The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 17. Stage Political Satire and the Licensing Act of 1737
In still another way, Fielding shook the conventions of formal drama. Improving on Gay’s “local hits” at politicians of the day, Fielding carried personal allusion and innuendo to daring extremes. Pasquin (1736) is “a dramatick Satire on the Times,” and The Historical Register for 1736 (acted 1737) overruns with political, theatrical and social satire. Fielding’s bold political references were largely responsible for the licens ing act of 1737, which limited the metropolitan theatres to two, and brought plays, prologues and epilogues under direct legal supervision. Though Sir John Barnard, in March, 1735, had interested himself, in the House of Commons, in the question of restricting the theatres, and, though the immediate stimulus to the licensing act is usually held to have been an abusive piece, called The Golden Rump, there is little reason to doubt that Walpole recognised in Fielding his most dangerous foe. The licensing act restricted Fielding’s lawless freedom; already, however, he had set in motion forces which the censorship of the stage might in part check, but could not wholly control. Essentially the playwright of his own day, Fielding influenced drama in the direction of themes of contemporary life. Even Lillo, who set his face against a social restriction of the sphere of tragedy, passively conceded the historic background in giving, nominally, at least, an Elizabethan setting to George Barnwell, in assigning Fatal Curiosity to the reign of James I and in choosing Arden of Feversham as the theme of “an historical tragedy.” Fielding’s actual dramatic works resembled cartoons rather than finished works of comic art. Yet, his burlesque of conventional drama, his development of short dramatic pieces that challenged the authority of the five-act formula and his attention to the subjects and personages of contemporary life, powerfully combined towards enlarging the freedom and advancing the naturalness of dramatic expression.