HC Deb 25 May 1830 vol 24 cc1085-93
Mr. Lennard

rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal the Third and Fourth Clauses of the 10th of Geo. 2nd, c. 28, which empowered the Lord Chamberlain to prohibit the acting of any New Play or Entertainment on the Stage. The hon. Member said, that the Bill, of which he wished to repeal some of the Clauses was passed in Sir Robert Walpole's administration, and was then opposed by the Earl of Chesterfield, in a speech that was a model of eloquence, and an ornament of our language. The Act was also severely satirized by Dr. Johnson, and he believed it had at all times been condemned. The part of it to which he chiefly objected was that which gave power to the Lord Chamberlain to license Plays and Dramatic Writings. He did not think it necessary, in bringing the subject under the notice of the House, to go into the origin of the Lord Chamberlain's jurisdiction; it was sufficient for his purpose to acknowledge that this officer had exercised such an authority long before the Act was passed. It was exercised without any rule, very arbitrarily, and very often with great caprice. He admitted that it was readily submitted to by the actors; but, considering what was their original condition, that was not to be wondered at. They were persons put out of the pale of the Constitution, and submitted without opposition to the Chamberlain, whose wand waved over them pleno jure. The present law had a great vice in its constitution. It was passed at a period of great political excitement, and was intended only to remedy a temporary evil. But like other laws passed under similar circumstances, it became a general restriction, and having once got into the Statute-book, there was a great difficulty in getting rid of it. He might, perhaps, be allowed to compare it in this respect to the Six Acts, which were passed in a state of temporary ferment; and as the Attorney General had announced his intention to bring in a bill to repeal one of them, he thought he might with great propriety follow so good an example. The Act conferred, too, he might observe, a most unconstitutional power on the Lord Chamberlain, quite as bad as that conferred by the Six Acts. He should be able to show by example, both in former and in modern times, that this power had been exercised also in a most unconstitutional manner. He would beg leave to allude to the circumstances under which the Act was passed. Sir Robert Walpole, during the latter part of his administration, was exposed to many severe attacks, and in particular he was attacked by pieces produced in the theatre. Just at that time a play called the Golden Rump was sent in manuscript to Sir Ft. Walpole, by the manager of one of the theatres, in which he was most severely handled. He was much irritated; he called it sedition; and, rising in his place in the House of Commons, he read some of the strongest passages; the Members were all excited; the bill was immediately brought in, and it was passed, almost by acclamation. This was the origin of the Act. This bill was passed through the House of Commons, though it established a power unknown to the Constitution—a power greater than was possessed by the King—a power that was an infringement on the liberty of the subject and on the liberty of the press, imposing shackles on our literature, and giving a monopoly of theatrical property to an officer of the Crown: this bill, that was equally condemned by general principles, and by its practical results—was passed through the House of Commons without as much discussion as was usually given to a Turnpike Act. By this law not only no new play could be performed without a license, a song could not be sung on the stage, nor a new passage, no, not even a word, could be introduced into a play, without the permission of the Lord Chamberlain, or the Lord Chamberlain's Deputy. For granting this license the Lord Chamberlain's Deputy exacted a fee of two guineas; while the power to exact this fee made the Deputy very vigilant, so that nothing whatever, neither- a play, nor a song, nor an addition to a play, could be sung or acted, without the payment. The Deputy Licenser had even extended his power to prevent a lecture on Astronomy being delivered in a theatre without a license, or rather without paying him his fee. The hon. Member quoted the permission which had been given by the Deputy Licenser to deliver such a Lecture marked at bottom with the words, "paid two guineas," to confirm his statement. The practice of exacting a fee was perhaps not authorized by the law; but the managers of the theatres submitted to it, and the reason was this.—In consequence of the extensive powers of the Lord Chamberlain, it was impossible for the managers to escape his censure—they were continually liable to forfeit their patent privileges, and this made them submit to the Lord Chamberlain's Deputy's exactions. As a specimen of the power of the Deputy, he would mention, that a few years ago a Clown was prevented from adding the words "roast beef." The most innocent or trifling additions by a Grimaldi might subject the manager to forfeit his privileges. It became necessary, therefore, for all performers strictly to follow the directions of Hamlet—" Let not your Clowns speak more than is set down for them." The slightest neglect or omission on their part might subject them to censure; and he believed, that there was not one of the Patentees of the great theatres who was not liable to forfeit his license fifty times in the course of a season. Under such circumstances they would naturally submit to pay any fee; and if the Lord Chamberlain's Deputy were to appoint a Deputy's Deputy, he might also exact a fee. He was aware that the master of the Revels formerly did exact a fee, but the Act under which the Lord Chamberlain exercised his power gave him no authority to exact any fee whatever. By selecting him, the Act placed the power in the hands of a person of distinction, who was to be responsible for its proper exercise, and who was never expected to make use of it as a means of levying a tax on the managers of theatres. He, however; thinking it too much trouble to read the blotted manuscripts intended for the stage, deputed his power to an inferior officer, who exacted the fee without any authority whatever. The fee Mr. Colman exacted, however, he was bound to say, was not greater than was exacted by his predecessors. What he contended for in principle was, that the ordinary laws of the realm were sufficient to repress the licentiousness of the stage without the power of licensing stage-performances. If any thing blasphemous, seditious, or libellous, were produced on the stage, it might be punished as a libel. The Act, which he wished to modify only, imposed fetters on the stage without producing any good effect. But it was said that a printed libel had not the same effect as a scenic representation; that the mind was more readily affected through the medium of the eye than through that of the ear, and transmitted a more powerful and lasting impression. Segnius irritant animos demissa per aurem, Quam quæ sunt oculis subjecta fidelibus. But supposing this true—supposing that the theatre might be made the means of promoting party politics and personal attacks—he must still contend that the Common Law would be sufficient to repress this licentiousness. In order to meet this objection, however, he should be ready, if he obtained leave to bring in the Bill, to agree to vest that power in Commissioners or Magistrates which was now exercised by the Lord Chamberlain. If such a power were deposited any where, it ought not to be in an officer of the Household, but in some responsible person, who should not delegate his authority to others, to be used as a means of levying fees. He would illustrate the effects of this authority by example, and in order not to wound the feelings of any person, he would go back a little from our own time. A play, for example, of Mr. Gay's—"Polly "was prohibited, as was well known, not on account of any immorality it contained, but on account of its political tendency. Another case was Thomson's play of " Sophonisba"—a play in which there was nothing objectionable; for of that poet it had been justly said, that he never wrote "one line which dying he would wish to blot;" yet that play was objected to, and a license refused, be- cause some of the sentiments, in his poem of "Liberty," had given offence to the Minister of that day. A farce of Foote's, also, was suppressed, because it contained some satirical allusions to that moral lady, the Duchess of Kingston, who was in favour with the then Lord Chamberlain. He would then quote some modern examples of the same interference. Mr. Col man, the present Licenser, on one occasion took under his protection the character of that profession to which the gallant Members of the House belonged. A character called "Rakeall," who was represented as an army officer, somewhat of a swindler, and a good deal of a coward, was ordered to be suppressed, because it reflected on a high class of society, and was derogatory to the character of officers. He was sure the right hon. and gallant Secretary did not need any such protection for his profession from Mr. Colman. He had several specimens before him of Mr. Colman's pruning, who seemed, for example, not to like that lovers should speak of their mistresses as angels. Passages of that kind he considered to be very indecorous, and directed them to be struck out. The hon. Member read a passage, which contained the words "My angels divine," and the Licenser wrote "Blot out the angels." This was an excess of nicety in the author of "Broad Grins." Angelic and heavenly were words to which the Licenser seemed to have a great antipathy, and he warned certain managers that he should strike them out whenever he met them. In another instance Mr. Colman objected to the word "thighs" being used three times, and directed that it should be cut out. He objected to a servant describing her mistress's dressing case as united "in matrimony with her master's arm-chair. The hon. Member quoted other specimens of the Licenser's fastidious pruning, and said that he had taken Royalty under his peculiar care, and wishing not to frighten heirs apparent, he ordered the following correction;—A play was presented to him, in which were the words "all the fatigues, cares, and tediousness of Royalty," and the Licenser's directions were "strike out the words and tediousness.'" The only effective opposition which he expected was from those who thought that if the Motion were carried, it would produce an injurious effect on the Minor Theatres; by exposing them to prosecutions from the patentees of the regular Theatres. But that was a consequence which he did not apprehend. The hon. Gentleman concluded, by moving "for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal the third and fourth clauses of Act 10 Geo. 2nd., c. 28, which empowers the Lord Chamberlain to prohibit the acting of any new play or entertainment on the stage."

Mr. George Lamb

observed, that as he had been connected for a considerable period with one of the great theatres, he wished to say a few words on the present occasion, although he was extremely reluctant to do that when the press of business was so urgent. The hon. Member was misinformed when he stated that compromises took place between the patentees of the large, and the owners of the minor theatres. No such thing occurred, and each of them stood upon his own rights. He could also assure him that the Patent Theatres had no wish respecting his Motion one way or the other. He was sorry not to see in his place, the Paymaster of the Forces, for he would be able to corroborate that statement. The Act of 10th Geo. 2nd, commonly and properly called the Playhouse Act, was opposed at the time only by the celebrated Lord Chesterfield, who had found a successor in the hon. member for Maldon. The speech of that noble Lord was certainly an able one; but if he remembered correctly, it dealt more in exaggeration than most speeches delivered in the other House. Nothing less was prognosticated by him from passing the bill, than the downfall of the stage, a prediction which certainly had not been verified. The hon. member for Maldon had fallen into one error. He stated, that a Clown was prosecuted for calling out "Roast Beef;" but the fact was, that the prosecution was instituted under a later Act than the one under discussion, for playing in a theatre unlicensed, except for singing and dancing, which the Royalty, where this took place, was. His hon. friend did not seem to be aware that if he repealed the 10th Geo. 2nd, he would not effect his object, for there were other Acts which regulated theatres. He would not go at any length into precedents, to show that plays had long been licensed, and that fees were paid before the license was passed; but perhaps a few statements on the point might not be considered uncalled-for, Gibber tells us, that when George 1st granted a patent to judge of plays to Sir Richard Steele, the Master of the Revels still claimed his customary fee of 2l. and as the fee was only 2l. 2s. at present, even the hon. member for Aberdeen must admit, taking the change in the value of money into consideration, that the increase had not been too great. Gibber gave several instances of the payment of these fees, although he at first resisted them on the ground of his patent. His authority was strong in favour of the right to exact fees. The Playhouse Act certainly mentioned no payments of that kind, and their defence must therefore rest upon custom previous to the passing of the Act. All which that law required was, that a dramatic work should be laid before the Lord Chamberlain fourteen days previous to its intended performance, and it imposed no other penalty than one for performing the piece before it had been sent, or for afterwards keeping in anything that the licenser had prohibited as immoral or improper. How the fee came to be transferred from the Master of the Revels to the Licenser he was not aware, but the former office was only abolished by Mr. Burke's bill. The censorship of the stage, however, had always existed, from the earliest times. Lord Chesterfield prognosticated that if the stage were put under the control of the Lord Chamberlain it would be used for party purposes. That certainly might have been fairly anticipated at the time, and that it had not happened might perhaps be attributed, in some degree, to his Lordship's speech. Since the passing of that Act, the stage had never been used by any party; but previous to that period, at the lime of Dryden, it was perpetually used as the instrument of both parties. "The Duke of Guise," "Amboyna," and Shadwell's "Lancashire Witches," were all party plays. As far therefore as experience went, the Act might be said, in this respect, to have had a beneficial effect. It was asked, why restrain the stage any more than the press? It should be remembered, that what was written one day in a pamphlet or newspaper, might be answered in another on the next day, and that writing was addressed to those who, from being able to read, might be supposed to exercise some degree of reason upon what was brought before them; but a play was addressed immediately to the passions of the multitude, and in a time of popular excitement, might so work upon their feelings, as to inflame them to commit acts immediately endangering the public peace. With respect to the Motion he would only say, that if it were the pleasure of the House to give leave to bring in the Bill prayed for, he should not object to it; but Parliament would do well to pause before it consented to rescind an Act which had been in force many years without inflicting any injury on the liberty of the subject, while it had certainly been of much benefit to morality.

Sir Robert Peel

concurred in the observations which had fallen from the hon. Gentleman who had just spoken. Looking at the state of the stage before and after the passing of the Act, there was nothing to induce the House to remove the censorship. He confessed he had not the confidence which the hon. Mover had in the good taste of the public; and was by no means satisfied that, but for the Censorship, immoral and blasphemous dramas would not be received with applause; neither did he believe that the common law would be found sufficient to repress the licentiousness of the stage. he was the more induced to entertain these opinions from the manner in which the horrid murder committed by Thurtell, with all its dreadful details, was represented on a minor stage, almost immediately after its occurrence. The hon. member for Maldon had alluded to Lord Chesterfield's speech. There was one part of that speech to which he begged the particular attention of the hon. Member, namely, that part of it in which Lord Chesterfield had objected to bringing in the bill at so late a period of the Session. Lord Chesterfield had predicted that the passing of the Act in question would, in its consequences, be injurious to the liberty of the Press. The result, however, had shown that the noble Lord was entirely mistaken on that point. The Deputy Licenser, Mr. Colman, had been charged by the hon. Gentleman with fastidiousness; but was the hon. Gentleman prepared to say that the dramatic taste of the people of England was so pure that it might be left without control? And what was the substitute for that authority recommended by the hon. Gentleman? A committee of Magistrates—of Police—or at best, county Magistrates! For all these reasons, but especially because he objected to bringing in such a bill as the present at so late a period of the Session as the 25th of May, he must oppose the hon. Gentleman's Motion.

Mr. O'Conncll

could not understand why the stage was not to be supposed to have become sufficiently purified to be left without Censorship. In all other branches of literature a purification of taste had taken place. Of this the celebrated novel of Tom Jones was a proof. No such work would be tolerated in the present day.

Sir Robert Peel

having intimated that he would not object to the hon. Member for Maldon's bringing in a bill at as early a period in the next Session as he might think proper,—the Motion was negatived without a division.

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