Censoring Theatre in Britain and Ireland

Golden Generation exhibition image, from the British Library website.The Licensing Act, 1737, by requiring that every play to be performed on the English stage must first get a licence from the Lord Chamberlain, effectively constituted him a censor of the theatre until the repeal of the Act by the Theatres Act 1968.

An exhibition just opened in the British Library

The Golden Generation, British Theatre 1945-1968

showcases the successful post-war resistance to theatre censorship (see also press release | archive | blog | review). Excellent articles in the Guardian (Yes to pansy but no to bugger) and the Times (A disgusting feast of filth?) put the exhibition into fascinating historical and theatrical perspective. Update: There is an excellent page on the BBC website about this, including a seven minute clip from the Today Show on BBC Radio 4 in which David Hare and Michael Billington discuss the demise of theatre censorship.

In a few weeks time, The Golden Generation will be joined in the British Library by an even more ambitious exhibition: Taking Liberties. The struggle for Britain’s freedoms and rights (blogged here by one of its curators), which promises to

unite[] the pivotal documents which made or changed political history for the nation including Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights 1689, the Articles of Union 1706 .. [and] the 1832 Reform Act … [and] provoke[] the visitor into thinking about the nature of rights and responsibilities in society and places him or her right in the centre of making critical decisions about the society they would most wish to live in.

However, the 1737 Act did not apply to Ireland, and whilst the first Free State governments wasted little time in introducing censorship of films (1923) and publications (1929), censorship of theatrical productions was largely a matter of social rather than legal constraint. The writ of the Lord Chamberlain may not have run in pre-independence Ireland, and governments might not thereafter have legislated for an equivalent, but conservative social pressures (pdf) certainly had the same effect. The social inhibitions are explored in Joan FitzPatrick Dean’s engaging Riot and Great Anger: Twentieth Century Stage Censorship in Ireland (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), whilst the background to the only attempted criminal prosecution (AG v Simpson (1959) 93 ILTR 33) of a play in that period is Gerard Whelan and Carolyn Swift’s palpably angry Spiked: Church-State Intrigue and the Rose Tattoo (Dublin: New Ireland Books, 2002) (summary review here).

Plenty of scope then for an exhibition in Ireland about twentieth century theatre censorship; in the meantime, the British Library’s exhibitions are more than enough to be going on with.

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