The Happy Land') was never written by me, but was informed by me. That is to say, I drew up the scenario for a private performance which was to take place at the old Prince of Wales' Theatre, on an Ash Wednesday, a day when the theatres at that time were closed. Before this could take place, I read the scenario to Miss Marie Litton, the manageress of the Court Theatre, who was delighted with it and asked me to allow her to have it. I said it was impossible as it was intended for a special private performance. That performance, however, did not come off owing to a death. I then said to Miss Litton, 'Take it, and use it if you like, but don't describe me as the author of it.' It was written by Gilbert A'Beckett and was produced at the Court Theatre."
A fortnight after, the burlesque, which was announced as by Latour Tomline, came under the notice of the Lord Chamberlain, and the make-up of the actors had to be done away with, while several of the lines were altered, and then it had a successful career. The evidence of Mr. George Alexander and of Mr. George Edwardes was exceptionally interesting and to the point, and most strenuously in support of the existing state of the law.
Continue to Theatre Censorship (Page 2) - More articles from period publications.