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that may have the least tendency towards giving a reasonable offence.
I do not, my lords, pretend to be a lawyer, I do not pretend to know perfectly the power and extent of our laws; but I have conversed with those that do, and by them I have been told, that our laws are sufficient for punishing any person that shall dare to represent upon the stage, what may appear, either by the words or the representation, to be blasphemous, seditious, or immoral. I must own, indeed, I have observed of late a remarkable licentiousness in the stage. There have but very lately been two plays acted, which one would have thought should have given the greatest offence, and yet both were suffered to be often represented without disturbance, without censure. In one, the author thought fit to represent the three great professions, religion, physic, and law, as inconsistent with common sense: in the other,† a most tragical story was brought upon the stage, a catastrophe too recent, too melancholy, and of too solemn a nature to be heard of any where but from the pulpit. How these pieces came to pass unpunished, I do not know if I am rightly informed, it was not for want of law, but for want of prosecution, without which no law can be made effectual: but if there was any ne glect in this case, I am convinced it was not with a design to prepare the minds of the people, and to make them think a new law necessary.
Our stage ought certainly, my lords, to be kept within due bounds; but for this, our laws as they stand at present are sufficient; if our stage-players at any time exceed those bounds they ought to be prosecuted, they may be punished: we have precedents, we have examples of persons having been punished for things less criminal than either of the two pieces I have mentioned. A new law must therefore be unnecessary, and in the present case it cannot be unnecessary without being dangerous: every
Pasquin, a Comedy. + King Charles I. a Tragedy.
unnecessary restraint on licentiousness is a fetter upon the legs, is a shackle upon the hands of liberty. One of the greatest blessings we enjoy, one of the greatest blessings a people, my lords, can enjoy, is liberty;—but every good in this life has its allay of evil:-licentiousness is the allay of liberty: it is an ebullition, an excres cence, it is a speck upon the eye of the political body, which I can never touch but with a gentle, with a trembling hand, lest I destroy the body, lest I injure the eye upon which it is apt to appear. If the stage becomes at any time licentious, if a play appears to be a libel upon the government, or upon any particular man, the king's courts are open; the law is sufficient for punishing the offender, and in this case the person injured has a singular advantage-he can be under no difficulty to prove who is the publisher; the players themselves are the publishers, and there can be no want of evidence to convict them.
But, my lords, suppose it true, that the laws now in being are not sufficient for putting a check to, or preventing the licentiousness of the stage; suppose it absolutely necessary some new law should be made for that purpose; yet it must be granted, that such a law ought to be maturely considered, and every clause, every sentence, nay, every word of it well weighed and examined, lest, under some of those methods presumed or pretended to be necessary for restraining licentiousness, a power should lie concealed, which might be afterwards made use of for giving a dangerous wound to liberty. Such a law ought not to be introduced at the close of a session, nor ought we, in the passing of such a law, to depart from any of the forms prescribed by our ancestors for preventing deceit and surprise. There is such a connexion between licentiousness and liberty, that it is not easy to correct the one, without dangerously wounding the other it is extremely hard to distinguish the true limit between them; like a changeable silk, we can easily see there are two different colours, but we cannot easily
discover where the one ends or where the other begins. There can be no great and immediate danger from the licentiousness of the stage; I hope it will not be pretended, that our government may, before next winter, be overturned by such licentiousness, even though our stage were at present under no sort of legal control. Why then may we not delay till next session, passing any law against the licentiousness of the stage: neither our government can be altered, nor our constitution overturned by such a delay; but by passing a law rashly and unadvisedly, our constitution may at once be destroyed, and our government rendered arbitrary. Can we then put a small, a short-lived inconvenience in the balance with perpetual slavery? Can it be supposed, that a parliament of Great Britain will so much as risk the latter, for the sake of avoiding the former?
Surely, my lords, this is not to be expected, were the licentiousness of the stage much greater than it is, were the insufficiency of our laws more obvious than can be pretended; but when we complain of the licentiousness of the stage and of the insufficiency of our laws, I fear we have more reason to complain of bad measures in our polity, and a general decay of virtue and morality among the people. In public as well as private life, the only way to prevent being ridiculed or censured, is to avoid all ridiculous or wicked measures, and to pursue such only as are virtuous and worthy. The people never endeavour to ridicule those they love and esteem, nor will they suffer them to be ridiculed: if any one attempts it, the ridicule returns upon the author; he makes himself only, the object of public hatred and contempt. The actions or behaviour of a private man may pass unobserved, and consequently unapplauded, uncensured; but the actions of those in high stations, can neither pass without notice, nor without censure or applause; and therefore an administration without esteem, without authority among the people, let their power be never so great; let their power be never so arbitrary, will be ridiculed: the severest edicts,
the most terrible punishments, cannot prevent it. If any man therefore thinks he has been censured, if any man thinks he has been ridiculed upon any of our public theatres, let him examine his actions, he will find the cause; let him alter his conduct, he will find a remedy. As no man is perfect, as no man is infallible, the greatest may err, the most circumspect may be guilty of some piece of ridiculous behaviour. It is not licentousness, it is an useful liberty always indulged the stage in a free country, that some great men may there meet with a just reproof, which none of their friends will be free enough, or rather faithful enough to give them. Of this we have a famous instance in the Roman history. The great Pompey, after the many victories he had obtained, and the great conquests he had made, had certainly a good title to the esteem of the people of Rome: yet that great man, by some error in his conduct, became an object of general dislike; and therefore, in the representation of an old play, when Diphilus the actor came to repeat these words. Nostra miseria tu es Magnus, the audience immediately applied them to Pompey, who at that time was as well known by the name of Magnus, as by the name Pompey, and were so highly pleased with the satire, that, as Cicero says, they made the actor repeat the words a hundred times over. An account of this was immediately sent to Pompey, who, instead of resenting it as an injury, was so wise as to take it for a just reproof: he examined his conduct, he altered his measures, he regained by degrees the esteem of the people, and then he neither feared the wit, nor felt the satire of the stage. This is an example which ought to be followed by great men in all countries. Such accidents will often happen in every free country, and many such would probably have afterwards happened at Rome, if they had continued to enjoy their liberty; but this sort of liberty in the stage came soon after, I suppose, to be called licentiousness; for we are told that Augustus, after having established his empire, restored order to Rome by re
straining licentiousness. God forbid we should in this country have order restored, or licentiousness restrained, at so dear a rate as the people of Rome paid for it to Augustus !
In the case I have mentioned, my lords, it was not the poet that wrote, for it was an old play; nor the players that acted, for they only repeated the words of the play; it was the people who pointed the satire; and the case will always be the same. When a man has the misfortune to incur the hatred or contempt of the people, when public measures are despised, the audience will apply what never was, what could not be designed as a satire on the present times. Nay, even though the people should not apply, those who are conscious of guilt, those who are conscious of the wickedness or weakness of their conduct, will take to themselves what the author never designed. A public thief is as apt to take the satire, as he is apt to take the money, which was never designed for him. We have an instance of this in the case of a famous comedian of the last age; a comedian, who was not only a good poet, but an honest man, and a quiet and good subject. The famous Moliere, when he wrote his Tartuffe, which is certainly an excellent and a good moral comedy, did not design to satirize any great man of that age; yet a great man in France at that time took it to himself, and fancied the author had taken him as a model for one of the principal, and one of the worst characters in that comedy by good luck he was not the licenser, otherwise the kingdom of France had never had the pleasure, the happiness I may say, of seeing that play acted; but when the players first proposed to act it at Paris, he had interest enough to get it forbid. Morliere, who knew himself innocent of what was laid to his charge, complained to his patron the prince of Conti, that, as his play was designed only to expose hypocrisy, and a false pretence to religion, 'twas very hard it should be forbid being acted; when at the same time they were suffered to expose religion itself every