Theatre’s Royal | 2214

Have you ever wondered why so many towns and cities in Britain have a building called the Theatre Royal? I have.

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Theatre’s Royal

Have you ever wondered why so many towns and cities in Britain have a building called the Theatre Royal?
I have.

The short answer is: Censorship

The longer answer is far too involved for a 5 min podcast. But I’ll link liberally in the show notes if you want to flesh out the weft to my warp – speed explanation.

First lets talk Shakespeare and context. His work was the beginning of the period that we now call the β€˜English Renaissance Theatre’. Which begins in 1558, the year of his first play and the year Queen Elizabeth the 1st ascended to the throne. Think for a moment, about the period in history that immediately preceded it. King Henry the 8th, the reformation, the Edwardian reforms, the first book of common prayer, the iconoclasms, the Restoration of Queen Mary, riots and the rise of the witch hunt. Crazy times.

The period of English renaissance theatre covers the whole of Shakespeare’s working life. And continues into the Jacobean dramatist era. The years 1558 though 1642. 

What happened in 1642 you ask? Well..the English Civil War. At the wars outbreak the long parliament as it was known ordered the closure of Londons theatres. The order cited the current “times of humiliation” and their incompatibility with “public stage-plays”. Which the parliament said was representative of “lascivious Mirth and Levity”.

You can smell the puritanical language from 400 years away. You have to remember the context. This was all happening 100 years after the start of the reformation. Anything that felt vaguely catholic was sus. Especially mirth and levity. god forbid. The puritans of course thought people should be doing more pray and less play as it were. 

The civil war was of course between the Parliamentarians and Royalists. Not necessarily Catholics and Protestants, it was more complicated than that. There was a lot going on in the mix.

One anonymous royalist pamphlet against the closure of the theatres at the time wrote sarcastically: 

β€œ … we need not any more Stage-playes; we thanke them for surpressing them, they save us money”

So from 1642 theatres and fun where banned in England. Of course prohibition never works. So the ban was reinforced and strengthened in 1648 at the beginning of the Second Civil War. Actors were to be treated as rogues. Parliament authorised the demolition of theatre seating and levied fines on spectators.

Actors of the day fought back issuing, again an anonymous pamphlet called:

The Actors Remonstrance or Complaint, for the silencing of their Profession, and banishment from their several PLAY-HOUSES.

It’s one hell of a document. The first paragraph reads:

Oppressed with many calamities, and languishing to death under the bur∣then of a long and (for ought wee know) an everlasting restraint, we the Comedians, Tragedians and Actors of all sorts and sizes be∣longing to the famous private and publike Houses within the City of London and the Suburbs thereof, to you great Phoebus, and you sacred Sisters, the sole Patronesses of our distressed Calling, doe we in all humility present this our humble and lamentable complaint, by whose interces∣sion to those powers who confined us to silence, wee hope to be restored to our pristine honour and imployment.

So much going on there, invocations to Apollo and the muses. Anyways where was I.. Ah yes Theatre Royal. After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 a full 18 years after the theatres were closed, the king issued letters patent to two men called Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant. Granting them the monopoly right to form two theatre companies in London to perform quote un quote “serious” or β€œspoken” Drama.

This serious drama, licensed by the King eventually became known as Patent Theatre after the Licensing Act of 1737. Essentially breaking the English theatrical tradition into two forms. Legitimate theatre: IE the performance of plays or drama with serious or moral content. And Illegitimate theatre, which required directors to intersperse performances with singing or dancing. Lest the performance get too serious. So comedy, pantomime, opera, dance, music hall or melodrama were fine, but illegitimate. 

Eventually the monopoly on legitimate theatre was relaxed and new patents issued to theatres across the country. Giving them the right to perform legitimate theatre – thus the creation of the Theatres Royal. Cork got its Theatre Royal in 1760, Bath, in 1768, Liverpool, in 1772, and Margate, my hometown in 1787.

The Licensing Act of 1737 is also important as it allowed the British state to control and censor what was being said about the government on stage. Scripts had to be vetted by the Lord Chamberlain’s office before the first performance. Whilst the monopolies on the performance of “serious” plays were eventually revoked by the Theatres Act of 1843, censorship of stage plays continued until 1968.

I’m sure you, like me, would like to pretend that you’re shocked that the British Government censored the content of theatre for nearly 250 years. But from the movement of its inception MI5 vetted the majority of the BBCs staff. This was to ensure that people deemed too left-wing or anti-war were excluded from roles at the BBC. A practice that went on until at least the 1990’s I might add.

Indeed The British Board of Film Censors (later renamed British Board of Film Classification or BBFC) claims it was founded by the film industry. But its first director Joseph Wilkinson resigned his position as theatre script examiner to take up the position in 1913. 

Anyways that’s why towns and cities across the country have Theatre Royals.


The script above is the original script written for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the edit.

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One response to “Theatre’s Royal | 2214”

  1. […] may remember back in my 301 about the Theatre’s Royal I mentioned that Lord Chamberlain’s office needed to approve the scripts for all public […]

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