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 censorship of the British stage and one of the determining factors in the development of Augustan drama. The terms of the Act were that from that point forward, the Lord Chamberlain had 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. The period 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 Tory satirists 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 used his influence to have the sequel Polly banned before performance by the Lord Chamberlain (the Duke of Grafton). 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. 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.
Banning of Gustavus Vasa
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 Johnson wrote 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.
Effects of the Act
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 theatres with little option but to stage revivals. The number of productions of Shakespeare plays staged in the 1740s was far higher than previously (a quarter of all plays performed in the decade).
Writing of novels
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 Smollett and Laurence Sterne, never approached the stage. Prior to the Licensing Act, theatre 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.
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- Theatre Museum - UK National Museum of the Performing Arts.