Law and the Irish stage: not just riots and censorship

WN Osborough, author of The Irish Stage: a Legal History, offers a fascinating overview of the interplay of actors and lawyers with an unlikely cast from Cicero to Goebbels

Stage censorship and rioting in the auditorium – topics well covered in the existing literature – by no means exhaust the subject matter of law in regard to the theatre. As The Irish Stage: A Legal History (Four Courts Press) demonstrates, there is much more, and it is curious that these other questions have generally escaped detailed scrutiny. Just to identify them underscores that level of neglect: health and safety (for performers as well as for the audience); liquor licensing; entertainment duty; performers' employment; the dramatic author's performing right. All these questions are examined here and accompany a revisiting of the issues of riots and censorship, to the latter of which is appended discussion of the notorious Rose Tattoo prosecution (1957) and examination of texts such as William Prynne's Histrio-Mastix (London, 1631) and JW Calcraft's Defence of the Stage (Dublin, 1839).

In addition, in the case of Ireland, three regulatory regimes affecting all manner of stage entertainment had a significant impact. Constituting the law writ large, none of the three can be ignored in a volume promising an account of the legal history of the Irish stage. These were: first, the office of Master of the Revels, founded in 1638, and which came to an inglorious end in 1830; second, the contentious licensing jurisdiction claimed by the lord mayor of Dublin; and last, but by no means least, the mandatory scheme of theatre patents for Dublin city and county, introduced by legislation in 1786 and only finally done away with in 1997.

In recounting the history of these varied forms of control, the volume introduces the reader to what is an extraordinary sequence of key figures, actor-managers such as Thomas Sheridan, Spranger Barry and Richard Daly as well as to an understanding of the well-known rivalry for the later eighteenth century in Dublin between Smock Alley and Crow Street.

It is barely possible to write meaningfully on these several overarching legal regimes without glancing over one’s shoulder, as it were, at contemporaneous developments in Britain. Two very obvious differences stand out even so: leaving Belfast and Cork to one side, the legislative lacuna as regards provincial theatre in Ireland; amd the lack in Ireland of the office of Lord Chamberlain and, in consequence, the absence of his key role in stage censorship, a role only brought to an end in Britain by the adoption of the Theatres Act there in 1968. At the same time, an Irish political input into reforms affecting the theatre undertaken by the parliament at Westminster needs to be taken into the reckoning: urging the concession of the dramatic author’s performing right in 1833, and joining the campaigns to end stage censorship which culminated in the legislative abolition of it in 1968. What this means is that The Irish Stage: a Legal History serves to fill a gap in the historiography of the stage in Britain as well.


Literary allusions enrich the story that the author unfolds. Seán Ó Faoláin's short story, The Old Master, makes a fitting conclusion to the chapter on censorship. Then there is the case of Philip Astley, who was awarded the second Dublin theatre patent in 1788. Astley's circus extravaganza, as aficionados may be aware, comes in for attention in Jane Austen's Emma and Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. It is something of a pity that a rope-dancer as distinguished and as professionally accomplished as Signora Violante (fl. 1730s) cannot lay claim to such literary fame. The phenomenon of the hack dramatist that it was hoped, too sanguinely perhaps, conferment of the dramatist's performing right would not encourage, is splendidly resurrected in passages in both Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope. Victor Crummles offers Nicholas Nickleby a job as a playwright-in-residence with a mandate to frame original plays around recently acquired stage props such as "a red pump and two washing tubs" (Nicholas Nickleby, ch. 22). Also worthy of recall is Mr Toogood's assertion conveyed to Mr Harding in Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset (ch. 42) that "there have been many theatrical managers … who have usually made up their pieces according to the dresses they have happened to have in their wardrobes".

A number of the law cases introduced into the narrative are English in origin, and justify their presence in the absence of any pertinent Irish discussion. The cases include those provoked by the determination of the opera singer Johanna Wagner to renege on her deal of 1852 to sing roles from Mayerbeer, Bellini and Gluck exclusively at His Majesty’s Theatre in London. They also include those surveyed in chapter 6, “Performances within the reach of control”.

Most remarkable within this group of cases is surely Day v. Simpson (1865), a prosecution brought over a spectacular show put on at a concert-hall in Birmingham. This was an entertainment dubbed Pepper’s Ghost. What was remarkable about this production was that the majority of actors and actresses performed from a chamber below the stage – a complicated amalgam of lenses and mirror being employed to reflect all of these onto mirrors at the back of the stage. There was a great deal of dancing, mime and singing. No changes of scenery or of dress occurred. Day, the impresario, a licensed victualler from Birmingham, in his appeal, was to argue that Pepper’s Ghost was “no entertainment of the stage’ - the crucial criteria requiring to be satisfied for possible sanction under British legislation of the time - but rather an entertainment below it. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the argument failed, the Queen’s Bench preferring to affirm the original conviction.

If, for comparative purposes, England makes a regular appearance, this by no means exhausts the list of other jurisdictions where personalities and developments there happen to be mentioned in the various chapters. This is not an attempt to compose a legal history of the stage in global terms, but it is not too fanciful to suggest that by putting foreign flesh and bones on the native story, the arguments and the picture that the author has sought to put across are both improved and embellished.

No apologies, therefore, for including the cast of unlikely characters which the reader who persists will encounter on their journey through some 276 pages: Herodotus, Cicero, Molière, Rostand, Ibsen, Diaghilev, the Kaiser, Gustaf Gründgens and Joseph Goebbels. Nor for including in the pictures section and on the dust jacket (back) images of a disastrous theatre fire in Vienna in December 1881 (over 500 deaths), or that image, also on the dust jacket (front) and inside, based on Eugène Delacroix's gruesome evocation of the beheading, on April 17th, 1355, long before the advent of Islamic State, of the 14th-century Doge of Venice, Marino Faliero. This episode was recalled by Swinburne, by Delavigne and by Byron, to whose play on the career of Faliero, which prompted an important legal precedent in 1822, there is a mysterious allusion in the American novelist Donna Tartt's The Secret History (1992).