HC Deb 30 June 1842 vol 64 cc791-800
Lord Mahon

rose to call the attention of the House to the petition which he presented in the course of last month, and which was signed by all, or nearly all, the dramatic authors of the country. They stated in that petition that many of them were emulous of pursuing the higher branches of their art, but were deterred by the difficulties created by the laws relating to the stage, which they conceived to be opposed to the advancement of the drama. They also stated, that they heard with regret universal complaints of the decay of the drama; and that they despaired of its regeneration until the laws which regulated the stage were taken into consideration by the House, and adapted to the increased intelligence of the present age. He might not expect to obtain any efficient remedies in the present Session by thus introducing the subject to the House, but at any rate he thought it was a duty with a view to future legislation, to call attention to the grievances under which the drama laboured. The origin of the evil was to be found in the patents granted to Davenant and Killigrew, the managers of two of the principal theatres in the reign of Charles 2nd. These patents were granted as a mark of personal favour, and were not to be considered as charters; indeed, it was a remarkable fact, that up to the present time there was, as he believed, no instance of such licenses being pleaded in a court of law. But, whatever might be their other effects, these licenses had served as a foundation for the statute laws by which the stage was regulated. First, of those laws he might mention the act 10 George 2nd., commonly called the Licensing Act, which provided that all plays should be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain, a provision very just in its principle, but, as he should hereafter show, subject to error in detail. By this statute it was also enacted, that a performer acting without a permanent place of residence should be treated as a rogue and a vagabond. They then came to the act 25 George 2nd., c. 36, by which in practice, or at least in theory, the stage was at present governed. Even the title of that Act might give an idea of the contempt with which it treated dramatic authors and actors, for it placed them in a kind of niche between thieves on one side and disorderly ladies on the other. The act was entitled,— An Act for the better preventing Thefts and Robberies, and for regulating Places of Public Entertainment, and punishing Persons keeping Disorderly Houses. Such was the name of the law under which, even at the present day, the countrymen of Shakspeare and of Otway were willing that their drama should be ruled. This act also imposed a fine of 50l. upon every actor performing without a license from the Chamberlain for each time of his performance, the poverty of actors in general had made this provision from the first a dead letter, it was now set at defiance on all sides, so that even at the present day nearly, if not quite, every actor who trod the boards of our theatres was performing under the risk of a penalty of 50l. a-night. In like manner, unless when sanctioned by a license from the Chamberlain, theatres were held to be illegal in courts of law, and the consequence of this was, that a contract made with regard to a theatre was made with all the risk of a court of law considering it null and void. There were, indeed, several instances in which parties had been nonsuited in courts of law in consequence of those courts being unable to take cognizance of theatres. He might instance cases of persons who had advanced money on account of small theatres, of actors whose engagements with managers had been broken, and of dramatists who had been defrauded of the stipulated sums for which they had sold their works, in which either the plaintiffs pursuing had been non-suited, or incapacitated from proceeding in consequence of the loose state of the law. Thus it was clear that private as well as public in- justice was perpetrated under the existing system, for the law was brought into operation to sanction acts of evident, and, indeed, acknowledged dishonesty and fraud. But these were not the only practical evils of the system. Another serious and sad consequence was that it failed in securing the power of salutary regulation over theatrical entertainments. In London at the present time it was very usual for public-houses to have what was called "saloons" attached to them for nightly dramatic entertainments in which the propriety of the performance was made a very secondary consideration to the consumption of the landlord's liquors. In the provinces the results were even worse. In many of the large towns minor theatres existed in which performances were given of the lowest and most debasing kind. The effect of these entertainments provided for the lower classes had been most grievous and appalling. Attention was especially directed to the subject by the prison inspectors in their sixth report, presented only a few months, back. The inspectors alluded to the existence of the number of minor theatres in Liverpool. They especially stated that the authorities of that town had no legal power of either regulating, restraining, or putting down such dens of infamy, and that children of the most tender years entered them by themselves, and could not lawfully be prevented. "The number of children frequenting the Sanspareil and other theatres of a still lower description were almost incredible." But further still the inspectors, not contented with this general view, most properly proceeded to examine separately some of the boys in the Borough gaol at Liverpool, and they found that several youthful criminals ascribed to these low theatrical representations their first initiation into crime. Here were one or two of the answers given to the inspectors' inquiries:— D. M., aged 12 years, states,' I have been at the Sanspareil, the Liver, and the Queen's. I have stolen the money to go with. It was at the theatres I was first introduced to bad characters. I have been three times in prison.' M. S., aged 18, states, ' I have been eight times in prison and twice discharged. I cannot tell how many times I have been at the Sanspareil, I have been there so often. I have seen Jack Sheppard performed, and am sure, if anything, it encouraged me to commit greater crimes. I thought that part the best where he robbed his master and mistress.' Now, it was clear that these evils arose from the want of a proper power of regulation, and in order to put an end to one very bad part of the system, he should certainly think it of the highest importance to enact in the first place that no fermented liquors should be sold or consumed in any places allotted to dramatic entertainments. This would in itself affect a great reform in all the lowest theatres. But he did not think that reform should be confined to these. The higher required it in a different dejection, but in an equal degree. Whilst our people were amongst the most moral in the world, our theatres were beyond all comparison and without any doubt, the most shameless. He thought, therefore, that a discretionary power of making regulations for order and propriety in theatres should be given to the magistrates in quarter sessions; subject, however, to the sanction of the Secretary of State. Up to this point, the grievances and evils he had considered were entirely independent of the monopoly on the part of the larger theatres, and with the permission of the House he would now proceed to consider how far that monopoly answered the purposes of public utility. Now, he was not prepared to say that the two great theatres of the metropolis were not entitled to some privileges, but at the same time he was quite clear that the mode in which the monopoly existed was entirely repugnant not only to the interests of the public, but to the interests of the very persons who enjoyed it. By the present regulations, the smaller theatres were debarred from, receiving pieces in the higher order of the drama, however anxious their managers might be to present such performances to the public notice. The consequence of this was, that the dramatic feeling of the people was debased, and that the public suffered by the representation of plays conveying a bad, or at least a loose moral impression. He knew it was often alleged that the existence of the patent theatres was favourable to the greater efforts of genius and necessary to the loftier walks of the art. But this allegation was scarcely to be reconciled with the facts. Nearly all the best dramas produced since the establishment of the patents had been brought forward irregularly or unwillingly. Johnson forced Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer into the theatre. Tobin died regretting that he could not succeed in having the Honeymoon performed. Lille produced George Barnwell at an irregular theatre after it had been rejected by the holders of the patents. Douglas was cast back on Home's bands. Fielding was introduced as a dramatist to the public at an unlicensed house, and Mrs. Inchbald's comedy had lain two years neglected when by a trifling accident she was able to obtain the manager's approval. But he could produce no stronger testimony as to the evils of such monopoly than that of one who was a high authority on such points, and who, at least, could not be said to be prone to rash innovation of whatever he found established. He alluded to Sir Walter Scott, who had Written as follows:— Where are we to look for that unfortunate counterbalance which confessedly depresses the national drama? We apprehend it will be found in the monopoly possessed by two large establishments. It must be distinctly understood that we attribute these disadvantages to the system itself, and by no means to those who have the administration of either theatre. But, whilst the effect was so detrimental to the interests of the public, what was the result upon those who held and exercised the monopoly? It was easy to prove that whilst the public had been suffering the monopolists had been far from gaining. In both the great theatres of London the lessees had for the most part, in former years at least, and not with standing much talent and industry, encountered great difficulties, which they were unable to overcome. It was recorded as a saying of Sheridan, that the only year in which he had lost no money by the proceedings of Drury Lane was the year in which that theatre was burnt to the ground. As to the present financial state of Covent Garden, they had a fall disclosure in the schedule Mr. Charles Mathews had lately filed before the Insolvent Debtors' Court. Mr. Mathews declared that during his first year of management, namely, 1839, the receipts were 48,673l, but the expenses 52,903l., leaving a deficiency of 4,000l. In the second year, namely, 1840, the receipts were 49,227l., but the expenses 51,440l., leaving a deficiency of above 2,000l. In the third season, namely, 1841, the receipts had fallen to 42,535l., while the expenses bad risen to 55,691l., leaving the enormous deficiency of 13,000l. After this it was necessary to stop payment. Were things very much better at Drury Lane? So lately as the 23rd of May last, in his address at the termination of the Season, Mr. Macready, the able and accomplished manager, was reported to have expressed himself as follows:— The receipts of the season had not been adequate to the exigencies, and great exertions most be made and greater outlays before the theatre will really be a profitable undertaking. So that whilst, as he said before, the public suffered hardship and debasement, the monopolists themselves were only reaping bankruptcy and ruin. Was this then, he would ask, a state of things which ought to be permitted to continue? The necessity of correcting it was enhanced when it was considered that such temptations were held out to fraud by the present state of the law, which, by its operation, encouraged what it should repress, and repressed what it should encourage. There might be great doubts, as to the "nature of the remedy, but there could be no doubt at all as to the reality and extent of the evil. He hoped, therefore, that the House would take the subject into consideration; but he would tell them that no measure would prove satisfactory if some steps Were not taken to remedy the defects in the licensing department. He did not go the length of saying licensers awards, if unsatisfactory, should be open to revision by courts of law; he was willing to leave them final; but then the responsibility should be placed higher; no more in the Lord Chamberlain's Department, which in the present state of manners had only a fictitious connection with the stage, but in an officer named directly by the Minister of the Crown. The manner in which the service of the licenser was remunerated was also objectionable. He was at present paid by a fee upon each play to the performance of which he gave his assent. This was calculated in itself to bias the judgment. What would be the case if the salary of a judge depended on a verdict being given for the plaintiff? It would be far better to give the licenser such a salary as would insure the services of a man possessing ability and character, than to pay him in the present manner. He Was anxious to call the attention of the House to this subject, being desirous that his native country should be as eminent in arts as she was in arms; and as in former years the stage was one of the boasts of Britain, he hoped some steps would be taken to secure it from its present degradation and decline. He knew that what they could do was but limited; they could not shape and body forth a good play by act of Parliament, they could not make a Shakespeare or an Otway; but they might do this—give such eminent men, if any such again rose amongst them, full scope for their own talents and exertions—free them from unworthy trammels, and bestow on them whilst we ourselves enjoy, the blessings of equal laws. The noble Lord concluded by moving— For copies of any communications which have been addressed to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in the course of the present year, complaining of the state of the law in reference to the drama.

Mr. H. Gally Knight

I have the greatest pleasure in seconding this motion, and I do so because, ten years ago, I served on a select committee appointed by this House to inquire into the laws affecting dramatic literature, and 1 feel obliged to the noble Lord who has brought forward this motion for now endeavouring to carry into effect very nearly the same conclusions at which that committee arrived, but which have never been acted upon from that time to this. We went very fully into the subject, and examined Several witnesses; and it was sufficiently proved that various obstacles are thrown in the way of the dramatic literature of this country—some of which obstacles cannot be removed, but others might be surmounted; and it was the opinion of the committee that the attempt ought to be made The irremoveable obstacles are the changes of fashion, the lateness of hours, and the conscientious objections to theatres in general of a portion of the community. Those which appeared to be capable at least of mitigation are—first, the Size of the theatres at which the legitimate drama is alone allowed to be performed; second, the state of the law with respect to the licensing of theatres; third, the laws which affect the copyright of dramatic works. With respect to the size of the theatres, it is much to be regretted that, as the population of the metropolis became more numerous, the theatres were not multiplied, instead of being enlarged; for, as it is, the two theatres to which the legitimate drama is restricted, are become too large for anything but scenery and show. The minor theatres are restricted to what is technically called "the bur letta"—a species of composition not very easy to define; but the general understanding is, that burletta must always be accompanied by music, which, of course, places the legitimate drama out of the province of the minor theatres. In what way this difficulty was to be met, it was not easy to decide; but it was impossible not to see that the size of the theatres, in which the legitimate drama may be represented, had operated unfavourably on dramatic literature; and the committee came to the opinion that, with regard to this point, some improvement might be made if the licensing powers of the Lord Chamberlain, which are now limited to the city of Westminster, Were extended, and if the right of representing the legitimate drama were no longer confined to the two patent theatres. With regard to the copyright, the dramatic author, is certainly obstructed by peculiar and unnecessary vexations. In the first place, he must submit his works to a censor; but, after having fully considered that subject, the committee could not come to the opinion that the censorship could be dispensed with. But dramatic authors enjoy less protection than is granted to authors in any other branch of letters, and are exposed to hardships which others have not to encounter. They have to make the best bargain they can with the manager, and have often great difficulty in obtaining the payment of the moderate compensation which may have been allowed. The management changes before the payment is complete; the piece is considered a Stock-piece of the theatre, and no redress can be had from the new manager, Successful plays are often pirated by the provincial theatres, amongst which I include the theatres of Bath, Liverpool, Dublin, and Edinburgh; and, in this case, the author has neither compensation nor redress. In France, no play can be acted without the written permission of the author, which enables him to make his own terms. To relieve dramatic authors in this country, it was the opinion of the committee that the author of a play should posses the same legal protection as is possessed by the author of any other literary production, and that it should be made unlawful to represent his works at any theatre, metropolitan or provincial, without his express and formal consent. I am anxious that dramatic authors should receive protection, because I consider a good acting play to be one of the most difficult and most admirable of all literary efforts. It is not only a vehicle for poetry of the highest order, but it discloses the secrets of the human breast, presents us with characters moulded from the lips, awakens the most generous feelings, inculcates the most lofty sentiments, and produces its effect upon numerous bodies of men in the most direct, immediate, and electric manner. Comedy shows us the ridicule of our follies and foibles. Tragedy pierces into the cell of the passions, and awakens our admiration for the sublimities of virtue and our abhorrence of the enormities of vice. Dramas are not only the mirror of the age, but may be schools of morality. Of what British literature have we more reason to be proud than the works of our dramatic writers? Are we not the countrymen of Shakspeare? and was he not succeeded by a long train of worthies, Massinger, Ben Johnson, Ford, Rowe, Otway? And if the obstacles of which I have alluded have, of late years, discouraged the drama, have we not still amongst us a Talfourd, a Lytton Bulwer, a Sheridan Knowles, and would not others arise, with proper encouragement, who would wake the tragic muse from her trance, and renew the triumphs of the British stage? May we not, therefore, justly call upon the Legislature to improve the laws which affect the dramatic literature of this country?

Sir James Graham

had not heard the whole of the speech of his noble Friend, and he must also candidly state that he had not directed his attention to the subject under the consideration of the House. He would only remark, that although the noble Lord seemed to have devoted much attention to the subject, yet his information did not seem to have enabled the noble Lord to propose any specific alteration in the laws of the operation of which he complained. The noble Lord had stated that something must be done, but he was unable to collect the precise nature of the change which the noble Lord would wish to have carried into effect. Therefore, without pledging himself to any specific course, he would be most glad to enter into the consideration of any plan which the noble Lord might at any future time bring forward. At present he was not prepared for any discussion, but to the production of the papers, for which the noble Lord had moved, he had not the least objection.

Returns ordered.

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