The Conscious Lovers

Effects of the Licensing Act

In comedy, one effect of the Licensing Act was that playwrights began to develop a comedy of sentiment. This comedy was critically labeled as "high" comedy, in that it was intended to be entertaining rather than actually be funny, and brought about its entertainment by elevating the sentiments of the viewer. The plots also relied upon characters being in or out of sympathy with each other. Very late in the 17th century Oliver Goldsmith attempted to resist the tide of sentimental comedy with She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and Richard Brinsley Sheridan would mount several satirical plays after Walpole's death. Both of these playwrights were taking advantage of a loosening of the censorship and popular weariness with "refined" comedy. Goldsmith's play reintroduces the country bumpkin character who outwits the sophisticated would-be rakes who are engaged in a plot to marry well. Sheridan, on the other hand, very consciously turned back to the Restoration comedy for his models but carefully toned down the dangers of the sexual plots.

As mentioned above, another effect of the Licensing Act was to send the playhouses to old plays. Since any play written before 1737 could be staged without permission, theaters had a great deal to choose from. However, they sought out Shakespeare, in particular, as the one author whose name alone could generate an audience as large as those formerly provided by leading poets. Shakespeare's stature had been rising throughout the 18th century, and textual criticism, particularly of Shakespeare, had resulted in reliable texts (see Shakespeare's reputation for details). Further, many of the expurgated and "improved" versions of Shakespeare were falling from favor. Actors such as David Garrick made their entire reputations by playing Shakespeare. The Licensing Act may be the single greatest factor in the rise of "Bardolatry." However, other, less sparkling, plays were also revived, including multiple versions of Lady Jane Grey and The Earl of Essex (including one by Henry Brooke that had been written before the Act). Each of these could be used as a tacit commentary on the politics of the contemporary court and as a political gesture. Therefore, when playhouses wished to answer the public's political sentiment, they could quickly mount a performance of Cato or one of the Lady Jane Greys or, if the mood was otherwise, one of Aphra Behn's royalist plays, and some of the Restoration plays such as William Wycherly's The Plain Dealer and William Congreve's The Way of the World were always promising comedy. However, when they needed to fill the house reliably, regardless of political season, and show off their actors, they staged Shakespeare.

Finally, authors with strong political or philosophical points to make would no longer turn to the stage as their first hope of making a living. Prior to 1737, plays were de rigueur for authors who were not journalists. This had to do with the economics of booksellers. A bookseller would purchase a book from an author, whether that book was Gulliver's Travels or Collected Sermons, and would calculate his chances of making money off of sales. He would pay the author according to the money he expected to make. (For example, Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield was famously sold to pay a single rent installment, whereas John Gay had been paid 1,000 pounds for his Poems on Various Occasions, which was more than seven years of salary for his government job). That would be the only money an author would see from the book, and therefore he or she would need to produce a new version, new book, or a serial publication of the next work to have hopes of more income. Prior to 1737, novelists had come from the ranks of satirists (Jonathan Swift) and journalists (Daniel Defoe), but these novels had in common wide changes of scenery, long plots, and often impossible things (such as talking horses)—all features that made the works unsuitable for the stage. The exception was Aphra Behn, who was a dramatist first and a novelist second. Her Oroonoko seems to have been written as a novel simply because there was no time for staging, as it was a political commentary on ongoing events, and she could not have another play on the boards at the time. Her Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, like Gulliver's Travels and Moll Flanders, was inappropriate for the stage. However, after 1737, novels began to have dramatic structures involving only normal human beings, as the stage was closed off for serious authors.

Additionally, prior to 1737 the economic motivations for dramatists were vast. A playwright received the house take of the third night of a play. This could be a very large amount of money, and it would be renewed with each season (depending upon arrangements). Thus, John Gay grew wealthy with The Beggar's Opera. In 1726, Leonard Welsted's indifferent success, The Dissembled Woman, was acted at Lincoln's Inn Fields. It netted him £138 for the author's benefit but only £30 for the printing rights. After the Licensing Act closed off hopes for serious authors on the stage, the novel was the next logical path. In particular, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa was published in serial form and made the author a substantial amount of money from subscriptions. The novel became a potentially lucrative form of publishing, and booksellers began to pay more for novels as novels began to sell more. From being a form of exigency, the novel became a form of choice after the stage was shut down by the Licensing Act. Therefore, the Licensing Act had the unintended effect of increasing rather than decreasing the power of dissenting authors, as it put a stop to anti-Walpolean sentiments and anti-ministry arguments on the stage (which could only reach audience members in London) and sent these messages instead to the novel form, where they would remain in print, pass from hand to hand, and spread throughout the kingdom.

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