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10 posts from July 2019

04 July 2019

The Theatre Censors Part 1: George Colman

Stage productions had been censored since the Tudor era but the Stage Licensing Act of 1737 established a procedure of theatre censorship overseen by the Office of the Lord Chamberlain.  Most of the work was carried out by an official reader, the Examiner of Plays.

The Examiner of Plays wielded a substantial amount of power. The theatre was a powerful means of communication and the censors decided the limits of creative licence, often influenced by their own moral, religious and political leanings.

The British Library’s collection of manuscripts for plays submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for licensing begins in 1824 when playwright and theatre manager George Colman was appointed Examiner of Plays.

Portrait of George Colman the YoungerGeorge Colman the Younger, unknown artist, early 19th century NPG D16212 © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG CC By

Colman was particularly concerned by political themes in plays, dictated, in part, by the tumultuous times in which he was working.  The government wished to repress radical reformist politics and passed new laws meting out harsher punishments for publishing blasphemous and seditious works.  Colman was quick to deny authors the chance to show their plays if he deemed them politically dangerous.

We can see how tough Colman was by his reaction to Mary Russell Mitford’s play, Charles the First, when it was submitted to him in 1825.

First folio of Mary Russell Mitford’s play Charles the First  Add MS 42873, f.415. First folio of Mary Russell Mitford’s play Charles the First  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

If we look at the entry in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office Day Book we can see that the play was refused a licence.

Mary Russell Mitford’s play Charles the First is refused a licence Add MS 53702, Lord Chamberlain’s Office Day Books, 1824-1852 - Mary Russell Mitford’s play Charles the First is refused a licence Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Although, Mitford believed her play to be a favourable portrait of King Charles I, it was refused a licence.  Colman wrote to the Lord Chamberlain:  ‘…Charles the First (of England) – brings, instantly to mind the violent commotions & catastrophes of that unhappy Monarch’s reign…the piece abounds (blasphemously, I think) with Scriptural allusions & quotations, & invoked over & over again, by hypocrites, & regicides’.

Extract from Colman's letter to Lord ChamberlainAdd MS 42873, f.408 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As the threat of revolution was in the air, Colman deemed Mitford’s representation of the execution of a King far too dangerous to allow on stage.  The Lord Chamberlain agreed.  Colman’s reply to the theatre owner was casually dismissive: ‘I have less regret in communicating this intelligence as I think you might have anticipated it’.

Mitford’s response to her censor showed that Colman had already threatened to censor her next project: ‘I shall not now meddle with Henry the Second – especially as I believe that I perceive the reason which induces you to think the subject is a bad one’.

Mary Russell Mitford’s letter to ColmanAdd MS 42873, f.413 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Mitford realised that themes of conflict and betrayal against authority were never going to pass the censor and so decided not to pursue her project, exercising self-censorship.  Colman’s reputation as a harsh judge meant that authors often chose not to test him, as it was likely they would fail to receive a play licence. 

To the dismay of many playwrights, Colman continued to hold the office of Examiner of Plays until his death in 1836.  Until the end, he proved dedicated to his cause and many playwrights after Mitford were refused the right to produce their plays.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
J. R. Stephens, The Censorship of English Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980)
Add MS 42865- 43038, Plays submitted to the Lord Chamberlain's Office for licensing under the provisions of the Acts regulating the performance of stage plays
Add MS 53702-53708, Chamberlain’s Office Day Books. Registers of plays received in the Lord Chamberlain’s office

 

02 July 2019

Finding Mermanjan – the star of the evening Part 1

While sorting through family papers, I discovered that my grandmother Gertrude Dimmock had written a book about Mermanjan, an Afghan noblewoman who had run away to India after falling in love with an English army officer in 1849.  This was a true story told by Mermanjan to my great-grandmother Beatrice Dunsterville, wife of a Surgeon Major in the Indian Medical Service.

Photograph of MermanjanPhotograph of Mermanjan in the early days of her marriage - India Office Private Papers Mss Eur E304/5  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Beatrice inherited all Mermanjan’s ‘treasured relics’ including her traditional dress, her personal diary and letters, first-hand accounts of her story, and paintings and sketches by her husband Thomas Maughan.  She wanted her story to be told to the world. Many years later, my grandmother pieced together the story of ‘love and hate, joy and sorrow, faith, courage, and endurance’ and published Mermanjan – Star of the Evening.  Gertrude donated the papers and drawings to the India Office Private Papers at the British Library and the traditional dress is held in the British in India Museum in Nelson, Lancashire.

I decided to delve deeper into this extraordinary intercultural love story.  An account by Thomas Maughan tells how he met his future wife in 1849 when serving in Afghanistan with the Bombay Army.  Whilst out riding one evening, he happened to pass Mermanjan, aged about sixteen, mounted on a spirited black horse in her national costume, accompanied by male escorts. Mermanjan was the only daughter of an Afghan noble, niece of the Amir of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammed and of the Durani tribe of the Afghans. Her father owned a lot of land around Peshwar and her mother was Circassian who had tragically passed away a few years before. 

Sketch by Thomas Maughan of Mermanjan when they first met Sketch by Thomas Maughan of Mermanjan when they first met - India Office Private Papers Mss Eur E304/14 (Copyright - heirs of Thomas and Mermanjan Maughan)

Maughan wrote how it was ‘love at first sight- a strong lasting never swerving devotion became our destiny from that moment'.

 

Sketch of Mermanjan by Thomas Maughan

Sketch of Mermanjan by Thomas Maughan

Sketches of Mermanjan by Thomas Maughan -  India Office Private Papers Mss Eur E304/5 (Copyright - heirs of Thomas and Mermanjan Maughan)

The attraction was reciprocal: Mermanjan found Thomas to be ‘the most handsomest and most splendid figure of a man that she had ever seen, and childlike she turned to look after him as they passed and found that the officer also turned to look back at her’.

Sketch of British soldier, possibly Thomas Maughan Sketch of British soldiers carrying out drills Sketches (maybe of Thomas Maughan?) and British soldiers carrying out drills - India Office Private Papers Mss Eur E304/5 (Copyright - heirs of Thomas and Mermanjan Maughan)

They met again, ‘exchanging ardent looks’.   Mermanjan arranged to ride out alone, and Thomas followed her at a distance.  She led the way to a deserted orange garden, where the ‘romance that soon deepened into devotion’ started. They did not speak the same language, but Mermanjan reminisced romantically that ‘the language of the eyes is eloquent enough in the East’.

Mermanjan was a devout Muslim, and Thomas a Christian.  Christian marriage ‘would have been but a prelude to the certain and cruel death [of Mermanjan] at the hands of her incensed relatives’.  Therefore they were united by the simple ‘Nikkah’ ceremony which is a celebration of the marriage contract without religious rites or social festivities.

Then Thomas had to leave Afghanistan: ‘...vainly the infatuated man implored her to fly with him, tears even coursing down his manly cheeks.  However though she could not make him understand in her language that to attempt to leave with him would mean pursuit by her fierce father and valiant brothers  and certain death for her and renewed hostilities with the soldiers, she remained obdurate and with breaking heart took leave of her lover and true husband’.   Thomas returned to India, and Mermanjan became intensely depressed through separation from her beloved husband.

After a few months, Mermanjan decided to run away to find Thomas, accompanied by a faithful slave and armed with a dagger ‘to protect her honour on her perilous journey’.

To be continued…!

Felicia Line
Independent researcher

Further reading:
Gertrude Dimmock, Mermanjan, Star of the Evening (Hendon Publishing Co. Nelson, 1970) 
India Office Private Papers Mss Eur E304 Maughan Collection

Finding Mermanjan Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

 

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