Website on the history of theatre censorship in Britain launched

Posted on: 22 November 2019

The history of theatre censorship in Britain has a distinctly Irish tinge. The very first play refused a performance licence under the Stage Licensing Act (1737) was Henry Brooke’s Gustavus Vasa (1739), a play which critiques British political culture and has undertones of Irish patriotism.

Thomas Moore was a very eminent Irish poet who was also one of the first Catholic students to attend Trinity. His statue is outside the College on Westmoreland Street

Political critique from Irish playwrights continually drew the ire of the Examiner of Plays, who had the primary responsibility of safeguarding the morals of theatre audience. Donegal-born Charles Macklin came in for particular attention. Formerly a servant in Trinity College Dublin, he became one of the most public figures in Georgian London after he became an actor. But he was also a successful playwright: his vitriolic attack on corruption and chicanery in British political life meant that his play The Man of the World (1770) became the only eighteenth-century play to be twice refused a performance licence.

The anonymous comedy Giovanni in Ireland (1821) which pokes fun at the visit of George IV to Ireland in 1821, the very first peacetime visit of a British monarch to Ireland, was heavily censored because it alluded to the rather scandalous fact that George IV—not known for his restraint—was carousing in Ireland and visiting his mistress before his recently deceased wife, Caroline, was buried.

A fascinating new website featuring high-resolution scans of play manuscripts will now allow people to see exactly what phrases, words and speeches were deemed out of bounds in the past.

The Censorship of British Theatre 1737-1843, in which several Irish playwrights and Trinity graduates appear, was launched on October 29th.

Funded by a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant, it brings together manuscript material from the Huntington Library in Los Angeles and the British Library in London in an extensive web resource. David O’Shaughnessy, Associate Professor for Eighteenth-Century Studies in Trinity’s School of English, was the principal investigator on the project.

The website features 40 play manuscripts submitted to the Examiner of Plays. The plays have been carefully chosen to show the variety of reasons a play might be deemed inappropriate through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from politics to sex and from corruption to blasphemy.

Each manuscript is accompanied by an author bio, plot synopsis, reception history, and commentary on the censorship. The editorial apparatus amounts to 95,000 words in total.

Professor David O’Shaughnessy said:

The advance made by the website is that it allows students to see in wonderful detail the interventions made to the manuscripts themselves; this will enable them to make their own judgements as to who made the excision.

Often of course it’s the Examiner of Plays but it could also be the theatre manager, his proxy or even the author who was trying to pre-empt the Examiner and thus prove the moral credentials of their theatre or play. Thus it raises all sorts of interesting questions about how censorship was internalized over time by theatre practitioners. Moreover, as censorship engages with a myriad of issues—sexuality, politics, religion, gender, economics—I think this website shows students just how vital theatre history is to a full understanding of the social and cultural history of the period.

Other plays of Irish interest among the manuscripts include Romantic poet Thomas Moore’s MP; or, The Bluestocking (1811); Elizabeth Griffith, The Platonic Wife (1765); Charles Macklin, Covent Garden Theatre (1752); Kane O’Hara, The Golden Pippin (1772); John O’Keeffe, Quarter Day (1800); Anon. Fingal; or, Erin Delivered (1813); and, Joseph Stirling Coyne, The Humours of an Election (1837).

The Irish plays are an important record of the Irish contribution to London’s cosmopolitan theatrical world. More importantly, however, this new website is a timely reminder of the importance of theatre to Georgian life and the part it played in Enlightenment culture, challenging established norms and advocating political responsibility and societal improvement.

Media Contact:

Aoife Carr, | |