(Feingold’s article appeared on Theatermania, 9/25.)
The school term had started placidly enough. I was boring my Theater History II class, in my usual fashion, with the customary lot of tiresome stuff about London theater during the Restoration and the early 18th century: William Wycherley and William Congreve; the advent of actresses and women playwrights; Jeremy Collier and the ominous rise of moralizing "sentimental" comedy; the advent of Handel — they suffer a little here because I always insist on singing a few bars of "Their land brought forth frogs" — and the craze for Italian opera; John Gay and the persistence of a sardonic undercurrent beneath the prevailing sentimentality. It was all as usual, with me babbling enthusiastically and the students all being politely bored. And then I got to 1737.
To teach theater history in the English-speaking world, you have to get to 1737. It changed everything, and there isn't any way around it. Sir Robert Walpole, England's then prime minister, tired of the theater's relentless satirical attacks on his highly corrupt regime, first by Gay and then chiefly by Henry Fielding, induced Parliament to pass the Theatrical Licensing Act, which meant that all plays produced in England would from that point on have to be read and approved for performance by the Lord Chamberlain's office. At which point serious playwriting in England went, more or less, to hell (with a few rare exceptions).
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