(Feingold’s article appeared on Theatermania, 10/2.)

The censorship exerted by the Lord Chamberlain's office over the British stage from 1737 to 1968 had always been a source of comedy for educated Britons, as much for its failure to prevent cheap double-entendre farces — in which the comedians' silent leers and smirks took the place of explicit dialogue that the censors could delete — as for the serious plays, wholly devoid of sensationalism, which instantly provoked banning by their willingness to tackle a "forbidden" topic openly.

Incest, one of the Lord Chamberlain's major no-no's, gave the Victorian intelligentsia ample opportunity for mocking the censorship, and also provided a possible way around it: In 1886, admirers of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, seeking to produce a staged reading of his play, The Cenci (1819), found every theater closed to them. The play's tragic subject, a famous case of incest in 16th-century Italy, was an unlicensable taboo. So the Shelley Society rented a theater in Islington for a private meeting of its members (who included Robert Browning, Oscar Wilde, and Bernard Shaw), and put on The Cenci for members only. (The censor didn't allow a public performance of Shelley's play till 1922, three years after its centennial.)


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