Penn Libraries adds database of banned British plays

Plays that were banned from the English stage hundreds of years ago because they were considered too controversial are fairly tame by today’s standards. But scholars haven’t had easy access to the full texts of these censored plays—until now. After numerous requests by faculty and graduate students in the Department of English, the Theatre Arts Program, and related disciplines, an 18th Century Drama database was added to the Penn Libraries collection in October.

Reference and Information Literacy Librarian Samantha Kirk says the Penn Libraries’ new searchable database gives researchers fresh insight into content found objectionable by inspectors enforcing the British Government Licensing Act of 1737, which was the law of the land for more than 230 years before it was overturned in 1968.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, John Larpent was the government inspector empowered to determine whether plays could be staged from 1778 until his death in 1824. The new database enables scholars to read the full texts of a large collection of plays he censored, and also compare draft manuscripts of plays with published works.

“The plays are not always annotated with remarks or commentary by the inspector,” Kirk says. “One can infer which language and themes may have been objectionable.”

Some plays, such as Charles Macklin’s “Man of the World,” contain erasures or annotations, and can be compared with final scripts to learn which passages were removed.

“It's unclear whether they were made by the playwright or by Larpent,” Kirk says.

One example is found in “The Deception,” a play by Thomas Vaughan. A passage marked for removal states, “so, that if I had the privilege of Peers, I should make just the same of it they do.” Kirk says this may be a commentary on social class that the censor found unacceptable.

The 18th Century database compilation of summary descriptions of works of plays marked “not produced” includes “Edward and Eleonora.” Submitted Feb. 23, 1739, it is described in the database as “a political satire from Thomson that centers around Prince Edward and Princess Eleonora of England.”

“Arminius,” submitted Dec. 15, 1739, is described in the database as “a tragedy that details the power struggle between Arminius and Segestes for leadership and the rivalry between Arminius and Various for the hand of Artesia.

The database reports, “It is possible to read the play as a comment on [British Prime Minister Robert] Walpole's leadership, which is likely why the license to stage the play was rejected.” 

The “London Stage” is a reference work that accompanies the collection. Originally published in print, it pulled from other primary sources—mostly playbills and newspapers—to list London productions from 1660-1800. Kirk says the reference work enables researchers to search for all mentions of a particular title, or look at a range of performances from a certain time period.

The database also includes the diary entries of Larpent’s wife, Anna, cataloged by month and indexed for keywords, plays mentioned, and works read. An avid reader, Anna tackled the novel “Clarissa” in April 1792, writings on debates of the slave trade, Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” and an account of the French Revolution.

Anna’s entries, which focus mostly on day-to-day activities, uncover more about the life and reading habits of women in her social position and time period than about the plays themselves.

Banned British plays