6 of London theatre’s most notable historical scandals

London has sometimes been described as “the theatre capital of the world”. However, the city’s stages have also been at the heart of a number of controversial events during its history, from abducted children to brutal murders…

Actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was personally invited by Oscar Wilde to play the title role in the upcoming London premiere of his play, 'Salomé'.

Writing for HistoryExtra, Katherine Jane Alexander takes a chronological look at six of London’s most notable theatrical scandals…

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1

A popular playwright went to prison for writing about politics

Ben Jonson was one of the most notable playwrights of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. However, one of his earliest works caused such controversy that he was sent to prison, along with a number of actors who had performed in the piece.

In 1597, Jonson collaborated with the writer Thomas Nashe on a satirical play called The Isle of Dogs, which was performed at London’s Swan Theatre in the summer of that same year. The isle in question refers to a peninsula on the bank of the Thames, which also happened to be near the Palace of Placentia, where Queen Elizabeth I’s privy councillors sometimes held meetings. As the text of the play is now lost, the exact details of the content that caused offence remain unknown, but contemporary accounts hint at some form of political critique.

Portrait of Ben Jonson, English poet and playwright
Playwright Ben Jonson, whose controversial work ‘The Isle of Dogs’ led to him being imprisoned. Little is known about the contents of the play, although it is believed to be political in nature. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Privy Council ordered the arrest of Jonson, Nashe, and a number of actors involved in the production. Nashe fled the city to escape his warrant, while the others were imprisoned for a brief period. After a few months the controversy subsided, but the play would never be performed in public again, and no copies of it are known to exist today.

2

Theatre companies abducted children and forced them to become actors

One of the most shocking periods in London’s theatre history concerns the forced involvement of children in acting companies during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In this period, there were numerous cases of boys being abducted in public, dragged away by force, and threatened with violence if they did not comply with the demand to join the stage company in question. The boys were then quickly obliged to begin learning lines for their imminent stage debuts.

Many were also separated from their families, who often had to fight to get them back. In 1601, Henry Clifton, whose 13-year-old son Thomas had been taken in December of the previous year, went to court to retrieve the boy, and the publicity surrounding the case brought public attention to the matter. William Shakespeare himself was said to have been strongly opposed to the practice, and even referred to it within the text of his own works, including Hamlet. This is illustrated through a moment in Act II, Scene II, when Hamlet greets his old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and learns that a theatrical troupe he admires have left London, due to declining work opportunities resulting from the increasing use of children on the stage. Hamlet is unhappy to hear about the involvement of such young actors, and asks a number of questions about their welfare:

What, are they children? who maintains ’em? how are
they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no
longer than they can sing? will they not say
afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common
players–as it is most like, if their means are no
better–their writers do them wrong, to make them
exclaim against their own succession?

(Hamlet, Act II, Scene II)

Despite all this, such child acting troupes continued for a number of years, before the last one was finally dissolved in 1613 after merging with an adult male theatre company, Lady Elizabeth’s Men.

3

A sordid affair that led to the downfall of a celebrated actor

Edmund Kean was the one of the most legendary actors of the early 19th century, celebrated for a series of iconic performances in many of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. He also had famous admirers: the poet Lord Byron raved about his talent after seeing him perform as Richard III, while author Jane Austen commented that intense public demand to see him meant that she struggled to get seats for an 1814 production in which he appeared at Drury Lane.

However, controversial developments in his private life would lead once-admiring audiences to turn on him. In the early 1820s, Kean became involved with Charlotte Cox, a married woman, and they had an affair that ended acrimoniously in 1824. Her husband subsequently sued Kean for adultery, leading to the actor’s love letters being read in public when the case was heard in court in January 1825. The jury found in the husband’s favour and Kean was ordered to pay £800 in damages. Press denunciation quickly followed. When he returned to perform at Drury Lane the week after the trial, The Times declared that his reappearance was “as great an outrage to decency, as if he were to walk naked through the streets at mid-day”.

The acclaimed actor Edmund Kean playing the role of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The acclaimed actor Edmund Kean, who was celebrated for a series of iconic performances in many of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

While Kean had some defenders in the audience, his critics booed him ferociously, and on one occasion, Drury Lane –where he had been so celebrated in Austen’s time – became an arena in which he had fruit thrown at him. Over the years, he turned to drink in order to cope with the collapse of his public reputation. He became increasingly fragile; his last ever performance, as Othello in an 1833 production of the Shakespeare play of the same name, saw him break down in tears on stage. He died later that same year, of undetermined causes, at the age of 45.

4

Oscar Wilde’s Salomé was deemed “half Biblical, half pornographic” – and controversially banned

It should have been a great collaboration between two of the greatest figures in late 19th-century theatre: the writer Oscar Wilde and the actress Sarah Bernhardt. In 1891, the French star was personally invited by Wilde to play the title role in the upcoming London premiere of his play, Salomé, inspired by the biblical story of the dancer who demanded the head of John the Baptist. After Bernhardt accepted his offer, Wilde was ecstatic, and willing to accept her ideas on how she should be styled, including her preference for blue hair.

French-born actress Sarah Bernhardt performs as William Shakespeare's Hamlet. She is pictured holding a skull.
Actress Sarah Bernhardt as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 1891, the popular French star was personally invited by writer Oscar Wilde to play the title role in the upcoming London premiere of his play, ‘Salomé’. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

However, this production of Salomé would ultimately be undone by the censors. At the time, all plays to be staged in London were required to be passed by the Lord Chamberlain, who had the power to restrict anything that was deemed unsuitable. In private correspondence to the Lord Chamberlain’s office, Edward F Smyth Pigott, the London examiner of plays, expressed his revulsion at the portrayal of Salome’s desires and described the work as “half Biblical, half pornographic”. There was also a longstanding restriction on the uses of biblical characters on the London stage, and this would be the official reason given for the decision to ban Salomé, the announcement of which was made a couple of weeks after rehearsals for the play had begun.

While George Bernard Shaw and the critic William Archer offered support to Wilde in the face of this censorship, most others in the London theatre community did not, and Bernhardt herself was angry at Wilde for not informing her of the likelihood of the ban, refusing his offer to perform the role in Paris instead. The play itself remained banned in England for decades and would not be publicly performed there until 1931.

' The Climax ' - Aubrey Beardsley 's illustration for ' Salome ' by Oscar Wilde first performed in England on 10 May 1905. Richard Strauss 's opera based on this play premiered 9 December 1905 Dresden. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
An illustration for Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salomé’, which was inspired by the biblical story of the dancer who demanded the head of John the Baptist. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
5

Actor William Terriss was brutally murdered at the Adelphi’s stage door

William Terriss was one of the most popular actors in late 19th-century London. Born William Charles James Lewin, he took the surname Terriss as a stage name, and became admired for a number of successful performances in plays ranging from Shakespeare to Victorian melodramas. It was during this period that he first met Richard Archer Prince, a fellow actor who was much less successful. Prince often struggled to get work, and so Terris helped him find roles on a number of occasions and sometimes they would star in productions together. This was not always a harmonious arrangement: during one such play, The Harbour Lights, Terriss became angry at Prince’s behaviour and had him fired. However, he continued to offer him help finding work, and also sent money to support him. But Prince still had difficulties being cast in projects, and gradually became resentful towards Terriss, believing he was conspiring to prevent him from getting roles.

On 16 December 1897, Prince confronted Terriss at the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre in London, where the latter was acting in a play, and stabbed him to death. Prince was arrested, and admitted to police that his motivation had been revenge. When the case came to trial, he was found guilty, but judged not to be responsible for his actions due to his mental state. Some were unhappy with the verdict, with actor and theatre manager Sir Henry Irving suggesting the crime had been taken less seriously because the victim was an actor. Prince would remain in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum until his death in 1937.

6

A play depicting the stoning of a baby was banned – but the theatre company decided to show it anyway

Another play that would fall victim to the state censors was Edward Bond’s Saved, which premiered in London in November 1965 amidst a storm of controversy. However, the consequences of this case would ultimately contribute to the ending of this form of theatrical censorship a few years later.

Bond’s play, which focuses on the experiences of a group of young Londoners living in poverty, had originally been refused permission for public performance by the Lord Chamberlain. This was partly due to a scene in which a baby is stoned to death. In response to this, the Royal Court Theatre decided to declare itself a private venue for the nights that Saved was due to be performed, in order to circumvent the public performance ban. But the censors would not accept this, and the theatre was prosecuted and fined. Bond also received many aggressive letters from the public, including some written in blood.

However, there was a backlash at the prosecution of the Royal Court, as well as to the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship of John Osborne’s 1965 play A Patriot for Me, which was also denied a public performance licence during this period. Increasing discontent at government interference in these cases eventually led to the Theatres Act 1968, which formally abolished censorship of the London stage. The following year, the Royal Court staged a production of Saved once again, this time for a complete, and public, theatrical run.

Katherine Jane Alexander is a freelance writer

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