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The idea of censorship in theatre indicates that the drama has a close and deep relationship with society. It defeats the notion of “art for art sake”, for it demonstrates clearly and in practical terms that even the authorities are aware of the impact of drama as an undeniable means of socialization. This article explains the seemingly difficult terrain of censorship in English drama.

Censorship in English Drama

In spite of the passion with which the English people embraced the theatre during the Elizabethan period, many, especially the city council and clergy-those often referred to as the Puritans, viewed the theatre as an immoral institution that needs to be proscribed. Vargas (1960: 101) opines:

But many saw in plays nothing but wickedness and folly. They denounce the playhouses as pretexts for riots, nuisances, meeting places for thieves, vagabonds, and malcontents and other unsavoury characters.

This group which sees the theatre as an abode of rogues and prostitutes shows great discontent against the drama. It finds the government link with the theatre totally unacceptable and holds such relationship with contempt. In fact, the manner in which members of this group pursue the theatre to destroy it compels some people to regard them as “kill-joys”. It is on record that the Puritans started issuing negative treatise against the theatre since the medieval times. The opportunity to destroy the theatre was opened to the Puritans during the Commonwealth era when they dominated the Parliament. According to Vargas:

The Puritan triumph was a signal for the deathblow to be struck. In 1642 Parliament passed an ordinance abolishing all playhouses. The closing of the theatres was an end of the epoch, the greatest in the history of the English drama.

To further ensure that performances were wiped out completely, it was declared that all actors should be captured and treated as criminals. Although playwrights and actors were chased away, and theatre’s property sold, the fascination of the drama never allowed it to be totally exterminated. Performances were given surreptitiously according to Brockett and Hildy who further note:

The actors continued to perform nevertheless, using the Red Bull, which had escaped demolition, or, when that appeared too dangerous, private houses, tennis courts, or inns. Often officials were bribed to ignore violations. In these years, the usual type of entertainment seems to have been the “droll”, a short ply condensed from a longer work.

However, when circumstances connived to bring the exiled Prince of England home to rule as King Charles II in 1660, he restored the theatre but made it, essentially, an affair for the aristocrats, gallants, and the courtiers. Yet, as Vargas remarks, “the Puritans outlook on the theatre was still one of unchanged opposition”. They even get more infuriated with the decadent displays of the Restoration comedy. In 1698, a clergy, Jeremy Collier published a diatribe against the theatre entitled, “A Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage”. In this essay, he accuses the stage of misbehaving in matters of morality, religion, and of using action, music, and thought in a bad sense. He also attacked the stage for its intolerable use of language. On the immoral talk on stage, Collier says, “Such licentious discourse tends to no point but to stain the imagination, to awaken folly, and to weaken the defenses of virtue”.

Collier blames the stage for its wanton blurring of the distinction between virtue and vice; for making the major characters lewd, debauched, and atheistical. He argues that in so doing, “vice is thus preferred, thus ornamented and caressed”. He frowns terribly against the stage’s negation of poetic justice. In this regard, he intones with reference to the major characters of the Restoration drama:

They keep their honor untarnished and carry off the advantage of their character. They are set up for the standard of behaviour and the masters of ceremony and sense. And at last, that the example may work the better they generally make them rich and happy and reward them with their own desires.

It is necessary to point out that Collier is not averse to drama, altogether. His diatribe is squarely against the drama of his time, the Restoration comedy which he considered “offensive to standards of public decency” (Brockett and Hildy, p.426). In the same article, he praised Euripides for his drama of good sense and modesty, illustrating his notion of what a dramatic character should be with Phaedra. According to him:

Euripides who was no negligent observer of human nature, is always careful of this Decorum. Thus Phaedra when possessed with an infamous passion takes all imaginable pain to conceal it. She is as regular and reserved in her language as the most virtuous matron. “Tis true, the force of shame and desire, the scandal of satisfying, and the difficulty of parting with her inclinations disorder her to distraction. However, her frenzy is not lewd; she keeps her modesty even after she has lost her wits (pp.394 – 395).

Notwithstanding this, Collier’s brash unmediated criticism did portray the theatre in a bad light, igniting and fueling severe hatred against the stage in many quarters, in spite of attempts by lovers of the theatre to vindicate it in critical essays. Although the 18th century did push away the obscenities and the looseness of the Restoration comedy by ushering in the drama of sense and popular taste, the outlook of the “kill – joys” never changed. John Gay’s The Beggars Opera and Henry Fielding’s plays which satirised Wapole’s administration were seen as extremely offending plays and this drove the authority to take a drastic action against the theatre by passing the Licensing Act of 1737. This Act reduced the number of the theatres in London to two, namely Drury Lane and Covent Garden. The small theatres were severely crippled. The Act equally banned Polly, Gay’s sequel to The Beggars Opera. In explaining the negative impact of this Act on the theatre as a whole, Vargas laments:

The Licensing Act introduced stage censorship in England for the first time. All plays had now to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain before the performance. Wheels had been set in motion which would in time go far to weaken the life – blood of the theatre. Fielding was the first to turn away from the theatre. The clammy hands of the stage censorship still work their pernicious way in the world of the theatre, driving brave spirits into other fields of writing, emasculating and weakening the work of those who remain (p.141).

However, the theatre is a restless and undying superman, a darling of the people. The idea of democracy and public opinion prevailed on the government in 1843 to pass The Theatre Regulation Act which enlarged participation. But the act merely abolished the privileges enjoyed by the two patent houses by legalising the activities of the smaller theatres and by permitting the building of more playhouses. Vargas submits that the Act “did nothing to disturb the incubus of censorship but clarify the ridiculous position of the theatre” (p.163).

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