Fantasies of Empire

A History of the Empire Theatre of Varieties and the Licensing Controversy of 1894
by Joseph Donohue

Government regulation of the theatre and popular entertainment in Britain has always been thought to have broad social and cultural ramifications. Regulation of entertainment during the reign of Victoria provides some especially compelling cases, most notably those involving the stringent actions of the Theatres and Music Halls Committee, the licensing body acting as the agent of the newly formed London County Council in the last decade and a half of Victoria's reign. In the most significant instance of government-sanctioned repression in this period, in the summer of 1894 a group of outraged London reformers led by the redoubtable social purity activist Laura Ormiston Chant mounted a formidable challenge to the relicensing of the Empire Theatre of Varieties in Leicester Square. Their charge was a doubly serious one: indecency on display on the Empire stage itself, and prostitution going on in its second-tier promenade. The force of the protest almost succeeded in bringing the Empire down. A deeply divided committee placed severe restrictions on the Empire license, promptly endorsed by the County Council, requiring structural alterations in the Empire promenade evidently aimed at minimizing freedom of circulation, and prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquors in the Empire auditorium. Despite the insistence of George Edwardes, the Empire manager and lessee, that these interdictions spelled the certain death of his enterprise, he had little choice but to capitulate to government interference in the business of pleasure.

As the controversy raged, urgent questions began to be asked-chiefly, were members of a community entitled to entertainment (whether staged or not) of a sort they found satisfying and enjoyable, despite allegations that it lacked respectability and acceptable moral quality; and what was the proper place of women in the theatre, both on stage and off? The regular music-hall audience, augmented by high-toned, well-heeled gentlemen (actual or would-be) in evening dress, claimed symbolic possession of this, the most luxurious venue in Leicester Square and in Britain itself, where the pleasures of watching performances on stage or of gazing at the closer spectacle of attractive, unaccompanied women, fancily dressed and heavily rouged, could each be indulged, and where illicit connection could be easily arranged. Other audiences, potential and actual, drawn to the Empire for its splendid ballets and the general quality of its entertainment, found the indecency (as they judged), on stage and off, offensive enough to drive them or keep them away. The more the controversy was aired in the Daily Telegraph, the social purity journal the Vigilance Record, and much of the rest of the popular and sectarian press, the more closely the question of women's place and gender-related issues in general became linked with the fundamental question of the nature and extent of rights of free association in a secular society.

Whose Empire, finally, was it? was the question that ultimately emerged. Far from remaining a localized legal wrangle between the Council and the theatre, the licensing controversy of 1894 threw into high relief a set of social and moral exigencies broadly associated with the art and the business of theatrical entertainment. Underlying them were seldom acknowledged but passionately held fantasies of privileged, unencumbered access, of rightful possession, and of purity and chivalry in private and public life. In the charged circumstances of late Victorian life and culture, often darkly tinged with imperialist presumption and jingoistic sentiment, such fantasies belied chronic problems of gender and gender relations affecting the livelihoods of many and the lives of all.

For these reasons, the controversy over the Empire licensing holds unusual significance for the history of modern culture, revealing much about the sexual and social relations between women and men and between men and men, and shedding much light on opposing views, ethical, moral, and aesthetic, of the place of art and entertainment in modern society. In addition, the controversy highlights the pervasive effect on patterns of life and behavior of the conduct of British imperialist policy in the later years of Victoria's reign. Moreover, occurring at the end of a long period of structural and technological development of the physical theatre and of increasing sophistication of a varied audience offered ever greater choices for an evening's entertainment, the Empire controversy comprises an important chapter in the history of the theatre itself.

To view the current hypertextual model of this electronic book, please go to Fantasies of Empire: The Empire Theatre of Varieties, Leicester Square, and the Licensing Controversy of 1894.