« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
A publication fo inflammatory as this, could hardly escape the notice of any government, under which the legal idea of a libel might be supposed to exist. The principles it contained were such as the Jacobites of the time openly avowed ; and warrants were issued and messengers employed to apprehend the author, who, though he had forborne to subscribe his name to the pamphlet, the vigilance of those in pursuit of him had discovered. To elude the search after him, he, together with his wife, took an obscure lodging in a house in Lambeth marsh, and lay there concealed till the scent after him was grown cold.
In the same year, 1739, an event arose that gave occasion to Johnson again to exercise his talent of satire ; viz. the refusal of a licence for acting a tragedy intitled, Gustavus Vasa, or the deliverer of his country,' written by Henry Brooke, to account for which seeming injury, some previous information, such as I am now about to give, appears necessary.
The places for theatrical representations in this country were anciently the king's palace, and the manfions of the nobility ; but, as the love of them increased, taverns and other public houses in different parts
of the city and suburbs, were fitted up for the purpose, and called play-houses. The usurpation and the principles of the times put a stop to stage entertainments : at the restoration they were revived, and the places for reprefentation conftructed in the form of theatres : their number, at no time after that period, exceeded four, and in the year 1728, and long before, it was reduced to three, namely, Drury lane, Lincoln's-inn fields, and the French playhouse in the Hay-market. In that
year, a man, of the name of Odell, took a throwster's shop in Ayliffe street, Goodman's fields, and collecting together a number of strolling players of both sexes, opened it as a theatre. Its contiguity to the city, foon made it a place of great resort, and what was apprehended from the advertisement of plays to be exhibited in that quarter of the town, soon followed : the adjacent houses became taverns, in name, but in truth they were houses of lewd resort *; and the former occupiers of them, useful manufacturers and industrious artificers, were driven to seek elsewhere for a residence. In the course of the entertainments of this place, the manager ventured to exhibit some few new plays; among the rest a tragedy, intitled, “ King Charles the * First,' containing sentiments suited to the characters of republicans, fe£taries and enthusiasts, and a scenical representation of the events of that prince's disastrous reign, better forgotten than remembered. Sober persons thought that the revival of the memory of palo transactions of such a kind as these were, would serve no good purpose, but, on the contrary, perpetuate that enmity between the friends to and opponents of our ecclesiastical and civil establishinent, which they
I once, while I was chairman of the Middlesex sessions, tried an indictment for a riot committed in one of these coffee-houses, and in the course of the evidence discovered, that it was kept by a woman, a stiff quaker, and was strangely puzzled to reconcile in my mind such a solecism in manners as the profesa fion of purity with the practice of lewdness. She appeared in court in the plain and neat garb of the people of that persuasion, and was the wife of a seafaring man, who being abroad, had left her to pursue this lawless occupation. I reproved her for her course of life, but could not make her sensible that it was scandabus.
had heretofore excited ; and for suffering such reprefentations as tiese, they execrated not so much the author as the manager. In this instance, the indignation of the public was ill-directed: the arguments arising from this supposed abuse of histrionical liberty were not local ; they prover too much, and rather applied to stage entertainments in general than to the conduct of a particular manager.
But others looked on this new-erected theatre with an eye more penetrating: the merchants of London, then a grave sagacious body of men, found that it was a temptation to idleness and to pleasure that their clerks could not resist : they regretted to see the corruptions of Covent-garden extended, and the seats of industry hold forth allurements to vice and debauchery. The principal of these was Sir John Barnard, a wise and venerable man, and a good citizen : he, as a magistrate, had for some time been watching for such information as would bring the actors at Goodman's-fields playhouse within the reach of the vagrant laws ; but none was laid before him that he could, with prudence, act upon. At length, however, an opportunity offered, which he not only embraced, but made an admirable use of: Mr. Henry Fielding, then a young barrister without practice, a dramatic poet, and a patriot, under the extreme pressure of necessity, had, in the year 1736, written a comedy, or a farce, we may call it either or both, intitled, “ Pasquin,' a dramatic fatire on the times, and brought it on the stage of the little playhouse in the Hay-market, which, being calculated to encourag: popular clamour, and containing in it many reflections on the public councils, furnished reasons for bring..., a bill into the house of commons for prohibit
ing the acting of any interlude, tragedy, comedy, opera, play, farce, &c. without the authority of his Majesty's letters-patent or a licence from the lord-chamberlain. In this bill a clause was inserted on the motion of Sir John Barnard, and a very judicious one it was, by which it was made penal, even with any such patent or licence, to act or represent any such interlude, &c. in any part of Great Britain, except in the city of Westminster and such other places as his Majesty, in person, should reside in.
Before 1737, the year in which this bill was brought in, the property of Goodman’s-fields playhouse had passed into the hands of Mr. Henry Giffard, who, encouraged by a subscription, pulled it down, and, under the direction of Shephard, the architect, the same that afterwards built Covent-garden theatre, had erected a new one. This man, while the bill was depending, petitioned against it, and, in his printed case, represented the injury he was likely to sustain : all the specious arguments of the great sums he had expended on the purchase of the house, and rebuilding it, in scenes, cloaths, &c. were urged with their utmost force, and his right to an equivalent stated; but all to no effect : the bill passed, and the statute is now part of the law of the land. It is true, an evasion of it was afterwards contrived by an advertisement of a concert, with a play given gratis, but that subterfuge was soon abandoned.
The operation of this statute was two-fold; it fubjected theatrical representations to a licence, and suppressed a nuisance. And here let me observe, that although of plays it is said that they teach morality, and
of the stage that it is the mirror of human life, these assertions are mere declamation, and have no foundation in truth or experience: on the contrary, a playhouse, and the regions about it, are the very hot-beds of vice : how else comes it to pass that no fooner is a playhouse opened in any part of the kingdom, than it becomes surrounded by an halo of brothels ? Of this truth, the neighbourhood of the place I am now speaking of has had experience; one parish alone, adjacent thereto, having to my knowledge, expended the sum of 1300l. in prosecutions for the purpose of removing those inhabitants, whom, for instruction in the science of human life, the playhouse had drawn thither.
Mr. Brooke, the author above-mentioned, having with his eyes open, and the statute of the tenth of George the second staring him in the face, written a tragedy, in which, as will be presently shewn, under pretence of a laudable zeal for the cause of liberty, he inculcates principles, not only anti-monarchical, but scarcely consistent with any system of civil subordination; what wonder is it, that, under a monarchical government, a licence for such a theatrical representation should be refused ? or that such a refusal should be followed by a prohibition of the acting it?
This interposition of legal authority was looked upon by the author's friends, in which number were included all the Jacobites in the kingdom, as an infraction of a natural right, and as affecting the cause of liberty. To express their resentment of this injury, they advised him to send it to the press, and by a subscription to the publication, of near a thousand persons, encouraged others to the like attempts. By means of the printed copy any one is enabled to judge of its