Censoring political theatre

Since the main case-study in this chapter concerns the drastic censoring of James Sheridan Knowles’ play about the Gracchi because it was so sympathetic to the working class, a brief account of stage censorship in Britain is needed here to provide context. By 1728, theatre riots were breaking out when plays touched on sensitive political issues. This produced the legislation that effectively prevented spoken drama being used for radical purposes. Under the Licensing Act, passed on the 24th of June 1737, the Lord Chamberlain assumed the power to refuse a licence to any play acted ‘for hire, gain, or reward’, anywhere in Great Britain, ‘as often as he shall think fit’. The Act provided the basis for the law surrounding theatrical censorship that survived, substantially unchanged, until the 1968 Theatre Act.21 All theatres were ‘under the immediate Directions of a Court Officer’. The main thrust of the legislation was political, having been drawn up by the first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, in order to curb attacks on him in the theatre from the more radical sectors of the new urban middle class. Tension between Walpole and the theatres had mounted with such thinly veiled defences of the constitutional principles of the Glorious Revolution against their perceived betrayal as the Irish author Samuel Madden’s oppositional (and partly Plutarch-derived) Themistocles, the Lover of his Country (1729), and plays on episodes from the Roman republic such as William Bond’s The Tuscan Treaty; or, Tarquin’s Overthrow (Covent Garden 1733) and William Duncombe’s Junius Brutus (Drury Lane 1734).22

Other attacks had been made in comedy, where the ancient author most implicated was Aristophanes. Henry Fielding’s The Author’s Farce (based on Frogs'), which premiered in 1730, exposed the problems Walpole’s increasing scrutiny of the stage posed to dramatists.23 The immediate effect of the Act was to reduce London theatres to just the two licensed playhouses, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, plus the King’s Opera House, which did not perform new stage plays. It seems amazing that James Thomson’s anti-Walpole Agamemnon (1738) escaped cutting except for six lines of the prologue. The Thomson play which was banned from the stage was one which drew heavily on Euripides, Edward and Eleonora (proscribed 1739). The next play using an ancient Greek source to be refused a licence was James Shirley’s Electra (1762): it savagely denounced the then Prime Minister, John Stuart, third Earl of Bute, and his influence over the Royal Family, by equating him with Aegisthus.24

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