Masters of the Revels

Martin Bowley QC separates fact from fiction and marks the 40th anniversary of the abolition of theatre censorship


For more years than I care to remember my bedside reading pile has always included a copy of No Bed for Bacon by Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon. Long out of print it received a new lease of life after it provided much of the inspiration for Tom Stoppard’s Oscar winning screen play for “Shakespeare in Love”. Among its leading characters is one Polonius Bounce, the Master of Revels, who describes his duties as “supervising the amusements of the realm, extracting fees from rascally players, devising distractions for the Queen and listening to every tomfool who thought he could help him do it.” Four hundred years later we are all only too well aware of the problems of extracting fees from rascally solicitors, though rather fewer of us I suspect are involved in devising distractions for Her Majesty! For the last five years I have been Master of the Revels for the Inner Temple—probably the first person to hold that office since Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth.

The best theatre has always been subversive. It is certainly arguable that all the best theatre has always been political—whether the Greek tragedies—Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides—or Shakespeare in his Roman and history plays, or the Tricycle Theatre with its staging of the Scott, Lawrence and Hutton enquiries and its most recent pieces “Guantanamo: honour bound to defend freedom” and “Called to Account” the trial of Tony Blair. And for centuries kings and chancellors, cardinals and archbishops saw a political imperative in controlling the players. So long as their public activities were largely confined to the mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the church was able to exercise the necessary control. But with the development of a secular theatre in the 16th century in the schools, universities and the Inns of Court, it became a matter of state rather than just a problem for the church.

Master of the Revels’ power

The first Master of the Revels was appointed by Henry VII in 1494 with responsibility for court entertainments. The office was extended by his son in 1545, and in 1551 his grandson required the licensing of all plays by the King or the Privy Council. In 1574 the Earl of Leicester’s players were permitted to perform in London on condition that their plays should first be “seen and allowed” by the Master of the Revels. In 1581 a royal patent was granted to Edward Tilney, then holder of the office, giving him sweeping powers “to order and reform, authorise and put down as shall be thought meet unto himself or his deputy” any play considered to be prejudicial to the interests of the state.

The Master of the Revels retained his authority to license plays well into the 18th century, although it was successfully challenged by Sir Richard Steele in 1715 at least as far as plays mounted by the “patent” theatres in Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. But it was Henry Fielding —later author of “Tom Jones”—who eventually brought the issue to a head with a series of political plays, attacking Robert Walpole culminating in “The Historical Register of 1736”, a sustained attack on the Prime Minister and his administration which was staged in 1737.

Walpole’s revenge

Walpole had his revenge. He persuaded Parliament at the tail end of the session to pass the 1737 Licensing Act by 185 votes to 83. It received the Royal Assent on 21 June. It required the Lord Chamberlain’s approval of any play intended for public performance. At a stroke it effectively extinguished the use of the stage as a forum for public controversy. For 230 years these powers of theatrical censorship exercised a stultifying influence over theatrical innovation and freedom of expression.

Theatre history is littered with stories of the absurdities which resulted. In one of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop productions the Lord Chamberlain even sought to control the angle at which a ladder was carried by one of the characters! My own favourite—and true story—is of a play called “Vasco”, which the Oxford Theatre Group took to the Edinburgh Festival in 1960, in which the line “I should know, I’ve had plenty of women in my time” had to be changed to “I should know, I’ve been with plenty of women in my time” before we were allowed to perform the script.

Club performances

But the Lord Chamberlain’s authority only extended to public performances. The club theatres—like the Questors at Ealing—which began to develop in the 1920s and 1930s were always outside his jurisdiction. And it was through the use of this loophole that his powers of censorship were eventually brought into such disrepute that reform became inevitable. For decades the Lord Chamberlain and his officials did everything they could to prevent any discussion, let alone any depiction, of homosexuality on the English stage. But with the establishment of the Wolfenden Committee in 1954 it became increasingly clear that a subject which was being openly debated in Parliament and press could not for much longer be barred from the stage. In 1956 the New Watergate Theatre Club was formed to present at the Comedy Theatre in Panton Street a sequence of three gay plays which could not then be staged publicly. When buying their tickets the audience had to pay a nominal subscription to become members of the club. The plays were Robert Anderson’s “Tea and Sympathy”, Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”and Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge”. It was the year of Suez and Hungary: the year of “Look Back in Anger”; the year of the Berliner Ensemble’s first visit to London. It was a very different age.

End to censorship

But it still took another 12 years before theatre censorship in this country was finally ended by the 1968 Theatres Act. As late as 1964 Osborne’s “A Patriot for Me” was restricted to club performances at the Royal Court because it was considered to be too explicit in its depiction of homosexuality. The Act was piloted through the House of Commons by Michael Foot. It received the Royal Assent on 26 July and came into force on 26 September. Together with the abolition of capital punishment, the first Race Relations Act and reform of the divorce and abortion and homosexual laws, it was an integral part of the liberal revolution of the late 1960s.

At the end of “No Bed for Bacon” Polonius Bounce is enjoying himself at the first performance of “Twelfth Night” in Middle Temple Hall while the rest of the court is desperately trying to distance itself from the Essex rebellion. The next morning Shakespeare (or Shikespor or Sakespaw or Shakspor) is at work on a new play “Love’s Labour’s Wunne” Act 1 Scene 1. The Garden of Eden. Enter a Serpent. “But he is suffering from writer’s block so he reaches for another sheet and begins to write again “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…?”

Martin Bowley QC

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