Censoring the Stage

27 May 2016

History | Literature

Adam Matthew Digital’s newest resource Eighteenth Century Drama: Censorship, Society and the Stage makes available the Larpent plays from the Huntington Library, California – as well as material from several other archives. 

The Licensing Act of 1737 was introduced by Walpole as a retaliation against the politically satirical nature of theatrical performances in the 1730s. This meant that new works of ‘serious drama’ performed at the patent theatres – designated by the crown – were required to apply for a licence in order to be performed. John Larpent was responsible for this practice, as the Examiner of plays 1778-1824.

The Beggar's Opera; the political satire directed at Walpole's government, said to have spurred on Walpole's move to censor theatrical performances. Image © The Garrick Club Library. Further production prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Larpent retained over 2,500 plays submitted for licence between 1737 and 1824. Due to the nature of these submissions, the plays found in this collection are the scribbled manuscript versions written out by theatre scribes, and sometimes the theatre managers or authors themselves. It is possible to see the edits and changes made by the examiner; from changes to satirical jibes, sexually evocative language, and even religious slights.

Only around 3% of plays submitted for licence between 1737 and 1800 were refused a licence; playwrights and theatre managers knew how far they could push boundaries and what they could get away with. However, Eighteenth Century Drama, contains no less than three copies of Charles Macklin’s The Man of the World – three copies because this is perhaps the most censored play of the eighteenth century; it was refused for licence twice and finally granted only after serious revisions were made. 

The Man of the World, in its original form, openly attacked political corruption within Scotland and England and how members of government behaved in order to curry favour and gain power and influence. With the central characters being named Lord and Lady Mackcrafty (later MacSycophant), Lord and Lady Lumbercourt, Counsellor Plausible and Sergeant Eitherside, I think Macklin made his point pretty clear. 

The first application was made on 2nd August 1770 and Larpent’s predecessor, William Chetwynd, didn’t even bother to make many amendments to the text. It was simply endorsed on the title page as 'Thought unfit to be licenced'.

Title page from the first submission of Macklin's The Man of the World. Image © The Huntington Library. Further production prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Macklin had another crack at it in 1779, this time accompanying his application with a letter explaining his intentions with this submission stating:

‘The author’s chief end in writing The Man of the World was to ridicule, and by that means, to explode the reciprocal national prejudices that equally soured and disgraced the minds both of English and Scots men’.

Even after framing his prose as a warning on how not to behave, there were still several passages deleted or rewritten by Larpent. The expunged section below is an example of the servant Egerton fervently objecting his master. 

Image © The Huntington Library. Further production prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Larpent's rewrite below has considerably softened the tone of Egerton’s language and changes the nature of the attack. This exchange does not appear in the later version.

Image © The Huntington Library. Further production prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

The final attempt in 1781 was successful and The Man of the World was performed at the Covent Garden Theatre on 10th May of that year. However there were extensive changes between that work and the original. Although The Man of the World is not the only example of government interference in the theatre, it keenly illustrates the intersection of politics and entertainment in the eighteenth century. 

Eighteenth Century Drama: Censorship, Society and the Stage is available now. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Erin Pearson

Erin Pearson

Since joining Adam Matthew in October 2014 I've had the opportunity to work on some fantastic resources including, Eighteenth Century Drama, Trade Catalogues and the American Home and, most recently, Age of Exploration.

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