Robert Walpole was powerful enough to excite many satirists, but also to punish them. Here’s how one politician changed the course of theatre history in the UK.
The Licensing Act of 1737 had a huge impact on the development of theatre in Britain.
The Act restricted the production of serious dramas to the two theatres that already had Royal sanctions for their existence, Drury Lane and Covent Garden. It also decreed that an official called the Lord Chamberlain with his ‘Examiners of Plays’ must vet every new script before performance. This censorship office remained active until 1968, amending or even banning stage works.
Why the Act Was Passed
At one time, the most powerful person in Britain was Robert Walpole. Although the parliamentary system did not then include the official office of ‘Prime Minister’, in effect that is what Walpole made himself, for 21 years. He achieved this dominance within Parliament for the oldest of reasons – ambition for power – ambition that outweighed moral scruples when necessary.
The opportunity to acquire such great power arose out of the weakness of the British monarchy at the time of the changeover from Stuart to Hanoverian dynasties. Walpole took his chances to fill a power vacuum left by the ineffectual George the First. When the second George ascended the throne in 1727, Walpole worked assiduously to become the indispensable advisor to both the King and the Queen. Like all politicians, Walpole had his enemies. But in his case, his overblown personal influence inspired a special degree of distrust and hatred amongst the intellectuals of the day. The satire business positively boomed, in poetry, pamphlets and prints – and plays. This was the era of Swift, Pope, Hogarth and other scathing wits.
Of the Walpole critics who chose the theatre to mount their attacks on ‘the Great Man’, two were particularly gifted: Henry Fielding and John Gay. Each has been credited with influencing Walpole to crack down on the satirists.
Gay’s ‘Beggar’s Opera’ of 1728 invented a whole new genre, the ballad opera, and famously “made Gay rich, and Rich [the impresario] gay”. It is still going strong. Fielding’s own ballad opera, ‘the Welsh Opera’, appeared three years after Gay’s masterpiece. It is now forgotten, but it set out Fielding’s stall as a satirist – no politician, whether Whig or Tory, escaped his ridicule. Over the next three years, Fielding’s relentless pen dug at the whole political body. The last straw was his ‘Political Register For 1736’, which plainly accused MPs of bribery and corruption. Walpole swooped.
Ostensibly it was a planned production called ‘The Vision of the Golden Rump’ that caused Walpole to push his censorship law through Parliament.This play, written but never staged, appeared anonymously. It scurrilously satirised the Royal couple and their chief minister, in a scatological fantasy about a magical, worshipped bottom. According to London’s Theatre Museum, Fielding was not alone in suspecting that the script had been commissioned by Walpole himself.
Legacy of the Act
The Act’s effects were far-reaching. It led to Henry Fielding’s retirement as a dramatist to redeploy his pen, becoming an archetypical satirical novelist. It led to a greater reliance on texts from before 1737, which helped to conserve Shakespeare and other old writers within the living theatre.
Human ingenuity being what it is, the new writers and managers found ways to make their points while eluding the censor’s pen, such as working in ‘private clubs’: at Fielding’s old theatre, The Little in the Haymarket, manager Sam Foote dodged the law by charging for preliminaries like music and drinking chocolate, but not for the play itself.
The Licensing Act finally crumbled only in the ‘Swinging 60s’ under pressure from influential anti-censorship campaigners like Kenneth Tynan.
- England in the Age of Hogarth, Derek Jarrett; Paladin (1976)
- The Story of Britain, A.L. Rowse; Tiger Books International (1993)
- Swift, An Introduction, Ricardo Quintana; Oxford Paperbacks (1966)
- 18th Century Comedy, W.D. Taylor (Ed.); Oxford University Press (Introduction, 1969)