- Licensing Act 1737
:"For the Act concerning the licensing of premises to sell alcohol, see
Licensing Act 2003."
The Licensing Act or Theatrical Licensing Act of 21 June 1737 (citation "10 Geo. II c. 28") was a landmark act of
censorshipof the British stage and one of the most determining factors in the development of Augustan drama. The terms of the Act were that from that point forward, the Lord Chamberlainhad the power to approve any play before it was staged.
Specifically, the Licensing Act arose out of the political control of the House of Commons held by
Robert Walpole. 1736–37 was the height of Walpole's power as First Lord of the Treasury(or, as some termed him in a slightly derogatory manner, the "prime minister"), and Walpole was under incessant attack by the Torysatirists and the radical Whig theorists alike. John Gay's " Beggar's Opera" (1728) had linked Walpole with the notorious mobster Jonathan Wild, and Walpole had banned prior to acting the sequel play, "Polly." Henry Fielding's " Tom Thumb" (1730) and "Covent Garden Tragedy" (1732) 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 often Walpole as the king. Henry Carey's " Chrononhotonthologos" (1734) seemingly attacked Robert Walpole and linked him with an intrigue with the Queen, and his " The Dragon of Wantley" revived a 17th century ballad to protest the extension of Walpole's powers and oppression of the countryside.
Robert Walpole, sometimes called "the first Prime Minister," had a personally antagonistic relationship with some of the dramatists (such as John Gay), and he responded to literary attacks with official power. Few British ministers would be as adversarial with wits and authors for quite some time, and his censoring of plays critical of him led to ever-more aggressive satires. Thus, the urbane satire of "The Beggar's Opera" was replaced by the much more mocking satire of "Tom Thumb," the salaciousness of "Chrononhotonthologos," and the bitterness of "The Dragon of Wantley." In the year of the Act, Henry Fielding's "
Pasquin" again attacked Walpole, although its attack was, by that time, a continuation of complaints. However, "A Vision of the Golden Rump" was a continuation of this war of words and an upping of the stakes, and Walpole's Whig Party response was to cite that play and its scatology as a rationale for shutting down all plays that might be possibly read as critical of the crown or Parliament. The Act closed all non- patent theatres and required all plays to be passed before performance.
Although many plays and playwrights (including
Henry Fielding) have been suggested as the cause of the act, debates on the Act mentioned the play "A Vision of the Golden Rump," a raucous attack on the current Parliament whose author is unknown.
The first play to be banned by the Licensing Act was "Gustavus Vasa" by
Henry Brooke. Samuel Johnsonwrote an attack on the Licensing Act entitled "A Complete Vindication of the Licensers of the British Stage" that was a parody of the position for censorship. Brooke's "Gustavus Vasa" was not particularly savage or dark, and it took relatively few liberties. However, his previous "The Earl of Essex" had been perceived as highly political, and therefore "Gustavus Vasa" was banned.
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 Sheridanand 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).Fact|date=February 2007
Additionally, the Licensing Act diverted politically interested authors away from the stage and into writing
novels. Fielding and Brooke are only two of the authors who turned their energies to novel writing. Many other novelists, such as Tobias Smollettand Laurence Sterne, never approached the stage. Prior to the Licensing Act, theater was the first choice for most wits. After it, the novel was. The Act was not solely responsible for the transformation of the British stage in the 18th century away from satire and toward lofty and "sentimental" subject matter, but it was responsible for stopping one of the theatrical movements away from sentiment and domestic tragedy.
* [http://www.peopleplayuk.org.uk/guided_tours/drama_tour/18th_century/censorship.php Theatre Museum] - UK National Museum of the Performing Arts.
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