Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

The Censorship of Samuel Foote's the Minor (1760): Stage Controversy in the Mid-Eighteenth Century

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

The Censorship of Samuel Foote's the Minor (1760): Stage Controversy in the Mid-Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

Samuel Foote, known in his day as the "English Aristophanes," profited from his talent for mimicking real people on the stage and presenting daring satiric plays within--and sometimes beyond--the bounds of the censorship imposed by the Stage Licensing Act of 1737. His anti-Methodist play, The Minor (1760), is rightly considered an important example of his satiric technique and as the occasion for an important instance of theatrical censorship. The play featured an epilogue in which Foote mimicked the cross-eyed Methodist evangelist, George Whitefield, whom Foote renamed Mr. Squintum. This impersonation caused an uproar and resulted in the publication of twenty-two books, pamphlets, plays, and poems that either condemned Foote or praised him. When Foote transferred The Minor from the Little Theatre in the Haymarket to Drury Lane in the fall of 1760, the epilogue and a few other speeches were omitted by order of the lord chamberlain. Some scholars conclude that the print debate pressured the lord chamberlain to censor the play (Conolly 118; Trefman 114). However, this conclusion ignores compelling evidence that the lord chamberlain was unsympathetic to Whitefield's allies and very reluctant to censor The Minor. It is based on a superficial reading of the arguments offered in the print debate and a consequent misunderstanding of exactly what was at issue in the controversy over The Minor. This is, indeed, an important instance of censorship, but one that needs serious reexamination if we are properly to understand how theatrical censorship functioned in the eighteenth century.

The Minor presumably was licensed prior to its 28 June premiere at the Little Haymarket. Although no manuscript examination copy is preserved among the Larpent Manuscripts in the Huntington Library, the title page to the first edition declares that it is presented "By Authority from the Lord Chamberlain."(1) This means that the lord chamberlain exercised his prerogative to suppress the epilogue after he had (at least tacitly) licensed it and after it had been performed thirty-five times. This action is not unprecedented: in 1758, the license for Foote's popular play, The Author, was revoked after the play had been performed thirty-three times. Operating under these uncertain conditions, an actor-playwright like Foote would have had good reason to complain that the system of censorship established by the Licensing Act was arbitrary and capricious.

Yet Foote did not complain about the censorship, nor did he have much reason to. On the contrary, I will argue that he had cause to be quite grateful for the Licensing Act. As the contributors to the print debate over The Minor point out, Foote benefited from the legitimacy that the lord chamberlain's license conferred. This legitimation is precisely what made The Minor controversial. It is particularly important because Whitefield was a decidedly illegitimate clergyman, denied access to Church of England pulpits and derided for much of his life as a fanatic. Foote joined in this derision by producing The Minor, but at issue in the print debate is not just that Foote was engaging in personal abuse of the much-abused Whitefield, but that the lord chamberlain sanctioned that ridicule. The lord chamberlain's authorization of personal satire was seriously called into question by Whitefield's supporters. Most of their arguments are designed not to persuade the lord chamberlain to censor the play, as previous scholars maintain, but to protest his refusal to suppress it altogether. For this reason, the controversy over The Minor offers us an excellent opportunity to assess attitudes toward the stage and its regulation at mid-century. It also requires us to reexamine how we define censorship, for in this instance the distinction between "censor" and "censored" is blurry and ultimately misleading. Indeed, to understand the significance of the censorship of The Minor, we must abandon the presumption that the censor is necessarily in conflict with the censored at all. …

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