In modern times, movies can lampoon world leaders without retribution (most of the time) and can be highly satirical without offending the masses (for the most part). Until something truly awful or outrageous happens to change that, it looks like modern cinematic and writing culture is in the clear of major censorship by politicians (let’s ignore Tipper Gore for a moment). This was not the case in the 1700s, when playwrights were looking to put verbal and visual daggers into powerful leaders they did not agree with or leaders they found hypocritical. Those leaders did not respond with the same kind of tongue-in-cheek humor.
Background of the Act
In a previous post, we discussed Henry Fielding, who was an accomplished playwright and satirist who was known for plays such as The Author’s Farce and his novellas, such as Shamela, which had poked fun at the Samuel Richardson book Pamela. He also wrote highly satirical plays such as The Historical Register for the Year 1736 and Eurydice Hiss’d that took to task the politicians of his era for making seemingly brainless decisions regarding governing and their politics abroad. While Fielding’s work wasn’t solely responsible for the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737, it was plays and ideas such as those mentioned that caused the upper crust of the political pizza to curse, frown, and feel dejected at being made fun of by luminary playwrights. After all, being in politics doesn’t mean you have thick skin.
The Act Itself
The act was enacted by Sir Robert Walpole (prime minister of England) due to the high level of satire and jabs the theater was taking at the political realm during the tumultuous political climate of 1700s. As an article from the Woodson Research Center writes, “… the law allowed for the censorship of any piece of work deemed inappropriate for the London stage and provided the means for the suppression of satire directed towards the king or other government officials,” (Woodson). Pretty much, this was a blanket act to keep criticism from attacking the political elite.
The licensing act left only two theaters in London open for the public: both Drury Lane and Covent Garden, which meant that there were fewer places for the public to watch plays so thus there was less of a mark that playwrights could make on culture. The Woodson Research Center points out that this all but killed the momentum of the theater culture.
In a more beneficial sense, it pushed playwrights into novel writing, which was not a very cool discipline at the time because plays earned money—novels didn’t. By the time the atmosphere had shifted, most writers were writing novels instead of plays. Who would’ve thought? We could be working on Playwright blogs instead of…well…whatever this is.