HC Deb 12 March 1833 vol 16 cc561-7
Mr. Edward Lytton Bulwer

said, he now rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill "for Licensing Theatres, and for the better regulation of Dramatic Performances in the Cities of London and Westminster, and within twenty miles thereof," and in doing so he should feel it necessary to trouble the House with but a very few observations. The Bill which he was now about to introduce was founded upon the recommendation of the Committee of last Session upon dramatic performances, and he should read to the House the paragraph from the Report in which that recommendation was contained:—'In respect to the licensing of theatres, the Committee are of opinion that the laws would be rendered more clear and effectual by confining the sole power and authority to license theatres throughout the metropolis (as well as in places of royal residence) to the Lord Chamberlain; and that his, the sole jurisdiction, should be extended twenty miles round London; that being the point at which Magistrates now have the power of licensing theatres for the legitimate drama. And as the Committee believe, that the interests of the drama will be considerably advanced by the natural consequences of fair competition in its representation, they recommend that the Lord Chamberlain should continue a license to all the theatres licensed at present, whether by himself or by the Magistrates. The Committee are also of opinion, partly from the difficulty of defining, by clear and legal distinctions, "the legitimate drama," and principally from the propriety of giving a full opening as well to the higher as to the more humble orders of dramatic talent, that the proprietors and managers of the said theatres should be allowed to exhibit, at their option, the legitimate drama, and all such plays as have received, or shall receive, the sanction of the censor.' This Bill was, as he had just said, chiefly founded upon that paragraph of the Report, in the first instance, as regarded the throwing open the performance of the regular drama, and, in the second place, in confining the authority of licensing solely to the Lord Chamberlain, within the district therein specified. The three objects which the Bill had in view were—first, to afford to the public at large the full advantage derivable from regular dramatic representations; second, to prevent the inhabitants of any district from being subjected, against their will, to the annoyance of any theatrical speculations; and, third, to guard against the exercise of any kind of partiality on the part of the licensing authority. With such objects in view, the Bill proposed to enact, in the first instance, that if any person should be desirous of obtaining a licence for the exhibition of dramatic performances at any theatre within the limits of the Act, he must post a notice of such intention on the outer door of such theatre three calendar months before the annual licensing day, at which such application was intended to be made—that copies of such notice must be, at the same time, served upon the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of the parish, in which the theatre was situate, and that he must insert a copy of the said notice once a-week during the said three months in two of the daily morning newspapers. The same provisions were made applicable to the case where the theatre was not built or finished at the period when the application was made; and, it was further provided, that in the latter case the person so applying should deposit in the Lord Chamberlain's office descriptive plans and particulars of the mode in which it was intended to build, or finish the building, exhibiting the extent, elevation, and mode of structure of the said theatre, and the number of persons that it would be calculated to contain; that such plans should lie in the Lord Chamberlain's office, open to the public inspection, from the time of their being there deposited until the annual licensing day; and that in case a majority of the persons interested in the property contiguous to such theatre, or the proposed site thereof, should, in a petition, to be presented to the Lord Chamberlain two months before the licensing day, signify their dissent to the licensing of it, such licence should not be granted, but that if no such petition should be presented, the Lord Chamberlain should be obliged to grant the licence as prayed for. It was further provided, that nothing contained in the Act should be construed to affect the right of any person to object to the licensing of any theatre by reason of anything which, by the common law, would at the passing of the Act be considered a sufficient objection to the licensing of such theatre. The Bill also provided that where a licence was sought for a theatre, a certificate of the stability and safety of such theatre, signed by three architects or surveyors, should be produced by the persons so applying to the Lord Chamberlain; and it also gave to the Lord Chamberlain summary power, in cases where plays were performed at places not duly licensed, or in cases where the proprietors of theatres exceeded the limits of their licences. It would be observed, that no discretion as to granting a licence was vested in the Lord Chamberlain where the provisions of the Act had been fully complied with, and where no memorial had been presented within the time specified against the granting of such licence. As to the office of censor, he for his part must say, that he thought such an office was perfectly unnecessary. Undoubtedly the evidence which had been given by the present censor before the Committee, had failed to convince him either as to the importance of the functions attached to that office, or as to the discretion with which they had been exercised, but as it might prove fatal to the Bill if it proposed to abolish that office, it proposed to leave the authority of the censor just as it was at present. The Bill provided the following graduated scale of fees as payable to the Lord Chamberlain, or his deputy, for the licensing of theatres and dramatic productions:—

£ s. d.
For every original licence granted to a theatre 5 5 0
For every renewal of a licence to a theatre 2 2 0
For examining every play or entertainment of the stage of five or more acts 2 2 0
For examining every play or entertainment of the stage of three or four acts 1 11 6
For examining every play or entertainment of the stage of two acts 1 1 0
For examining every play or entertainment of the stage of one act 0 10 6
For examining every address, song, or other composition, not included in either of the above descriptions 0 5 0

The hon. Member concluded by moving for leave to bring in the Bill.

Mr. Lamb

did not mean to offer on this occasion, any opposition to the Bill proposed by his hon. friend; on the contrary, he thought that the time was come when some such measure should be passed with regard to dramatic performances. It was extremely doubtful whether any good would arise from the interference of the Legislature in controlling the public in matters of taste. There certainly was an idea in the metropolis, and in other towns where theatres existed, that the neighbourhood of theatres caused the introduction of a loose population, and at all events, their neighbourhood was often objected to by persons resident in the vicinity. It was therefore but right they should have the power of objecting to their introduction. He feared that there would be some difficulty as to the summary power proposed to be given to the Lord Chamberlain. In consequence of the repeal, as proposed by this Act, of the 10th of George 2nd, by which players were classed with "rogues and vagabonds," the summary power of search, on the part of the police, would be taken away, and difficulties certainly would, in some cases, lie in the exercise of the summary power proposed to be given to the Lord Chamberlain. With regard to the censorship, he thought it was productive of utility, and that it could not be dispensed with. He trusted that his hon. friend would not hurry the Bill through the House, but would afford time to the persons in this metropolis who were interested in its provisions, to make their representations to the House either for or against the measure. He hoped that by the passing of such a measure, the law on this subject would be at length placed upon an intelligible foundation, for it had been of late years so complicated, and so variously interpreted, that there was no understanding how any theatre stood.

Mr. Hume

said, he was sorry to hear the right hon. Gentleman say, that he conceived the censorship to be necessary, for he had hoped that he would have taken a different view of the subject. If he were asked why it was, that theatrical property had become depressed, he could find a ready answer in what he believed to be the fact, that it was because of the Lord Chamberlain and of the censorship, which had trammelled the drama until it became as it now was. Every position which the right hon. Gentleman had taken he conceived to be false. In fact, fees were demanded here and fees there, according to the evidence taken before the Committee of last Session, and thus an eternal interference was kept up with the exhibition of the regular drama. He was of opinion that there should be a free trade in that as well as in any thing else, in order that there might be a fair manifestation of the talent of the country in that department. He hoped, before the Bill should pass into a law, that sufficient attention would be paid to it, in order to do away with those mischievous restrictions and impediments to the drama.

Mr. Warburton

said, that as the object of the present system was the affording irrational amusements at the dearest rate, so the object of the present Bill would be to afford to the public rational amusements at the cheapest rate. The object of the great theatres seemed to be to administer rather to the physical than to the mental gratification of the people. He was of opinion, that they should throw open the minor theatres, and allow them to perform the legitimate drama. Indeed, he thought that such ought to be the principal object of the Bill As to consulting existing interests, why there was none remaining. He held himself a 500l. renter's share of Covent-garden theatre, which entitled him to 25l. per annum—when he could get it. He had not, however, obtained a farthing for many years, and he was at the present time entitled to seize the dresses, &c. on the premises. If, therefore, there was any allegation that existing monopolies should be protected, he should say that there were none remaining. The present monopolies were mortgaged to treble their value, and of course were worth nothing. For his own part he was willing to give up his 500l. share, and all his arrears, to enable the minor theatres to perform the legitimate drama at a cheap rate.

Mr. Ewart

regretted that the Bill was confined to the metropolis. He had himself presented a petition from Liverpool, stating that, in that town and its neighbourhood, there was a population of 100,000 persons unprovided with theatrical amusement. He would move a clause to extend the Bill to the country, if the hon. Gentleman would not do so himself.

Mr. Lamb,

in explanation, said, he had not raised an obstacle on account of vested interests, but merely asked for time for them to make a case out, if they could. He doubted the propriety of extending the Bill to the provinces.

Mr. Baring

thought the office of censor a most useful one. Hon. Gentlemen had only to judge for themselves of the effect of an unlicensed system in Paris to arrive at the same conclusion. The productions exhibited in some of the theatres must shock every moral mind. He was not favourable to a vexatious censorship, but one which would enforce a respect for sound morals and public decency.

Mr. O'Dwyer,

having visited Paris, said, the result of his travels was, that, the differed from the hon. member for Essex.

Mr. Edward Lytton Bulwer

said, that there was no need of a censorship, as public morals had actually risen higher than the licence, which the censor could not lower. This was evident from the fact, that many of the old plays, which the censor could not prohibit from being represented, were not and could not be played from their indelicacy. The absence of such exhibitions here as those referred to by the hon. member for Essex in Paris was not imputable to our censorship, but a higher standard of public morality.

Leave given.