Theatre Censorship: From Walpole to Wilson

March 13, 2008

While theatre censorship was technically abolished in 1968, the content and regulation of theatre production is still a live issue. Recent years have seen attempts to censor both the National Theatre's Jerry Springer: The Opera and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre's Behtzi, illustrating that while formal theatre censorship may no longer persist, there are other ways to seek to control such output.

Theatre Censorship: From Walpole to Wilson deals with both these instances as a conclusion to a superb analysis of the subject. The book is the product of interdisciplinary Leverhulme-funded research that takes great pains to locate the subject within its broader social context. This is in contrast to many other attempts to map this terrain, and the book is all the better for it.

The authors begin with a brief chronology that provides a useful orientation for what is to follow. Historically, the role of the Master of the Revels was key to the process, viewing all plays intended for the monarch with a role more akin to quality and suitability control. The ways in which plays could be regulated gradually developed and evolved, as the authors chart in an illuminating chapter. At times, the Master of the Revels provided a useful safeguard: if he had "passed" something, theatre groups and players knew it was unlikely to give rise to offence, but the chapter provides useful illustrations of the spectre of statutory intervention to come, with, for example, Puritan-led statutes in the early 17th century, such as one preventing abuse of the "Holy Name of God".

The meat of the book, however, focuses on the Licensing Act 1737. The authors' analysis of the background to this legislation is interesting and welcome; as well as charting the political backdrop they are also able to set the development against what was happening in the theatres at the time and the growth of the playhouses. Once the Act was on the statute book, any new work intended for performance was required to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain, who was given potentially far-reaching powers to prohibit performances. The effect of this was that the Lord Chamberlain was able to prohibit whatever he felt was fit, with unfettered discretion.

The rest of the book charts the application of the Lord Chamberlain's powers and the many attempts to try to alter, or remove, these restrictions, culminating in the Theatres Act 1968. Again, the book sets all this beautifully within its context, showing how the passing of this particular Act can be seen as part of the broader objectives of the Wilson government and the changing social mores of the time.

The book also illustrates that the passing of the 1968 Act did not mean that theatre censorship no longer existed. What it shows is that forms and types of censorship have changed. Particularly interesting and original is the authors' survey of theatre companies and groups to chart the post-1968 landscape. While a high proportion of respondents felt that they had not been subjected to direct or indirect censorial practice, there was some evidence that pressure from various quarters could amount to a form of censorship.

This neatly illustrates the point that there are many forms of censorship, both direct and indirect, and including self-regulation and market censorship, that still impact on what is produced and shown in our theatres. As such, this well-written and thoughtful book shows that theatre, as with other areas of popular culture, is subject to controls on a number of fronts. The book's novel, cross-disciplinary approach and engaging style warrants a wide audience.

Theatre Censorship: From Walpole to Wilson

By David Thomas, David Carlton and Anne Etienne
Oxford University Press
296pp
£50.00
ISBN 9780199260287
Published 1 November 2007

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