J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 09, 2022

“The variety of reasons a play might be deemed inappropriate”

Prof. David O’Shaughnessy of the National University of Ireland in Galway just won this year’s British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Prize for Digital Resources for his website The Censorship of British Theatre, 1737-1843.

O’Shaughnessy’s website explains itself this way:
This digital resource hosts a selection of manuscripts of plays submitted to the Examiner of Plays, the office established by the Lord Chamberlain in the wake of the Stage Licensing Act of 1737, who had the primary responsibility of safeguarding the morals of theatre audiences. The manuscripts are drawn from the Larpent Collection (Huntington Library, San Marino) and the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays (British Library) and have been carefully selected to show the variety of reasons a play might be deemed inappropriate through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. . . .

It contains high resolution scans of 40 manuscripts from the period 1737-1843—from the Stage Licensing Act to its successor the Theatres Act—in order that scholars can get a sense of the line-by-line attention given to plays by the Examiner’s office. Each scan is accompanied by a brief note (2000-5000 words) that gives an author bio, a plot summary, a succinct note on the play’s reception history, a commentary on the censorship imposed on the manuscript, and some suggestions as to further introductory reading related to that play.
The U.R.L. for the website is tobeomitted.tcd.ie, and a significant part of the analysis focuses on what the government officials insisted should not go on the stage. Sometimes they marked passages to change, sometimes they just forbade any performance. Impresarios and playwrights also made cuts, and so did audiences—there are numerous anecdotes about producers assuring first-night crowds that certain disliked aspects of a show would be removed.

One can flip through the website to get a sense of British theater in this period beyond the plays that entered the canon. Class distinctions were important, subtlety not. Here’s a clip from the summary of Thomas Holcroft’s He’s Much to Blame (1798):
Maria, disguised as a man and accompanied by her resourceful maid Lucy, is seeking Sir George Versatile. She had been his lover up until he inherited his title but, at the inn, Maria is informed by the comical German quack Dr Gosterman that Versatile is now in love with Lady Jane Vibrate. . . .
The framing material also offers choice glimpses of the time’s show business and its more showy players, such as this remark about Charles Macklin, author of The Man of the World (1770):
He gained a certain degree of notoriety in 1734 when he was convicted of the manslaughter of a fellow actor after a backstage scuffle over a wig: an unexpected result of this was that he gained a taste for the law and the remainder of his career would see him involved in some high profile cases where he would represent himself.
And Elizabeth Griffith, author of The Platonic Wife (1765):
She stopped acting after becoming pregnant with a second child and [her husband] Richard’s business interests collapsed around the same time. Forced into desperate action, the Griffiths published their courtship correspondence as A Series of Genuine Letters between Henry and Frances in 1757. It went through a number of editions and there were follow-up publications. 
Boston of course forbade public theater until years after the Revolutionary War, part of its Puritan legacy. And if the pre-Revolutionary town fathers could see this website, they would undoubtedly feel they were making the right decision.

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