Warren M. Elofson, John A. Woods, and William B. Todd (eds), The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. 3: Party, Parliament, and the American War: 1774-1780

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Speech on Birmingham Playhouse Bill29 April 1777

Source: General Evening Post, 1 May 1777

Another report is in the Public Advertiser, 1 May and Lloyd's Evening Post, 2 May and was reprinted in Parl. Reg. vii. 140–1 and Parl. Hist. xix. 202–3. A briefer report is in Morning pg 337Chronicle, 1 May. A pamphlet report of the debate (A Full and Authentic Account of what passed in the House of Commons on the Second Reading of the Birmingham Playhouse Bill) conflates, for Burke's speech, the reports of the General Evening Post and Morning Chronicle.

Opponents of the Birmingham Playhouse Bill persuaded some of Burke's Bristol constituents to bring pressure on their M.P. to vote against the Bill. Burke decided to yield to this pressure on the second reading of the Bill.1

Mr. Burke spoke in a very liberal and handsome manner respecting Mr. Yates and the profession of an actor; he said that the disappoint-ment of not having a petition granted, was to any man sufficiently mortifying, without having the additional misfortune of being treated harshly, and sent from Parliament with a worse opinion of himself than he had entertained before his application. He justified Mr. Yates for having applied, and declared that there was no impropriety in his conduct on the occasion; that he had, as appeared from the evidence heard at the bar, proceeded on a supposition, that his application was agreeable to the majority of the inhabitants of Birmingham; that he believed Mr. Yates had been mistaken, and therefore he should now vote against the Bill; but that Mr. Yates was not at all censurable for his mistake, nor did his application deserve the epithets that had been given it; that every Member was liable to such a mistake, when he declared himself a Candidate for a seat in Parliament; and that when a gentleman presented a petition against a sitting Member, it was not to be deemed a petition against the opinion of the majority of the electors, for that every man, by the very act of applying to Parliament, presumed the majority was in his favour: this clearly had been the case with Mr. Yates, and there surely could be nothing deserving of blame in his asking legislature to legitimate that entertainment, which not only almost every Member of the House admired, but which the inhabitants of Birmingham had, as it appeared, encouraged for a series of years. Mr. Burke dwelt a considerable time on the profession of actors, and lamented exceedingly that in consequence of a severe and an ill-judged act, passed in barbarous times, and founded on a false enthusiasm, men of a profession so liberal and noble as that of an Actor, should be disgraced with epithets by no means applicable to Englishmen, in almost any station, much less2 to men who essentially contributed to the reformation of manners, and to the rational entertainment of the pg 338public.1 He gave his opinion strongly in favour of Theatres, but declared, that as he thought it extremely hard to measure other mens inclinations by his own habits and passions, and as he understood the majority of the town of Birmingham were against having a licensed Theatre, he must, though contrary to his own wish, vote against the motion.

In the course of Mr. Burke's speech he was extremely witty on Sir William Baggot's calling Birmingham a village;2 he said it was a chopping village, and quoted the speech of Major Oldfox in Wycherly's Plain-Dealer, to the Widow Blackacre, where she calls her tall son, Jerry, her minor.3—Mr. Burke also took occasion to aim a stroke at modern politics, observing, that one man had formerly boasted of converting small villages into great towns,4 and wishing that he might not live to see the day when great towns were reduced to little villages.

The Bill was defeated by 69 votes to 18.

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Notes

Editor’s Note
1 Corr. iii. 335–6; P. T. Underdown, 'Religious Opposition to Licensing the Bristol and Birmingham Theatres', University of Birmingham Historical Journal, vi (1958), 149–60.
Editor’s Note
2 'less' supplied from Morning Chronicle report.
Editor’s Note
1 Actors had been classed as rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars in 39 Eliz. I, c. 4.
Editor’s Note
2 Bagot had remarked, 'that Birmingham was a village; that it had, for the industry & abilities of the inhabitants grown into a large town; its glory, however, was in its village situation, and he wished to retain it; he wanted not to see it ornamented with any royal trinkets, no royal charters, no royal incorporation, no royal theatres' (Parl. Hist. xix. 199).
Editor’s Note
3 See The Complete Plays of William Wycherley, ed. G. Weales, New York, 1966, pp. 404 ff.
Editor’s Note
4 i.e. Bagot.
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