HL Deb 05 March 1841 vol 56 cc1339-44
The Bishop of London,

seeing the Lord Chamberlain of her Majesty's household in his place, begged to put a question to him respecting certain performances which, as he was informed, had lately been given at Drury-lane theatre. Their Lordships would be aware that formerly dramatic representations were not allowed to take place at the larger theatres on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent. Two years ago, in consequence of a motion in the House of Commons, the practice was altered, and dramatic performances were now allowed every evening during Lent, with the exception of Wednesday and Friday in the first and last week. He was not then going to express to their Lordships the feeling with which he viewed that vote of the House of Commons. He looked upon it as a hopeless task to seek the revocation of it, and therefore would allow it to pass without comment; but he believed it was not understood at the time that the House of Commons came to that vote, that the leave to keep the theatres for dramatic performances was to extend to another kind of performances of a far more objectionable nature, namely, to masquerades or bal masqués, one of which had already taken place, not, it was true, upon a Wednesday or Friday, but upon a Monday, during the present season of Lent. It mattered not much upon what day an act that could not be redeemed had taken place; but it became of greater importance, in his view of the question, when he knew that it was to be repeated, he believed, that very evening at the same theatre. If that were really the case—if an exhibition of this nature were again to take place, he hoped it would be without those offensive circumstances to which he was about to direct their Lordships' attention. The exhibition of last Monday week was not merely a bal masqué, of the nature of which, indeed, he (the Bishop of London) professed himself entirely ignorant; but a species of entertainment in which a variety of performances were combined, connected with some of which there were, as he was told, circumstances of gross and offensive indecency—so gross and indecent, indeed, that they were received with the hisses and clamours of the more respectable part of the audience. But it did not appear that the disapprobation so expressed produced the desired effect. One of the offensive performances to which he alluded was exhibited in the feats of a troop of French dancers and prostitutes. This performance was so utterly at variance with all that, he was happy to say, the respectable part of the community in this country still considered decent and proper, that they would not tolerate it. It was loudly condemned even by the very class for whose entertainment it was prepared—relaxed as the morals of that class unfortunately were. These performances on Wednesdays and Fridays, during Lent, were not tolerated in Roman Catholic countries, and he hoped that Protestantism in this country would not so far relax its severer features as to allow the feelings of the people to be shocked and their morality to be undermined by the exhibition of performances which even Roman Catholic countries would not allow at this sacred season of the year. He regretted to say, that the Protestant religion of late years had fallen very far short of the strictness of the Roman Catholic in these respects; he hoped it would not be permitted to fall still lower. Hitherto it had been considered that the Lord Chamberlain of her Majesty's household had the power of preventing improper performances at whatever time they might be appointed to be represented. It appeared, however, that the authority of that officer, as applied to entertainments of the nature of those of which he was now speaking, was questionable. It was also very generally considered, but without the least foundation, that a person holding the station which he held in the Church, had authority to prevent performances of an improper kind. That was a complete mistake: he had no authority of that kind. All that he could do when he heard of any improper performance at the public: theatres was to communicate with the Lord Chamberlain, and to request that officer to take the necessary steps to suppress it. And in justice to those who had filled the office of Lord Chamberlain during the time that he had held the see of London, he must say that no representation of his, relative to dramatic performances had ever been unattended to. From the noble Earl who now filled the office, every communication that he had felt it his duty to address to him upon such subjects had invariably been met with the readiest and promptest attention. He was anxious, on this occasion, not only to express the opinions which he entertained of the demoralizing effects of such representations, upon the habits and character of the middle and lower classes; not merely to enter his protest, as a minister, against any permission on the part of a Christian Government to such performances; but to vindicate himself and the Government in the eyes of the Christian public, and to give the noble Earl an opportunity of stating, as he was sure he would be able to state, that the performance to which he had alluded had not taken place with his permission or sanction, and that if it were repeated, it would be at least with his decided disapprobation, if it were not in his power to visit the offenders with punishment.

The Earl of Uxbridge,

in answer to the question of the right rev. Prelate, begged to state that the performance of the 22nd February, to which the right rev. Prelate had referred, took place, not only without his sanction, but even without his knowledge. His attention was first called to the subject by the announcement of a second entertainment of a similar kind. He then desired a letter to be written to Mr. Dunn, the secretary of the Drury-lane committee, of which he held a copy in his hand. The noble Earl read the letter to this effect: that the Lord Chamberlain's attention having been called to a bill announcing a masquerade at Drury-lane theatre, for Friday evening, he (the Lord Chamberlain) desired to intimate to the committee, that no licence had been granted by him for such performances. That letter was written by Mr. Martin, the chief officer in the Lord Chamberlain's office, on the 1st of March. On the following day he received a reply from Mr. Dun, to the following effect:— That the committee had done the utmost in their power to meet the object of the noble Earl, and had endeavoured to obtain a postponement of the performance to some other evening. They regretted, however, that the difficulties of obtaining such a postponement were found to be quite insurmountable. They begged to observe, that the performance partook more of the character of a private ball than of a public masquerade, and they submitted that it fell within the class of entertainments allowed to be performed on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent. They added, that no pains should be spared to bring the entertainment within the strictest bounds of decorum. He considered that letter quite satisfactory, and hoped that the information which the right rev. Prelate had received as to the character of the last performance was much exaggerated. He (the Earl of Uxbridge) could only say, that he had done the utmost in his power to check any improprieties that might attach to such performances, but he had no authority to suppress them. The Act 25 George 2nd, c. 28, which empowered the Lord Chamberlain to grant licences for dramatic performances made no provision and gave him no power for repressing entertainments of the class to which the right rev. Prelate objected. In the present case, therefore, the Lord Chamberlain was powerless.

The Bishop of London

said, it certainly appeared that the noble Earl had done all in his power; but if it were not in the noble Earl's power to remedy glaring abuses of this nature, then he must complain of the state of things which placed it out of the Lord Chamberlain's power. The character of the performances given by one evidently not fastidious upon matters of this kind was thus described in the columns of the Morning Post:— Each successive masquerade clearly convinces us that England is not yet ripe to this sort of amusement. There were all kinds of dresses, splendid and fantastical, Turks, Greeks, Romans, Yankee Doodles, Hindoos, and even the ecclesiastical,' which Byron tells us was prohibited at Venice when Beppo ogled his wife. But the one thing wanting was the joyous spirit of raillery and repartee, which is only to be met with in the foyer of the bal de l'opera. There was nothing either of the humour, but much of the objectionable, to revive our reminiscences of the Bal Chicard; and an improper and injudicious attempt made by some French canaille to introduce the Can Can was very properly nipped in the bud by loud and long-continued expressions of disapprobation from all sides of the House. In fact, the gestures were such as the Charivari says are défendus par la charte et lâ decence, and would not even be tolerated at the Chaumiere; but these ill-advised denizens of Paris not having the fear of the gendarmes before their eyes, fell into the error of taking liberty for licence, and conducted themselves in such a manner as to elicit the public expression of disapprobation to which we have referred. If the Lord Chamberlain were powerless in a matter of this kind, he thought, that it would be the duty of the noble Marquess who presided in the Home Department to inquire whether the law did not provide the means of repressing annoyances of this nature, and whether the Attorney-general should not be directed to take the necessary steps to punish the offenders. For his own part, from what he had heard of these performances, he entertained no doubt that they ought, in the strict sense of the word, to be regarded as dramatic entertainments, and thereby to come within the provisions of the statute, 25 George 2nd. At all events he thought that the noble Marquess, the Home Secretary, ought lo take the advice of the law officers of the Crown upon the subject.

The Marquess of Normanby

would certainly make inquiries upon the subject. If exhibitions of an indecent nature were made at the theatre, he had no doubt but that the law would furnish the means of punishing those who were engaged in them. The matter should be inquired into.

The Earl of Glengall,

as chairman of the committee of the theatre, might, perhaps, be permitted to say that when the committee became aware that that lessee was about to give masquerades, they recommended that such exhibitions should not take place, but under the lease which they had granted they had no power of preventing them. That lease would expire to-morrow. When the committee learnt from the reports in the newspapers, that conduct of an improper character had been pursued by some of the people who assisted at the entertainment, they immediately made inquiries upon the subject, and were informed that the reports were very much exaggerated. However, they insisted upon it, that if the masque- rade were repeated on Friday evening, or any other evening, such performances as those, which had excited the disapprobation of the audience, should not again take place, and they received an assurance from the lessee that such representations should not be repeated. He had no doubt that that assurance would be faithfully acted upon. The committee were exceedingly anxious before and after the receipt of the letter of the Lord Chamberlain, to prevent any entertainments whatever on Wednesday and Friday evenings, during Lent; but though they were unable to accomplish that wish, it was understood between them and the lessee, that no performance should take place that could in any respect be considered as indecent or indelicate.

Subject at an end.