Licensing Act 1737

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For the Act concerning the licensing of premises to sell alcohol, see Licensing Act 2003.

The Licensing Act of 1737 was an Act of Parliament in the Kingdom of Great Britain, and a pivotal moment in theatrical history. Its purpose was to control and censor what was being said about the British government through theatre. The act was modified by the Theatres Act 1843 and was finally named as the Theatres Act 1968.


The function of censorship of plays for performance (at least in London) fell to the Master of the Revels by the time of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The power was used mostly with respect to matters of politics and religion (including blasphemy). It was certainly exercised by Edmund Tylney, who was Master from 1579 to 1610. Tylney and his successor, George Buck, also exercised the power to censor plays for publication.[1][2] The Master of the Revels, who normally reported to the Lord Chamberlain, continued to perform the function until, with the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, stage plays were prohibited.[3] Stage plays did not return to England until the Restoration in 1660.[4] During the creation of the Licensing of 1737, Robert Walpole was the standing Master of the Revels[5]:4

Purpose of the Act[edit]

Laws regulating theatre in the early 18th century were not strictly enforced.[5]:13–22 People had free rein to say anything they wanted through theatre, including all their troubles with the government.[5]:3–5 Free speech in theatre was seen as a threat to the government, facilitating the spread of revolutionary ideas.[5]:xi The act enhanced government control and censorship.[5]:4–5


  1. ^ Kincaid, Arthur. "Buck (Buc), Sir George (bap. 1560, d. 1622)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edn., May 2008, accessed 23 January 2012 (subscription required)
  2. ^ Buck was granted "a portion of the powers previously vested" in the Church Court of High Commission, to license plays for publication. Dutton, p. 149.
  3. ^ "September 1642: Order for Stage-plays to cease", British History Online, accessed 6 November 2014
  4. ^ Baker, p. 85
  5. ^ a b c d e Liesenfeld, Vincent J. (1984). The Licensing Act of 1737. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-09810-9.

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