The British Library has the scripts of all new plays performed in Britain from 1824 to 1968 as submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for licensing.
About the collection
Until 1968, all plays intended for public performance had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for examination and licensing. This was necessary under the Stage Licensing Act of 1737 and the Theatres Act of 1843.
The Lord Chamberlain's Plays is our largest single manuscript collection. In many cases it offers the unique source for texts of plays performed in Britain from 1824-1968. If you are interested in scripts of plays performed after 1968, please search for these in our Modern Playscripts collection.
The Lord Chamberlain's Plays collection comprises:
- Plays submitted for licensing (1824-1968) - the vast majority of the collection, mostly comprised of plays which were granted licences.
- Unlicensed plays (1897-1968) - grouped into ‘Licence refused’ and ‘Waiting Box’ plays (i.e. plays awaiting a licence). Few unlicensed plays were preserved prior to 1897. Those which do survive may be found in the ordinary sequence of plays submitted for licensing.
- Day books (1824-1968) - registers of plays received in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. The volumes have a comments column which sometimes has more detailed information about the play. Their original purpose was to be able to calculate the fees due to the Examiners who were paid by the act for each play they read.
- Correspondence files (1900-68) - each file contains an Examiner’s report (known as a reader’s report) summarising the play, expressing opinions as to its merits or demerits and advising whether or not it should be licensed. Files also contain details of any changes to the script demanded by the Examiner and associated correspondence with theatre managements where relevant.
- Theatre files (1902-70s) - mostly relate to the licensing of individual London theatres, but there is a substantial amount of material relating both to wider theatrical issues such as censorship, and to individual plays (mainly from 1912-14).
- Supplementary papers (1840-1961)- additional registers of licensed plays (including ‘occasional licences’ for schools, church halls and similar venues) with some memoranda about plays refused a licence.
What is available online?
Material from the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays appears in Nineteenth Century Collections Online: British Theatre, Music and Literature, available by subscription from Gale Cengage Learning. You can access the resource for free from British Library Reading Rooms.
A small selection of material from the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection will be available on the British Library’s Discovering Literature: 20th Century website from spring 2017.
What is available in our Reading Rooms?
You can consult the Lord Chamberlain's Plays in our Manuscripts Reading Room. Not all of the material in this collection is catalogued but there are resources in the Manuscripts Reading Room to help you find and request Lord Chamberlain's Plays items.
What is available in other organisations?
The Huntington Library in California has the plays submitted to the Lord Chamberlain between 1743 and January 1824 - known as the Larpent Plays. (You can also see them on microfiche in our Manuscripts Reading Room - MS Fiche 253/1-1297 and MS Fiche 254/1-1070.)
The National Archives holds papers from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office chiefly relating to the licensing of theatres and plays from 1702 to 1902.
- J. Johnston, The Lord Chamberlain’s Blue Pencil (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990).
- S. Nicholson, The Censorship of British Drama 1900-1968, 4 vols (Exeter: University of Exeter: 2003-2015).
- Royal Holloway University, The Lord Chamberlain’s Plays 1852-1863. Catalogue with subject index keyword search.
- D. Shellard, S. Nicholson and M. Handley, The Lord Chamberlain Regrets; British Stage Censorship and Reader’s Reports From 1824 to 1968 (London: The British Library, 2004).
- J. P. Wearing, The London Stage: A Calendar of Plays & Players: 1890-1959, 18 vols. (N.J. & London: Methuen, 1976-1993).