My first post of the A to Z Blogging Challenge – the letter A and the theme for this year? British Theatres through the ages.
How to begin? There are plenty of theatres in London, and I will be touching on several, but today I’m starting out in a small provincial town, one that is personal to me. My parents grew up in the Fenlands of East Anglia. This town is where my grandparents are buried, my father went to school and the family had a shop. Unfortunately, in the middle of the twentieth century there was no theatre.
There used to be. The Angles Theatre of Wisbech, a Georgian Playhouse opened in 1790. Built by Mr Miller and Mr Robertson in Deadman’s Lane. The theatre ran until 1850 when it turned into a concert house, then a school. In 1979, it reopened as a theatre.
Theatres in England were more likely to be temporary structures. A dedicated building was quite an undertaking. So was writing a play.
In 1790 John Larpent (1741-1824) was the Examiner of Plays. He would have read the first play put on at the Angles Theatre and given it a license for performing. He read every play written during his period in office. Why?
In 1737 an Act of Parliament was passed creating the Office of Examiner of Plays. A pivotal moment in the history of theatres. Its purpose was to control and censor what was said about the government in plays to prevent revolutionary ideas spreading. Free speech in the theatre was hamstrung. The Lord Chamberlain was the official censor, the role held from 1737 to 1968 when the act was replaced with a new one. He was responsible for all the plays written during that period. (The Earl of Cromer was the Chamberlain from 1922 to 1938. During his tenure, he licensed 13,000 plays and refused 200.) However, it was more likely the Examiner of Plays did the hard graft. He read the play, wrote a synopsis and a recommended a license. The examiner was also required to visit the playhouse to ensure it was safe.
Who were the examiners? Journalists, playwriters, actors and producers, but not all were qualified. Larpent was a clerk at the Foreign Office. His documents were sold by his wife after his death, and are now an archived collection. If he didn’t like something, he put a big X through it or wrote ‘unfit for presentation’.
The Examiner or inspector of plays wasn’t actually a new thing. The forerunner was the Master of Revels. A prestigious job in the royal household. Under Elizabeth I, Edmund Tilney was the Master (In the film Shakespeare in Love, he was played by the wonderful Simon Callow). He was hard to please. He did however license thirty of Shakespeare’s plays. In the 17th century, the censorship relaxed, especially under the Restoration of Charles II. So, by 1737, the government stepped in and passed the Theatres Act of 1737, to ensure the morality and stability of the country.
Fortunately for the Angles Theatre of Wisbech their first play, The Battle of Hexham, performed on May 20th 1791, was successfully licensed by John Larpent.