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The Censorship of British Theatre, 1737-1843

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Not fit for representation? Exploring theatre censorship in Early Modern Britain

The notion of censorship of the media and arts, even in democratic countries, can still be an extremely polarising issue and one that has existed since the very first political societies. One EU-funded project has recently examined the history of censorship of the theatre in Britain during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, highlighting valuable insights into the evolution of a political tool of coercion that is still prevalent in today’s world.

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The EU-funded THEATRE CENSORSHIP project sought to bring together two archives, one in the US and one in the UK, to provide a chronological survey of theatre censorship between two key pieces of legislation: The Stage Licensing Act 1737 and the Theatres Act 1843. The project highlighted that theatre censorship was on one level highly irregular because the system depended on just one official, the Examiner of Plays, who was not always consistent, but also systematic in that personal attacks, political critique and material that was sexual in nature were often removed. ‘We took censorship to broadly include the statutory censorship imposed on patent playhouses - theatres licensed by the crown - which meant that new plays needed to be submitted to the Examiner of Plays, appointed by the Lord Chamberlain’s office,’ explains coordinator Professor David O’Shaughnessy of Trinity College Dublin. ‘But we also took it to include forms of informal censorship where playwrights, theatre managers, and sometimes even actors, had a tendency to self-censor their own material so as not to provoke the Examiner’s ire.’ As was the case throughout the twentieth century, censorship in the early modern period was often heightened during times of political unrest or international conflict, with the last quarter of the eighteenth century being dominated by the French Revolution and its enormous ramifications that quickly spread across Europe. Another of the seven highlighted plays, 1795’s ‘The Whim’ by female playwright Lady Eglantine Wallace, fell victim to the anxieties provoked by these cataclysmic events. ‘In this comedy, Lord Crotchett throws a Saturnalian feast in which the servants are made the masters of the house. As they give full rein to their opinions on the ruling classes—who are shown to be dissolute, degenerate, tyrannical, and corrupt—it is not surprising that the play was refused a licence,’ explains Prof O’Shaughnessy. Enraged, Lady Wallace published the play with a lengthy preface which lambasted the office of the Examiner of Plays and defended her work before leaving the country for mainland Europe. Two sets of manuscript sources were instrumental in the success of the project. The first was the Larpent Collection in the Huntington Library, Los Angeles, which is the most important collection of eighteenth and nineteenth-century British theatre manuscripts in the world, containing approximately 2 600 playtexts or related items from the period. ‘You can even see the comments and excisions of the Examiner in the text and its margins,’ says Prof O’Shaughnessy. The second was the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays archive in the British Library, London, which is the British Library’s largest manuscript collection. ‘However, it’s not fully catalogued,’ comments Prof O’Shaughnessy. ‘The collection in the British Library is simply enormous - it’s difficult to know how many plays are in it but there are tens of thousands of manuscript leaves. We also used secondary sources to examine a wide array of plays and work out which ones best illustrated the various reasons why plays were censored during this period.’ During the project, two international conferences have been planned, one that has already taken place in Dublin in February 2017 and the second due to take place in Los Angeles in January 2018. He is also currently working on another Marie Currie project ‘The History Play and the British Enlightenment, 1750-1815’, which developed directly from THEATRE CENSORSHIP. ‘This is because we found in THEATRE CENSORSHIP that history plays were often subject to the censor’s attention,’ concludes Prof O’Shaughnessy.


THEATRE CENSORSHIP, censorship, plays, archives, Examiner of Plays

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