Disciplining Satire: The Censorship of Satiric Comedy on the Eighteenth-Century London Stage

Disciplining Satire: The Censorship of Satiric Comedy on the Eighteenth-Century London Stage

Disciplining Satire: The Censorship of Satiric Comedy on the Eighteenth-Century London Stage

Disciplining Satire: The Censorship of Satiric Comedy on the Eighteenth-Century London Stage

Synopsis

"This book examines the effects of the Stage Licensing Act of 1737 on its main target, satiric comedy. The Licensing Act is generally considered to have been a significant and repressive censorship law (it was not repealed until 1968), but very little is known about how it actually worked and what effects it had on satiric comedy. Focusing on the playwriting careers of Henry Fielding, Samuel Foote, and Charles Macklin, the three most controversial and heavily censored satiric dramatists of the century, Disciplining Satire pays particular attention to what type of satiric expression the law encouraged, not just to what it prohibited." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

The Stage Licensing Act of 1737 was a drastic measure enacted during dangerous times. The 1730s saw the volatile combination of three trends that, in the Walpole ministry's view, demanded a strong response: (1) systematic governmental oversight of the stage had lapsed; (2) satiric ridicule of contemporary persons and issues had gained broad popularity on the stage; and (3) domestic insurrections and bitter partisanship had come to characterize public life. Stifling the expression of political dissent in the theatres was a major priority for the ministry in 1737, and there was no doubt that satiric drama was the main object of the Stage Licensing Act. But the precise impacts of the law on eighteenth-century satiric plays are still unclear. Theoretically, the Licensing Act eliminated all but two theatres, required prior governmental approval of play texts, and established severe penalties for non-compliance with its provisions. Most scholars have asserted that the censorship simply stifled free expression, driving satire from the stage—a view still common today. But since the 1970s, this hypothesis has come under attack. Calhoun Winton and Vincent J. Liesenfeld have shown that nothing like free expression (at least as we know it today) existed in the eighteenth-century theatre, and that most people favored state regulation of the drama. Nor was satire abolished only to be revived later in the century by Goldsmith and Sheridan. Using performance records available in The London Stage, Robert D. Hume and Richard Bevis have amply documented that satiric and “laughing” comedy was alive and well long before the triumphant premieres of She Stoops to Conquer (1773) and The School for Scandal (1777). In light of these revisionist arguments, the effects of the Licensing Act need to be reconsidered.

The object of this book is to explain how the Licensing Act affected the production and reception of satiric comedy on the eighteenth-century London stage. L. W. Conolly's The Censorship of English Drama, 1737–1824 is a valuable survey of plays suppressed or altered by the censors, but it is now more than twenty years old and subsequent scholarship has shown that Conolly's . . .

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