Censorship and Generic Change: The Case of Satire on the Early Eighteenth-Century London Stage

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At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the London theatre world was changing in ways that greatly influenced satiric drama and theatrical censorship for the rest of the century. Traditional state control over the theatres was seriously eroded when private citizens initiated legal actions against the theatres on morals charges; satiric drama was changing from the urbane cynicism of Wycherley to the more "humane" satire of Farquhar; and Jeremy Collier's Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) instigated a serious debate over the legitimate function of drama and the regulation of the stage. The pamphlets that constitute the Collier controversy reveal that Collier, his allies, and even his enemies believed that plays had the power to regulate morality and, therefore, that the theatres ought to be regulated. While all agreed that the theatre was supposed to provide moral instruction, the means by which this could be accomplished were fiercely debated. Obviously, "censorship" and "satire" are key terms in this regulatory project. However, their precise meaning for the participants in the Collier controversy -- and hence their importance -- has been understood in such a way that has allowed twentieth-century scholars to treat dramatic satire and censorship as radically opposed terms, underestimating the complex relationship between censorship and satire on the early eighteenth-century stage.

In the preface to The Augustan Defence of Satire, P. K. Elkin left a discussion of satiric drama "somewhat to one side in order to avoid involvement in questions which ... are in essence peculiar to the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century theatre."(1) Elkin recognized that the satiric drama of the turn-of-the-century constituted a special case in the generic study of satire, one dependent on highly specific historical circumstances. While Elkin wrote those words a generation ago, such a study has not yet appeared. This essay is meant to fill that gap. My object is two-fold: to show how the conceptions of the dramatic satirist and satire changed at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and to account for this change in terms of the contemporary debate over theatrical censorship.

Just as satire changes over time, so does the conception of the agent who produces satire. While this may seem self-evident, previous scholarship has held tenaciously to the idea that the satirist is simply an attacker. As Robert C. Elliott explained in 1960, "we speak of satire as `venomous,' `cutting,' and `stinging.'" Ronald Paulson says that attack is the "sine qua non of satire." This tendency to see the satirist merely as one who attacks his/her satiric objects is equally true today. Even the most recent and helpful attempts to theorize satire assume this stable subjectivity for the satirist. In the introduction to Theorizing Satire (1995), Brian A. Connery and Kirk Combe are suspicious of claims that satire can be anything but an attack:

Most satirists -- indeed, virtually all English satirists from the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth century -- claim one purpose for satire, that of high-minded and usually socially oriented moral and intellectual reform; however, they engage in something quite different, namely, mercilessly savage attack on some person or thing that, frequently for private reasons, displeases them.

Similarly, Dustin Griffin's Satire: A Critical Reintroduction (1994) offers a number of new ways to understand satire, but Griffin consigns seventeenth- and eighteenth-century suggestions that a satirist could be anything other than an aggressor to a "polemical context," arguing that they are efforts to "repress or domesticate the shaggy, obscene, and transgressive satyr that ranges through satire's long history." And most recently, Deborah C. Payne, looking strictly at satiric drama of the late seventeenth century, assumes that "for satire to be satire, an object . …