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The stage censor; an historical sketch: 1544-1907 online

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G. M. G.

RiMum tenemim





PHom tie not

• • •


From a drawing by Holbein at Windsor Castle,
engraved by Bartolozzi.





a M a


Wi^h i6 Illustrations from photographs of rare prints,
and contemporary portraits, by Marie Lion
















1807 — 1907 lOI


Lord Chancellor Rich(c. 1496-1567), Examiner of Plays and

Players Frontispiece

From a drawing by Holbein at Windsor Castle, engraved by


Philip Massinger (1583-1640), Author of The King and the

Subject, a play personally expurgated by Charles I . . 39
From an engraving by C Grignion.

James Shirley (1594-1666), Author of The Ball, a play ex-
purgated by the Master of the Revels 48

From a contemporary engraving by Gayward, from a painting by

Sir William D'Avenant (1605-1668), Dramatist, Manager,

and Licenser of Plays 58

From a contemporary engraving by W. Faithome, from the painting
by Greenhill.

Thomas Killigrew (1611-1682), Groom of the Bedchamber to

Charles II , Master of the Revels, and Licenser of Plays . 65

From a contemporary engraving by W. Faithome, from the painting
by Sheppard.


List of Illustrations


John Dryden (1631-1700), Author of a Prologue prohibited

under Wilham III .' . .72

From a contemporary engraving by Edelinck, from the painting by

Sir Richard Steele (1671-1729), Patentee of Drury Lane

Theatre, closed by the Lord Chamberlain in 1720 ... 74

From a mezzotint by J. Simon, from the painting by Kneller.

John Gay (1688-1732), Author of the play Polly, prohibited by

the Lord Chamberlain 76

From a meazotint by F. Kyte, from the painting by Aikman.

Henry Fielding (1707-1754), Author and manager of political
plays preceding Walpole's institution of the present censor-
ship 78

From a pen-and-ink drawing by Hogarth, engraved by Basire.

The Players' Last Refuge; or, the Strollers in

Distress (1735) 80

From a rare contemporary print satirising a Bill for restricting
theatres and actors.

Sir Robert Walpole as a Great Man ; or, the English

Colossus (1740) 84

From a contemporary print satirising Walpole's despotic administra-

James Thomson (1700-1748), Author of The Seasons, and of the

prohibited tragedy Edward and Eleanora .... 98

From a contemporary engraving of a painting by Aikman.

Theodore Hook (1788-1842), Author of the farce Killing no

Murder, expurgated by the Examiner of Plays . . .103

From a contemporary engraving.

Mary Russell Mitford (1789-1855), Author of Our Village,
and of the tragedy King Charles I, prohibited by the Ex-
aminer of Plays 112

From the portrait by Lucas.

Edward Garnett, Author of The Breaking Point, prohibited

by the Examiner of Plays in 1907 119

From a photograph by Marie L^on.

Granville Barker, Author of Waste, prohibited by the Ex-
aminer of Plays in 1907 125

From a photograph by Marie Ldon.





If poets and players are to be restrained, let them
be restrained as other subjects are, by the known laws
of their country. — Lord Chesterfield.

CONSIDERED from the historical point
of view, there is no greater curiosity
than the Stage Censor ; and as the present
moment threatens destruction to this vener-
able monument of Tudor antiquity, it will
be opportune to recall some incidents of its

That history is extensive, varied, and
seldom lacking in humour. It may be
said to begin actively in 1552, when a poet


.J . .

:6'' .•' *' . • ' • • - • 'The- 'Stage Censor

was thrown into the Tower for the offence
of '' making playes *' ; and it continues to
exhibit, for three hundred and fifty years,
the conscientious efforts made by the
Lord Chamberlain and his equivalents to
protect the politics, the morals, and the
manners of the English nation. In fact,
at times the Censorial conscience seems
to have somewhat outstripped the claims
of individual liberty. For instance, we
find Charles I. with his own royal pencil,
marking the words faith and slight to be
allowed in a play under examination, as
being asseverations and not oaths ; and
a recent Censor adjudicated on a similarly
nice distinction when he detected, in one
of Mr. W. S. Gilbert's plays, the profane
phrase '' Chambers fit for a Lord,'' and
duly altered the same into '' Chambers fit
for a Heaven."

This relation to individual liberty is not
the least striking of the historical aspects of
the Censorship. For, the moment that we
step into the present office of the Censor,

The Tudor Censor 7

or look back into that of his immediate
predecessor, the Master of the Revels, we
are stepping, for good or for ill, completely
outside the British Constitution. That
fact invests the record of the three hundred
and fifty years of our Censor's activities
among dramatists, actors, managers, nay,
even among the very property-makers and
stage-carpenters, with a freshness and
variety entirely its own. To the English-
man a district ruled by an individual and
arbitrary power is an alien land ; to find
such a province close to his own hearth-
stone comes as something of a shock ; to
explore it is nothing less than an adventure.
It may be said at once that the individual
powers of the early '' Censors '' completely
ignore the rights which freeborn Britons
fondly imagine to have been theirs since
the days of King John and Magna Charta.
Thus, if an Elizabethan citizen chanced
to be also a dramatist he was liable to
instant imprisonment, without bail, trial,
or appeal, at the hands of the stage censor.

8 The Stage Censor

then known as the Master of the Revels.
If the Jacobean poet sent a play^ as ''at
his perill '' he was bound to do, to the
scholar and gentleman who filled that
office under Charles I, the result might
be such an entry in the official diary as
the following :

'' [1642. June]. Received of Mr.
Kirke, for a new play, which I burnte
for the ribaldry and offense that was
in it, i2r

Probably the play richly deserved its fate ;
but it is a little startling to find one in-
dividuaFs property, and perchance his
chief means of livelihood, burnt up at the
sole discretion of another individual, and,
moreover, a fee of £2 charged him for the

The English dramatic censor may be said
to have made his first individual appear-
ance in 1544, with the institution, by
Henry VIII, of Sir Thomas Garden, or
Carwarden, as '' Magister jocorum revel-

The Tudor Censor 9

lorum et mascorum/' This M agister was
a court official in charge of the king's
revels, whose duties have been defined as
*' promoting mirth, and at the same time
preserving order/' His activities would
doubtless be directed to the control of the
king's own players, a company of actors
being, at that time, a definite part of
the royal household ; and his annual fee
was ;^io. A royal proclamation of the
succeeding reign, that of the boy king
Edward VI, distinguishes these king's
players from '' the common plaiers of
interludes and plaies " ; and expressly
names the Privy Council as the authority
prohibiting, for two months, the perform-
ance of any stage play, forasmuch as the
plays then enacted did for the most part
tend '' to sedicion and contempryng of
sundery good orders and lawes, whereupon
are growen and daily are like to growe
and ensue, muche disquiet, division, tu-
mult es and uproares in this realme." This
action by the Privy Council, dated in

lo The Stage Censor

August 1547, is memorable as foreshadow-
ing other dramatic regulations on their
part, regulations which prove that body
to have shared or supervised the work of
dramatic censorship with the Master of
the Revels himself. Thus it appears from
the following entry that the power after-
wards given to the Master of Revels to
imprison dramatists at his own discretion
was, in Edward's reign, discharged by
the Privy Council, such a punishment
being thus recorded on the Council
Register :

''At Greenwich loth June, 1552.
It was this day ordred. That the
Lord Threasourer should sende for the
cowper which is in the Tower for mak-
ing of playes, and to delyver hym/'

No records are available of this poet,
or of the plays which had w^on for him the
sometimes honourable distinction of im-
prisonment in the Tower ; but his lodge-
ment there surely indicates some such

The Tudor Censor ii

political offence as that of the seditious
actions prohibited five years before by
royal proclamation. Edward VI, we may
note, had a regular establishment of players
and singers, whose salaries may yet be
read in the official documents of the time.
It is evident from the above-quoted
temporary prohibition of all plays by the
Privy Council, that Edward's advisers
suspected the power of the stage for sedi-
tion. In the year following the release of
the imprisoned poet, Mary Tudor was
Queen, and her stern hand fell quickly
on the stage, through the Privy Council
and also through the ominous Star Chamber.
Thus the Privy Council scented the coming
performance of a stage play at Hatfield
Bradock in Essex, in 1556, and directed
Lord Rich to '' stay the same and to ex-
amine who should be the players, what
the effect of the play is, with such other
circumstances as he shall think meet, and
to signify the same hither." Lord Rich
seems to have discharged his censorial

12 The Stage Censor

duty with great promptness and modera-
tion, for five days later we have the Privy
Council addressing a letter of thanks to his
Lordship '' for his travel in staying the
stage play ; and requiring him for that
he knoweth the players to be honest house-
holders and quiet persons to set them
again at liberty, and to have special care
to stop the like occasions of assembling
the people hereafter." Here again the
action of the '' Censor " was obviously
political. A further letter was written by
the Privy Council, in July of the same
year, to Lord Rich, in which that body
appears, in the matter of stage regulation,
to be merely the servant of the Star
Chamber. This instance of the active
exercise of dramatic supervision by the
Star Chamber deserves quotation in full :
The Council signifies his Lordship ^' that
order was given in the Star Chamber openly
to the justices of the peace of every shire,
this last term, that they should suffer no
players, whatsoever the matter was, to

The Tudor Censor 13

play, especially this summer, which order
his Lordship is willed to observe, and to
cause them that shall enterprise the con-
trary to be punished/' This was a drastic
means of obviating any more examinations
*' what the effect of the play is/' Earlier in
the same year we find the Privy Council
thanking John Fuller, Mayor of Canterbury,
for his diligence in imprisoning players,
and commanding him to keep them in
ward till further orders from the Council ;
and in the mean time '' their lewd play-
book is committed to the consideration
of the King's and Queen's Majesty's learned
councils, who are willed to declare what
the same waieth unto in the law." On
August II the '' lewd play-book," and
the '' examinations also of the players
thereof," were returned to the mayor and
aldermen of the said city, with instruc-
tions to proceed '* against the players
forthwith " according to the law. The
word '' lewd " here, and in the following
case, is clearly to be understood in the

14 The Stage Censor

sixteenth-century meaning of generally
objectionable and in this case presumably,
as seditious.

The Mayor and the poor players of Canter-
bury seem to have submitted quietly enough
to this dramatic inquisition ; but the Privy
Council had more trouble in the following
summer with the sturdy citizens of London.
On June 4, 1557, we find their Lordships
writing to the Lord Mayor : " That where
[as] there were yesterday certain naughty
plays played in London (as the Lords here
are informed)/' the Lord Mayor is " willed
both to make search for the said players ;
and having found them, to send them to the
Commissioners for Religion to be further
ordered. And also to take order, that no
play be made henceforth within the city,
except the same be first seen and allowed,
and the players authorised.'' But so little
did the Lord Mayor attend to these in-
junctions that three months later, on
September 5, the Privy Council were
constrained to command that '' some of

The Tudor Censor 15

his officers do forthwith repair to the
Boar's Head, without Aldgate, where, the
Lords are informed, a lewd play called
A Sack full of News, shall be played this
day: The players thereof he is willed to
apprehend and to commit to ward, until
he shall hear further from hence ; and
to take their play-book from them, and
to send the same hither."

The unlucky players must have been
arrested on the same day, for on the day
following the Privy Council address a
second letter to the Lord Mayor, '' willing
him to set at liberty the players by him
apprehended by order from hence yester-
day, and to give them and all other players
throughout the city in commandment and
charge not to play any plays, but between
the feasts of All Saints and Shrovetide,
and then only such as are seen and allowed
by the Ordinary."

Thus, amid the unsettled politics of
Edward VI and Mary, and within the space
of ten years, no less than five forms of

1 6 The Stage Censor

authority, appear to have been employed
against plays and players. First and fore-
most the Privy Council acted as examiner
of plays, as jailor for players, and as
licenser of playhouses ; but these powers
might be exercised by such a deputy as
Lord Rich ; or, again, their Lordships'
powers might be derived from the terrible
Star Chamber ; or delegated, in the matters
at least of examining the play-books, and
*' ordering *' the players, to the Ordinary,
and the Commissioners for Religion. The
actual appearance of the latter body as
Dramatic Censors anticipates Lord Chester-
field's ironic suggestion, made two hundred
years later, when political fears moved a
tottering Minister to institute the present
Censorship, that if such control were
honestly intended for the good of public
taste and morals, and not as a party gag,
then the most suitable persons to ad-
minister the new Act would be a joint
committee of the Maids of Honour and
Bishops, the first as being the best judges

The Tudor Censor 17

of wit and modesty, and the latter of
morality and religion.

It is instructive to note in this connection
that a few years after the Privy Council
of 1557 were referring London's " naughty *'
players to the ordering of the Commissioners
of Religion, the Book of the Universal Kirk
of Scotland records that the General As-
sembly, sitting at Edinburgh in 1575, first
prohibited plays from the canonical Scrip-
tures, and secondly ordered that '' comedies,
tragedies, and otheris prof aine playes as are
not maid upon authentick pairtes of y*"
Scriptures may be considerit before they be
exponit publicthe/' This order was ad-
dressed to '* sick as sitts upon y^ policie/*
In view of these censorial activities of the
Kirk, a company of players desirous of
acting at Perth in 1589, duly '* applied to
the consistory of the Church for a licence ;
showing a copy of their play : And they
were accordingly permitted to act the play,
on condition, however, that no swearing,
banning, nor any scurrility shall be spoken.

1 8 The Stage Censor

which would be a scandal to religion and
an evil example to others." The Kirk
apparently retained the monopoly of '' ban-
ning'' in its own hands. In the following
year the Kirk came into collision with their
king, afterwards James I of England, on
this very point of prohibiting stage plays.
At the end of 1599 an English company of
comedians were licensed by James to play
at Edinburgh. Promptly the ministers,
offended with such liberty, fulminated from
their pulpits ; and furthermore '* in their
sessions made an Act '' prohibiting people
to resort unto the English comedies, '' under
pain of Church censures. '* The King re-
torted by calling the sessions before his
Council, and ordaining them to annul their
Act, and not to restrain the people from
going to the said comedies. The ministers
had to withdraw, their submission being
published on the following day ; and all
that pleased were free to repair to the
comedians' performance, to the '' great
offence," it is said, of the ministers, and

The Tudor Censor 19

doubtless to the equal satisfaction of the
good people of Edinburgh. The licenser
in this case, it may be noted, is stated to
have been the king himself.

Leaving these various early authorities,
we come, in Elizabeth's reign, to the far
simpler system still in force, that of arbi-
trary power administered without appeal,
by a single official. Such an instrument
must have been entirely to Elizabeth's
autocratic taste ; but the full perfection
of the tool does not seem to have been
achieved until the twenty-fourth year of
her reign. Of the first Elizabethan Master
of the Revels, Sir Thomas Benger, whose
patent passed the great seal in January
1561, we hear but little. The oldest ac-
count book of the Office of Revels available
to Malone was that of the tenth year of
Benger's administration ; and among the
many delightful entries therein, only one
relates, and that obscurely, to the ex-
amination of the plays performed before the
Queen. By this entry we learn that after

20 The Stage Censor

certain six plays had been '' chosen owte
of many and founde to be the best that
then were to be had, the same also being
often perused and necessarily corrected and
amended by all thafforsaide officers . . /' —
then the rich apparel of the players and
the *' apt houses made of canvas '* painted
for their scenes, together with sundry
needful properties, were provided. In a
note to this passage Malone states : ''It
appears from subsequent accounts that
several plays were rehearsed before the
Master of the Revels, at St. John's or
Whitehall, previous to exhibition before the
Queen, and out of these he selected such
as he thought best to be performed before
her Majesty.'' So Elizabeth's first Master
examined not only the '' book " but also
the action, mindful, doubtless, of the fact
neatly expressed by the old Thames water-
man and poet, John Taylor :

For plays are good, or bad, as they are us'd ;
And best inventions often are abus'd.

In the '' Book of Charges growen within

The Tudor Censor 21

the Office of the Queen's Ma'^^^ Revels/* for
1572-1573, we find one Thomas Blagrave
disbursing money ; and in the next Book
of Charges, that for October 1573 to March
1574, it is stated that during those four
months '' Thomas Blagrave esquier served
therein as Master, according to her Ma*^
pleasure to him signifying by the Right
honourable L. Chamberlaine,'' etc. This
appears to be the first appearance of
the Lord Chamberlain as administrator
of stage matters. The preface of this
account book mentions ** Workes donne and
attendance geven ... for calling together
of sundry players, and for perusing, fitt-
ing, and reforming their matters otherwise
not convenient to be showen before her
Ma*'^*' In a subsequent account book we
get the first reference to the Censor's fees :
'' Thomas Blagrave esquire 26 November
1574 for horsehyer and charges by the
waye at Wynsor, etc. and for perusing and
reforming of Farrants playe, xl. iis. vi^.'*
Farrant's play seems to have occasioned

22 The Stage Censor

further doubts, for a few days later comes
this item : '' 5th December 1574, Horsehyer
to Hampton Coorte to confer with my
L. Chamberlayne, the L. Hawarde, and
Mr. Knevett upon certayne devices, and
to peruse Farrants playe there again, etc.,
xxvijs. viij^.*' These entries confuse the
fee and travelHng expenses ; but ten days
later we get the fee alone :

" 14 December.
'* Perusing and Reforming of plaies.
The expences and charges where my
L. Chamberlains players did show The
History of Phaedrastus, and Phigon
. and Lucia, together amounteth unto
ixs. m]d."

Later in the same account book comes,
according to Malone, this mysterious
entry :

*' To for his paynes in perusing and

reforming of playes sundry times as neede
required for her Ma^'^ lyking xls.'' Pos-
sibly we have here the system, definitely

The Tudor Censor 23

sanctioned in the next Mastership, of ex-
amination by deputy.

To the year 1574 belongs the Royal
Licence, a copy of which is preserved among
the manuscripts in the British Museum,
according permission to five servants of
the Earl of Leicester to perform all kinds
of stage plays in any part of England.
This document orders all justices, mayors,
etc., to permit and suffer, without any
hindrance or molestation, the five actors
therein named, to play comedies, tragedies,
interludes, stage plays, and such other like,
'* as well for the recreation of our lovinge
subjects as for our solace and pleasure when
we shall thinke good to see them *' ; and
this permission was to extend, within and
without all cities and boroughs, '' through-
oute our realme of England.'* The licence,
however, expressly states this following
condition : '' provyded that the said com-
medieSy tragedies^ enterludes, and stage-
playes be by the Master of our Revells for
the tyme being before seen and allow ed.''

24 The Stage Censor

This provision appears to be the first docu-
mentary evidence for the extension of the
powers of the Court Master of the Revels
to hcense plays for performances throughout
the realm of England It may be noted
that there is no evidence that the licensing
powers of the Master of the Revels in the
sixteenth century extended to the publica-
tion of plays. Under the injunctions of
1559 *' pamphlets, playes, and ballettes ''
were to be licensed before printing by three
Commissioners for Religion ; and in 1586
a Star Chamber decree required a licence
by the archbishop or bishop.

The next Master named in Malone's ex-
tracts from the Office Account Book is
Edmund Tilney, who, according to the
patent records, entered on his duties in
July 1579. I^ ^^^ following year Puritan
fanatics made a successful onslaught on the
temporary theatres, or players' scaffoldings,
within the City of London ; but the theatre
in Blackfriars being without the City's
'' liberties " (ironically so called in this

The Tudor Censor 25

connection), escaped their fury. We do
not hear that Tihiey took any part in pro-
tecting the London players ; although, as
we have seen, the licensing powers of his
office appear to have extended to plays per-
formed in all parts of England, irrespective
of the presence of the Court.

The Revels Account Book for this same
year notes items of candles, sconces, torches,
billets, coals, rushes, etc., brought into
'* the Master's lodginge for the rehearsall
of sondrye playes to make choyse of dyvers
of them for her Ma*'^'' Hence it appears
that the examination of plays included
rehearsals of the same, at the Master's
lodging. The entry is followed by a further
reference to the *' chardges '' of Edmund
Tylney esquier *' for examynynge and re-
hearsinge of dyvers playes and choise
makinge of ten of them '* to be performed
before Elizabeth at Christmas, Twelfetide,
Candlemas, and Shrovetide. In the Ac-
count Book for 1580-1581 we get Tylney's
daily salary : '' The Maister of the Revells

26 The Stage Censor

as well for his attendaunces at the tymes
aforesaid as also for the choise making of
playes at iiijs. the daie from All hoUan Eve
untill Ashe Wednesdaie being ex dales
xxii li/' In the Account Book of 1582
the examination of plays appears promin-
ently in the title : '' Christmas Tweltide and
Shrovetide and making choise of playes " ;
the charges, it is stated, included the '' re-
forming '' of playes ; and a further duty
of the Master^s office appears, viz., that of

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